The Rumpus Book Club chats with Melissa Broder about her debut novel, The Pisces (Hogarth, May 2018), the importance of love between women, and mermaid sex.
This is an edited transcript of the book club discussion. Every month The Rumpus Book Club hosts a discussion online with the book club members and the author, and we post an edited version online as an interview. To become a member of the Rumpus Book Club, click here. Upcoming writers include Amy Fusselman, Nicole Chung, Idra Novey, Tom Barbash, Esmé Weijun Wang, and more.
This Rumpus Book Club interview was edited by Marisa Siegel.
Marisa: Hi, and welcome to The Rumpus Book Club chat with Melissa Broder about The Pisces! Melissa, thanks for joining us.
Melissa Broder: Thanks for having me!
Eva Woods: I’m so pumped to chat about this one. I finished it in a day.
Marisa: I think I read an interview where you say the story of this book came to you in a flash, all at once. Is that accurate?
Melissa Broder: For the most part, yes. After I finished writing So Sad Today, I wanted to continue exploring the intersection between love and addiction. I was on the beach in Venice reading a book called The Professor and the Siren by Giussepe di Tomasi Lampedusa and it dawned on me just how much the human/siren relationship has always embodies that paradox.
But I thought: why is it always a younger mermaid and an older man? And as I looked around at the Santa Monica mountains, I could have just as easily been in ancient Greece. And for a moment Venice became Greece. And I thought, what if it was a woman and a merman? And what if it happened now?
Eva Woods: I was wondering about the gender reversal in this book. Do you think the story would have worked the other way?
Melissa Broder: This was the only way I could tell the story. It was a woman and a younger (at least, aesthetically younger) merman. That’s just the way the story was born to me.
Eva Woods: I love that.
Marisa: I’ve been thinking about the absent mother character, and Lucy’s grief which seeps out of the story in bits and pieces. Does her addiction stem from that pain, do you think?
Melissa Broder: It’s absolutely a major factor. They say that what is hysterical is historical. I’ve also come to realize that the mourning feeling we experience at the end of an affair, addict or no addict, is often just as much about old pain as it is that relationship.
Marisa: Lucy’s relationship with her sister, Annika, also struck me more as I think about the book. It seemed less important while I was reading, but now feels like a crucial center for Lucy.
Eva Woods: The way Lucy viewed the other women in group therapy was really interesting to me, especially how she became more compassionate as the book went on. Can you talk a little bit about those characters and how you feel about their interactions with Lucy?
Marisa: And let’s also talk about Dominic, please! He is my favorite character of all, and his story arc is amazing.
Eva Woods: Dude the group and the dog relationships *gutted* me at parts!
Melissa Broder: The love between women is an important part of this book, be it group therapy or Lucy’s sister. The ability for women to save your life.
Melissa Broder: On a sexual level, the book is a more hetero text than I am. Lucy is pretty straight. But her fear of asking for help, and her rejection of the group for the vulnerable parts of themselves that they show (which she fears echoes her own vulnerability), is something I can identify with.
Eva Woods: I definitely yelled “Lucy date GIRLS” at one point after her breakup!
Melissa Broder: Lucy fears that if she expresses needs to other women, they will reject her. And so she tries not to have those needs.
Melissa Broder: But romantic obsession, projection, and disappointment pervade relationships across the rainbow! Lucy just happens to fuck men. So her disappointments are with men.
Eva Woods: They definitely do. I’m just really gay tbh. Speaking of the breakup in the beginning, it was *so* realistically written!
Melissa Broder: <3
Marisa: How did you decide to incorporate Lucy’s thesis on Sappho into the book? You are a poet with four poetry collections under your belt—were you already a reader of Sappho or did you do research around the fragments for this book?
Melissa Broder: I’ve always loved Sappho. It was wonderful to have her with me for my first foray into fiction. She came into the picture pretty shortly after I got the idea for Lucy and Theo the merman (they were born to me together). If Lucy were a mechanical engineer, she might be less likely to see a merman. But a woman steeped in classical Greek poetry? It’s merman season.
Also, Sappho’s insatiable longing—both spiritual and romantic—mirrors Lucy’s. It’s all the same. Feelings are the same, now and then. The fact that much of Sappho’s work has been erased also gave me an opportunity to explore absences, voids, places where there was once something and now there is nothing.
