Lucy has been struggling to complete her dissertation on Sappho for nine years when she and her boyfriend have a dramatic break-up and she goes to recuperate at her sister’s house in LA. At the beach she is entranced by an eerily attractive swimmer. Broder’s examination of love, obsession and sex The Pisces (Bloomsbury Circus, £16.99) is both fantastical and realist – and in parts very explicit.
In fashion, pop culture and literature, mermaids seem to be having a moment. What do these ancient mythical creatures reveal about the world we live in today?
I can only speak for myself and say that we live in a world that, to me, feels both chaotic and instantaneously knowable. The pace at which we are bombarded by information, and in which we can find an answer to almost any question, is frenetic. But the ocean still contains mystery. What’s more, the top of the sea can be choppy, furious, while deep down is total silence and darkness. My interest in these elements of the sea, and the creatures that live within, reflects a desire to go inward where things are quieter, less knowable and deeper.
Mermaids are traditionally and more commonly female, which is upended in your story, just as Lucy tries to approach relationships with a more stereotypically masculine attitude. Is a world without gendered behaviour a fantasy?
I wanted to explore the intersection between love and addiction, and nothing embodies this paradox like the relationship between mer-person and human. How many men in literature have walked into the ocean and drowned in pursuit of that Sirenic nectar? But why is it always a man and a mermaid? What if it was a woman and a merman? I wondered about these things and the story just kind of came to me whole.
Why is Greek mythology – and Sappho in particular – a compelling and recurring image throughout The Pisces?
If Lucy were a proctologist, or a banker, she might not be as likely to be able to see a merman. But she has been writing her thesis on Sappho for years. She is steeped in this stuff. And so, she can see. They are living, breathing characters in her world. Also, technology may change, but human emotion doesn’t. The spiritual and romantic longing that Sappho expresses in her work is the same longing that Lucy feels today. I wanted to emphasise this universality – and timelessness – of feeling.
The book is unabashedly erotic but the sex scenes are often as uncomfortable as Lucy’s bikini wax. Were you hoping to turn readers on, make them blush or bring Tinder down?
I love writing good sex and bad sex for different reasons. When I’m writing “good” sex I turn myself on. If I’m not turned on, I’m probably not writing good sex. But when I write about disastrous sex, it can be funny – and sometimes an opportunity to reframe narratives over which I was previously powerless. But even when writing “good sex” scenes, no matter how fantastical, I’m committed to a kind of pleasure-realism that isn’t always pretty. It’s important to me that it takes Lucy a long time to have an orgasm. She’s slow to boil, and self-conscious about it. She worries about her smell and taste. She isn’t just “ready for anal” at any moment. These are things I find lacking when I read erotica. So I wanted to give that to my readers.
You take an equally frank and darkly comic approach to writing about suicide and mental health. Is it important to be honest without worrying about causing offence?
I say, it’s my depression and I’ll write about it the way I want to. If it’s one’s own experience, it is theirs to describe as they wish.
With the infusion of personal thoughts and feelings Lucy’s professors no longer consider her thesis a scholarly text. Does The Pisces have potential as a scholarly text about mythology, and if it were one what would its title have been?
It depends on how bad the school is. Maybe at a really bad school. The title is: Can You Fill An Existential Hole With Romantic Obsession? A Thesis.
Lucy chooses a fantasy love over a pure love. Are the two mutually exclusive?
No, but it’s taken me a long time to learn not to expect a real love to fulfil every longing that a fantasy love is capable of fulfilling. And vice versa.