LSQ: This story is such a smooth blend of everyday world issues and subtle otherworldly
influences like mermaids and empaths. How did you decide on such subtle worldbuilding?
Amanda: I love stories that add surreal elements to everyday scenarios that might otherwise be classified as literary fiction. Writers I’ve been reading lately/love all the time who do this in some of their stories include Kelly Link, Sarah Shun-lien Bynum, and Julia Elliot. Reading and re-reading their stories in recent months has influenced my own writing, including this story. I love the art and symbolism of tarot cards and wanted to utilize that in a circus story, which is how the
empath came about: thinking about the water element of the queen of cups, which naturally led
itself to wanting to include mermaids. I love writing mermaid stories (I’ve got quite a few in
various states of drafting), and before starting the first draft of this one I made a list of all the
reasons I find mermaids fascinating and tried to incorporate those reasons into the story.
I love how mermaids exist in between two different states, an existence I think many people,
perhaps especially women, navigate regularly but even more so since pandemic lockdowns began last spring. It’s been almost impossible to do multiple things well since losing regular
childcare. I can either be a half present mom and a half present writer which means I’m not
particularly good at either, or I can be a decent, all-focused mom who doesn’t have time to write,
or a writer who only has time to write by ignoring kids. The in-between isn’t a place I can really exist, and I envy those who can. I can’t focus that many places and go smoothly back and forth–the guilt is killer either way. That’s one reason mermaids hold so much allure to me–they
successfully navigate the in-between; they literally have it all. They are of water and of air and do both well. I think this story is a manifestation of my envy, and the dark turn envy can take when it leads to sabotage of others and self.
I’ve been really enjoying the podcast Writer Mother Monster for this reason, it addresses head-on
the myth that we can have it all, be it all, do it all. It’s impossible to be writer, parent, cleaning service, cook, errand runner, assistant teacher, tech support, household manager, and any other hats a person can try to squeeze on all at once. I read news articles about students going to high
school during the day and working in factories all night. When do they sleep? Our systems ask so much – too much – of people, and eventually either the people or the fabric of the system will tear. I get at least 6-7 hours of sleep at night with a one-year-old and a five-year-old at home, and I still feel the seams ripping.
I try to remind myself that my children are little and it won’t always be this busy at home, but there is still the weight of stories I want to write piling up in my head that tear at me in their own
way, and I think all writers kept apart from their work feel this way. I’m not always positive the stories will be patient enough to wait for me, and that anxiety is heaped on top of all the other
anxieties circulating communally now. I began typing this interview with ten minutes I had in between my daughter’s remote preschool sessions (she uses my laptop, so that’s been gone for
half the day since they went remote). I’m sitting down at it again, over a week later, on a Sunday
when my husband is home and I’ve barricaded myself in our bedroom with my laptop. There are
screams occasionally, but I’m sure everyone is fine.
When I feel frustrated by all the lost spare time in these safer-at-home months, I am reminded of the articles that have come out since the pandemic began about how this period will set women back in the professional sphere by years or decades. I had to leave my full-time job in April to care for my children. I had a part-time editing job I fell so far behind on that I was let go in July. I’m lucky we can rearrange our household budget to be ok on just my husband’s salary, but I still
worry what options I will have when we have full time childcare again. Will the gap in my resume hurt me? Will I have forgotten how to write stories? There are no shortage of essays about mothers losing themselves in the deluge of motherhood. Am I already lost in that sea? If I was a mermaid, I’d probably be a better swimmer, and not so bothered by storms. I made my mermaids wild animals in my story, which may be because I wanted them to not care what others think of them or project on them, a facet I also envy.
LSQ: Skyla’s life feels so relatable, to me at least, and you do such a good job of fleshing her out with actions as well as thoughts. Who was your inspiration for this character?
Amanda: This story was in part inspired by Amanda Rea’s story “Crab Theory,” a story about a couple holding each other back with devastating consequences when everything comes to a boil, so to speak. Crab theory the concept, is based on the observation that crabs will prevent an individual from successfully escaping a dire situation–like a fisherman’s bucket. When I first read that story, I thought a lot about American subcultures that still think a woman’s only place in the home with her children–and while I say subculture, I think it’s so pervasive that every mother-figure feels the pressure of “failing” if time is spent out of the home or away from the children, even if it’s absolutely critical to afford housing and food. The idea that women are just mother-figures holds women back from achieving other things or being recognized for the achievements they are reaching, which I connect to crab theory. But it gets convoluted, as Writer Mother Monster dives into, when you go the opposite end and say women can have it all. Not unless we never sleep, which isn’t a long-term solution. The pandemic, in my own life, has compounded these pressures, and I know I’m not alone in that. I’m privileged I am able to stay home and become my girls’ full time carer, but it’s at the expense of my other aspirations and desire to contribute to the household budget. Skyla isn’t living in a pandemic world, but she’s still a character constrained by outside forces and invisible cages, and when she’s confronted with that reality, she makes a choice in line with crab theory.
LSQ: This feels like a story that could easily become bigger than it is right now if you wanted it to. Do you think you’ll ever write more of Skyla, Zania, and mermaid catching?
Amanda: I hadn’t considered it, but I like the idea. I’m a novelist in denial right now; I don’t have the time to regularly devote to a novel, but I can draft a short story in one to three sittings if I forego sleep a few nights, so I’m very anti-novel solely so I can have short term gratification when drafting something. In-person preschool resumes in January – hopefully – and I’m planning to coordinate my baby’s nap time with the five-year-old’s half-day school schedule so I can try to get back into the novel I’m working on. In terms of this story’s world, a circus has so many potential stories and a Tarot deck has so many potential stories, and I only zeroed in on one of those potentials here. I like the idea of a series of stories connected to the Tarot deck through a circus that embodies each of the suit’s elements. Of course, my favorite suit is cups, so it’d be hard to turn towards another. I already have at least three other mermaid short stories on my hard drive and a shelved mermaid novel which I’ll (one day) revisit and revise, and I’m sure that mermaids will demand I keep writing about them in new stories, too. They just won’t leave me alone; even completely landlocked at 5280 feet above sea level, I hear them.