Zibby interviews debut novelist Julia Langbein about American Mermaid, a hysterical and brilliantly sharp new book about a broke high-school English teacher, her bestselling feminist mermaid novel, and her misadventures adapting it for the big screen in Hollywood. Julia discusses the themes she loved exploring: intergenerational conflict, the desire for financial security, and the beauty of teaching. She also talks about her life in Paris, her obsession with humor and making people laugh, and how her past in standup comedy and art history (she has a Ph.D. in it!) influenced this book.

Zibby loved American Mermaid so much that she picked it for Zibby’s Book Club in July!!


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Julia. Thanks so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss American Mermaid.

Julia Langbein: Thank you so much for having me.

Zibby: I know I was just raving about your book before we started. I literally laughed out loud twice in the first three pages. Out loud. Not even to myself in my head.

Julia: That’s what I want to hear. That makes me so happy. That’s all I want in life, is to hear that from people.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, you’re so funny. I wonder if it’ll sound funny if I even read it. This was so funny, this whole thing with Danielle. By the way, I went to Yale, so I lived in New Haven and went to Union League Cafe. I literally lived in the building above that restaurant.

Julia: You know lots of the sights.

Zibby: Yes. I appreciated that. Thank you. Can I just read the soup and salad part? I know this is right in the beginning. “I ordered the soup and salad combo because it was the cheapest thing on the menu. Plus, it seemed like a lot to me. Two things. Though when I ordered it, Danielle said, ‘Soup and salad? You sure that’s enough? It’s a pee and a fart. Get something substantial.’ It seemed like she knew more about my real hungers than I did and that I should trust her knowledge about what would nourish me. ‘I’m getting the cassoulet,’ she said. ‘This has to get me back to New York,’ as if she’d be having it alongside the Metro-North tracks on the metabolized steam of bean and duck.”

Julia: This is a dream experience. Having someone read my text back to me laughing so hard that they can’t finish the sentence is all I’ve ever wanted.

Zibby: It’s so true. Then she talks about — I won’t read that much more. I promise. “Tonight, we met at Danielle’s stucco castle in Silver Lake. While she got ready, she gave me a goblet of chardonnay and put me in front of a reality TV show about a five-hundred-pound teenager who gets gastric bypass surgery. The laparoscopic camera tunneled through soft flows of yellow fat searching for the teen’s stomach. Danielle zapped off the TV on a shot of his body, naked, looking like the cushions of a beige leather sofa piled on a metal table. ‘I’ve seen this one,” said Danielle. ‘He ends up hot.’ Her eyebrows danced up and down for a moment, and we laughed together. ‘You should track him down,’ I said, rolling with her suggestiveness. ‘They did a reunion show. He’s dead. Pop the wine in the fridge. Let’s scoot.'” Oh, my god, you’re so funny.

Julia: I’m so happy that you’re willing to let yourself laugh and enjoy it. Sometimes people get a book that’s really funny in their hands, and they’re like, this shouldn’t be so funny. What’s wrong with me? Or because there’s also profoundness and depth and ideas in there, that that’s somehow incompatible with it being hilarious. Actually, for me, my favorite writers are the ones that give you something hilarious, and then you laugh your way to something meaningful and something true. The comedy is so part of it. I feel like some people that I gave early copies to were like, “This is great. It’s just, I’m not sure why it’s so funny.” It’s like, just relax. It’s okay. It can just be funny. It’s okay.

Zibby: It’s great to be funny. It’s not just funny, but it happens to be really funny and clever. You know Catherine Newman’s book? It’s so funny, but it’s really about hospice.

Julia: Exactly, yeah.

Zibby: I think anything funny is fabulous. You’re so creative, too, with how you wrote the book. The book is about a woman who writes a novel. Then it gets sold as a screenplay, essentially, that she writes. In your novel, then you have excerpts of her novel. It’s so cool.

Julia: You get to experience the novel and the adaptation.

Zibby: I’m so glad because I often feel like when there’s books about — I’m always like, you should go write that novel. People are like, ha ha, yeah, that’d be funny. Then you did it. There it is. It’s so great.

