Chatting about Mer with Samantha Mansell

With the publication date for Mer just around the corner, we sat down with the author Samantha Mansell and asked her about her creative process and some of the inspirations for her work. Sign up to attend the Nov. 17 launch here!

Mer as a collection of stories really departs from our traditional understanding of mermaids and mermaid mythology. What was your biggest rationale behind doing so, and being adamant that they cannot be sexy mermaids?

Yeah, so I’m pretty much a raging feminist. And that is pretty much what inspired it. Growing up, my favourite movie was The Little Mermaid, I was obsessed with mermaids. Me and my sister would pretend to be mermaids in the pool every summer and you know, it’s really embarrassing to be jumping around like dolphins. So that was a major part of growing up. Ariel was a real beauty standard for me. And then, as I got into Uni I started learning more about feminism and realising how Disney is a bit toxic. In those early films like Cinderella, Snow White and Sleeping Beauty, Disney’s representation of women and their desires (their bodies in particular) is quite damaging. Women with tiny waists needing men and marriage to save them, or women as evil, sexualised villains, can have quite an effect on the self-worth of little girls. So that’s something I was always interested in challenging.

And so when I had an eco-fiction class and they said to pick some kind of environmental factor, I was like, well, I’m gonna write about mermaids. And then naturally, from that, I wanted to bring some feminism into it. And because I’ve been so interested by Judith Butler’s idea of gender being performative and Hélène Cixous talking about how it’s all part of language and how language was written by men, to benefit men. I just always found it very interesting to challenge the idea of how language works. And so that’s really what influenced the mermaids being genderless, and completely erasing the gendered language.

So how did you come up with each of the different merfolk? Across the five stories, there are at least three kinds, but they are in five different locations.

So originally, I just came up with the first type of mermaid, which is in The Deep. Then, when I was expanding the collection of stories, I was trying to think of what the other stories could be about and I started out with this idea of being in different kinds of water. So obviously, we’ve got the lake, we’ve got the reef and the aquarium. Then I thought, how can I keep it interesting and dynamic, since I didn’t want it to be the same mermaid throughout. What can I do to try and make these stories have more depth, and to really show how different parts of the water, and how different species are affected by the environment?

And so, then I thought, well, animals naturally reflect their environment. I went with the idea that mermaids would also be different if they were living in different environments, and a good example is how goldfish only grow to the size of their bowl. I figured my merfolk would be similar. And that’s where the idea kind of came from. So I just started Googling different kinds of fish from different bodies of water and tried to figure out which features would work best for each species of my merfolk

How much did the process change from the initial vision to the final product? What was that evolution like?

Yeah, they changed quite a bit. The original concept was that each story was going to reflect a different fairy tale in some way. The Deep is obviously a kind of replay on The Little Mermaid, the original Hans Christian Andersen story. The next story I wrote was The Lake, and that was supposed to be Swan Lake, which is why there’s a bit of an emphasis on the moon in that story. But then I just found that quite limiting as I was going and couldn’t really explore the angles I wanted to explore and felt like I was being too prescriptive. So, I moved away from that idea.

And then I would say the next thing that really shaped them were the Black Summer bushfires of 2019. Over the summer, I completely rewrote one of the stories, The Boat, and did a slight rewrite of The Lake as well, to incorporate the fires and that kind of destruction, because I wanted it to be really relevant. And, you know, that was something that really affected my life. Sydney was blacked out by smoke when that happened. So I found that quite inspiring in an awful kind of way. There’s a particular photo, you probably would have seen it, of a child sitting in a boat wearing a gas mask, and just out in the water somewhere, and the whole sky is just orange. And that was what inspired the child in the boat that the mer saves. So that shaped them quite a bit after that.

And then of course having editors. I had three separate structural editors throughout the process, and that did shape the stories quite distinctly, because every editor has their own perspective and their experiences and their own style. So, when they come in, they’re going to come at it from a unique angle. And that makes me see my own work from a different perspective. Each editor I would say, changed the direction a little bit as I took in different kinds of feedback.

Mer focuses heavily on human impact, particularly human thoughtlessness as opposed to active acts of malice. Do you believe the biggest danger we pose to our environment is carelessness? And then how do we reconcile this to make a change?

