Sarah Porter Interview by Grover Gardner
GROVER GARDNER: Welcome to Downpour.com’s interview series. I’m Grover Gardner and today it’s my pleasure to be speaking with Sarah Porter. Sarah is a writer, artist, and freelance writing teacher. She conducts creative-writing workshops for kindergarten through eighth grade in a variety of public schools. She is the author of Lost Voices, which is nominated for the Children’s Book Council Teen Choice Book of the Year, and is the first book in her Lost Voices trilogy. Waking Storms is her newest novel in the trilogy, and Blackstone released the audio version simultaneously with the hardcover on July 3. Sarah, thank you for joining us for the interview today.
SARAH PORTER: Well, thank you for having me.
GG: I want to quote a line from your bio, and then I want to ask you some questions about it, if I may. You say, “Lost Voices was my attempt to write a book I most needed as a twelve-year-old, struggling with what it means to be human. A book I never really found.” That’s a very intense statement. Without getting too personal, what is it you were looking for, and why didn’t you find it in the books that you read?
SP: I encountered the problem of evil at about that age, and began reading a lot of books about different atrocities and wars and couldn’t really come to terms with being human when this was what humans were, and I found this tremendously problematic and very, very painful. So I kept looking for a book that would help me sort through this, and I never found it. But I really wanted something that would explore that issue. What does it mean to be human when this is what humans do, and what are our choices in that context? Is there a way to be human that doesn’t partake of that kind of destructiveness? And I feel this is an age when many kids encounter those issues and don’t know what to make of them. They’re very preoccupied with darkness and dark forces and death, and I teach writing to kids that age. I see it in their work all the time. And I think they’re trying to sort out issues that they don’t necessarily get a lot of help with from adults, who think they’re not supposed to be thinking about that at all. So, really the whole trilogy is investigating those issues. How can we retain our humanity and yet also transcend it?
GG: How do you feel you accomplished that in the books that you’re writing?
SP: Well, the mermaids are all in denial about their humanity. They regard humans as just plain evil. The only good human is a dead human. But they still basically have all the same emotional landscape that a human being would. They’re just in denial about that. They think they’ve moved beyond it. But they haven’t, and a lot of the series is about Luce, persistently over and over again coming to terms with that. That she has this impulse to do evil, she has these destructive impulses, and yet she retains a core that is in conflict with that. So it’s that struggle of “how can I keep my humanity, and yet still be who I really am.” And that’s the attempt to explore it, so it really takes on evil, in the series. The mermaids do kill a lot of people. There’s a lot of violence. But humans are often evil too. There are plenty of humans in the series who do prove to have something that is so valuable that Luce starts to realize it is worth fighting for. Those are really the moral issues at stake in the book.
GG: Why mermaids? We think of Disney, or we think of the Grimm story, which has rougher edges to it, a little more tragic overtones, but … even so, in late years mermaids have come to be sweet, ethereal creatures. So how did you arrive at this genre that you wanted to explore?
SP: Precisely because they’ve been made so sweet, and the underlying mythology is much, much darker. Mythological mermaids do kill people. They’re often in quest of a soul. They often appeal to religious figures—monks—for a soul and can’t get one because they’re too evil. The mythology around mermaids is actually quite dark. The Inuit mermaid goddess Sedna loses her humanity when her father chops off her fingers and throws her out of the kayak. And she becomes a mermaid in response to that trauma. I actually didn’t know that story when I started writing the Lost Voices books, but it ties in amazingly well. So I think the underlying mythology is much more potent than what mermaids have become—these cute, frolicking sea maidens—and I wanted to restore some of the intensity to mermaids. But it’s also that the mermaid is a great symbol of our divided nature, because they are half and half—half aquatic and half human. So if you want to explore the divided nature of human beings, the conflict between the evil parts of our nature and the magnificent parts of our nature, they’re a perfect image for that. Those were the two main reasons.
GG: You talked about the Inuit story. How much background reading did you do when you started to explore this idea about mermaids and the dark side of them?
SP: I did some. I’ve probably done more research for Waking Storms just because there’s so much about the ecology of the oceans and the history of whaling—there are references to those things. So I did a lot of research into whales and whaling, and for the third book, squids, and different issues around ocean ecology. I probably did less specific research into the mermaid aspect. It was just generally an interest of mine, mythology and fairy tales. So I had a sense that mermaids had been reduced to being something much cuter and prettier than they really are and really can be, and a lot of potential was missing.
