Interview: Mark Siegel On The Mystical, Sexy Mermaids Of First Second’s ‘Sailor Twain’

In the world of “Sailor Twain,” the steamboat is king, and fairy tales do exist… In particular, mermaids, who are as beautiful – and dangerous – as you might imagine. Mark Siegel’s graphic novel hits bookstores on October 2nd from First Second, but we got to chat with the author/artist in advance of the release to chat about his inspiration, the secret clues littered throughout the book, and Starbucks. Yup, Starbucks:

MTV Geek: Can you talk a little bit about the inspiration for “Sailor Twain”?

Mark Siegel: Nine years ago I kept a doodle journal in pen and watercolor on my train rides to work (a train ride down the Hudson.) A grizzled old captain talking to a mermaid insisted on turning up again and again. As their conversation evolved over days and weeks, he got to look younger and sometimes stood at the prow of a 19th century steamboat. So essentially they were voices in my head, and others joined them. This captain was clearly American and next thing I knew he was having exchanges with a Frenchman in 18th century clothes who was a kind of Casanova. These things wouldn’t let me go, so I kept drawing them out and the early framework for a story appeared. Eventually they weren’t just my inner voices anymore, they grew into characters with their own voices. And layer after layer, the story revealed itself.

Geek: There’s a bit in the novel about fact versus fairy tale, but I’m curious: how much research did you do for your book?

MS: I use and abuse history in “Sailor Twain”! I love researching history to begin with, and in this case I knew it would be vital to lend this supernatural romance as much credibility as possible. At various turns the story drove me into further research, to find out about the headlines at the time, the look of the Hudson at various docking points, lots and lots of that. I spent many hours combing through archives, photos and old maps at the New York Historical Society and the New York Public Library. 1887 is a fascinating time to focus on with its many cross-currents, from the early feminist movement, the seeds of the Civil Rights, the industrial revolution, to the fashions of the day, the arts, the poetry of the times. “Sailor Twain’s” 1887 is a mood, too—a combination of coal smoke, steam power, horse power, fog, rain.

Geek: There’s also been a ton of different lore about mermaids throughout the centuries… Why do you think they’re so enduring as a myth? And what’s your take on them here?

MS: Yes, they seem to go way, way back, before Egypt, before Sumer. Before Disney’s version the mermaid usually wielded a dark compelling power. Some of the most famous after Ulysses’ sirens are Wagner’s Rhine-maidens, the Lorelei, and the French medieval fable about Mélusine. The mermaid’s song is irresistible, overwhelming of reason and good sense. The song must be immensely appealing somehow, but lures hapless sailors to their doom. Addictions are a mermaid song. Obsessions, Ahab’s vengeful purpose, these are mermaid songs. So we know mermaids in our daily lives. The mid-life crisis is often a time when obsessions kick in, so Twain is thirty-seven years old in the story.

Speaking of addictions, it’s interesting that the Starbucks logo is a mermaid, isn’t it?

I think the myth of the mermaid will endure as long as we keep getting hooked by its song, chemically, emotionally and otherwise. And then I got thinking that we sometimes take the role of the mermaid ourselves, for another—some people even get very good at it. In “Sailor Twain” there’s an actual fish-woman, but various characters have a “mermaid effect” on others, at various turns. The river has many strange bends.

Geek: I hope this doesn’t spoil too much, but the major theme of the book seems to be duality throughout… Why go with this as an idea? What’s important about it?

MS: The year it takes place, 1887, R.L. Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde had just come out in America. And yes, dualities abound in “Sailor Twain,” though not of the Jekyll & Hyde kind exactly. Captain Twain (no relation to the Samuel Clemens fellow as he is prone to grumble) earns his name, and if I leave it at that, it’s not a spoiler is it? But yes, the thread runs to his astrology (Gemini), to the worlds above and below the water’s surface, and even to the peculiar nature of the Hudson River itself: the Algonquian tribes called it “The River That Flows Two Ways” because it does—in many parts it’s alternately freshwater and salty water, both, depending on the strength of the ocean’s tide. Dualities everywhere.

Geek: I love the sections talking about C.G. Beaverton’s stories… I imagine it would be a huge undertaking, but do you think we could ever get a volume of tales from the, er, author?

MS: Thanks! The book within the book is called Secrets & Mysteries of the River Hudson, by a reclusive bestselling author… I wrote a number of the chapters, and sprinkled some of that content into the companion blog for “Sailor Twain” when it was serializing online. That could be a fun project, to make it real. In the meantime, there will be a “Sailor Twain” Exhibit at the New York Public Library, opening October 25th and running for six months—which treats many of the events of “Sailor Twain” as fact, and will include original pages as well as old maps, prints and treasures of the NYPL that relate to the story.

Geek: There also seems like so much more to explore… Do you see this as a standalone tale, or is this a world you would want to return to?

MS: There may be some “Sailor Twain” shorts, little vignettes perhaps. But it is a standalone tale, and in a sense it’s sealed now.

Geek: Talk a bit about your approach to the art in this book… There’s a number of different styles you play with.

MS: It’s all done in charcoal. I felt that was perfect for the romance of the Gilded Age, the industrial revolution, things appearing and vanishing in the mist. But it’s a messy medium and has to be worked in large size or it’s hard to get any detail. So I can understand why it’s not more commonplace in comics. What it gave me was a way to make a fairly realistic setting and scenery, but then within the cast of characters I could play with different visual styles, yet shade them all consistently. Twain for instance, is iconic, almost geometric, and very black-and-white, like his worldview; the Frenchman Lafayette is all in shades of grey and drawn in a different kind of expressionism; while some other characters appear more naturalistic. I love the way comics can do that. You see that kind of mixing in Manga comics: semi-realistic characters interacting with two-foot-high “Chibi” characters, who are outrageously cartoony.

Geek: There’s a particularly stunning page towards the end that uses negative space incredibly effectively, as it’s mostly blacks. Skirting spoilers again, how did you approach this?

MS: In a cloud of charcoal dust!

Geek: Ha! Okay, any other thoughts or teases on the book?

MS: There are a number of mysteries woven into “Sailor Twain.” The one I get asked about most involves Lafayette throwing a bottled message into the river every morning… Most of the other mysteries are resolved clearly but that one remains a puzzle. The clues are scattered in the story (in particular in the artifacts in Lafayette’s cabin) but that’s for readers who enjoy a little detective work. In an earlier version of the script I had everything neatly wrapped up, but it felt like it insulted the reader’s intelligence. I love books that induce a second reading; and even more the ones that tickle my imagination and leave something open for further play after I’ve turned the last page.

“Sailor Twain: Or: The Mermaid in the Hudson” will be released on October 2nd by First Second Books.