“The Mermaid Has to Die”

In Julia Langbein's novel "American Mermaid," a writer's Hollywood adaptation of her book goes hilariously awry

Photo by Bruce Christianson on Unsplash

Penelope Schleeman never thought she’d write a bestseller, but she’s trying to make the most of it. In the wake of her debut’s unexpected success, she departs her teaching job for Hollywood in order to adapt American Mermaid for the big screen. But as her co-writers’ suggestions tug and twist her beloved protagonist’s story further away from its original form, certain inexplicable events cause Penelope to wonder whether her creation has somehow taken on a life of her own in an effort to fight back.

As chapters from Penelope’s novel unfurl alongside her adventures in Hollywood, we come to know the eco-warrior mermaid protagonist of American Mermaid as well as the novelist who wrote her. While each character strives to understand their place in a world where they don’t quite feel like they belong—Sylvia, an actual fish out of water and Penelope, still a teacher at heart—both women find connection in unexpected places as they learn how to stay true to who they really are.

From characters who leap off the page—perhaps literally?—to a structure its author credits to her improv background, this debut’s dual narratives defy prediction on every page. The sheer joy that Julia Langbein garners from her work is evident, and as a result American Mermaid reveals itself to be far more than an exercise in entertainment—it’s a portal of discovery for its creator. And what a delight it is as a reader to join her for the ride.

I spoke with Langbein over Zoom about the complex dynamics of Hollywood film adaptation and mermaids. 

Abigail Oswald: So first off, how did this book come to be? Why mermaids?

Julia Langbein: I’ve always been a reader, but really what I always did was just kind of compulsive weird projects—including a lot of comedy stuff—and in 2014-15 I went back to doing improv comedy. At that time I was a postdoc at Oxford in art history, and that was a serious job—I had serious pressures to get my academic book published and so on—but something in me just could not be a serious person in the world, and I started doing improv again. And then I got pregnant, and literally the day I became too pregnant to perform in bars anymore late at night, I sat down and started writing this. Even the structure uses longform improv, you know, the Harold… I feel like what happened was I sat down, and I was just a lonely, pregnant woman, and I started doing improv with myself. 

And a couple of years before I started writing this particular project, I had gotten a bit obsessed with the idea of mermaids. I don’t remember why, but it was just something I talked about with people at cafes. It wasn’t that I was going to the British Library and pulling up everything I could on mermaids; I would just kind of poke people in the arm and say, “Do you guys not think there’s more here?” And everyone would go, “Okay, Julia, like, I guess?” Nobody cared as much as I did. So I guess there was a seed of curiosity about what a character of a mermaid could be. I realized there was an absurd comedy that could come out of it, you know? That it wasn’t just about mythology and sexuality and all these things, but there’s something absurdly comic about mermaids—that they’re half-fish and half-lady, namely. And there’s all kinds of things about the whole mermaid mythology that are strange and where there’s room to find funniness. So there was the desire to start improv-ing by myself, and then I had this story. I didn’t sit down to rewrite The Little Mermaid or something. It just came out of a potential for hilarity.

AO: Early on Penelope admits, “When I heard about the success of the book, I often felt like someone else had written it.” It seems like she frequently feels distanced from her own accomplishments. How does her self-image factor into the book’s events?

JL: Well, it’s funny. I suppose some people might call her a passive heroine, or something like that—that she lets things happen to herself. But one of her great gifts is being very analytical, and she sometimes has a hard time being both an analyst of the world around her and an actor in it. Her imagination is so powerful that she drowns in it all the time. Like when she’s at parties or in social situations, she gets overwhelmed with the density of her own internal analysis of the world and her own imaginative take on things. 

And she thinks of herself as a teacher. She has a very strong identity as a teacher, and it just sucks that she can’t be that. So that’s what casts her adrift in this story, actually. I think she knows who she is, and she gets to be who she is in the end, but she also finds a place for her excessive imagination in the literary project that, to her surprise, ended up taking off. 

But I very much identify with loving teaching and being so at home in the classroom. I wrote this book when I was a postdoc, which is this incredibly sought-after position where you essentially get bought out of teaching. But I actually loved teaching, and I feel like I went into academia to teach. So a longing to be in the classroom fully fed those descriptions of her comfort and her identity as a teacher.

AO: Penelope clearly has a complicated relationship to teaching but ultimately does love it, I think. What kept her coming back? 

JL: You have to be so caring and careful with the people who allow you, as a teacher, to see them learning to think, being bad at things, being new at things. It’s such a psychically vulnerable relationship, teacher-student, and it’s also one that in a university setting, at least, is theoretically sheltered from commercial imperatives. One reason why I loved university life and the classroom is that at its best, it is a place where there is no financial interest, no self-interest. At its most utopian, it’s a place where you are just trying to learn from each other and you’re just trying to get to the meat of ideas. There are very few places in the world where that is purely true. 

And of course, universities—I mean, there’s a whole Russian nesting doll of corruption that this activity takes place within, and financial compromise and elitism and all this stuff. But the classroom at its very heart, ideally. There are conversations, there are ways of being, there are ways of interacting that are shielded from self-marketing, you know, marketing from the logic of capitalism. So to me that is also a really important place for the book, right? Because of this idea of the part of you that can’t be sold. And also for the way people speak—the classroom has this crazy freedom, it’s a space of play. People end up saying insane things in the classroom, and that is an energy I want to hold on to. There are a lot of things about the classroom that I think have gone unexplored. People think about it purely as a pedagogical space. But actually all of the economic and emotional aspects of it are things that just refuse to leave me, even though I’ve left it.

