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Interview: April 2011

April 2011

Kathryn Lasky, the Newbery Honor-winning author of over 100 books for children and young adults, is perhaps best known for her Guardians of Ga'Hoole series, which was turned into a major motion picture last year. But whether it's about owls, wolves, or mermaids, Lasky just loves doing research. In her latest series, Daughters of the Sea, 19th-century teenage sisters discover a strange phenomenon: they are, quite literally, land-sick. The second installment, MAY, sees 15-year-old May longing to break free from the restraints of society, as the sea rightfully calls to her.'s Norah Piehl spoke with Lasky about her personal spin on the mermaid legend, as well as her literary intentions for the series. She also explains the rigid New England in which her characters exist, and her own deep affiliation with the ocean and its magic. DAUGHTERS OF THE SEA: MAY is a mermaid tale, but it's a very unusual one. Were you inspired in any way by Hans Christian Andersen's classic "The Little Mermaid" or the Disney film by the same name?

Kathryn Lasky: Well, in a very convoluted way, perhaps I was influenced by the Andersen tale. But I think of it as his story in reverse. Andersen's mermaid was drawn to the land world, the "upper world" as I think it is called in the tale. Hannah and May, and, in the third book, Lucy, are all of the upper world and drawn to the sea. Over the years the Andersen story has been transformed, and we now mostly associate it with the Disney movie. I wanted most definitely to avoid any comparisons to the movie. Not that I didn't like it. But I saw a darker story. Too much mermaid stuff is what I call "mermaid cheesecake." It's not like beach fare. So no Caribbean turquoise. Instead the jagged rocky coast of Maine. Geologically this coastline is much less horizontal and way more threatening than the Caribbean.

TRC: Although there are obviously fantasy elements here, the book reads in large part more like historical fiction than fantasy. Why did you decide to set the story in the late 19th century?

KL: I joke that if Edith Wharton ever did a book about mermaids, it would be something like Daughters of the Sea. Okay, a disclaimer: I am a far cry in terms of abilities compared to Wharton, but she is my all-time favorite author. I love the way she deals with issues of class and society. I have read THE AGE OF INNOCENCE at least five times and seen the movie a few times too.

So the sea in this case represents all that land does not. It is free from the social stratification, the constraints on women in particular. The sea is a vastly superior world --- one without pretensions, and none of the oppression of the late 19th century.

TRC: What was the biggest challenge about combining historical detail with fantasy elements as you wrote the book?

KL: My friend Gregory Maguire, the author of WICKED and many other wonderful books, has said it best: "If fantasy works at all it is by juxtaposing the miraculous with the mundane." Portals are very important in fantasy. In Narnia there is the wardrobe. In ALICE IN WONDERLAND there is the rabbit hole and the looking glass through which the protagonists pass to a magical realm. So for me the biggest challenge was finding an appropriate "portal." The realms that my character Hannah, and now May, pass through are not magical. They are real environments unlike Narnia and Wonderland, or, for that matter, Oz. So I had to work hard to really craft the portal and then the transition through it. I had to have the fusty, stifling quality of a 19th-century world right up against the wildness of the sea; the rigidity and oppressive values of Brahmin Boston up against a kind of sensuality. It was a challenge but really fun. I was determined not to do anything cheesy. It had to be psychological and sensuous.

TRC: A big part of the story is May's quest for answers --- about her own past and identity but also about the science of the sea. She does a lot of research to try to understand ocean currents, etc. What kinds of research did you do as you prepared to write the book?

KL: Well, for starters, I read the same book May did --- Matthew Fontaine Maury's THE PHYSICAL GEOGRAPHY OF THE SEA. It is a landmark book, and to think it was written in the mid-19th century is incredible. He was kind of like Darwin. I mean, none of the technology we have today existed then, but somehow people like Maury and Darwin were incredibly intuitive thinkers. It's as if these men could peek over the horizon and see something that others did not even dimly perceive. Maury's current charts are still used today and quite accurate. So that was one kind of research I did.