Eva Woods: I have a question about marketing the book, which you might not even really know the answer to. Theo being a merman was part of the publicity and on the dust jacket—what was the discussion like around whether or not to tell people that Theo is a merman from the start or let them find out as they read the book?
Melissa Broder: I wasn’t sure whether we would make that known. But my publisher was like, Oh yeah, definitely. I trust them. So I was like, Cool.
Eva Woods: Can we talk about the end of the book or is that too much of a spoiler?
Melissa Broder: I think we shouldn’t! 🙂
Marisa: Was there any discussion about the timing release of the book and the release of The Shape of Water?
Melissa Broder: None. I haven’t even seen the movie.
Eva Woods: The book is obviously super different!
Melissa Broder: When I found out it was coming out I was like “Oh fuck.” And then when it won an Oscar I texted my agent and was like, “Well I guess it’s all over for me.” And she was like, “No, it’s good, it’s in the zeitgeist now.”
Marisa: Magical sea creature love story is the new manic pixie dream girl love story.
Eva Woods: This is so much more fun than manic pixie dream girls were.
Melissa Broder: Actually, the first media thing that terrified me was a few years ago, when we were getting ready to shop the manuscript to publishers, there was an announcement that the dude from Magic Mike (I forget his name) was going to remake Splash with him as a merman. And I was like, “Well, guess I’m screwed.”
Eva Woods: OH MY GOD. Channing Tatum as a merman is… wow.
Melissa Broder: Later I met someone who had worked for him and she was like, “Yeah, that was just a drunken idea one night.” And I was like, “Okay, because I was depressed and lost a week of my life on that.”
Marisa: Having written poetry, an essay collection, and now a novel—does your writing process differ for different genres? (And can you tell us your weirdest writing rituals and quirks, please?)
Melissa Broder: Yes, my writing process differs for poetry vs. prose. When I lived in New York, I wrote poetry on my phone on the subway. Then I moved to LA, almost five years ago, and started dictating in my car to Siri. The line breaks disappeared and my tone became more conversational. That’s how the So Sad Today essays were born. The geography literally shaped the form.
When I decided to write this book I was like, “Can I actually write a novel?” I figured I would try the dictation again and decided to dictate three paragraphs a day, as an experiment. Nine months later I had my first draft.
Eva Woods: You wrote Venice so perfectly, I knew you had to have lived here.
Melissa Broder: Yes, I lived in Venice for four years.
Eva Woods: Were there any big changes from that first draft?
Melissa Broder: A million. I did more than ten rounds of edits, between my own, the ones I did with my husband (my best editor), my agent, and my editors. The whole thing underwent major surgery.
Marisa: I’m wondering if Siri made any errors in transcription that ended up leading you somewhere interesting? Siri never gets my words right.
Melissa Broder: Yes, half of what I dictate is wrong. But I don’t fix anything until I’ve dictated the entire thing. I want it to be as sloppy as possible. I need that permission to make a mess. My first round of edits after I’ve finished the first draft is just trying to figure out what I was saying!
Eva Woods: What was the emotional process like writing this one compared to the So Sad Today essays?
Melissa Broder: Writing a novel is lonelier. It’s such a marathon. But I also felt really spiritually connected to this book. It felt like a gift. I kept shells on my altar. The whole thing was deeply connected to the fact that we never know where we will end up in life or how that will impact us. I never imagined I would live in Los Angeles or on the beach. And without this city/my proximity to the ocean, this book would never have been born.
Melissa Broder: I always make fun of memoirs and essays written by people who aren’t, like, sixty. Like, what do you have to say, really? So in writing So Sad Today, part of me was like, what do I have to say, really?
Marisa: You mention your own dog, Pickle, in your acknowledgements for The Pisces. Is Dominic (and Annika’s so true-to-life and excruciating love for him) partly based on Pickle?
Melissa Broder: I’m obsessed with my pickle.
Eva Woods: Marisa make that quote the subhead; I am BEGGING you!
Melissa Broder: He is snoozing by my foot right now. He is a street rat but thinks he’s a prince. Dominic in the book is much more unconditionally loving. Pickle is like, “Okay assholes, do as I say.” And stamps his little paw.
Eva Woods: I’ve never had a dog and the Dominic arc still killed me beyond all reason. The relationship between him and Lucy was such a cool counterpoint to the human relationships in the book.
Marisa: Pickle sounds a lot like my cat.
Melissa Broder: He’s definitely cat-like. Not as smart. But thinks he is.