AO: Conflict inevitably arises as Penelope’s fellow screenwriters begin to massage her novel into a more “Hollywood” tale, altering elements of Sylvia’s story that feel crucial and immutable to Penelope or removing them altogether. What do you think are realistic expectations a writer can have for their story once it’s released into the world?

JL: It’s funny you should ask that. A lot of people have been asking me, “Are you gonna freak out if this gets adapted and everyone wants to make it really sexy?” And actually my attitude is, “No, like, remake it with all dinosaurs!” I think the coolest thing about making a book is that there are lots of things about it that I don’t know, and someone else might literally know more than I know, might have a feeling that a minor character has a whole psychic life that I’m unaware of or whatever. So I actually think the process of adaptation has so much exciting potential and losing control is fun; I like losing control. (Watch me regret saying that.)

Mermaids are a very puzzling kind of seducer, right? They’re seductive and yet they are also, somehow not fuckable? Like, they are fish.

But I’m very careful in the book to not make Randy and Murphy monsters. Like, I point out repeatedly that what they do is very difficult. The art of the page and the art of the screen, things may get mangled in transition… but they’re not monsters. But there’s something that I do care about in the violation of the book in its transition to a movie, which is the kind of inevitability of nuance getting sucked out of it, and the inevitable [loss] of interiority. Like, the things that matter to me about being an embodied person in the world might be impossible to represent cinematically, or at least in the format of this kind of broadly popular cinema that the book deals with. 

But there’s nothing about this book that’s, like, a “Hollywood is dumb” screed, right? Nothing at all. It’s not an anti-Hollywood book; it’s a satire. It’s finding the funny in the gaps between the see-able and the sayable, or the lived embodiment and the way it’s represented. So it was more like finding a potential for hilarity and comic structure in a novel than it was having some powerful critique of Hollywood. What I want to do is deeper than a critique of Hollywood. It’s actually really easy to critique Hollywood.

AO: I thought it was fascinating that within your book, we get scenes from a novelist’s life juxtaposed with excerpts from the book she writes—almost as if American Mermaid is inviting us to make connections between the two stories. It feels on some level that when the book presents Sylvia and Penelope’s stories side-by-side, we are being given the option to view the narrative through an autobiographical lens. There are certainly parallels to be drawn between Penelope and her protagonist, but at the same time, I thought about how often writers—particularly women—are asked whether their work is autobiographical. Was the concept of the “autobiographical novel” something you contemplated while working on this book?

JL: Well, you’re never told why Penelope writes about mermaids, are you? There’s no part of her backstory or anything that has anything to do with mermaids. In a way, I think it becomes more autobiographical after she writes it. In a sense, what she imagines springs her reality forward into a certain direction that then resembles the fiction, and that is a much more interesting phenomenon to me—particularly as a way to structure a story—than to think about women’s fiction as autobiographical. How is it that the things we imagine—like, speculation or imagination—can literally loose forces that change the world, create chaos, create situations that upend power structures? 

Actually, in a weird way that happened to me, because I wrote a book about a person who writes a book, and then my book got published. I speculated about a teacher writing a book, and then I was a teacher who ended up writing a book… More interesting to me than the idea of autofiction is the idea of how what you invent is smarter than you know. That if you let yourself think really deeply and imagine things really freely, you might create a new reality. That’s an idea that’s knocked around all of the critical theory around speculative fiction and stuff; I’m not coming up with this for the first time. But for me, that kind of energy is very present in this book.

AO: There’s this question that Sylvia’s narrative returns to that she might be “immune” to love; this perceived absence often makes her feel alienated from the rest of the world. Can you speak more to how you thought about love and desire while writing this novel?

JL: I didn’t go into this novel knowing that Penelope would have this desire to be kind of without desire or, as I think she says, to live without the humiliations of desire. That she’s scared of the part of herself that is sexual or gendered. But I think it came out of an awareness that something had attracted her to the mermaid story, first of all. And mermaids are a very puzzling kind of seducer, right? They’re seductive and yet they are also, somehow—as the novel makes great comedy out of—not fuckable? Like, they are fish. They are tuna from the waist down! So between those poles of the mermaid as this incredibly seductive, sexy, beautiful idea—even Disney’s The Little Mermaid, right, like, the curves on her—and these other potentials in the mermaid to resist sexuality, and to challenge these kinds of sexual norms, there was a lot of room to play. And Penelope’s character just grew into that space. 

But I think desire is so important and so powerful. I don’t want to give any spoilers, but there are many hints that Penelope is going to continue to invest in and commit to and explore her sexuality, but on her terms, and always with a kind of awareness of the way she’s being seen, or that desire is going to motivate her in cheap or wrong or bad or dishonest ways. I think at one point I talk about, like, sexuality is transactional, and I think this book has a real care for the spaces where we can be ourselves without selling ourselves, and I think that sex and desire are moments where they are transactional, and they can be transactional in a safe and loving way, or they can be transactional in ways that are bad and scary. These questions about how to feel desire or how to live out desire and engage with other people, how do you do it without being transactional?

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