Julia: The thing is — you have this woman, Penelope. She’s a high school English teacher. She wrote a novel. What you don’t learn is how the novel reflects her past experiences. It has nothing to do with her past. She writes a novel. Then that novel that she wrote kind of explodes her into the future and explodes the future. I really like that idea, that books, not that they just reflect their authors’ biographies or their authors’ — they are these things that we launch into the future. We can change our own lives with them. We can change other people’s lives with them. That’s what is so fun about flipping between the made-up and real, if you will, in this book.

Zibby: It’s so cool. Maybe I should ask, what’s your book about?

Julia: I’m so bad at that. It’s so hard. There’s a woman who wrote — she’s a high school English teacher. She wrote a novel called American Mermaid. When the book starts, it’s just been a surprise hit. She’s been offered a chance to go out to Hollywood to work with these two male hacks, these two male screenwriters, to turn the book into a screenplay. It follows her adventures out in California.

Zibby: You described the guys in such a funny way. What did you say? They have buns of steel from some workout. I can’t even remember. The way you described these two guys, the twins who gossip like sixteen-year-old girls or something like that.

Julia: They’re like two teenage girl best friends. They spend all their time together. They have butts made of corten ship-building steel. I think that’s what I said. I’ve read this book so many times.

Zibby: Yes, that was so great. I love it. Sorry, I cut you off. Keep talking about the book.

Julia: No, please. She’s out there in LA. It’s sort of a fish-out-of-water story. She’s this really crunchy, liberal New Englander out in LA. Everything she says accidentally sounds bitchy. There’s a kind of tonal disconnect in LA. Also, she really grapples with ideas of representation and the self and how to hold onto yourself but also get a foothold in a world of total economic precarity. She really wants to just be an English teacher, but it is financially precarious. There’s a dream of being a “creative” and getting a big paycheck out there. The question is, how much of yourself are you willing to sell to have that kind of stability and to feel like you’ve made it?

Zibby: She’s so funny when she’s standing in the aisle debating which shampoo to get at CVS.

Julia: Story of my life.

Zibby: Then also — I feel like it’s not a spoiler since it’s early on. She finds out early on that she’s a carrier of the BRCA1 gene and needs to have this surgery. You even say it in a funny way, that having to have elective mastectomy and then reconstruction to have the body parts you were born with is somehow a privileged act of narcissism.

Julia: Exactly. Just to be your normal self, you’ve acted like some snob or something. That adds to her financial pressures in order to just take care of herself. For so many of us, one of the freakiest things about economic precarity is health care and the ability to make sure things are going to be okay. That’s another detonation that sends her leaving this job that she loves — she loves her students; she loves teaching — out to LA. I used to teach, not in high school, but at the university level. I stopped teaching for a while just because I had a research fellowship. A lot of the energy of this book came from missing teaching, actually, and missing being around people in these formative years, people in a state of becoming who are insurrectionists and a little bit — in the book, I talk about how her students, they never got anyone’s name right when they’d read literature. They’d read a book by Edith Wharton, and they just can’t get anyone’s name right, but they immediately go to the deepest levels. They fully understand the emotional realities of the books that they read. I had all these memories of teaching these undergraduates, people who were eighteen, nineteen. I was teaching art history, so we’d be looking at really complicated images or whatever. They didn’t really care whether it was a painting or a photograph. They’d be like, “This photograph by Rembrandt…” You’re like, it’s not a photograph. They would get really important things at the same time. There’s something about the way, in a classroom setting, you get to know the way that young minds are both confused and more right about the biggest things than we even can admit.

Zibby: I also love her relationship with her dad and how he is enabling her to live. She doesn’t want that, but she needs that. You have the whole podcast where she is talking all about her dad. She doesn’t even realize it because she was kind of drunk on the podcast and all upset. That is a really interesting dynamic, which of course, is happening in families all over the place now. I guess from the beginning of time. Her sister has to call and be like, it’s okay. He’s not evil. He’s a republican. He’s not a dictator. We went to private school. It’s okay. You’re alive. Stop it.

