Beauty is integral to novelist Carolyn Turgeon’s work: Mermaid, her most recent book, spotlights the relationship between the mermaid and the princess of the classic fairy tale. “You have these two beautiful protagonists who are competing for the love of the prince, but who are longing for what the other one represents,” she says. “They’re both beautiful, but they are literally different species, and I wanted to explore that complicated relationship.” Her second book, Godmother, features an old woman who had once been the fairy godmother to you-know-who. “She wasn’t just a beautiful woman; she was a beautiful fairy. And then she broke a taboo and ends up being banished to earth and having a human body and growing old. She’s grieving her loss of beauty through the whole story.” And the heroine of her first book, Rain Village, feels freakishly small—which turns out to be an asset when she discovers her skill as a trapeze artist.
She also writes “a delicate, ladylike blog for mermaids and the humans who love them,” I Am A Mermaid, where she’s interviewed the likes of Tim Gunn, Alice Hoffman, and Rona Berg about mermaids. We talked about the role of beauty in classic fairy tales, the challenges of being an early bloomer, and the impossibility of an ugly mermaid. In her own words:
On Fairy Tales
Beauty is a central theme in fairy tales, especially your big classic ones. Physical beauty is correlated to how good and pure you are. Underneath all that dirt, Cinderella is beautiful, whereas her evil stepsisters are ugly and have big feet that can’t fit into those glass slippers. That’s why it’s tragic when you have a monster with a good heart, because nobody recognizes their goodness—but usually, it turns out that deep down the beast is actually a handsome prince. So if someone can recognize their goodness, they can turn back into what they really are—which is someone beautiful.
You’ve always got women who are hating other women for being beautiful. The evil stepsisters hate Cinderella because of her looks; in Snow White, everything revolves around the evil queen’s mirror telling her that this girl is more beautiful than she is, and for that she’s going to kill her and eat her heart. Sleeping Beauty too. They all center around women’s jealousy, and what lengths you’ll go to in order to stamp out beauty in other women or gain that beauty for yourself by eating her heart. You have women hating other women, and hurting themselves too—the evil stepsisters cut off their heels and toes to fit into shoes that are too small. These stories are really powerful—the classic tales, and then the Disney movies. They become a part of how you see the world when you’re a little kid. It can drive girls to all sorts of craziness. So taking these stories and somehow twisting that up a bit can be powerful.
There are definitely makeovers in fairy tales. You have that awesome Cinderella makeover, and in The Little Mermaid you get the makeover where she becomes human—she’s still beautiful, but in a whole new way. I loved describing the moment of a mermaid transforming into a human girl. It’s beautiful, but it’s painful; her skin crackles, her tail splits in half. I love powerful moments of transformation. I even have a tattoo of Daphne turning into the laurel tree. When people long to be something else, it speaks to this basic human condition of being earth-bound and longing for transcendence. There’s that Platonic sense: You were once whole, and now you are not whole anymore; you long for that wholeness you once had. You fell from the stars and you want to return there. Or just your plain old Catholic thing of wanting to return to God. Whatever name you put on it, there’s this longing to return to some sense of wholeness that you came from and that you’ll go back to someday. So my characters are longing for other worlds, places where they’ll be more complete. When Tessa flies through the air on the trapeze in Rain Village, she’s her most beautiful self that she couldn’t have been otherwise.
On Mermaid Beauty
There’s no such thing as an unattractive mermaid. What a ridiculous question! But you have manatees who have been called mermaids of the sea, because many sailors have mistaken manatees for mermaids—Christopher Columbus, for example. If you look at a manatee, they’re ungainly and ugly, in a semi-cute way, I guess, but nothing like a mermaid. Then you have P.T. Barnum, who tricked people into coming to see the “Feejee Mermaid,” and that’s an ugly-ass little thing! He had to sew a bunch of things together—a monkey and a fish, I think—and it would be really hard to make that beautiful. I don’t know why people weren’t like, “That’s not a mermaid, that’s ugly! It’s dead and weird and shriveled!”
Some people do like monstrous mermaids, but I like them to be pretty. My fairies were really pretty too. For human eyes to see something that’s magical and from another world, it would have to be stunning, even if in its own world it’s not. If you saw an angel, it would have to be beautiful; how could you register it as anything but beautiful? It’s from heaven. Whereas maybe in heaven that angel isn’t anything to look at!