The other kind of research is that I have spent a lot of time at sea. I have twice crossed the Atlantic Ocean in a very small sailboat. It was years ago, but my husband and I still sail up and down the coast of Maine. Around the time when we were doing our trans-Atlantic crossings, I wrote several articles for Sail magazine. My first book for adults was a nonfiction book about sailing called ATLANTIC CIRCLE (W.W. Norton). So I know wind and currents and salt water. And, of course, the coast of Maine is where we have had a summer house for almost 30 years.

TRC: Issues of social class, education and aspiration show up throughout the book. How do these ideas relate to its themes?

KL: Well, as I said before, the 19th century world was socially very stratified, especially in New England. There is still the ghost of social inflexibility. Boston was, until perhaps 50 years or so ago, a very rigid society, a mixture of the Puritan ethic blended with the old Boston Brahmin notions of place and station. There is a saying in Boston applicable until fairly recently about two of the oldest Brahmin families. It goes: "The Lodges speak only to Cabots and the Cabots speak only to God."

My father-in-law, who was born and raised in Boston and went to Harvard, was not permitted, in his Harvard days, to keep his canoe in the college boathouse on the Charles River because he was not a member of one of those old families. That of course has changed now.

Anyhow, it was a very repressive, inflexible social system. I wanted the world that May, Hannah before her, and Lucy, who is the protagonist of the third book, discover --- that of the sea --- to represent a realm that is the complete opposite of this rigid society. I wanted this world to be free and very sensual. So I would say that the book and the ones to follow are in some sense a Gothic reflection and exploration of social history and not simply a paranormal adventure.

TRC: There's a huge symbolic weight to May's transformation into a mermaid, this secret identity she holds, that would seem to resonate particularly strongly with teenage girls. Is that something you had in mind as you were writing?

KL: The secret identity is something I absolutely had in mind. I think many of us harbor real or imagined secret identities, and not just teenaged girls.

TRC: This is the second volume in a projected four-book series (the first one was about May's sister, Hannah). Do you recommend that your audiences read the books in order? Can you give us any hints about the direction of the rest of the series?

KL: I actually do not think it is absolutely necessary that someone read these books in order, at least not the first two. I do feel they should read those two before they get to the third book or the fourth, however.

I am very bad at giving hints because I usually spill all the beans. I will only say that there is a time bomb ticking away, and these girls are going to be called upon to make a decision as to which world they truly belong in.

TRC: My eight-year-old son adores your Guardians of Ga'Hoole series about owls. You've written so many different kinds of books for so many different audiences. Do you keep these audiences in mind as you write, or does the story remain foremost?

KL: For me the story is always first and foremost. It is very hard for me to think of children or teenagers in aggregates. To try and second guess what a reader might like or what should be avoided is impossible. It's the story that drives me as a writer, and, to be perfectly honest, I suppose on a certain level I am writing to please myself.

TRC: What kinds of books did you enjoy reading when you were a child or teenager? How about these days? What works by contemporary authors would you recommend to readers who love the Daughters of the Sea series?

KL: Well, first you have to understand that when I was a kid there were not all these wonderful writers like Lois Lowry or Suzanne Collins or JK Rowling around. Children's publishing just wasn't what it is today. So I would read, you know, stuff like Nancy Drew, and then the next day I might read what I saw my parents reading. I remember when I was in eighth grade I read Leon Uris's classic EXODUS about Israel. I became very fascinated by colonial Africa, so I read a lot of books about that. I loved war books. I read FROM HERE TO ETERNITY (James Jones) and then FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS --- I read a lot, a lot of Hemingway! There just wasn't that much around for kids. When I was really little I read the Oz books --- well, to tell you the truth I kept re-reading them even through high school. I guess you could say I was an eclectic reader.

As for contemporary writers, I am reading some Graham Greene, although I guess he's been dead for a while. I love the mystery writer James Lee Burke. I just bought a new Mary Gordon book. Love her, and she hasn't had a book out in a while. Then there are just bunches of other people often obscure that you might never have heard of. Oh gosh, just thought of a non-obscure one --- Calvin Trillin. He is the funniest writer ever. I also like a lot of Isabel Allende.

TRC: Can you fill us in on what writing projects you're working on now?

KL: What writing project am I working on right now? Lucy! The third book in Daughters of the Sea.