The Sweetest Debut: Ann Claycomb Ponders Whether One Can Find Tequila in Ireland

Also: how to tell conservative relatives that you've written a book about a lesbian mermaid.

Welcome to The Sweetest Debut, a regular installment in which we reach out to debut (or near-debut, we’re flexible!) fiction, poetry and nonfiction authors working with presses of all sizes and find out about their pop culture diets, their writing habits, and their fan-fiction fantasies. Today: Ann Claycomb on her novel The Mermaid’s Daughter.


What is your elevator pitch to describe your book for folks in the industry?

Well, I found that saying it was a book about a lesbian mermaid opera singer was a wonderful conversation killer at cocktail parties … so I switched to “It’s a corrective to the original ‘Little Mermaid’ story. No, not the Ariel one. The original. By Hans Christian Andersen? The one that doesn’t have a happy ending, where the sea witch actually cuts off the mermaid’s tongue?” I consider this a public service elevator pitch, because even if it doesn’t make anyone want to read my novel, at least I’m breaking the news to some people that Disney did not originate the “Little Mermaid” story.

What do you tell your relatives it’s about?

Depends on the relatives. To the ones who live in California: “a lesbian mermaid opera singer. Duh.” To the rest, I murmur something about mermaids and fairytale retellings and allow them to assume it’s a children’s book.

How long was this project marinating in a draft or in your head before it became a book deal?

Ten years? Twelve. Maybe more. The first germ was simply my conviction that the Little Mermaid couldn’t have gotten off as easily as Andersen pretended after she failed to kill the prince, and how awful her life on land must have been from that moment. In the early stages, the plot got to a certain point in my head and got stuck, because I just couldn’t picture Kathleen’s boyfriend—couldn’t get his name to stick, his face, his voice, nothing. Then I realized that “he” was named Harry, short for Harriet, and a woman. From that point, it was a mere eight years to write.

Name a canonical book you think is totally overrated.

Can I start with a Hemingway plug — as in, I don’t think Hemingway’s overrated? Lots of people clearly do and I respect their opinions. But just as respectfully I’d like to submit that he shaped American fiction writing so distinctly that anyone writing, and reading, in this country today owes him at least a nod.

So not Hemingway. Emma. I hate Emma, by which I mean that I dislike Emma herself, for being smug and self-satisfied and prudish and a tease. I understand that she gets her comeuppance at the end and is (presumably) going to be less all of these things from here on out. Fine. But she’s also going to marry a guy who once held her as a baby, which is just . . . eww. Not romantic.  So there.

Name a book you’ve read more than twice.

This is an unfair question, inasmuch as there are two kinds of readers in this world: readers and re-readers, and if you are a re-reader, like I am, then you pick up favorite books the way we all pick up favorite sweatshirts. My “book-as-comfy-sweatshirt” wardrobe includes all of Guy Gavriel Kay and Robin McKinley, as well as Pride and Prejudice, Song of the Lark, and The Perilous Gard.

A book or other piece of art that influenced your writing for this particular project.

I had to essentially teach myself opera to write The Mermaid’s Daughter, by which I definitely do not mean teach myself to sing opera, but just to understand how listen to it, appreciate it, and — hopefully — write about it. I personally find writing about music incredibly difficult, because you’re walking that line between being too vague in describing sound and being overly technical or jargony (did you know a particular operatic vocal range is called a fach?) So I owe a great deal to Fred Plotkin for his wonderful book Opera 101 and to the extraordinary soprano Dawn Upshaw for her White Moon album. Her voice is so strange and unearthly in moments that I played this album on repeat to write scenes of Kathleen singing, in hopes that the sound would infiltrate the writing.

What’s your favorite show to binge watch when you’re not writing?

The Great British Baking Show. We have three kids and this is the only show we can all agree on and watch together. Trifle and Madeira cake and Bakewell tarts . . . mmm.

What’s the last movie you saw in theaters?

Moana. Dad took the thirteen-year-olds to see Rogue One and I took the seven-year-old to see this. So three members of the family came home shell-shocked and slightly depressed and two of us came home giggling about the adventures of a plucky island girl and the misadventures of her incredibly stupid pet chicken.

Do you listen to music while you’re writing? If so, what kind?

I did listen to a lot of opera while writing this book, not only Dawn Upshaw but also the great mezzo Lorraine Hunt Lieberson and several English-language operas (The Crucible, Nixon in China) to hear how English sounds when it’s sung. I also listened to contemporary classical music to write Robin’s sections, because he’s a contemporary classical composer. And one day I turned on the radio just as Niamh Parson’s version of “The Water is Wide” came on and I felt this visceral shock and came home and told my husband I might need to go to Ireland to write part of the book.