Marisa: I loved how Lucy was almost scared of Dominic’s willingness to love and be loved.
Melissa Broder: Yes. This was a big question for me in writing the book, and part of the inspiration: Why does unconditional love, easy love sometimes feel not as “real” as difficult, distant, bad for you love?
Marisa: Yes, so true. We are pretty much taught that love should be difficult, so we allow it to be. Lucy talks a lot about the masks people wear through the book, and I kept thinking, dogs don’t really play that game, so she can’t write off Dominic’s love and needs as another mask.
Melissa Broder: With difficult, even deadly love, you never stay close enough for long to even ask, “Is that all there is?” With easy, unconditional love, it’s an, “Is that all there is?” factory because it’s right there.
Eva Woods: Also unconditional love is so much scarier, but we act like it’s the opposite.
Melissa Broder: It’s hard to get high on someone for whom you buy toilet paper. And I like to get high.
Eva Woods: Lol now I keep thinking, “What if your kink was domesticity?”
Melissa Broder: Unconditional love makes me nervous, because I’m like, “Well something must be wrong with you then.” It feels realer to me to have to be performing, working to earn love.
Eva Woods: I agree! It’s very much the “any club that would have me as a member” etc. thing.
Marisa: Although my love for my child is unconditional, and also the most terrifying love ever. Highest highs, lowest lows. I kept wondering what kind of mother Lucy would be, or whether she’d never want that in the first place (which is really normal for a lot of women, though we’re not supposed to say so).
Melissa Broder: Yes. And existentially, there are less distractions. Less dressing up in costumes and peddling. What do you do when the love has already been “earned”? When all you have to do is “be you”?
Nancy: Hi, sorry I’m late to the chat. This book was one I wouldn’t have picked up but I liked it, especially the relationship issues and therapy group. I viewed Theo as the quintessential unavailable man and wondered if you thought if that, Melissa?
Melissa Broder: To me, Theo is the desire to be annihilated in a moment of narcotic limerence. The place where the love/sex drive and the death drive intersect. But now he is the world’s so he is however you see him!
Nancy: Your view is much deeper 🙂
Melissa Broder: I’ve spent more time with him! Haha.
Marisa: How do you feel about the book being out in the hands of readers?
Melissa Broder: Much more relaxed than I did when So Sad Today (and my vomit fetish) was in my aunt’s hands! But the day it came out, I felt sad, because I was like, Oh it’s no longer mine now.
Eva Woods: Are you working on anything right now?
Melissa Broder: I’m currently writing two more novels.
Melissa Broder: One is called Sagittarius: Son of Theo!
Melissa Broder: (just kidding)
Eva Woods: I GOT SO EXCITED FOR A SECOND
Marisa: ME, TOO!
Eva Woods: I would read that tbh, especially if it was from the merman’s point of view. Like what are their political opinions about humans?
Melissa Broder: No, there will be no Pisces sequel
Eva Woods: Can you tell us anything about the two novels? Also wondering if we’re going to get a The Pisces movie?
Melissa Broder: One novel I’m working on is set in Venice Beach again and is the story of a married couple from New York who get their asses kicked by the California dream (and become obsessed with their upstairs neighbor).
The other is a love story between two women—one a voluptuous Orthodox Jew and the other a Reform Jew with an eating disorder—who meet at a frozen yogurt shop.
Marisa: Neighbor obsessions are wonderful.
Eva Woods: Those both sound fantastic.
Nancy: Before this book, I wasn’t familiar with your work but after reading a bio and interview, I learned about the So Sad Today Twitter account (and recognized it) and now want to read your collection of essays. Do you still use So Sad Today on Twitter the same now that you’re not anonymous?
Melissa Broder: Yes, I use the So Sad Today Twitter account all the time because I’m addicted to the dopamine. Today I was feeling really depressed (post-tour low, I guess) and so I was tweeting a bunch.
Nancy: I have dealt with depression and anxiety forever and I just love your honesty. So thank you.
Melissa Broder: I feel you, Nancy. Today has been a rough day for me. I’m very “what’s the point?” right now. After this chat, I’m going to go running and then eat three miniature cheesecakes. That will help the depression for ten minutes.
Eva Woods: if only it were possible to run and eat three miniature cheesecakes every ten minutes forever.
Nancy: Running is a savior. Cheesecake helps, too. 😉
Eva Woods: Who are you reading right now that you like?
Eva Woods: I haven’t heard of these! Definitely adding Outline to my list. The description is dope.