Julia: Why are you so mad at our parents all the time? They raised us. Relax. A huge part of this book and something I’m interested in generally is intergenerational conflict, which is such a huge part of the way we live right now. There’s so much anger at our parents. I don’t want to call my dad out, but he definitely was not into “tree-huggers.” Now I’m like, you guys, you literally ruined everything. He thought that being a tree-hugger was not worth your vote. There is a lot of economic anger, obviously, about the economy and stuff like that. I mean, a lot of intergenerational anger about the way the — the whole idea that COVID was ever called a Boomer remover, these horrible — there’s actually so much vitriol. I wanted to deal a little bit with both the irrational love and support that can happen intergenerationally, like the way that these teenagers just come out of the woodwork and go to bat for this woman who’s half a generation older, but also the way that we are allowed to feel insane rage for the people that we love and who love us.

Zibby: I love the idea of this being so meta that now you’re going to say something bad about your dad on this show.

Julia: God, Jesus, no.

Zibby: You know what I mean? Now he’s going to get mad.

Julia: I know. Why do you think I’m drinking sparkling water and not a margarita? I’m going to keep this in check. Saving the margarita for the therapist.

Zibby: Oh, my god, I love it.

Julia: I need to do one of those pharmaceutical disclaimers about how I love everyone in my family. They’re all perfect.

Zibby: We’ll put it in the show notes.

Julia: There you go.

Zibby: Wait, back up to your life now for a second. Tell me where you come from and how you started your whole career and how we got to here. Why do you live in Paris? I just want to know everything about you.

Julia: I know it’s very confusing. There’s so many things that don’t actually make sense. Elizabeth Gilbert’s blurb pointed this out. The book itself is like a mermaid. It’s two halves that are stitched together. I literally didn’t realize that until after it was published. I feel like that’s very true of me too. I’ve done a lot of comedy, stand-up, sketch, improv, running around doing make-believe with hilarious people. Then also, I bailed out of that at some point when things were actually going quite well because I just had this leftover — I literally had all these questions about Manet. I was working in New York and doing comedy. I got into a PhD program in Chicago. I kind of thought, there’s comedy in Chicago. I’ll go to Chicago because I can still do comedy. Once I started my PhD, my comedy agent was like, “Everyone’s dream is to be a comic actor or performer. You want to actually go to grad school at the same time? No.” He’s like, “I’m never taking your calls again. Go jump off a cliff.” I just threw myself into this PhD program and became a very — that’s a very serious world. I wrote an academic book all about the history of, actually, comic art criticisms or art critics whose criticism was caricature, made fun of art and understood it through comedy. There was still always an interest in this kind of thinking, and in a way that — I’ve always believed that when you laugh and when things are comic, it’s not leaving intelligence behind. It’s a form of intelligence. That runs through my academic work and the novel. Anyway, so I did this PhD. Then I went off to Oxford for my first job after my PhD, which was a research fellowship.

I just got the bug again and started doing comedy again. I started doing improv. I was having so much fun with it, laughing until my whole body hurt, just having the best time. I’m a huge proponent of just playing. That’s what improv is. It’s play. Then I got too pregnant, and I couldn’t be in bars anymore around. I was weeks away from giving birth. Everyone was like, “You’re uncomfortable to be on stage with. Can you leave?” I basically started doing improv alone at my computer with the novel. That’s what it was. It’s very dialogical, the novel. There’s a lot of scenes of people having conversations. That’s me doing improv basically with myself just playing both roles. Even this whole structure of the novel within the novel, it didn’t come from literary models. It came from an improv game, this thing called the Harold where it allows you stretch a story out for a long time by returning over and over again to the same scenes. The whole form really came out of comedy and game playing and fun. That’s how I ended up writing a novel, was just being kind of torn between those worlds, so it makes sense that it’s a book about a hybrid creature.

Zibby: Wow. Why are you in Paris now?

Julia: My specialty as an art historian was nineteenth-century France, so it always made sense that — then my husband got a job opportunity here. It made sense for us both professionally. Now it’s actually a strangely excellent place to be writing in English because I’m so isolated. I don’t spend any English. I save all my English. I don’t talk to anyone in English until I go up to my attic and write. I feel very fresh when I start to write. It’s actually been kind of lovely. Maybe I’ll go crazy and feel too isolated and have to get some anglophone vibes at some point. Right now, it’s heaven. It’s great.