GG: Your books explore some very intense emotional and physical issues—abuse, separation from humanity, loneliness. A lot of people say: “Oh, young adult books. They’re becoming too much. Too strong. The issues are shocking that they deal with.” There’s quite a debate going on right now in the YA community about—
SP: Yes, I’m aware—
GG: …What’s too far—yes, I’m sure you are … What’s your response to that?
SP: Well, for one thing the only people who have said the book is too dark for young adults have been the adults. I have not gotten that response from a single kid reader. Even ten- or eleven- year-olds, so I think this has more to do with adult anxiety around children and what their inner lives actually consist of than with the reality of what it is to be a twelve-year-old. I think twelve-year-olds, fourteen-year-olds, ten-year-olds, are aware of much, much more than people want to believe, and that ignoring those issues, pretending they’re not thinking about them, just leaves them to explore them alone. It leaves them lost and struggling without any input and any guidance, and I feel like it’s much better to be direct and honest whenever possible. Because the kids are just struggling if you don’t talk about these things. They’re left with their own imaginations, and their imaginations may be much, much worse than the reality. Actually looking at things, investigating them, looking for a way through. These books are really about not only confronting all the darkness and intensity there is in human life but looking for the way through. Luce is really the figure who represents that. She’s been abused. She’s been through all these horrifying things. Being a mermaid is not necessarily much better. And her struggle is to find a path that will carry her through that, intact. Morally and emotionally intact. So, she is meant as the guiding light in the series, for the Young Adult readers, and I think this is essential. I don’t think we can avoid this.
GG: How have you personally managed to stay in touch with these issues? How have you been able to stay close to them? We know that you teach kids in junior high and high school, but for your own experience, how close are these things to you? They seem very immediate to you.
SP: They are. I think teaching junior high school, especially teaching poetry to junior high school kids, which is usually what I do, really brought me back to that, because eighth-grade poetry, seventh-grade poetry’s so intense and so dark. It’s so harrowing, and so painful, and also so beautiful and visionary, and it recalled to me being that age, because I was working with these kids on their poetry, which is necessarily quite intimate and quite emotional. To teach poetry well you really have to engage on those levels. And I’ve been teaching poetry in the public schools for about nine years now. So I’m sure I wouldn’t have written Young Adult if I hadn’t been emotionally involved with kids that age, and if it hadn’t been bringing back my own adolescence to me. I’m sure that’s why I started this.
GG: What is it about poetry that lets kids express things that maybe they wouldn’t be able to express in a linear story? What’s at work there?
SP: Well, it does come out in the short fiction too, actually. But for one thing, it’s a little indirect. You can write a very dark poem without necessarily having to admit that it’s about yourself. You can write a poem about loneliness that explores the intensity of loneliness without ever having to say, “I feel this lonely. I feel this rejected.” You can explore it as a concept, which I think lets kids be less inhibited, because they don’t have to admit to feeling rejected and alone, which of course would be very exposing and make them feel very vulnerable. So that’s one way it really is helpful. That’s what the medium is. It’s about tapping into the parts of your mind and the parts of your voice and the parts of your heart that there isn’t usually access to, that there isn’t normally room for in your ordinary life. This is the whole function of poetry and writing more generally—to provide a refuge for the parts of ourselves that there isn’t always room for, and kids really respond to that. They have huge, intense inner lives that there isn’t much room for in a regular school environment or watching TV, or in a lot of their regular daily activities. There’s no scope for them to be on the outside who they are on the inside and poetry provides an outlet for that.
GG: Poetry relies heavily on metaphor. This is a way they can express things metaphorically without direct reference to what they’re experiencing.
GG: You’ve done the second book in the trilogy, and there’s a third book coming. Was the trilogy already in shape, in your mind, when you started the first book?
SP: Yes, I mapped it out before I started, so I was aware of the whole trajectory of the series.
GG: On your website you say “no spoilers” for the third one, but can you give us a little preview?