I definitely did focus on the whole idea of thoughtlessness and an accidental kind of damage. Because I think even outside of environmental issues, just in general, the most dangerous people aren’t the people who are out there actively harming minorities or actively throwing things into the ocean on purpose. I think it’s the people who are passive and allow things to happen without noticing what they’re doing. The people who are accidentally racist just because it’s more convenient for them to ignore the fact that there are people struggling because of their race, and not because they maliciously don’t like people of colour. I think it’s the same with the environment.

I think that big corporations have a lot to answer for, in the fact that they know that they’re cutting down rainforests, and polluting our oceans. I think in broader society, the real danger are the people who know that it’s happening. But because they can’t see the effects, since they don’t live in the countries or areas where the sea levels are actually flooding the cities, or where the heat is killing off their food sources, or where the bushfires burn away your living. They don’t think about it when they are voting or making informed decisions, because they’re only thinking, ‘well, I don’t see it, and it doesn’t affect me, so it can’t be that real or that big of an issue.’ And when you have a majority of people thinking that way, then it means that change is never going to happen. So that is what I was trying to highlight in the stories.

I think that to reconcile that, we really do as a broader society need to understand and move past ourselves. With the rise of capitalism has also come the rise of individualism and to only care about yourself and only look out for yourself and the idea of community has kind of faded away. I live in a building with probably 200 people living here, and I’m never going to meet them. The connection with neighbours isn’t the same and I think because we’ve become so isolated, and we work so much and we’re so busy, that we just kind of forget that there are people with full lives outside of our own and the people we immediately come into contact with. And until we can rediscover this ability to connect as a global community, or even a local community, then we’re never going to be able to make the changes that need to happen to benefit everyone.

What other writing projects you’re working on?

I have so many. Because my muse is so fickle, part of that fickleness is being unable to commit to one project. So, there’s the novel I started writing when I was 14, and then rewrote when I was 19. Which I’m not even going to get into, because it’s just that bad. But there’s also the novel I started writing for my thesis project as part of my Masters at the University of Melbourne, which is a high fantasy about witches. Which, I’m really interested in getting back into. But after writing, Mer, I’m quite burnt out from world building, and fantasy.

I also have some contemporary fiction that I wanted to try and write, which is kind of based on my own life, and my own challenges as coming out as bisexual. I’m really interested in exploring this idea of bisexuality and validity. And how bisexual people can find it really hard to fit into the LGBT community. Just because you can present as straight, a lot of LGBT people think that means you don’t really fit into the community in the same way. You’re not gay enough, you’re not straight enough. And being a bisexual woman, it’s so much easier to find a man to date. I’m in a relationship with a man right now. It’s always going to be easier to find a straight man who’s interested in me than to find a woman who is also interested in women who’s also interested in me. And this lead to this idea of me feeling invalid, which is ridiculous because obviously, I know I’m attracted to women. I’ve been in love with women before, but I’ve never actually dated one in a long-term relationship. And that makes me feel like oh, well, can I really call myself bi then? But obviously, that’s ridiculous. You don’t have to have experienced your sexuality to know that’s what you are. So I really wanted to finish working on my novel, playing with these ideas of what it means to be bisexual and exist as bisexual person.

What is your creative process like? Do you set a time aside every week? Or do you wait for inspiration to strike?

My muse is very fickle. So, I can go months without writing. And then I’ll sit down and write 30,000 words of a novel in a few days. I’m trying to become more like, sit down every day. Now that I’m doing full time work, it’s kind of easier to structure that in, but I procrastinate a lot. Writing kind of gives me a bit of anxiety for some reason. Until I sit down, start doing it, and it feels like this big release. So yeah, I definitely don’t have the kind of process I wish I had. And it’s very much like, Okay, I’ve got to do this. Now. It was due yesterday. Let’s go.

Going back to Mer, what inspired the use of mer as both pronoun and species name?

