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Interview With an Author: Maggie Tokuda-Hall

Daryl M., Librarian, West Valley Regional Branch Library,
Maggie Tokuda-Hall and her debut novel, The Mermaid, The Witch and The Sea
Photo: Red Scott

Maggie Tokuda-Hall is the author of the Parent's Choice Gold Medal-winning picture book, Also an Octopus, illustrated by Benji Davies. She lives in Oakland, California, with her husband, son, and objectively perfect dog. Her debut novel is The Mermaid, The Witch and The Sea and she recently agreed to talk about it with Daryl Maxwell for the LAPL Blog.

What was your inspiration for The Mermaid, The Witch and The Sea?

I was an independent bookseller for many years, and my favorite kid who'd come into the store was Clare. She was a voracious reader who LOVED epic fantasy and sci-fi books, and we talked a lot about how glaringly hetero they all were. So I started writing The Mermaid The Witch and The Sea, I wrote it very much with her in mind, and the things she liked best: magic, mayhem, rules—and the thing she was missing, which was a queer love story as grand and all-encompassing as all the straight ones she'd already read.

Are Flora, Evelyn, Rake, Alfie or any of the other characters in the novel inspired by or based on specific individuals?

Flora, Alfie, and Evelyn both have traits stolen from many people, feelings I've had myself, things I've seen my friends go through. But Rake is a tribute to my husband. He's deeply practical, though decidedly less (literally) cut-throat, and much more affectionate. Rake is like Adam if Adam didn't have the ability to talk about his feelings. There are a few things in there that are just private jokes for him. His physicality is completely different though.

How did the novel evolve and change as you wrote and revised it? Are there any characters or scenes that were lost in the process that you wish had made it to the published version?

Oh man. This book has been so through many iterations. The first stab at it was this very British sounding, like, Treasure Island type deal? There was a version where Evelyn was kidnapped by mermaids in the first act. Xenobia is probably the only character who's stayed essentially the same the whole time. Even Rake—I started writing this book before I even started dating my husband. He was much more of a jerk, previously.

While the ending of the novel is incredibly satisfying, there are a number of elements that seem open to another story. Is there any chance you will continue the stories begun in The Mermaid, The Witch and The Sea?

Firstly, hey, thank you! I'm glad you liked the ending. Endings are tough, and that one had a lot of versions. And to the question of a sequel: I hope so! I think it'll depend on some business-y decisions. But I definitely have stories for Genevieve and Alfie in mind.

What’s currently on your nightstand?

Phew. I always have a lot of books going. So I’m reading a Becky Chambers novella, The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel, and When We Were Magic, by Sarah Gailey. Just by accident, I’ve only read a couple books by cis-men this year, and I think I’m gonna stick with that trend.

It bears mentioning that one of those books was Hey Kiddo, which was great.

What was your favorite book when you were a child?

When I was very small, it was Maggie and the Monster, which is by Elizabeth Winthrop and illustrated by the marvelous Tomie dePaola. Then it was anything Calvin and Hobbes. Then it was Eating Ice Cream with a Werewolf. And then it was any Goosebumps book. Then it was Fear Street. Then it was the Enchanted Forest Chronicles. Then it was Stardust. Then in high school it was Slaughterhouse-Five.

Was there a book you felt you needed to hide from your parents?

No, but that was because I just stole the spicy books from my older sister and if they were left out my parents probably assumed she'd left them around. Which really, what a win-win. They didn't know I was reading a sexually explicit graphic novel set in a harem, AND they thought my sister was the one leaving clutter about. Sorry, Mikka.

Can you name your top five favorite or most influential authors?

My favorites to read for my own pleasure and revisiting are Donna Tartt, Patrick DeWitt, Bill Watterson, Carmen Maria Machado, and Bob Shea. And also Adam Rex. Also, also Sarah Gailey. And Kate DiCamillo, too. Favorites are hard.

Most influential for how I thought about writing The Mermaid, The Witch and The Sea are Patrick Ness, Kristin Cashore, MT Anderson, Lev Grossman, and Patricia Wrede.

What is a book you've faked reading?

I was a not-terribly diligent student and then a bookseller for a hundred years, so I've faked a lot of books in my day. But probably the one I was able to fake the most consistently and the most artfully in my life was The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, which I only finally read not too long ago and absolutely hated. I like to think my book stands as a rebuke to that one in some ways.

Can you name a book you've bought for the cover?

Several—many. The Magicians, by Lev Grossman, Seraphina by Rachel Hartman, the ARC cover that didn’t make the hardback of Grave Mercy, by Robin LaFevers, If a Tree Falls at Lunchtime, by Gennifer Choldenko, the first single issue of Saga, by Brian K Vaughan, and Mostly Dead Things, by Kristin Arnett. All great books, too, so I guess you CAN judge a book by its cover.

Is there a book that changed your life?

Slaughterhouse Five made me want to be a writer. Calvin and Hobbes taught me the line between mischief and cruelty. The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing made me want to write for teens. I Want My Hat Back made me want to write picture books. The Enchanted Forest Chronicles made me a fantasy reader.

Can you name a book for which you are an evangelist (and you think everyone should read)?

CAN I—The Power by Naomi Alderman to exorcise your anger, The Brothers Sisters by Patrick DeWitt to confront American toxic masculinity in a gentle way, Two Boys Kissing by David Levithan to find hope, The Heart in the Bottle by Oliver Jeffers to confront grief, In Other Lands to escape reality without escaping real people, The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro to meditate on mortality and memory, Exit West by Mohsin Hamid to find beauty in the worst things, The Secret History by Donna Tartt to be absolutely beguiled, and any Calvin and Hobbes to remember what it was like to live with a limitless imagination only a child (and Bill Watterson, I guess) can possess. I recommend The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue by Mackenzi Lee a LOT.

Is there a book you would most want to read again for the first time?

The Secret History by Donna Tartt. Although that one's been a real pleasure every time I've reread it, too. I’d also be curious what I’d think of Slaughterhouse Five as an adult. I read it as a teen at exactly the right moment, but there are a lot of things about it that I wonder if I'd find obnoxious now if it were new to me. As it stands, I can only see it the same way I did when I was fifteen like it was captured in amber.

What is your idea of THE perfect day (where you could go anywhere/meet with anyone)?

I have an infant son now, and I look forward to the day I can read him a story, and he'll have questions about it. Like, after dinner, before bed. Bellies full and lights low. That seems like a perfect day.

What is the question that you're always hoping you'll be asked, but never have been? What is your answer?

Can I bake you some cinnamon rolls? And the answer is almost always yes.

What are you working on now?

Breastfeeding. Finding a perfect banana bread recipe. A story to match a really fun opening line I came up within the tub the other day.

The Mermaid, the Witch, and the Sea
Tokuda-Hall, Maggie