I had an interview with an Icelandic artist who was talking about how beautiful and sexy mermaids were, but she was saying it was kind of weird: They’re half-fish, and they’re fish where it matters! They’re this weird combination of blatantly sexual—bared breasts, long hair—but at the same time, they have no genitals. They’re totally inaccessible. And they represent a world that’s unknown to us, a world that’s beautiful and terrifying at the same time. They see parts of the world that we can’t see; they live in the bottom of the ocean, and we don’t know what’s down there. So they represent birth and death and the unconscious—they’re mysterious and scary, but beautiful too.
That can translate to a certain type of beautiful woman. You’ve got Greta Garbo, who’s so distant and inaccessible and unobtainable; that’s a certain type of beautiful woman. It’s totally different from that naturally beautiful beach girl without makeup. And mermaids have that Greta Garbo kind of beauty. You can’t have her—or if you do, she might kill you.
Glamorous doesn’t have to be beautiful. Glamour is about adornment and style; it’s about knowingly adorning yourself in a way that hearkens back to certain images. I see Marlene Dietrich, Jean Harlow, Carole Lombard, Greta Garbo. I see sitting in a satin bed with bonbons. I see glittery, shiny things, everything in black-and-white. Taking what’s beautiful and chic and making it over-the-top. The first time I went to Dollywood—I love Dolly Parton—I went to the museum, and it’s full of all her crazy over-the-top rhinestoney shimmery stuff. I remember reading this quote of hers there, and it was something about how she knows people might think she’s ridiculous and laugh at her, but she was this girl from the mountains who grew up running around barefoot, so to her, this was beautiful. I think going over-the-top is a way of adding fabulousness to your everyday life.
Ms. Turgeon at possibly the most glamorous place on earth, Dollywood.
Glamour is something you can actually do. I mean, maybe some people are just naturally glamorous, but it seems to be something that by definition is unnatural. It’s a certain style, a certain kind of makeup, a certain kind of thing you do to yourself. It’s referencing something that’s cool and dreamy and otherworldly. I like that any woman can put on really red lips, get an old travel valise and a little muff, and wear sunglasses on top of her head. It doesn’t matter how old you are, or how big or small you are, what color you are.
On Being Young, Gifted, and Stacked
My first book, Rain Village, had a narrator who saw herself as freakish and weird. And then she meets this librarian, this beautiful, sexy, ex-circus-star who takes Tessa under her wing—and the librarian sees Tessa as beautiful. I wanted to raise the possibility that she has a beauty that only special people are able to see.
I wasn’t like Tessa, but I did feel freakish and weird. I developed really early, and I was tall; as an 11-year-old I was 5’7” and wore C cup bras and would have grown men hitting on me. I found it extremely shameful and horrible; I wish there had been someone around who would have helped me feel more comfortable and empowered. Any sense I had of being beautiful as a girl was always associated with shame and discomfort. I was shy and dreamy and bookish, yet I was tall and built and pretty, and I got a certain kind of attention that I didn’t know how to navigate. I remember being in high school and walking downtown with friends, and everything would be normal but I’d be cringing because I’d expect something to happen. We lived in a college town and there always seemed to be drunk frat boys around who at any given moment could yell something like “look at those tits!” and I’d feel singled out, reduced down, ashamed. I’m sorry that I couldn’t have been like, Oh, I’m dreamy and bookish and hot, too. I only read it as a negative thing; it was never something to be proud of.
I always wanted to write, and the idea that you could be writerly was at odds with looking a certain way. I wish that had not been the case. I wish I’d felt comfortable and realized there was a power there I could enjoy and even revel in, as opposed to just feeling really embarrassed by it. That’s something I actually like about Suicide Girls—I’m not saying they’re 1000% positive, but when they started it was like, Okay, here’s a bunch of punk girls who appear completely empowered by their own beauty and sexuality, and they’re proud to be smart and strong too. That was part of their thing. I’m not so sure they stayed in that same spirit, but when I first saw it I wished that had been around when I was younger. Not that I would have wanted to be one of them, but there might have at least been a context to be like, “I’m this empowered smart girl with a body.” When people are yelling about your “tits,” it doesn’t make you feel very smart. I kind of resent that I felt that way for so long.
I think I developed a certain detachment from my physical self. At a young age my identity seemed so separate from my physical being that I just became more detached from my body than your average person, I think, or maybe that’s a myth of my own making. I’m pretty comfortable now, or maybe too old to care, but it’s not totally resolved. I’d like to be more attached, to feel like your physical self is part of the essence of who you are—to feel like a more embodied, whole person, and then be comfortable with that physical self no matter what shape it is. I probably work this stuff out a bit writing about mermaids and fairies and tiny trapeze girls, I should probably take up yoga instead!