Well, it was inspired by a class that was specifically about eco-fiction, and the tutor challenging us to think about what it’s like to write from the perspective of something that you just can’t understand like a tree, like something that’s so outside of our understanding and our human experience. And also in my undergrad degree, I had also done a lot of experimental writing classes using different frameworks like Marxism, and feminism and things like that, and I always had a lot of fun with the stories where I tried to remove gender and play with that kind of thing. After reading Judith Butler and Hélène Cixous’ work, I really liked that idea of trying to play with language and that challenge of trying to get rid of the way we automatically apply bias and perception to things just by the way we name it. I came up with mer specifically because it’s short for mermaid and I think it worked well as it rhymes with ‘her’ so has a familiar cadence that we experience when speaking our standard pronouns.

Because you work for Allen and Unwin, what insights do you think you’re able to bring to the editing and publishing process as a first-time author?

I think working in the industry definitely gave me a huge amount of insight. I think that the publishing industry from the outside is something that’s very obtuse. A lot of people don’t really understand what they do and how contracts work, or how advances work. So, I think, having worked at Allen and Unwin, and being in the publishing industry, and having colleagues who are editors and now being trained as an editor myself, I really understood how contracts should look. It really helped when I was negotiating my contract. And also, with the editorial process, I know exactly how that works. I know how many rounds you do and all the different kinds of editing. I know about moving to pages and how many times you can change pages once they are typeset because it gets more expensive and things like that. And I think that’s something from my experience working. Authors just don’t always understand what happens behind the scenes. And I think it can cause a lot of confusion and stress for them as well. So, it was very helpful being in the industry I think, especially having colleagues I could ask for advice, on how to approach things or their opinion on things, helped me a lot.

What’s the hardest part about writing fiction for you?

The hardest part about writing fiction for me is making the world feel authentic. I think because I have such an interest in writing fantasy, the most important part of writing fantasy is creating that world. Because you need the readers to suspend their disbelief. Now, if you’re writing a story set in the normal world, you have to do so much less work because people can fill in the blanks on their own like if you say, you walked into a kitchen, they know exactly what the kitchen is going to look like. But if you’re in a fantasy world, where, you know, there’s dragons and you say walk into the kitchen, they go oh, do you have electricity? Is there cauldron boiling and a fire? Or is it dragon heating up the water or something. I think that’s the hardest part. You also need to construct things like religion, and even curse words, your fantasy characters aren’t going to be saying like, ‘Oh my god’, unless they have a God, or ‘Jesus Christ’. They wouldn’t say that unless Christianity exists. And so I’ve always found that really hard, and in a fun way, very challenging. You want your world to feel rich, otherwise the reader is always left feeling like unsatisfied.

But I would say, world building in such short pieces of fiction was definitely one of the biggest challenges of Mer. Just trying to figure out how the world of the merfolk worked, and where in time I was with humans, like how far into technology, were we? Is it modern times? Is it not?  I’m normally interested in long form fiction, so I normally write novels. Writing these short stories, it was quite hard to world build, but keep it natural and contained in the story. Because you don’t want big info dumps at the beginning of the story – there’s only 2000 words, so you don’t have enough time to explain everything. So I was trying to weave that world building naturally throughout the stories. I was giving hints of things like the miracles and that’s what a collective of mermaids is called. Or, you know, the fact that their bodies are different, and not the same kind of mermaid that we think of. And that was really hard to get right.  There was a really fine balance, especially when I was removing language, because I was like, Well, how much can the mermaids know about humans? Where are they getting the information from? And so part of world building, to solve that, was creating a sentient ocean. So, yeah, that’s definitely the hardest part.

In your view, what is the one thing people should take away from Mer?

I think that people should take away that reading something that seems like it wasn’t written for you, or about you, doesn’t mean it isn’t worth reading. I think a huge controversy in the industry right now, especially after the Black Lives Matter movement, is that the industry is very whitewashed, both in the people who work and the authors and the kind of stories that are told.

We think that they’re all representing everyone because we’re white, and they are our stories. But when you’re from another culture, or another race, it doesn’t fit. And because marginalised stories are considered a minority, the industry thinks the majority of people aren’t interested in reading stories about a small group of people. In their minds, the majority of the market is white people. And I think that’s a really big mistake and an oversight that the industry is making. I think that people are really hungry to read about change. And I think that even for those who aren’t, we need to be challenging people to read outside their own experiences and challenge their ability to understand and grow. Just because you’ve left school doesn’t mean you can’t grow and learn new things and be open to understanding stuff outside of your own experience.

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