Melissa Broder: Outline is incredible. Also, New Directions just sent me a bunch of Yoko Tawada books, because I loved The Bridegroom Was a Dog, so I’m excited to tuck into those.
Nancy: Rachel Cusk has been in my TBR pile, must move her to the top.
Melissa Broder: I also want to read Samantha Irby’s re-released book.
Marisa: Omg yes, read Sam’s book STAT. She is the best, and perfect for making a bad day better.
Melissa Broder: Yay! Meaty is the re-released one right?
Marisa: Yup! Meaty is great, but I especially love We Are Never Meeting in Real Life.
Nancy: I have to say, about The Pisces, that I’ve never read any type of “erotica” before. I actually appreciated the detail. 🙂
Eva Woods: I’ve read so many people say, “It really does not pull any punches on the fish sex” and then when I read it, I was like, “how else would you describe fish sex?!”
Nancy: Is The Pisces even considered erotica?
Melissa Broder: I guess it is considered erotica to those who consider it erotica!
Eva Woods: Melissa, how do you feel about the conversation around the sex in the book?
Melissa Broder: Depends which conversation? I like when people say they got turned on and had to stop to masturbate. That’s my fav!
Marisa: Are you surprised that people are surprised you “went there” about the fish sex? Because I actually wasn’t surprised and was like, well, she’s got a character lusting after a merman so yeah, fish sex.
Melissa Broder: Well, I mean he is half-man. That amphibian thing in The Shape of Water? No way would I have sex with that. But Theo I would definitely get with.
Marisa: It also felt to me that while yes, you do describe the logistics of merman genitalia, sex is still sex at the end of the day, you know? It was sexy because, well, sex.
Melissa Broder: I can’t not go there! Also, people have been fucking mer-creatures forevs! It’s timeless.
Eva Woods: It also wouldn’t have fit Lucy’s personality to have thought about it or remembered it coyly.
Melissa Broder: Totally. Like “let me just allude to this fuck.” I mean, if you’re going to fuck a merman, fuck a merman.
Marisa: Okay, we have just a few minutes left so last chance to ask Melissa any burning questions!
Eva Woods: I do have one more! Melissa, the breakup at the beginning—was it inspired by real life? (Also, I’m more scandalized by the lack of lube in the anal scene than any merfucking.)
Melissa Broder: He uses spit! I mean, if you eat the ass then lube not as necessary? But I see where you’re coming from 🙂
Eva Woods: It’s still good manners to HAVE some, just in case.
Melissa Broder: Hahaha.
Eva Woods: He missed that Emily Post article.
Melissa Broder: “I don’t have any lube, but how about I eat the ass as a substitute? Sound okay?”
Melissa Broder: Eat the Ass: In Conversation with Melissa Broder
Eva Woods: I mean this could totally derail the conversation but like, offer to eat the ass as its own activity, esp. on a first date, is my take… Fictional kids these days.
Melissa Broder: Oh, you mean Garrett, not Theo! Yeah, Garrett is a nightmare all around.
Eva Woods: Oh, YES!
Melissa Broder: No amount of ass-eating makes Garrett okay. Theo did well. Garrett, another story.
Eva Woods: Agreed. Theo handled it great. A+ Theo.
Marisa: Garrett was the actual worst.
Eva Woods: At least Garrett was cute, though. The little baby stoner boy was also the worst.
Melissa Broder: Yeah, Adam the wolfmonkey.
Eva Woods: Like Fuck Marry Kill, I’d go Garrett/ Theo/ Adam.
Melissa Broder: Hahaha!
Eva Woods: Melissa, will you do that as a question or is that too stupid?
Melissa Broder: I think same, actually. Fuck Garrett, marry Theo, kill Adam.
Marisa: I think that’s the only sane option, really.
Eva Woods: Thank you! (Unless monkey people are your thing.)
Melissa Broder: He’s just too into Bukowski.
Eva Woods: The worst thing a man can be.
Melissa Broder: Imagine having to hear about Bukowski the rest of your life.
Marisa: In the interest of letting Melissa go eat her cheesecake, Melissa, thank you again for joining us and for creating this wonderful novel!
Nancy: I look forward to reading your essays, Melissa. And your future work. Thank you!
Melissa Broder: You’re welcome! Thanks for having me! xoxo
Eva Woods: Thanks so much Melissa!
Marisa: Have a good night, all!