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Q&AMar 16, 20235 min

Q&A with Julia Langbein, Author of American Mermaid

Author Julia Langbein talks about her weird and wonderful debut novel, 'American Mermaid.'

By Emily Calkins

Black and white photograph of author Julia Langbein parallel to the cover of her novel 'American Mermaid.'

Julia Langbein sat down with Likewise to discuss her upcoming book-within-a-book, releasing March 21st, 2023.

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Julia Langbein’s debut novel, American Mermaid, has drawn raves from some of the biggest names in contemporary literature, including Song of Achilles author Madeline Miller, who called it “brilliantly sharp, funny, and thought-provoking.”

Penelope Schleeman is a broke teacher who is as surprised as anyone when her feminist eco-thriller (also titled American Mermaid) becomes a bestseller. Then a movie studio buys it and offers Penelope the chance to work on the adaptation, so she quits her teaching and job and moves to Los Angeles. But when the studio pushes to make the adaptation sexier and dumber than the story that Penelope labored over, strange things start to happen, and Penelope wonders if the novel might and its marine heroine have a mind of their own.

American Mermaid hits shelves on March 21st, 2023, and we were delighted to talk to Julia about it and the books that inspire her.

There are two stories in American Mermaid–Penelope's and Sylvia's. Why did you decide to use the book-inside-a-book format?

The book-within-a-book format didn't come to me as a literary device; rather, it came from improv comedy. I had been doing tons of improv, particularly this longform game called "Harold" which involves returning over and over to the same scenes. When I started writing a novel it was just second nature to think this way. And from the get-go it just worked. I found it was producing all these hilarious connections and it was really building meaning and comedy for me better than I could have imagined. It was just luck that I was so deep into the improv at that moment that the rhythms of comic scene-building on stage were part of the way I was thinking.

Teenagers play a not-insignificant role in this story. What intrigues you about adolescence?

I wasn't a stereotypical teenager. I didn't really rebel, I was very docile and well behaved (this isn't rose-colored glasses–my dad even said recently, "you were never obnoxious as a teenager, that happened in your thirties," LOL). But I do remember a kind of intellectual openness, of reading a poem and feeling I was inside of it, reading a book and feeling it was about me, for me. I lived what I read. Then later in my career, when I was a PhD student and an early-career researcher, I taught college students and came into contact again with that depth of reading. Even the kids who were not A students, they had access to this depth. As Penelope, the high school teacher, observes in American Mermaid, some day her students will "have their familiar chords and modulations. But now they’re atonal, so dumb they’re avant-garde."

There are so many hilarious secondary characters in American Mermaid. Do you have a favorite?

So many people who have read this book love Susie, the kind of politically-incorrect but extremely confident and caring sister. I have to say, I have read those scenes with her a thousand times and they still make me laugh. She might come back in another book, in another guise.

Can you tell us about three books you love? One sentence each would be great!

  1. A Way of Life, Like Any Other, by Darcy O'Brien (1978). The NYRB re-released A Way of Life in 2001 with a gorgeous intro by Seamus Heaney. It's a semi-autobiographical story of a boy growing up in LA with eccentric parents caught up in the biz. It's absolutely drop-dead hilarious, and captures Los Angeles not as a stereotype but as intimate and strange and comically warping.
  2. The Girl with the Louding Voice, by Abi Daré (2020). I read this not long ago and it has stayed with me–it is a perfectly told, electrifying story of one girl fighting for her physical and intellectual survival in rural Nigeria and then Lagos, but what really astonished me was the voice itself. From the first sentence, she's hilarious, she's herself, you understand from the first page how important she is, and you're in the fight with her 1,000%.
  3. The Force of Such Beauty, Barbara Bourland (2022). With clear parallels to the life of Princess Charlene of Monaco, this story of an athlete turned princess turned prisoner of her own luxurious life–Bourland is fantastic on the sheer material trappings–is both an empathetic portrait of an individual caught in a nightmare fairytale and a chilling reminder of the real economic inequalities that "princess" myths obscure.

Check out more author interviews here!

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