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Interview: September 2009

September 2009

Kathryn Lasky is the award-winning author of nearly 50 books for children and young adults, including the Dear America, The Royal Diaries and The Guardians of Ga'Hoole series.
In this interview with's Sarah Wood, Lasky discusses her latest book, DAUGHTERS OF THE SEA: HANNAH --- which is the first in a trilogy about three orphaned mermaids in 19th-century Boston --- and why she chose to write it both for and about teens. She also explains the motivations behind some of her characters' actions and behavior, reveals her own personal cure for homesickness, and hints at what readers can expect from the next two installments in the series. I really enjoyed DAUGHTERS OF THE SEA: HANNAH, which is a nice addition to the growing number of books involving mermaids. What made you decide to write about mermaids?
Kathryn Lasky: Mermaids are very rich territory. But a lot that has been done about them I have not particularly cared for. Kind of tawdry, mermaid cheesecake, I call it. Pardon the pun, but I wanted to go deeper. I thought mermaids were a very good match for YA fiction for a lot of reasons:
First and foremost, I feel that those teen years are really the most intense in a person's life. I always remember my mother saying to me: “Kathryn, people are going to tell you that these are the best years of your life. But they aren't. Things get much better." Kids are vulnerable, powerless, and yet this is when they are beginning to have emergent voices. There is an irony that from an author's point of view is very engaging. If I may use a sea analogy here: In the oceans of the world, the richest areas are where two currents graze each other. This is where you see the most fish and seabirds. For example, in my neck of the woods --- well, sort of --- out on George's Banks and the Grand Banks --- the once-great cod-fishing areas and swordfishing territory before we started fishing it all out --- this region is where the Gulf Stream and the Labrador current brush by one another. It is just enormously rich in nutrients. To me, adolescence is like one of these zones. There is an enormous amount of richness --- emotional, psychic, etc. --- but there is also a lot of pain. Border areas are never easy ones to occupy, but they offer up great stories. Now imagine a girl like Hannah who essentially contains two worlds within her; she is not quite all human but part mermaid. She lives in a strange borderland. She must negotiate these borders. She is in short the perfect heroine for young adult fiction, or I should say she is potentially the perfect heroine. I hope! The readers will have to decide.
TRC: Hannah first notices that something is terribly wrong with her when she is sent West on the orphan train. The further she gets from the ocean, the sicker she gets. Homesickness is a frequent theme in mermaid tales. Have you ever been homesick? What would you recommend to readers who might struggle with homesickness, or feel they don’t have a place where they belong?
KL: I have certainly been homesick many times in my life. My cure for homesickness has always been reading. This might seem odd because through reading one doesn’t actually go home, but more or less escapes the place where one is at the time. But it works for me.
TRC: Will all of the books in the series be set in the same time and place? What was the most interesting part of setting the book in 19th-century Boston instead of some other time or place?
KL: The coast of Maine will be the common setting for all the books. The second book, MAY, is set entirely in Maine. The third book will be set in part in New York City and in part in Maine. I’m not sure about the fourth book yet.
I think I have sort of answered the second half of the above question already. But I did love researching all these details about how upper-crust 19th-century households were run.
TRC: The painter in DAUGHTERS OF THE SEA: HANNAH, Stannish Whitman Wheeler, seems to know Hannah’s secret before she’s even discovered it. Why doesn’t he reveal what he knows to Hannah?
KL: I wouldn’t have had any plot, any character development for starters, if he had told what he knew early on. But also I think it’s just what --- well, in the subsequent books I start to speak of this as “The Laws of Salt,” which basically means that you have to discover this hidden part of yourself by yourself if you are not directly born to it, as is the case with the three sisters who became separated at birth and orphaned.
TRC: You do a marvelous job describing the differences between the lives of the servants in the Hawley household and the lives of the family. The order of the household depends on everyone knowing their place and performing their duties without question. Readers who love historical fiction are often interested in the lives of the privileged. What made you decide you wanted to make Hannah a scullery maid, one of the lowest positions in the household?
KL: Well, she was an orphan. She had no work experience so she had to start at the lowest rung on the servant ladder, which would be that of scullery girl. This makes her powerless, vulnerable, and all the things you need in a would-be heroine.
TRC: The eldest Hawley daughter is Lila, who seems cruel and unbalanced. The household lives in fear of upsetting her, and there is even the suggestion that her bullying caused the death of the previous maid. Lila seems to represent all the negative aspects of serving in a household like the Hawleys and the reasons Hannah might want to run away. Why does Lila hate Hannah so much?
KL: I think Lila senses Hannah’s potential yet indefinable power. Also, Lila is the product of all I have talked about in terms of the hazards of this rigid social system. She probably perceives that elusive freedom, the inner freedom, that certainly will be Hannah’s when she crosses over and finds her non-human-mermaid self. And let’s face it, there is a sensuality in Hannah. These books are a lot about girls’ emerging sexuality. Again, I don’t come right out and say it, but it’s there.
TRC: The youngest of the Hawley girls, Ettie, adores Hannah and is extremely loyal to her. It’s easy to imagine how Hannah would feel torn between the security of the Hawleys’ home and the chance to explore her ocean-bound identity. Ettie seems to have guessed Hannah’s secret. Will we be seeing more of her in subsequent books?
KL: Yes, you’ll be seeing more of Ettie. I loved writing about Ettie. She is, for me, one of the most favorite characters that I’ve ever developed in all the years I have been writing.
TRC: One of the historical details I found most surprising inDaughters of the Sea is that the Hawleys always travel with their enormous Japanese vases and a dollhouse replica of their home. Did people really travel with their treasures, or was that invented for this book? What other surprises did you find in your research?
KL: Rich people often did travel with their possessions when they were setting up residences abroad, but I think the Boits carried it to an extreme.
TRC: You have a fantastic website with lots of information about your life as a writer and your books. I particularly enjoyed your page about your research. You’ve written a lot of historical fiction. Has writing historical fiction changed your view of history?
KL: Well, it has changed my view of history in many ways, and it’s too long to go into here. Most especially when I wrote BEYOND THE BURNING TIMES, a book about the Salem witch trials, I was really shocked to realize that underlying this dreadful chapter in American history was pure economic greed!
TRC: Daughters of the Sea ends with a lot of unanswered questions. One of them is the mystery of the Japanese vases. The vases seem to have some kind of magical power. Will readers see more of these vases in subsequent books, or find out where they come from or what they mean?
KL: Well, I have to keep some things to myself, which you can read as I haven’t quite figured it out yet; and if I do, I don’t want to tip my hand too early. So wait and see.
TRC: One of the most exciting moments in the book is at the very end, when Hannah sees a tail in the ocean and thinks, “I am not alone! There is a world out there!” Will we get to see more of the mer world in the next book? Will we find out why Hannah was orphaned on dry land?
KL: You will see a lot more of the mer world in the next book and a bit more each subsequent book. And there will be hints as to why Hannah was orphaned and how. But the full story will not be revealed until the last book.