Zibby: That’s awesome. I’ve been slowly putting together this little group of authors who have been on my podcast who live in Paris. Every time a new Paris author I interview, I put them on — they’ve all been meeting up. It’s really fun. I’m going to add you to their little list.

Julia: Oh, my god, do. I definitely need friends. If I stay this isolated for much longer, I am going to get weird. I’m going to get weird.

Zibby: They’re all different types of authors. I’m just like, you all write great books.

Julia: I grew up in New Hampshire. I grew up on university campuses. Then I was at grad school. I do miss being around people who live and breathe writing, ideas. That sounds snotty. Not ideas, but maybe dorks, just people with a specialty too. That was a real thing in the university world, is this idea that people don’t really talk about something unless they’ve — if they have an opinion about something, they’ve often read everything there is to say about it. They know that what they’re saying is the truth. Then you get out into the real world, and you’re like, wait a minute, everyone just has some half-baked opinion. What’s this? At some point, maybe I feel like I’ll have to come in from the cold and get back in the world of teaching or something. For now, I’ll just hang out at cafés with your acquaintances. That sounds great.

Zibby: Perfect. Amazing. Are you writing another novel now?

Julia: I am writing another novel. I’m halfway through with this other novel. It’s a little bit different in that it’s not, maybe, as slapstick-y funny, but I’m just trusting — when I was in undergrad, I did a playwriting class. I used to write stuff that I thought was really serious. I was like, here’s my one-act about a literary magazine. People would laugh so hard at what I’d written. I’m going to just hope that even though, with this one, my north star with every choice isn’t, what’s going to make everyone laugh? it’s still got funny bones in it. We’ll see.

Zibby: I love that. I really like humor. Not that I’m super funny, but I really appreciate it so much. Like you, if I’m writing something that makes me crack up, that’s the best day.

Julia: Totally. If I find a writer who can make me laugh, they go in a special box. I’ll find everything you’ve done. Thank you. I’m so, so into funny writers and in awe of them.

Zibby: I tried to write a literary prose poem.

Julia: That sounds hilarious.

Zibby: It actually probably would be now if I drudged it up. I was like, oh, okay, I can do this. This is how it’s going to be. I’m not going to have quote marks. Of course, it doesn’t work. Only people who really feel and write that way can write that way. I think it’s all about finding your voice, which obviously, you have. It’s so great. Everything about this is so creative. It’s just circles and circles of creativity swirling around.

Julia: I’m so glad you felt that way and had fun in my circles.

Zibby: Yes, I had fun in your circles. What do you like to read? Who are authors who do make you laugh?

Julia: I feel like the writer that made me go, “Wait a minute, this is something I want to try to do,” is Evelyn Waugh. I think back to something like Vile Bodies, which is a book that is a string of parties. There’s so many parties in American Mermaid. I love writing parties. I love parties. If there’s anybody who wants to invite me to a party, I’ll go. It’s actually a meditation on the consequences of war, which you only really understand at the end, these jerkoffs running around and losing each other and losing their money. It’s actually about the multidimensional consequences of this war and of their participation in it. Early on, I knew with him that something was going on where I was dying laughing and putting the book down, but I was also really getting to things, getting to an understanding of history and, again, intergenerational relations and of just really profound truths about being a person in the world.

The Patrick Melrose novels, so Edward St Aubyn. I’m reading his new one right now. It’s a satire of literary awards. It’s really funny. The Patrick Melrose novels are so, so cutting and deep. They’re about a horrible, toxic family event, but they make you laugh so hard. Patricia Lockwood is out of this world, next-level funny. Talk about hilarious poetry. I even went back and dug into her poems. I’m there for all of it. Her nonfiction is absolutely hilarious. Her essay in the LRB on John Updike is chef’s-kiss hilarious. I was just reading a book. She was actually published in the 1980s. This is one that your listeners might not know. She’s really well-known in Ireland. Her name is Molly Keane, K-E-A-N-E. There was an Irish Times roundup of who the funniest authors were. They asked all these writers. Everyone namedropped her. I’d never heard of her. I’m a couple chapters in. It’s funny. It’s also very dark. There’s a lot of stuff about Catholicism. Surprise. It’s great. I’ll follow whatever leads anyone has for comic authors.

