Finding her voice – an interview with Louise O’Neill

In anticipation of the release of Louise O’Neill’s feminist retelling of The Little Mermaid, The Surface Breaks, we spoke to Louise about re-inventing fairytales, feminism, and the importance of owning your voice.

Why did you choose The Little Mermaid as inspiration for The Surface Breaks

Louise: Well, it was the summer of 2016 when the editor and director of Scholastic in the UK contacted my agent and asked, would I be interested in writing a feminist retellling of The Little Mermaid? It’s funny, because I should have said no! I was knee deep in writing Almost Love [which came out in March of this year] at that stage, and I was thinking about saying no. I had wanted to take 2017 and concentrate on Almost Love, which was my first novel for adults. So it was a bit of a transition. But I really couldn’t refuse the offer, because I’ve always loved The Little Mermaid. We lived right on Inchydoney beach until I was four: And I was obsessed with the water from when I was a child.

I would stare at the sea for hours and hours  and my Mam always used to say, when I was very young, and she was giving me a bath, I was always much more settled in water.

And then in 1989, the Disney version of The Little Mermaid came out. I was four at the time, so I was at a prime age for it. So the idea of The Little Mermaid really embedded itself in my psyche at a very impressionable age. So when Scholastic came to me and asked if I wanted to do this, I just couldn’t say no. As I said partly because I loved the story so much, but also because as a teenager, with a burgeoning sense of feminism, I began reexamining the fairytales like The Little Mermaid, which was always my favorite one. It became increasingly obvious to me that it was very problematic. It’s literally about a young woman who gives up her voice and silences herself to be in a relationship. And she mutilates her body, so that a man she barely knows will fall in love with her. So I think there were really interesting parallels there with what some young women go through today in contemporary society.  I felt that it was ripe for a feminist retelling – and I really wanted to be the one to do it.

Your little mermaid, Gaia’s, character is driven, not just by love, but also by desperation, a need to get out of a dangerous situation when she chooses to become human and leave the sea.Was that something you were consciously thinking about? 

Louise: Absolutely. It’s funny, someone was asking me recently, why all of my books are about someone who is trapped? I think it’s just a feeling with that I can really identify with, as a young woman, feeling really trapped by society, feeling you’re trapped by your family circumstances, by geography, by things that often feel very much outside of your control. And, particularly for women, you might feel like there are gendered expectations on you on how you should behave, and how you should look, and how you should feel.

It can feel very restrictive. It is for Gaia, growing up in that society, which is incredibly patriarchal, and having such a controlling and overbearing father who basically sells her to the highest bidder. He sells her body to a much older man who finds her attractive. So she is absolutely desperate. I think there’s an element of that in her decision, I mean of course she finds Oliver incredibly attractive and she does feel physical attraction to him, but I think she’s very quick to label it love. But she’s just so desperate to get out of her situation.

Her father is very much portrayed as the villain in this retelling. Was that an interpretation of the original story or inspired by the domineering father portrayed in the Disney version? 

Louise: I suppose it was a bit of both really. It was also that I wanted to portray cultural ideas of domination and overbearing fathers.

I suppose, in a lot of ways, he is the embodiment of the patriarchy, he is the embodiment of white male privilege and the embodiment of the idea of hereditary wealth and privilege and entitlement. He really does feel that he is entitled to control his daughters in that way. There are definitely shades of it in the Disney version, but he is still quite a  sympathetic character. Whereas in my version of it I wanted to have that sense that Gaia is a really trapped character. So much of that comes from her father, who believes he has the right to control her body, control her destiny, and make decisions about who she should be with. It was an interesting way of critiquing the patriarchy.

 It’s literally about a young woman who gives up her voice and silences herself to be in a relationship.

On the other hand, for the sea witch, Ceto,  gets a much nuanced portrayal, she is given much more of a redemptive arc.

Louise: It’s funny because you see the Disney version and it’s really interesting to contrast what you know as a child and what you know as an adult. Because Ursula is a villain when you’re a child but when you’re an adult Ursula is the best character in the entire movie, she’s such a badass!  I did a lot of research before I wrote the book, not just research about mermaid mythology, but also read a lot of academic essays about fairytales and the didactic messages that are contained in them for women. There were some really interesting points made about the role of the witch in fairytales,  it is a very sexist and agist portrayal. It portrays women as always being in competition with one another. If a woman is older and unmarried then the only thing she can do is move to the fringes of society and live there, plotting her revenge. So I wanted to reclaim the witch. I wanted to reclaim the mermaid as well but I actually think while writing it the witch is the most interesting and compelling character in the book. I wanted to explore other reasons why she has been ostracised.

For me, the reason she has been ostracised, is that she is a woman who inhabits and owns her sexuality. She’s also a proud and beautiful fat woman which I think is something that can be slightly looked down on in our society. She is also a woman who demands to live on her own terms. She doesn’t try to acquiesce to societal demands and that can often lead to being ostracised and having to live on the fringes of society.  As she says in the book, the most important thing a woman can do is live true to herself.

Gaia comes to that knowledge throughout the story, which she ends in a position of strength even though she has lost and sacrificed a lot to get to that point. 

