Interview with MONSTROUS BEAUTY Author Elizabeth Fama

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Elizabeth Fama is the author of MONSTROUS BEAUTY and OVERBOARD, which were published a decade apart.

Elizabeth's second young-adult novel, MONSTROUS BEAUTY, will be published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux BFYR on September 4, 2012.  Her debut novel, OVERBOARD (Cricket Books, 2002), was named a 2003 Best Book for Young Adults by the American Library Association (one of only eleven books selected unanimously by the committee that year). It received the 2002-2003 honor award from the Society of Midland Authors, and it was nominated for five state readers' choice awards (New Hampshire, Texas, Illinois, Utah, and Florida).  She is currently working on a young-adult alternate-history novel with the working title PLUS ONE and a middle-grade novel about a girl and her hippo (which will have AWESOME COMICS in it).

She can be found on her website and Twitter!

MONSTROUS BEAUTY is Elizabeth Fama's second published novel. 

An interview with 
Elizabeth Fama

How did you come up with the idea for MONSTROUS BEAUTY?

The idea for the book was a collaborative effort with my two oldest kids, Sally and Eric Cochrane. In the summer of 2009, I was lamenting Stephenie Meyer's incredible success--probably daily--and they said, "Quit griping. We dare you to write your own commercial blockbuster. It'll take you two weeks." (Well, they said roughly that, but with more expletives.) Apparently, I'm not capable of "whipping off" something "commercial," because the manuscript turned into a complicated part-historical, mult-thread story about sacrifice and difficult choices and it took me a year to write it. 

When I say it was collaborative, I mean it. For fun, we brainstormed the broad idea together on a morning jog to the lake. I went home, showered, and wrote a crude outline. I had never worked from an outline before--at least not that early in a project. The next day while we were running, I brought up missing pieces I had uncovered, and we all made suggestions about how to fill them. From that point on, for an entire month, we'd jog and I'd tell them problems I had stumbled across in the outlining process the day before, and they and I would toss out solutions (often wildly different from each other). 

Eric has a real eye for magic, Sally is a brilliant scientist, and I'm a hopeless romantic and very family-oriented, and those are three large pieces of the book. But the process was so organic, so continuous, to this day we have trouble parceling out what each of us contributed to that outline. It was a great working relationship.

I really liked how animalistic the mermaids in MONSTROUS BEAUTY were, not at all like human beings. What made you give your mermaids more violent tendencies as opposed to the sweeter ones found in too many mermaid novels?

Nothing in the ocean is sweet, with the possible exception of phytoplankton. Even sea anemones, some of which look like beautiful flowers, are predatory. In tone, I wanted my mermaids and the underwater world to have the same unsettling feeling as those in Mike Mignola's short story, "The Third Wish," from HELLBOY: STRANGE PLACES. 

I would argue that the mermaids in MONSTROUS BEAUTY are very much like human beings in that their morals and values run the gamut from virtuous to selfish. Syrenka is brilliant and fiercely loyal; her sister, Needa, is gentler and less of a rebel; and Weeku is more of an unsympathetic yes-man to queen Noo'kas, who is herself what some might call evil. Even Noo'kas has a back story, though, which shows that to some extent she is wounded, as well. 

The back story is not in MONSTROUS BEAUTY, but I wrote a comic called "Treasure Game," which my son Eric (who is a talented comic artist) illustrated. It gives a glimpse into Noo'kas's past, and shows why Syrenka might be desperate to leave her home for life on land. I think you'll see the comic as part of FSG's promotional effort before September 4th.

How did you come up with the mythology you wove into the world of your mermaids, from their beliefs and connections beneath the sea to the magic that allows them to become human?

I came up with the mythology by the seat of my pants! Some of it is quite traditional: the idea that mermaids or water elementals have no soul until they bear a human child--that's as old as the story of ONDINE. But the way they acquire human legs was the result of another brainstorm session with Eric. 

