A quote from a recent article in Vice magazine came back to me vividly as I sat down to read The Seafarer’s Kiss by Julia Ember. Queer retellings of stories are a reminder, Vice asserted, that the classics don’t just belong to straight white guys—they belong to the LGBTQ community, too.
Yes, this. Always and forever this. Far too often the classic stories of our childhoods display a very one sided and narrow view of the world, reflecting back the conventions of the time in a pretty package. The original Little Mermaid tale of 1837 is just that–a reflection of what society expected from women at the time. The story follows a mermaid who is willing to give her all–her family, her history, her very identity–in order to marry a man, who in the end refuses to acknowledge her sacrifices, and she dies. No true page time is given to her thoughts or wants. She exists to love a man and when he can’t love her back, she has no more reason to exist.
Enter Julia Ember and The Seafarer’s Kiss. This gorgeous young adult novel subverts the original, asking readers to view the Little Mermaid in a wholly different light. Mermaid Ersel is a strong, independent female with a layer of protective blubber that keeps her warm in the ice shelves of the northern sea. When she meets Ragna, the sole survivor of a shipwreck and befriends her, feelings blossom between the two. Ersel’s would be suitor catches them and issues an ultimatum: give up this budding relationship or be stuck under the thumb of the Mer-King making babies for the rest of her life. So what does Ersel do? Creates a third choice and takes her own destiny in hand.
Everything about this book is magic — the imagery of the frozen waters of the north is glorious and so real; the sweet new feelings between Ersel and Ragna are confusing and fragile; the questioning of Ersel’s choices and the effects they’ll have on her future underscore what all teens (and adults) feel. And while the themes and threads of the original are still there, this reimagined Little Mermaid is a fierce presence who waits for no man to make choices for her. Plus it incorporates a great deal of Norse Mythology including several killer appearances by the God of Lies themselves, Loki.
Luckily I was able to catch up with Julia Ember before the release of her book to talk The Seafarer’s Kiss, Norse Mythology, homosexuality among the Vikings, and what she ultimately wants to see more of in books.
Judith for Binge on Books: Julia, welcome! I can’t fully do justice to how much I loved the book and its haunting take on the Little Mermaid myth. What was the evolution to writing this? Did you wake up one day and decide that you needed to redo a classic story? Was there a spark or something specific that forced your hand in writing this particular idea?
Julia Ember: I’m so glad you loved the story!
Before deciding that academia wasn’t for me, I spent two years doing a postgraduate degree in Mediaeval Literature. As part of my course, I studied both Anglo-Saxon and Norse poems, as well as their mythology and history. I’ve always been truly fascinated by the pre-Christian Vikings, their legends, their gods and in the cultural shift that happened after they started living among Anglo-Saxons. In a way, it’s a myth that the Vikings conquered the Anglo-Saxons. They did invade their land, but in the end, Anglo-Saxon culture, which was part of the Latin Christian Empire already, lured many of the Vikings away from their historic way of life. There is an Anglo-Saxon poem called The Seafarer which follows an exiled sailor as he laments his loneliness on the high seas. It is a hauntingly beautiful poem. A lot of my inspiration for the character of Ragna came from thinking about that cultural war, and the clash of cultures that plays out in the Seafarer poem.
The Little Mermaid has always been my favourite fairy tale! I always knew that if I was going to write retellings, it would be the first story I would explore. The book itself started out as a short story/novelette. I actually went out on submission with that, had a few requests, but it didn’t sell.
Judith: Since you draw so heavily on Norse Myth to infuse this book, is it safe to assume that there is a Little Mermaid story in that cannon? If so, how do The Seafarer’s Kiss and that myth differ?
Julia: Sadly, there is no Little Mermaid story in Norse Myth! As a category, Norse Myths don’t tend to be particularly romance driven tales nor do they tend to be very character focused. Norse literature and myth is heavily focused on achievements and heroism – conquering monsters, far off lands. The Norse elements in Seafarer’s Kiss are incorporated into the world-building and the characters of Ragna and Loki. Ragna is a gender-swapped, very lose interpretation of Ragnar Lodbrok, a Viking leader who started the process of taking over Anglo-Saxon England. Ragnar may or may not have been a real person, but his legend is pervasive. My version of Loki is much closer to the sinister Norse God than the playful Marvel counterpart.
