Forbidden love and metal smelting: Jay Hartlove’s Mermaid Steel
Jay Hartlove is the playwright, director and producer of The Mirror’s Revenge, the musical sequel to the Snow White fable, which had its theatrical run in the San Francisco Bay Area in August 2018 to rave reviews. Jay is also the award-winning author of the urban fantasy “Goddess Rising” Trilogy (Goddess Chosen, Goddess Daughter, and Goddess Rising) and the fantasy romance Mermaid Steel.
His stories are filled with conspiracies and the supernatural, gods, dreams, angels, and hidden connections. His creative motto is “Dark Secrets Revealed”. He loves to take stories where the reader does not expect, with sympathetic villains, heroes with very dark pasts, and lots of plot twists. He was selected as one of the “50 Authors You Should Be Reading” by The Authors Show.
Jay is a former competitive costumer, having won Best in Show at both San Diego ComicCon and WorldCon. You can read more about Jay’s creative adventures, including much of the research he put into his books, at jaywrites.com.
Here’s an interview with Jay Hartlove about his new book Mermaid Steel.
Your book deals with the forbidden relationship between a mermaid and a human, a village blacksmith. You wrote this as an allegory about racism. What sort of research did you do in order to write a book on institutional racism?
Many mermaid myths have the mermaids in control of the interaction with humans when sailors are at sea. Sirens luring ships onto rocks, mermaids enchanting men with their singing, the whole concept of magical creatures having power over mere mortals. In Mermaid Steel I wanted to flip that power dynamic. What if the mermaids were at a disadvantage, say technologically, so that humans had the upper hand? I also wanted their interactions to lead to distrust, which would feed racism. Mermaids can’t smelt metal because you can’t stoke a fire underwater. So the mermaids start off with a disadvantage of not being able to make their own metal. That leads to them using human castoffs, which leads to humans thinking of them as thieves. I wanted to place the story at a turning point in their relations, so I picked a key development point in history like the invention of gunpowder rifles. I designed their cultures to also look at the world differently so there would be lots of chances for misunderstanding. I designed the situation to be loaded with opportunities for failure, so that the protagonists would have a lot of work to fix things. There are antagonists in the story, but I wanted the story to be about a systemic problem, not just defeating a bad guy.
How did you research the way people lived hundreds of years ago, back when we had villages and weavers and blacksmiths?
I used to be a competition costumer, and I learned how to fabricate things. I am not a blacksmith, but I interviewed a couple to get the details right. I am not a weaver, but I have watched lots of my friends who are. I have done period re-creation camping. I have travelled to ancient towns and seen what life would have been like. As a student of history, I appreciate how government and religion influence economies and lifestyles. I had to design a religious/governance structure that would give me the socio/economic lifestyle I wanted to play in. Doing the research is fun, but not as much fun as designing how the pieces fit together to build the right world for the story you want to tell.
You’re also a playwright, does that influence how you write fiction? Or vice versa?
My storytelling is very much driven by dialogue. I don’t go into a lot of scenic description or expository explanation. Almost everything that happens in my stories happens with the “camera” on somebody’s shoulder as they live and speak. Action without language, what in theater is called Stage Business, can be interesting in short segments, but for me, plot moves when people interact with each other.
Your motto is ‘Dark Secrets Revealed.’ What does that mean to you?
I was raised by a PTSD conspiracy theorist, and even though I rejected that kind of worldview, I am always vigilant for unsettling coincidences. I loved finding that the same nerve poison the Japanese eat for exhilaration is also used halfway around the world in Haiti to torture prisoners. I love lining up ancient religions and deducing migration patterns that explain commonalities. The world is full of the same repeated patterns, especially when people are involved. The central conflicts of my stories often hinge on the discovery of freaky coincidences — the dark secrets waiting to be revealed. In the Goddess Rising trilogy, the big secret is that angels have been messing with human history all along. In Mermaid Steel the big surprise is that the ocean has an actual intelligence.
You’ve written a lot of medical thrillers, or supernatural fantasy inspired by genetics. What drew you to those topics? Are any of those themes present in your new book?
My formal education was to be a scientist. I am always looking for the mechanisms of how things work. In my urban fantasy Goddess Rising trilogy I had a lot of fun assembling a spiritual system from established religious practices, that allowed me to tie the religious to the scientific. Over the course of the three books I unravel for the reader that soul energy is the ingredient that bridges the natural with the supernatural. Humans can manipulate it as chi. Angels use it as magic.
In all of my writing, what people believe is a necessary part of who they are. In both the Goddess Rising trilogy and in Mermaid Steel, what the characters believe and how they think they fit into their worlds mold how they act and react. In the trilogy they have to deal with actual magic. In Mermaid Steel they deal with nature that is perceived to be magical. Whether there is actual magic is not the point. Their beliefs guide their actions and show us more of who they are.
You also seem to have an interest in fairy tales. What draws you to those?
Fairy tales are almost always cautionary tales and usually with obvious moral lessons. What I find interesting is how they use archetypes to make the stories relatable, but end up with people not acting like real people. The old hag, the young prince, the greedy king, they are placeholders for the reader to assume motivations. But real people, people the reader can identify with, don’t act inside neat little character boxes. They have passions and distractions and flaws and unexpected strengths. I am sure when these archetypical stories were written hundreds of years ago, their usefulness in teaching lessons was different than how we read stories now. This goes for fairy tales from around the world. The unrelentingly greedy fisherman’s wife in China makes no more sense than the widowed queen who destroys her biggest political asset by killing her beautiful stepdaughter out of jealousy for the girl’s looks. These stories are loaded with missed potential, waiting to have the details filled in and the motivations clarified. The cautionary tales are still front and centerstage, but man, the character development is dying for rewrite. In fact, I was sufficiently motivated to fix the Snow White story that I wrote, produced and directed an original musical sequel called The Mirror’s Revenge that backfills what was really going on in the original tale.