Louise: I agree. This is probably the most hopeful, or the most empowering ending I have had out of all of my novels, particularly my YA novels. I think it’s interesting when you look at the story again. When I was preparing to write the book, I read and re-read the fairytale again and again. I listened to it over and over again, while I was at the gym, while I was in the car. So within a few weeks I could practically recite the whole thing verbatim. When you look at the original fairytale, she’s quite a passive character, the act of going to the sea witch is the only time she really demonstrates any real sort of agency. So the reason I ended it where I did was that I didn’t want to see her as passive and I didn’t want to see her as a victim. I wanted to see her as just a girl, a girl who wanted to take up more space in the world and not less. A girl who wanted adventure and love.

I didn’t want to see her as passive and I didn’t want to see her as a victim. I wanted to see her as just a girl, a girl who wanted to take up more space in the world and not less. A girl who wanted adventure and love.

She wants the truth of things, she wants to find out what happened to her mother. And it sounds like such a cliché but women are so incredibly strong. I have friends who have had children and even that  alone I think is just the ultimate act of strength, even that that women’s bodies can do that, it is just strength. And I have friends who have been victims of sexual violence, who have had horrible things happen to them, but just  have  resilience and strength. I think women are warriors and I really wanted to portray that in this book.

I think the patriarchy really wants to keep us weak and afraid because it makes us easier to manage and easier to control. But I think that absolutely all  of us have a core of strength inside of us.

What was your writing process for The Surface Breaks

Louise: I’d never started a book with the narrative framework already done. I knew that it was going to be a fairly straightforward re-telling of Hans Christian Andersen’s original fairytale. I knew there were certain beats I had to hit: her fifteenth birthday, the shipwreck where she sees the prince for the first time, going to the sea witch and taking the potion, etc. So that made it a lot easier for me, when I sat down to start writing. I finished the first draft of Almost Love on a Thursday, I gave myself the Friday off because it was my birthday, and then I started on The Surface Breaks on the Monday. Because I had the basic narrative set out for me, I could just let my imagination go wild in between. It was really fun. I had a lot of fun with the names, I had fun with the character development, like with the sisters, trying to make them all different and give them their own personalities, independent of each other. I would have the characters very well fleshed out before I start any book, I feel like I know them really well.

I think the patriarchy really wants to keep us weak and afraid because it makes us easier to manage and easier to control. But I think that absolutely all have a core of strength inside of us.

Fairytales were originally told by women, by housewives by hearthside, and were then collected by men. The most famous fairytales had female protagonists. Do you feel like it’s time that we are reclaiming these fairytales with a feminist perspective? 

Louise: I really agree with you, I do feel like it’s time. As you said, it’s interesting that fairytales would have been traditionally written and told by women about women and concerned themselves with issues that directly affected women at that time. May that be marriage or children or poverty. Then you see them appropriated by men and see them skewed to stick guidelines about how young women should behave. And it’s interesting that these stories are so much a part of our cultural consciousness. Most children will have been given a book of fairytales at some point, so these stories are very, very familiar. As an author and as a feminist, as you get older, you start to really look at the stories you were told as a child and see how damaging some of the messages in those could be and wonder about the affect that they had on you.

For me there is a sense of responsibility of wanting to reclaim the story and give it a more satisfying but also an ideologically sound twist to it

So for me there is a sense of responsibility of wanting to reclaim the story and give it a more satisfying but also a ideologically sound twist to it, so that any young woman who would read my version of The Little Mermaid would not be left feeling that their prettiness, or their beauty is their only ticket to success. That there are so much more important aspects of being a woman and being yourself.

Sometimes when I say to people I’m writing a feminist version of The Little Mermaid, they say back to me, ‘Oh for god’s sake, political correctness gone wrong, what was wrong with the original?’ But it just feels a little short sighted, I mean children are like sponges, and saying that they don’t understand or that they can’t absorb the messages in these stories is really reductive. The problem is is that they can. Particularly for little girls, when the only role models they see in popular culture or in books is the perfect princess figure. It’s a very heteronormative story. Even if you look at Rapunzel or Sleeping Beauty, there is the idea that you have to wait for a man to rescue you, or wait until you fall in love in order to be happy or in order for your life to begin.

It’s important to look at these stories a different way, these stories that have been with us for so long. Given #MeToo and #TimesUp it really feels like the right time for these stories to be told and given a new lease of life. 

Louise: I totally agree. In the last year with the #MeToo movement when women are speaking out, now more than ever a story of a woman who gives up her voice and allows herself to be silenced, that has to be reclaimed. I think it’s so relevant and so important. Because so many women, we have been silenced, our  voices have been quietened and it has just come to a time where we’re just so unwilling to accept that anymore. We’re speaking up, we’re speaking out. And we’re raising our voices, demanding that we be heard, and believing that we deserve to be heard and our stories deserve to be shared.

With Gaia, she has so much regret over the fact that she has given up her voice. And I think she comes to realise as the story unfolds that her voice was one of the most important attributes that she had, and one of the most important tools that she had. I think that that’s something that is really important for her and other young women.

Best piece of advice you’ve ever gotten?

Louise: Other people’s opinions of you are none of your business.

Other people’s opinions of you are none of your business.

The Surface Breaks by Louise O’Neill is available now in all good bookshops

Illustration designed by Freepik. Photograph by Anna Groniecka.

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