We're both drawn to stories where organs are integral to magic. I love the way Howl swallows Calcifer the Falling Star before he burns out, and Calcifer the Fire Demon emerges from Howl's chest with his heart (in HOWL'S MOVING CASTLE). I adore the concept of equivalent exchange in FULLMETAL ALCHEMIST, and there's a lot of that in my mermaid magic as a result.   For me, good magic always follows the rule, "you can't get something for nothing." 

Finally, Noo'kas, the queen, is based on a legendary Wampanoag character named Squanit, who was the wife of Maushop, the giant who created Cape Cod and its islands. Noo'kas has some control over weather, the way Squanit does, and she has a sort of sixth sense about what's happening to "her interests" in the ocean and on the near-shore.

What are you working on now?

I've just turned in my option book to my publisher, and I'm waiting to hear whether they like it. It's an alternate history, told in first-person, past tense. It's set in the present day, but imagines that there was a political and cultural change that occurred in 1918 during the Spanish Flu pandemic. Almost everything is the same as the way we live now, with one substantial social change. I can't say too much about it until someone buys it, because I'm very protective of the "hook," but I can say that it has allusions to civil rights issues in the U.S. and the unjust way that families were separated during slavery. When I started the manuscript I had the same worries that Jane Austen mentioned when she began writing EMMA: "I am going to take a heroine whom no-one but myself will much like." In the end I was completely in love with my main character, and I hope readers will see past her flaws and feel the same way, too.

In the last couple of weeks, I've been researching a new novel that has my heart pounding with excitement every time I pick up the books, but also pounding with fear. It's historical fiction about one of the most incredible young adults I've ever heard of, and the real-life story is epic. But it requires a vast knowledge of an intricate history of multiple countries, powers, and personages, and I'm terrified I may not do it justice, let alone have the skill to pull it off. Again, I don't think I can say who it's about until I get further along. I'm a slow writer and I don't want a better, smarter writer to realize what a treasure this real-life figure is!

Ariel gave up her voice to become a human. What would you give up if offered the opportunity to be a mermaid?

I have an unbelievably wonderful life on land. Ask me what I'd do to keep that. The answer is everything. I don't dream of any alternatives.

If you could be a mermaid for a day, what would you do?

So I do think I could handle a day of it, yes. And honestly, deep sea diving without fear of drowning and open spaces would be awesome. Whale watching below the ocean rather than from above is how I'd spend the day, topped off with a dinner of the freshest sashimi on the planet.

Thank you so much, Elizabeth!  I really enjoyed MONSTROUS BEAUTY and can't wait to see what you come out with next!
O F F I C I A L   I N F O:

Author: Elizabeth Fama
Release Date: Out Sept. 04, 2012
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux / Macmillan
Received: ARC for review


Fierce, seductive mermaid Syrenka falls in love with Ezra, a young naturalist. When she abandons her life underwater for a chance at happiness on land, she is unaware that this decision comes with horrific and deadly consequences.

Almost one hundred forty years later, seventeen-year-old Hester meets a mysterious stranger named Ezra and feels overwhelmingly, inexplicably drawn to him. For generations, love has resulted in death for the women in her family. Is it an undiagnosed genetic defect . . . or a curse? With Ezra’s help, Hester investigates her family’s strange, sad history. The answers she seeks are waiting in the graveyard, the crypt, and at the bottom of the ocean—but powerful forces will do anything to keep her from uncovering her connection to Syrenka and to the tragedy of so long ago.


  1. Fabulous interview, Bonnie! As I read through the ARC of Monstrous Beauty I made note of the mythology surrounding Noo'kas as well. I thought about Mythological Mondays as I was reading!

    I'm very curious about the next book. Sounds interesting already... and I have to say I LOVED how Monstrous Beauty was developed. Such a great story.

    1. I know, right? I love the mythology! Haha, I'm so into mythology that I was reading PUSHING THE LIMITS yesterday and enjoyed the mythological elements in a modern-day world enough that I'm posting about it on Monday like a crazy girl. ^.~

      Noo'kas was fascinating. I'd love more story there. Can't wait for more from Elizabeth Fama!


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