SP: Give some spoilers? (laughs) Well, we’re probably going to be releasing the back-cover copy soon. The third book concerns mermaid-human war. In Lost Voices, the mermaids are terribly naïve. They think they can go on sinking ships, killing people, and just get away with it forever and humans will never really notice. But they are children, and they’re very oblivious to the consequences of their actions, as kids that age often are, and by the second book it’s becoming clear that humans are in fact aware of them and by the third book the situation has developed into outright war. Well, I don’t want to spoil too much, but…
GG: Okay, that’s fine. Squids? I like squids! That sounds terrific!
SP: There’s a scene with all these squids, she has a run-in with Humboldt squids. (laughs) Luce does.
SP: Which are dangerous animals! They’re big, like a hundred pounds.
GG: Yeah. Does the fact that you’re a writer, and that you have things out there, does that impress the kids? Does that help them understand a little bit more about what they can do and where this kind of thing can go for them?
SP: I think it’s great for teaching actually, because I can walk in with the books and say, “Hey, I write books about killer mermaids!” And they say, “Killer mermaids?” They get really excited. Whereas when I had just published poetry and short stories I couldn’t really tell them that. I think it definitely helps make them take what I’m teaching them very seriously, which is great, because I’m often working in kind of difficult public schools. Yes, I think it does give them the sense of possibility, which of course I also want to bring in as much as I can.
GG: What’s next, after this series?
SP: Well, I have a novel that’s half done, that I’ve gone back to, that I had to set aside when I got the contract for the Lost Voices trilogy, which is called Berdoire. And it’s an adult novel, kind of a horror novel, in which there is a sixteen-year-old girl who is turning into a typewriter. And my next YA project would be something that I have planned that would be based loosely on Russian Wonder Tales, especially Wassilissa the Beautiful. So it’d be a punk, urban version of Russian Wonder Tales.
GG: Tell me about Russian Wonder Tales. I’m not familiar with that.
SP: They’re old Russian fairy tales. I grew up with a book that was published in maybe 1911, that was given to my grandfather when he was a child, called Russian Wonder Tales, which is no longer in print, I’m terribly sorry to say, because it’s a wonderful book. But it has much longer fairy tales than we’re used to. They’re often thirty or forty pages. Unlike so many of the modern fairy tales, which have been reduced to about three pages, these are long and involved and intense and complicated, and have a lot of moral ambiguity and they were very, very influential to me as a child, so I want to revisit them. The Baba Yagas are from Russian Wonder Tales.
SP: “The witches who live in the house on chicken feet that turn around and around in the woods…”
GG: Yeah, yeah. (laughs)
SP: Yeah, Baba Yagas come from Russian Wonder Tales. So, there will be Baba Yagas in this planned YA book, who run a series of convenience stores in the city.
SP: Convenience stores that run round and round on chicken legs, because it will be set in a rough urban environment. So that’s the plan. It would be called Bassa in the Night.
GG: Whoa. That sounds exciting. I hope we’re able to do those in audio as well.
SP: That would be lovely.
GG: Thank you so much for talking with us today.
SP: Thank you.
GG: This was wonderful. We’re looking forward to the third volume. I think the second one is about to come out. We’re very excited about it.
SP: Thank you for having me, Grover.
GG: You bet. Thank you for joining us for this exclusive interview. You can find all of Blackstone Audio’s titles and more at Downpour.com.
This interview was recorded in June 2012.
Disclaimer: This audio and transcript have been edited slightly from the original recording for quality and readability.
“We have lingered in the chambers of the sea, by sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown, till human voices wake us, and we drown.”
After parting ways with her troubled mermaid tribe, Luce just wants to live peacefully on her own. But her tranquility doesn’t last long: She receives news that the tribe is on the verge of collapse and desperately needs her leadership. The tribe’s cruel queen wants Luce dead. Dorian, the boy Luce broke mermaid law to save, is determined to make her pay for her part in the murder of his family. And while the mermaids cling to the idea that humans never suspect their existence, there are suddenly ominous signs to the contrary.
But when Luce and Dorian meet, they start to wonder if love can overpower the hatred they know they should feel for each other. Luce’s new friendship with an ancient renegade mermaid gives her hope that her kind might someday change their murderous ways, but can Luce fulfill her rightful role as queen of the mermaids without sacrificing her forbidden romance with Dorian?
Full of miraculous reunions and heart-pounding rescues, this haunting second installment in the Lost Voices trilogy finds Luce eager to attempt reconciliation with humans—as long as war doesn’t break out first.