Brooklyn Bookbeat: Brooklynite turns family folklore to novel
For Brooklyn writer Amy Shearn, what began as a snippet of family lore has now turned into her second novel. On sale Tuesday, April 2, “The Mermaid of Brooklyn” is a fascinating book that Shearn created by melding her great grandmother’s real-life story with an element of fairy tale magic.
Inspired by her great grandmother’s fate – which was uncannily determined by a pair of shoes – Shearn developed a protagonist with the same name, Jenny Lipkin. Like the original Jenny Lipkin, Shearn’s character is a mother struggling to support her family with an absent husband. The fictional Jenny, formerly a magazine editor who is now a stay-at-home mother living in a Park Slope walk-up, is married to an obsessive gambler who disappears one evening. Already overwhelmed with the stress of raising children in the city, Jenny now becomes desperate.
She finds strength, however, through the most surprising and mystical of characters – a mermaid. Based on the Russian mermaid folklore known as the Rusalka, Shearn’s mermaid provides her protagonist with the companionship she needs to make it through this tough time.
To celebrate the release of “The Mermaid of Brooklyn,” Shearn will appear at powerHouse on 8th in South Slope on Tuesday, April 2 and 7 p.m., and at Lark Café in Ditmas Park on Sunday, April 14 at 6 p.m. Brooklyn Eagle checked in with the author, who shares with us the details of her great grandmother’s inspirational story. She offers her take on “the culture of Brooklyn parenting,” and offers a preview of her next project.
Can you tell us a bit about how your great grandmother inspired this story?
The family lore is that my great-grandmother, whose name was (like my main character’s) Jenny Lipkin, had her life saved by a pair of shoes. In a moment of great stress, she considered jumping off a bridge; then she turned around, looked at her shoes sitting there on the bridge, and decided to live. I was fascinated when my grandmother told me this story and I knew I had to write about it somehow, but it took me some years to figure out how. And here it appears as the hinge moment in this novel.
The original Jenny Lipkin was a tough woman. She had a really hard life; she had this terrible husband who left her and her daughters again and again. But she didn’t whine about it. I don’t think they’d invented whining yet, actually. No, Jenny just made her way in the world. She was a gifted seamstress who supported her family by making exact copies of dresses her neighbors would buy from Fields, and then return once Jenny had made their version. In a time when divorces were rare, she divorced her ne’er-do-well husband. Twice. She was a tiny woman, not even five feet tall, but she was known for being brave and even a little scary. I just loved her as a character, so I created this fictional version of her.
What prompted you to develop and include a supernatural character?
I’ve always been interested in the strange and uncanny. When I first heard this story of my great-grandmother and her life-saving pair of shoes, I happened to also be reading a lot of fairy tales. I came across the concept of the rusalka, who is the mermaid of Eastern European lore. Rusalkas are seductive and powerful and kind of terrifying. They are, traditionally, the souls of wronged women. These two ideas – Jenny Lipkin, the rusalka – just became entwined in my head.
Can you talk about how your experience as a Brooklyn mother further motivated the plot?
The culture of Brooklyn parenting is so fascinating. I loved the community I found as a new mother in Park Slope. It seemed like every time I stepped out my door, with my baby tucked in the sling, I met another new parent who was a writer, or an artist, or a filmmaker, or a musician. Say what you will about how ridiculous and anxious we Brooklyn parents can get, there is something really wonderful about having casual conversations about Proust at the swing set. That said, there are so many bizarre difficulties in Brooklyn parenting, so many weird daily puzzles. The wonderful and maddening thing about life here is that every mundane task is kind of an accomplishment. Obtaining groceries, parking the car. You need to think so much. It’s hard, but it’s also really interesting.
When I started writing this book my first baby was three or four months old. I was at that curious time when being a mother is still really about figuring out being a mother. Later it’s so much more about the kids and their lives. But those first few months, when your baby is just a cute blob, are all about “Who am I now? What kind of mother am I?” I felt like all the mothers I knew were facing the same questions as I was – questions of identity, but also things like, “Is it okay to raise kids in the city? Am I doing this right?” So I wanted to write to that, for them.
When did you move to Brooklyn?
My husband and I moved to Brooklyn in 2005, right after I finished graduate school. (We’d had a brief stint earlier, in the summer and fall of 2001, but for various reasons September 11th curtailed that particular venture.) We ended up in Park Slope quite accidentally. Our friends in New York all lived in Williamsburg, so we were looking there, mostly. Then we went to look at an apartment in what turned out to be Park Slope – we came out of the subway station at 7th Avenue blinking and dazzled, having found, without realizing it, the Brooklyn we’d both always pictured. It was love at first sight! And at first, since we were always working in the city during the day, we didn’t even know there was such a baby culture there. The neighborhood kind of lives in a few different shifts. I do remember noticing a lot of pregnant women and thinking, “Oy, gotta watch out, there’s something in the water around here.”
Then once we had a baby we started inhabiting that other infamous, stroller-y Park Slope. Finally last year my life caught up to my novel, and, like Jenny, I found myself with two kids in a tiny walk-up, feeling very over the historical charm of it all. Unlike Jenny, my husband didn’t leave mysteriously – phew! Instead, we bought an apartment in Kensington-Windsor Terrace. I would sing the praises of this friendly, vibrant, convenient, diverse, amazing neighborhood that I love but I don’t want everyone to move here and take up all the tables at the coffee shops, so – no comment.
Do you have any advice for Brooklyn mothers who are struggling to balance work, family, and city life?
If I’ve learned anything it’s that there is no lasting answer to that whole balance conundrum. You think you have it figured out and then your kids grow into another stage and your work changes and you change and then you have to figure it out all over again. We just all need to be easier on ourselves, and to be okay with being a little unbalanced sometimes.
When you need a break from your apartment, where in Brooklyn do you like to go to write (or just to relax)?
I’m almost always writing at cafes. Otherwise my children swarm. They think my laptop is just a device built to find paper dolls on the Internet and print them out. So I alternate between my three local coffee shops, each of which has its particular charms – Steeplechase, Brooklyn Commune, and Lark. I just have to pause here to give a shout-out to Lark, as that place has changed my family’s (and neighborhood’s) life. They have a playroom, where my kids’ beloved sing-alongs take place, and then the café itself is gorgeous, and their pie makes me write better.
When it comes to relaxing, I’m devoted to Prospect Park. I really don’t think I would survive without the park. We also have a lovely, peaceful community garden here in the neighborhood, but shhh…stay away. Just kidding. Mostly.
What are you working on now?
In theory I have been working on a new novel – a ghost story, I think! – for over a year. In reality, I have a lot of notes, a lot of ideas, and about three pages of prose. I need to hole up at Lark with some pie and get going on that.
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Shearn will appear at powerHouse on 8th (1111 8th Ave. in South Slope) on Tuesday, April 2 at 7 p.m., and at Lark Café (1007 Church Ave. in Ditmas Park) on Sunday, April 14 at 6 p.m.
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Amy Shearn is the author of “How Far Is the Ocean from Here.” She is a graduate of the University of Iowa and the University of Minnesota’s MFA program. Her work has appeared in The Millions, Poets & Writers,The L Magazine, Opium, and Five Chapters, and she writes for Oprah.com and RedbookMag.com. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband and two children. Visit her at www.amyshearnwrites.com.
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