Issue 037 Author Interview: Sarah Pauling and “Auger”

Issue 037 is out with twelve speculative fiction stories by women-identifying authors. This week we chatted with author Sarah Pauling about her Issue 037 story “Auger.”

LSQ: Let’s talk mermaids (and sirens). Your mermaid appears to have legs. Can you explain why you gave her the features, both physical and emotional, that you did? Is there a larger backstory (or origin story) to her than what appears in your story? 

Sarah: Readers tend to notice the legs! While our current popular mermaid lore does include the tail, “sea women” appear in various myths around the world with varying physical qualities. Sirens, those evil creatures that influenced the mermaid myth down the line, often had wings and bird legs rather than fish tails. Most of these myths are tied together by two basic themes: the ocean and an essential female-ness viewed through male eyes.

That femininity is often read as predatory. Sailors say men are lured to their dooms by evil temptresses who want to be chased. The reverberations of that story sounded too familiar to me; they read differently in this era. I find myself wanting to know the siren’s side of the story.

As to this particular mermaid’s backstory, I believe she’s always been this way: an alien intelligence who isn’t opposed to meeting the young species up on the shore. They seem nice, right? What could go wrong?

LSQ: This mermaid seems to be a complicated creature. Can you talk about her ultimate reaction toward Bartram versus her response to Inga? Is there an unspoken connection between the two young women, perhaps having to do with Bartram? 

Sarah: The mermaid believes that Inga needs a knife. She sees what this boy they both trusted is capable of, and she sees a person who has not been taught to defend herself—or that she is allowed to. While I don’t know that the mermaid is a “woman” in the same way that Inga is—being a “woman,” I think, requires interaction with a larger society—she does feel a connection in the way she’s been treated in her short time on shore.

LSQ: Can you compare and contrast the two brothers, Bartram and Henrik? How do their differing personalities impact their fate? 

Sarah: Someone who studies domestic violence once told me that although the “cycle of abuse” is real (especially when intersecting with cultural notions of masculinity and toughness), many men who were treated badly in childhood instead learn to tune into their own emotions in a healthier way. They gain empathy for the abused, and they turn their thoughts towards gentleness. Many of the wonderful men in my life share this trait.

While this story is more about cultural violence—I doubt Bartram and Henrik’s father is out of the ordinary in this world—I believe that a “sensitive kid” in a pressing culture of hypermasculinity can react to that pain in a few ways. It’s not so much that Bartram and Henrik started out differently, but that they started the same.

LSQ: Can you talk about the recurring sea items in the story, such as the auger shells and the amber? What made these items special to you to include here? 

Sarah: I had the chance to visit Copenhagen for work a couple of years ago. I visited a couple of museums, one of which told me all about Vikings and the ancient cultural importance of amber in Scandinavia. Necklaces and honey-colored animal trinkets—elk and bears—lay side-by-side. They were used for trade, for art, and possibly for protection. Besides grounding the story more thoroughly in a sense of place, the mermaid’s gift of amber could be read as a clue to her great age. It also ties her to Inga, whose first amber necklace was cut and polished by her culture but made up of the same wild substance as the mermaid’s gift.

Auger shells, on the other hand, are not culturally-specific. They come from a predatory sea creature and they’re sharp.

LSQ: Where did the inspiration for this story come from? 

Sarah: I was fortunate enough to study abroad in college, where I took a course on Spanish love stories (broadly-defined and often tragic). Sirens were a recurring element. I realized that there is no special word for “mermaid” in Spanish: mermaids and sirens are the same concept entirely, with some stories making them more predatory than others. This prompted me to do a lot of research on the origins of the myth(s). Things came together further during that work trip to Scandinavia when I saw the Little Mermaid statue on a promenade near a grove of cherry trees and a bastion fort. She’s smaller than she looks in the pictures.

LSQ: What was the most challenging part of this story to write and why? What was the most enjoyable and why? 

Sarah: My first draft made Bartram a hero. The climax left all wrongdoing to a third-party teenage sailor-jock in the afterglow of his first trip to sea. With some helpful feedback, I realized that this was the easy way out. To say what I wanted to say, the conflict had to be between the brothers. Bartram of the scrawny arms and soft feelings for Inga had to be the one who went over the edge for this plausibly-deniable “temptress.” Creating this story, rather than the previous one, was much harder.

As for the positives: it was a joy being inside Henrik’s head. I liked trying to capture a certain innocence in his burgeoning friendship with a creepy but curious newcomer.

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