Judith: So if there’s no Little Mermaid, did you find evidence of queer narratives in any Norse Mythology you used as research?
Julia: Norse mythology is sadly pretty heteronormative, although a few pre-Christian Viking historical sources do indicate that Vikings thought homosexuality was a normal part of getting older. Kind of an odd cultural phenomenon there. The Vikings were a lot like the Romans or the Greeks, in that homosexuality wasn’t illegal or expressly frowned upon, but people did think that in a gay relationship being the passive partner undermined a person’s masculinity.
The god Loki, however, is an interesting one. They are often described as a man, but some legends show them as a woman. There is a well-known Norse myth where Odin punishes Loki by forcing them to give birth to monsters. In that legend, Loki’s gender is very obscure. They become pregnant and give birth, but retain many masculine qualities. The legend does, however, use feminisation as a form of punishment, where other legends simply present Loki as androgynous or female. In my version of Loki, I wanted their fluidity to be something they embraced. I also wanted them in full control of their own identity and self-presentation.
Judith: Even though this is a fairytale retelling, did any of your own experiences influence the writing?
Julia: Seafarer’s Kiss is an #ownvoices bisexual book, and so I wrote that aspect of Ersel and Ragna from my own life experience. I think, like Ersel with Havamal, I also have a bad habit of hanging onto people for a long time, hoping that they will change.
Judith: With that in mind, what do you want to see more of in books? Particularly in YA and NA?
Julia: I definitely want to see more diverse fantasy! I think contemporary has been charging ahead in terms of number of books published with characters across the LGBTQIA spectrum and POC. In fantasy, we’ve had a number of very high profile books that have had terrible representation when that shouldn’t be the case. I think speculative fiction offers such a perfect opportunity for writers to develop worlds that aren’t predominantly white or cishet. It’s disheartening how many books fall into that specification considering the writers are creating new worlds, where nothing else is the same as ours. Prejudice shouldn’t be the common factor between our world and fantasy kingdoms.
Judith: What is one question you would want a reader to ask about this book but they never do?
Julia: It’s not really a specific question, but I wish readers would ask more questions about Ragna and her past! She’s a really fierce, independent character, but I think Ersel and Loki steal most of the limelight from her.
Originally from Chicago, Julia Ember now resides in Edinburgh, Scotland. She spends her days working in the book trade and her nights writing teen fantasy novels. Her hobbies include riding horses, starting far too many craft projects, PokemonGo and looking after her city-based menagerie of pets with names from Harry Potter. Luna Lovegood and Sirius Black the cats currently run her life.
Julia is a polyamorous, bisexual writer. She regularly takes part in events for queer teens, including those organised by the Scottish Booktrust and LGBT Youth Scotland. A world traveler since childhood, she has now visited more than sixty countries. Her travels inspire the fantasy worlds she creates, though she populates them with magic and monsters.
Julia began her writing career at the age of nine, when her short story about two princesses and their horses won a contest in Touch magazine. In 2016, she published her first novel, Unicorn Tracks, which also focused on two girls and their equines, albeit those with horns. Her second novel, The Seafarer’s Kiss will be released by Interlude Press in May 2017. The book was heavily influenced by Julia’s postgraduate work in Medieval Literature at The University of St. Andrews. It is now responsible for her total obsession with beluga whales.
In August 2017, her third novel and the start of her first series, Tiger’s Watch, will come out with Harmony Ink Press. In writing Tiger’s Watch, Julia has taken her love of cats to a new level.
Learn more on her site.
The Seafarer’s Kiss is out now from Interlude Press.
Judith is the owner of Binge on Books, as well as the boutique press, Open Ink, and the literary PR company, A Novel Take PR. You can also find Judith on HEA USA Today and Teen Vogue talking queer fiction.