Zibby: Have you read Nora Goes Off Script by Annabel Monaghan?

Julia: No, I haven’t.

Zibby: You have to read that. It won’t take long. She has that same smart/funny thing going.

Julia: Awesome. Annette Goes Off Script. Sounds good.

Zibby: Nora Goes Off Script. It’s really funny.

Julia: Oh, Nora Goes Off Script.

Zibby: The Catherine Newman book too — I’m blanking on the name — about hospice. I feel like you would maybe like those two. Start on those. Let me know what you think, if I’m on the right track. In terms of your process and all of that, do you just sit there and think, what’s funny? Did you divide your time with, “Today, I’m going to work on the novel in the novel. Today, I’m going to do a dialogue scene”? How did it go?

Julia: I started writing it when I was writing my academic book. I’d be writing the stuff that had to be intensely footnoted and argued. Every inch of it had to be so hard-fought. Especially when you’re working in archives when you’re doing research — to get into the Bibliothèque Nationale is this insane process. You have to check everything and swipe a card. You’ll never get back in if you get out. To take a mental break from that kind of writing, I’d just switch over to another document and go stretch my legs in the novel. When I was working on those two books at the same time — weirdly, those two books, they’re like twins in utero. They kind of fed each other, maybe fought for resources. It’s a better way of putting it. Then once I finished the academic book, I think having had the experience of doing academic writing and knowing how hard it is, I’m just so grateful for the blank, bloody page. I’m just so happy to go frolic. Even this next one that I’m writing, I don’t want to jinx myself, but I’ve just been going really fast because I’m like, there’s no one here to tell me I can’t say that. Then it goes to readers, and I get feedback. I get told I shouldn’t say that or whatever. It’s like Forrest Gump with those braces on his legs. This is the first and last time. I’ve never compared myself to Forrest Gump. I don’t think I’ll do it again. I just had the image of the little braces flying off his super strong legs because you’ve been trained so hard to do this thing that’s so much rigor.

Zibby: Speaking of utero, you mentioned when you were too pregnant to keep partying. I’m assuming a child came after that.

Julia: Oh, yeah. There are two of them.

Zibby: How has motherhood factored into your career and your writing and all of that?

Julia: You know what’s crazy? I think about the title of your podcast. It’s so funny how they are such a time-suck, obviously. I have to go pick them up in a minute and swiftly deposit them with a childcare professional and go out to dinner. Thank you. For once. I started writing this book right before I had my child. Then I wrote it while I was raising a small child. I’m not fully in control of how that happened. I don’t know why. There’s definitely something about having kids that makes you take your spare time really seriously and do what you need to do for yourself in that time, and I do. All the time, I’m like, you guys are fine playing with string. I’m going to go write for a minute. You’re fine eating playdough. I’m going to go write. I think a lot of the questions in this book about personhood and about how you’re seen in the world and who you are and who you want to be and gender, these issues of gender and genderedness and how women are represented — I have two girls. Those questions became really important and loud to me once I had these kids. Having kids is an impediment. I’m lucky I’ve had good childcare. Also, I live in Europe. There’s a lot of support. It didn’t ruin my creative life. It completely made it possible and deeper and better. Thank you, you little monsters, you selfish little twerps. Thank you.

Zibby: That can be your next dedication.

Julia: Exactly. You made me so insane with sleep deprivation that it really sent my creativity into interesting places.

Zibby: Thank you, selfish little twerps.

Julia: Thank you, selfish little twerps. Did I say that?

Zibby: Yeah.

Julia: Whoops. Maybe I did have a margarita.

Zibby: You did, but I love it.

Julia: I had a Zima.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, this has been so fun. American Mermaid, so awesome. Thank you so much. I’m so excited for this to come out.

Julia: Thank you for reading it. Thank you for laughing.

Zibby: Love it. I’ll read anything you write.

Julia: It’s a pleasure to talk to you. Thank you.

Zibby: You too. Have a great day. Good luck with the pick-up.

Julia: You too. I will. Bye.

Zibby: Bye.


AMERICAN MERMAID by Julia Langbein

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