Terese Svoboda is not a pirate. She’s pirates. And her new book, Pirate Talk or Mermalade, is all pirate talk. It’s a hysterically dark dialogue between two pirate brothers, a nutty ma, a whacked out parrot, and a host of other freakishly funny characters. Oh, and there’s even a mermaid. Hence, Mermalade not Marmalade. (See below.) In the end, the brothers arrive at the end and end up in the Arctic “where a secret unhinges them both”. I won’t reveal the secret (because I’m still decoding it) but all you really need to know is that all the characters are unhinged. Lovable. And absolutely kick ass. This interview took place in the hull of a pirate ship and I’m still here. Help!
Almost Dorothy: In your latest novel Pirate Talk or Mermalade (DZABC Books), I hear you. The voices of two brothers, or bros, who fall into pirating and mermaiding, plunder the 18th century with a vocal cast of cooks and crooks, Ma, and a lunatic parrot that screams “hanged” now and then. Hanged! (I can’t get that line out of my head.) How the heck did/do you maintain/sustain the voices throughout the novel?
Terese Svoboda: The fun element. I enjoyed writing the voices, finding out what they would say. That is to say, people are always looking for ways to sound optimistic in the direst circumstances, and that continued to inspire me.
AD: Do you practice the voices aloud with family & friends, other pirates, or did you keep the voices in your head?
TS: I did read this aloud a lot, trying to keep it clear and not hokey.
AD: Will you make an audio book, please?
TS: Flattery will get you everywhere.
AD: The first chapter ends with the slow death of a whale. Before the creature is killed, one brother becomes obsessed with the animal’s breathing. I cried, literally, for the breathing. “Listen to it breathe”. “It’s breathing big”. “It still breathes”. The other brother calls him a “whale-lover” and a “crybaby”. Why a whale and not a sea otter or a giant squid? (Read the first chapter of Pirate Talk or Mermalade here.)
TS: Whales think. They sing. They talk long distance which we’ve only been doing since my grandma shouted over the phone. They’re us, obese. They embody the dream of protectiveness, swallowing saints whole, saving sailors. In this story, the whale is demolished at the beginning and whole at the end, flying over them like the AMNH suspended whale. They are a dream that suspends us. Whales R us, fishy but not. They crawled back into the ocean and left us behind. We don’t realize we’re in the race for extinction too. (Check out whale songs at The Whalesong Project.)
AD: What would the brothers do in the Gulf of BP Oil?
TS: Speaking of extinction? The older brother would sling PR, the younger would be out wiping down gulls.
AD: Are humans too guarded and selfish, emotional cripples?
TS: You said it.
AD: Explain mermalade. And, are you a pirate?
TS: Mermalade, not marmalade. The second is something you put on toast. The first I made up, mashed-up bits of mermaid, ready to eat. She’s folded into the narrative like a handful of caviar, like meringue, like nuts into carrot cake. Re: me, a pirate? Definition please. If it means I have trouble walking the straight and narrow, meaning the plank, yes, yes, yes. What poet isn’t a pirate?
(Read about the real mermaid, Elizabeth Doud, who is also a poet but not a pirate.)
AD: Do you have a parrot?
TS: Birds are bestial. Dogs are best.
AD: Is the novel about 1. global climate change, 2. the extinction of the species, specifically whales, then us 3. the futility of lugging booty across the Arctic, 4. Booty-ho, or 5. all or none of the above?
TS: It contains multitudes, without all the clutter of description.
AD: Thank Pirate! Pretty please, talk about the themes, so we can stimulate (or simulate) sales. It’s summer, and the humidity has shorted out my motherboard.
TS: See above.
AD: I’m looking up at nothing. Ma died true?
TS: She actually died, and she takes her time doing it. And she was actually their Ma, as opposed to all the other father characters she conjured for them, i.e., her mates.
AD: What are ‘true’ lives?
TS: This was an important distinction in the 18th century when children begot outside marriage were summarily dropped off at the orphanage (see Jean-Jaques Rousseau, who dropped off eight or nine or Benjamin Franklin who sired three generations). Bastards were everywhere, inheritance via property was an idea whose time had come. Searching for your father was popular. I do my research.
AD: I eat my research! “The sails like a curtain, stars and then no stars” + “If you eat at all, best eat in private, with yourself alone on the poop deck, or else someone will fight you for it” + “Roger and Ebert, the plunder lads, they’ll be joining us at the next ocean” = magic. The narrative is hilarious and serious, Almost Goofy. In a good way! It’s a tragicomedy, no?
TS: Everyday pathos if you’re a pirate. Romance always has its roaches. Besides, overheard it’s funny but it might not be so funny to the boys.
AD: Did the humor come from the nature of the characters or are you just a funny lady? Example: the sawing off of the leg and the installation of a new one that is (or is not?) freshly painted along the way.
TS: I get funnier as things get darker, yes.
TS: Means freedom in several languages. Funny.
AD: The end always ends with an enigma: The parrot is the most beloved trinket or booty, the booty is the biggest burden, and the burden of the mermaid, or maiden, is miffed at those burdens. Ma?
TS: Ma hangs herself, perhaps in a sexual frenzy. That’s enigma.
TS: Bohemian Girl. Next fall. The girl’s a mound-building slave for an Indian because Dad lost her in a bet. That’s the setup. You can almost hear me giggle when a Civil War balloon shows up. Deus ex machina is my friend. I also give 12 year old Willa Cather a chance to put down the settlers again. She flounces out of the opera house (which is playing the famous “Bohemian Girl”) saying, O, pioneers.
Terese Svoboda is a dazzling master of craft with a body of work that includes five books of poetry, six novels, a memoir, a book of translation and over a hundred published short stories, Terese Svoboda’s subject is human suffering. Called “disturbing, edgy and provocative” by Book Magazine, her work is often the surreal poetry of a nightmare yet is written with such wit, verve and passion that she can address the direst subjects. “Terese Svoboda has such range—of subject, of emotion (from whimsical play to chillingly dead serious), that these poems take you on a wild ride, fast and dangerous, but always in control. This is a goddamn terrific book!”, writes Thomas Lux about Weapons Grade (2009). Two novels, Pirate Talk or Mermelade, and Bohemian Girl are forthcoming (2010 and 2011).
About PIRATE TALK OR MERMALADE (2010)
Pursued by a mermaid, two boys talk their way into pirating and end up in the Arctic where a secret unhinges them both. Disabled piecemeal, harassed by a parrot, marooned on a tree-challenged island, posing as Pilgrims, scrimshawing and singing their way out of prison, the spunky pirates of Pirate Talk or Mermalade defy and indeed eliminate all description: it’s a novel in voices. Check out the official site for International Talk Like a Pirate Day.