If Melissa Broder, the mastermind behind the viral twitter account @sosadtoday, had to take a mythological creature for a lover, she’d choose the god Apollo or Cerberus, the hound of Hell, over a merman. But when it came to inventing a love interest for The Pisces, Broder's fiction debut out May 1, there was never any question that he would be a merman. To Broder, the mermaid-human relationship captured exactly what she was interested in exploring in her novel: the dark, intoxicating pull of a fantasy relationship. "I was thinking about how many men in literature just walked off the backs of ships because they had one taste of this siren nectar, and now the world was not enough," Broder told Refinery29 in a phone interview.
After Lucy, the neurotic and brilliantly observant 38-year-old narrator of The Pisces, meets Theo, the merman who hangs out in the rocks near Venice Beach, the world certainly is no longer enough for her. At the time of their meeting, Lucy's life is at a disappointing standstill. Progress on her thesis on Sappho has stalled, and her nearly decade-long relationship has crumbled. Lucy moves to California to house-sit her perfect sister's dog for the summer, and attend a love and sex addiction group therapy class in the process. Instead of committing to therapy's not-dating policy, she falls in love with a mermaid – and has some really, really hot sex.
The Pisces is an intellectual, enthralling voyage into one woman's swirling mind as she brushes with the extraordinary. We spoke to Broder about pop culture's current obsession with aquatic love interests (see: Shape of Water), romantic exhaltation, and speaking about mental health with a shred of humor.
Refinery29: Let’s talk about Theo, the mermaid dreamboy. How did you make this eternal creature your own?
Melissa Broder: "I've never been a huge mermaid person. If I was going to have sex with a mythological creature, it maybe be like Apollo because he's the God of the sun and poetry, and he's a twink who would probably reject me or not text back, so I’d be really into that. Maybe Cerberus, the hound of hell. Or the Kraken, the giant squid. Who doesn’t want to get with a giant squid?
"But the mermaid figure really embodies all these themes I was exploring. Day one, the book was about a merman. Once I figured that out, I said well, he's going to have a dick. My merman has a dick. #NotAllMermen, maybe. Merman fundamentalists might not be under the way I've rendered him. Once I figured out the anatomy and how everything would work, the rest was really easy. He’s a character, and I just had to move him around."
Speaking of moving him around: Mermaid sex is really sexy. What was the challenge of writing mermaid sex and also writing bad Tinder sex?
"Both of them are fun to write. I love writing bad sex because I feel like it's such a fun opportunity to reclaim the narrative. I just make myself laugh. To write good sex, I get to turn myself on. If I'm not turning myself on, it’s not good sex.
"With good sex, I have this commitment to a realism of female pleasure as I have experienced it. Even though she's fucking a merman — it’s the greatest fantasy; he's so hot, he's just there for her – she's still worried that it takes her so long to have an orgasm. She’s self-conscious about it. She's thinking about birth control. Even if I'm engaged in fucking my fantasy, I'm still going to be like really self conscious. I’ve read a lot of literary and non-literary erotica, and I’m always like — wait, she comes on page 121? I wouldn’t have an orgasm until page 158."
Did you happen to see The Shape of Water?
"I didn't see it. I was on a plane recently, and they had it. I thought, maybe I'll just try to look for the sex scene. I couldn't find it. But who would have sex with this weird, scaly thing?"
Well, there is no sex scene. There’s a scene that alludes to them having sex.
"Oh. Come on, man. Give us the sex."
That’s what I thought, too. When I read your book I thought, this is what I was looking for.
"The Director’s Cut."
But the real star of the show isn’t Theo, it’s Lucy. Lucy is very hypercritical and aware of other people — which becomes so funny during her support group — but she's occasionally blind to her own faults and what she's doing. How did you balance that awareness and lack of self awareness in a first person narrator?
"I think it's a very human quality. Sometimes I feel like a stranger walking down the street because look at us and tell us more about ourselves than we will ever find out in therapy. Which is not to say that like judgment is completely erroneous. A lot of times we're so blind to what is glaring in us. You can be really smart and really observant and have a lot of self-knowledge in some areas, but there can be other areas that elude knowledge. That’s what an addiction is. Addiction is, you can't think yourself out of something. It really takes like a higher force, bigger than you. Self knowledge only gets us so far."
Lucy has moments of clarity, but you're right, she keeps pulling herself back into the love addiction spiral – and talking herself into it as well. The book does very much touch on mental illness. At one point, Lucy comes across her friend Claire and thinks: “Depression is a disease.” How did you use fiction to manifest that disease?
"It’s funny. People have asked me about depression in The Pisces and I'm like, I didn't even realize there was depression. It’s so embedded in the fabric of my experience of the world, on a personal level. Everything I write enters whether I call it depression or I call it, ‘The world is not enough.’ It felt very natural because the characters were fictional, but I know the experience and the feelings well. There is something about the experience of having depression and having symptoms, and not knowing that that's your depression — just thinking it's like the way things are. Then, seeing it in another person and being like: Whoa, it's so clear. This really is an entity. For Lucy, that’s her experience."
Lucy's impulse — seeking romantic exaltation as a fuel for her life — is one that I think a lot of us also have. But I read books like yours to sate that. If I can’t have it all the time, I can have a little of it, described well.
"Totally. And I write that for the exact same reason. I hurt a lot less when I pursue these things on the page."
Your book and Twitter account are both so funny. Both works approach mental health and the mind – dark things — but with humor. Why is that your impulse?
"I think humor has always been a defense mechanism for me. It's been a way to tell the truth about my experience, but in a way that protects me. The humor was a way to put this all out in the light. I also think there’s something abut vulnerability that scares me. When you’re being funny, it’s a different way to tell your truth, but maybe say I’m owning the narrative of it. It’s not owning me."
This is your first fictional book that's coming out. Are you at all anxious?
"Yes. I mean, everything gives me anxiety. Whenever I have a book come out, I’ll have a reason to be anxious, but I’ll never look at the cause of my anxiety head-on. I'm like, no, it can't be that I have my first novel coming out. I like to take my fears and sublimate them into other things. When So Sad Today came out I became obsessed with crystals. Then I became obsessed with finding my signature scent. By the time the book was coming out, I had accrued 200 perfume samples. Now, I bought the same pair of mules and returned them five times. It's easier for me to grapple with, ‘What is my signature style?’ It’s easier to grapple with stuff than it is with the ineffable."
So Sad Today was an essay collection all about you. Is having a fictional book come out more or less nerve-wracking?
"It’s so fun to do interviews and be talking about my characters. Honestly, this is such a luxury for a writer. To be able to be talking about the work. This is every writer who’s ever been in a writing workshop’s dream. ‘Today is my day to workshop? And tomorrow is, too?’ It’s really cool. It’s a special thing to talk about the work every day."
Versus people asking about you.
"I'm down to talk about myself. This book is sexy, but my parents are going to be allowed to read it. Whereas they were not allowed to read So Sad Today. I don’t think they’ll get very far. That should tell you the level of anxiety."