Looking for something entirely unexpected? I suggest cracking the spine on Julia Ember’s The Seafarer’s Kiss, a queer retelling of “The Little Mermaid” with fat, Arctic mermaids, Vikings, and a bisexual main character.
Mermaid Ersel learns of the life she wants when she rescues and befriends Ragna, a shield-maiden stranded on the mermen’s glacier. But when Ersel’s childhood friend and suitor catches them together, he gives Ersel a choice: say goodbye to Ragna or face justice at the hands of the glacier’s brutal king.To save herself from perishing in the barren, underwater wasteland and be reunited with the human she’s come to love, Ersel must try to outsmart the God of Lies.
Tell us what readers can expect from The Seafarer’s Kiss!
It’s difficult to tell people what to expect without giving away too many spoilers! I would say The Seafarer’s Kiss is a dark, morally grey retelling of “The Little Mermaid” that encourages readers to follow their own dreams and defy society’s expectations. Readers should also expect lots of queer characters and lots of Norse myth!
The main character, Ersel, is a fat bisexual mermaid who falls in love with a Viking shield maiden who becomes stranded on the ice-shelf near her home. Her childhood friend catches them kissing and tries to blackmail Ersel into marrying him. She makes a deal with Loki to try and escape the arrangement, and her kingdom’s brutal oppression of mermaids after they mate. But because it’s Loki, and they’re the God of Lies, she doesn’t get quite what she expected out of their deal and someone else gets hurt as a result of her decision.
The Seafarer’s Kiss is a retelling of The Little Mermaid. What inspired you to take a classic tale and shape it into a queer interpretation set in the deep arctic?
Ever since I was a kid, “The Little Mermaid” has always been my favourite fairy-tale. I’ve always found that kind of meeting of worlds romance fascinating, and I love the ocean. A couple of years ago, I was pursuing a PhD in Medieval Literature. As part of my postgraduate work, I did study a number of Old English and Old Norse texts. There are two surviving poems in the Old English Exeter Book (10th century) that I just love called “The Wanderer” and “The Seafarer.” Both of them feature sailors who have been exiled from their communities and are navigating the ocean alone. These poems are written in the beautiful, alliterative verse that was common in the period, and they have a hauntingly lonely tone to them.
I based the character of Ragna off the speaker I imagined for “The Seafarer.” She’s a warrior who has lost her kinsmen and her family. I cast her as a Viking rather than an Anglo-Saxon, because I associate the Vikings of the period much more strongly with seafaring. At the time of the poem, the Vikings, Angles and Saxons were all in close contact with each other – some in peace, others at war. Once I started imagining Ragna as a Viking, her pantheon of Norse gods came too and I found they worked well for the undersea culture I developed for Ersel as well. While they weren’t exempt from prejudice, the pre-Christian Vikings also didn’t have the homophobic laws or prohibitions as Anglo-Saxon society.
Writing queer characters seems more natural to me, especially queer women. I am a bi woman myself, and I would say I tend to be more attracted to women in general.
Throughout the novel Ersel and Ragna are empathetic and brutal in their own unique ways. At the closing, both have done monstrous things to survive. Tell us about the decision to create such complex characters that are not perfect, and yet understandable in their imperfections.
Well, it’s true that nobody’s perfect! I’m fascinated by villains in stories and trying to figure out what motivates them. When I set out to write both characters, I really wanted their independence to shine through. Yes, they are attracted to each other, but that relationship does not determine most of the choices they make in the book. Both girls find themselves in really terrible circumstances, where they have to choose to sacrifice their independence or do something that hurts someone else. In both cases, they initially choose the course of action that hurts others. I think the ‘save yourself’ impulse, while not exactly moral, is something a lot of people feel.
I also wanted my story to be character driven. Nice characters often get pushed around by circumstances and the plot. My main characters aren’t always nice, but they drive their own story. However, as they grow in the story, they begin to understand the consequences of their actions. Ragna remains a survivalist, but Ersel realises that it isn’t enough to be save herself if everyone she cares about suffers.
The Seafarer’s Kiss deals heavily with reproductive rights. Ersel’s fellow mermaids are required to attend the Grading, which assesses their reproductive ability. Many mermaids are also trapped within their glacial home by their mates and forced to breed. Can you tell us about why you saw discussion around reproductive rights as important, especially in this current political climate?
When I wrote The Seafarer’s Kiss, I honestly thought we’d have a female president right now. When I was writing, I thought that we would have an administration would be making things better for women in America. The book has become sinisterly relevant as a result of the horrible outcome of the 2016 election. I actually hate that. I wish it wasn’t politically relevant, because I wish Trump wasn’t happening. But if Ersel’s story helps teen girls to see that they can fight for their body’s autonomy, then I hope this book reaches them.
That being said, I was raised in a community where ‘date to mate’ is still very much a thing. That pressure to marry and reproduce is something I’ve always hated. I’ve been adamant since I was about ten that I never wanted children and have encountered a lot of pushback from family members, friends, even doctors. I have a hormone and fertility disorder, called Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome, which has never been a factor in my decision not to have children, but I have been asked if I’m simply scared to fail when it comes to trying to conceive.
How long did it take you to write The Seafarer’s Kiss? What was your process around writing the story?
The Seafarer’s Kiss actually started out as a short story / novelette. It was originally written in time lapses, rather than as a narrative progression. I submitted it to several short markets, and when it didn’t sell, I re-evaluated. I decided that it could be significantly fleshed out and turned into a novel.
It took me about two months to write it as a short, then I had a break from it for another three while it was on submission. Then it took another three months to transform that draft in to a full length work.
When young, queer girls or nonbinary people read your book, what is one message you hope they take away from it?
That it’s okay not conform to other people’s expectations. You are the author of your own life!