Who is your fashion icon?

Katherine Hepburn, because no one has ever worn pants better — and she has a killer brownie recipe too. I respect a woman who looked that good in pants and a turtleneck and knew how to make brownies that you have to eat with a spoon. And Audrey Hepburn in Funny Face, specifically. I didn’t realize until after I bought my wedding dress that I’d basically bought the dress she wears in the runway show at the end of that film.

If you could buy a house anywhere in the world just to write in, where would it be?

I want to say Ireland, but I am worried there is not enough bittersweet chocolate or tequila easily available. [Pretty sure you can find both these things in Ireland, for the record — Ed.] One needs to think about these things. I’ll say a quiet stretch of the Eastern shore instead. Walking distance to the beach, please, and at least one rosebush.

What did you initially want to be when you grew up?

Once I wrote and successfully stapled together the pages of my first book, The Mice and the Cats, I was pretty much determined to be a writer. In the meantime, I was a personal trainer, administrative assistant, English teacher, and communications director. But it was all over for me once that book was officially a book — staples are pretty awesome when you are five.

Did you have a new years resolution for 2017? If so, what?

Get far enough along into the next book to be able to breathe and know (at least sometimes) that I will actually finish it and people will read it. And since you ask, it is about Rumpelstiltskin, peacocks, and the plague.

What freaks you out the most about four years of Donald Trump as US President?

The malice — or apparent malice — aforethought. I respect differences of opinion and I recognize that as an educated liberal living and working in an academic enclave, I am pretty sheltered. Different beliefs and different policies come from different perspectives. But there are times when I feel like there’s a kind of unholy glee at work right now, not sober, (com)passionate governance. And that’s pretty terrifying.

Do you prefer a buzzing coffee shop or silent library?

Depends. For writing a new scene, hard section, really delicate exchange, I’ll take the library. For edits or writing that requires less laser-focus (and general hand-wringing) the coffee shop sounds just lovely. Especially if it has a bakery case.

Do you write at a desk, bed or couch?

Much of The Mermaid’s Daughter was written while I was sitting at the kitchen table, perched mantis-like on a chair with my knees higher than the table top. Don’t judge.

Is morning writing or late-night writing your go-to-time?

My ideal writing time is from about 9am to 1pm, after which I’d (ideally) eat lunch, go to the gym, and then go into mom mode. Since that is a complete fantasy, I write when I can, which is usually after 9pm these days, but also occasionally at 5am.

Do you tend towards writing it all out in one big messy draft and then editing, or perfecting as you go (or something in between)?

I have tremendous respect for the pounding out of the shitty first draft and then the subsequent polishing of said draft into a work of art. But my own actual writing process is so much in my head these days that by the time I get the blank screen in front of me I’m half-transcribing a scene already written (and edited and rewritten several times) from my head and half-committed to getting it perfect on the page the first time, because I don’t know when I’ll get back to the screen again.

How do you pay the bills, if not solely by your pen and your wit?

I am an Assistant Vice President at West Virginia University in Morgantown (it’s the purple dot on the red map of West Virginia). My job is exciting and meaningful and I am so grateful to have it. It’s also a fantastic context in which to confuse people when they find out that I’ve written a novel called The Mermaid’s Daughter, about a lesbian mermaid opera singer.

What is your trick to finding time to write your book while also doing the above?

Umm . . . is this a trick question? Is there a trick? Could someone tell me what it is? My current experience goes like this:

Typetypetypetypetyptype

“Mommy? Are you working on your book?”

“Yes, Honey.” Typetypetypetypetypetype

“Can I sit on your lap?”

(Sigh.) “Yes, Honey. Hold on.” Typetypetypetypetypetype

“Can I play Hungry Shark on your computer now?”

If you could write fanfiction about any pop culture character, real or imagined, who would it be?

I think Harley Quinn gets a bit of a bad rap. Not that she’s not a psychotic sycophant in a clearly dysfunctional relationship with a lunatic, but I still think there’s an elegance to her alter ego that doesn’t get acknowledged enough.

Care to give us a few sentences of micro-fiction about that character?

I thought I could help him. I really did. You work with mentally ill people — even criminally ill people — and you see their humanity in flashes. And when you’re wading through the darkness of their minds, you cherish those glimpses you get, of light, of color, of softness.

But his mind wasn’t dark. Isn’t dark. It’s all lit up, all hours, every corner, and yes, exactly like a funhouse or a fairway, with glitter and gleam everywhere you turn. I’d never seen madness like that before. It was beautiful. It is beautiful.