Mark Siegel insists that he’s never been particularly interested in mermaids and that he didn’t set out to author a book. Instead, his 399-page graphic novel Sailor Twain (First Second Books, $24.99) “started out as turmoil that I couldn’t ignore.” His answer to his late 30s life angst? Journaling and sketching on his commute into Manhattan. “And one day, there she was,” he says. That was in 2005; he immediately began crafting the story, which is set mostly on a steamboat on the Hudson in 1887. In 2010 he put his charcoal sketches online — three pages a week — and admits that “something kind of magical happened” when he began interacting with his devoted blog readers. Now, the book is a New York Times best-seller; and Siegel, a Brown University grad who once considered himself a starving artist, is the darling of the literary establishment (John Irving called his book “a gripping novel with compelling characters”). Heck, Millbrook Vineyards even named two wines after the book. Here, Siegel sounds off on his amazing journey.
On founding First Second Books, an imprint of Macmillan Publishing that focuses on graphic novels: I started that in 2005. It’s going very well; I now work with some of the greatest talents around. But I always knew if I shelved my own projects I’d regret it for the rest of my days. So I negotiated a four-day work week right from the start.
Getting the book done: It has meant getting up very, very early. Most of the work was done between five and seven in the morning. My top speed was three or four pages a week.
On choosing charcoal: I’ve worked in charcoal just for my pleasure since I was pretty young. But it is not recommended for comics because it is very messy.
Uncovered during research: There are mermaids throughout all of history. Did you know that the Starbucks logo is a mermaid? Look at it — it’s a double-tailed mermaid. They’re everywhere.
On keeping the story historically accurate: I spent a lot of time at the historical societies and going up to places like Poughkeepsie and Albany.
Blog readers helped out: A couple of them were total steamboat geeks. One of them would pipe up to say, “No, no, no, the pistons in the engine room are definitely Mississippi River pistons. An engine room on the Hudson would not be like that.” I would go in and fix it to be accurate.
On including his blog fans: I was working on a scene with a costume ball and I said to the readers,“If you want to send me a photograph of yourself, you can have a cameo.” Now there are about 100 faces in this book that are actual readers.
Will there be a movie? There’s been talk. I won’t believe a word of it until I’m eating popcorn in the theater.
Cast as the captain? At one point on the blog the readers started doing a poll; it was Johnny Depp.
Could the story have taken place on another river? No! They’re inseparable. The Hudson has a certain kind of Gothic quality to it.
On loving Tarrytown: I like the village life. It’s not so suburban; you can almost not have a car. There is a real community there.
The universal appeal of the mermaid: I’ve gotten to the point where I think there is a truth to the mermaid. It’s not just fantasy. If you’ve been alive for any length of time, you’ve heard the call of the mermaid. You either went down with it or you may have resisted it, or maybe you’ve even been a mermaid to somebody else. It’s interesting stuff.
Sailor Twain’s New York: Secrets and Mysteries of the River Hudson
This New York Public Library exhibit, which runs through April 28, takes a look at the library collections that helped inspire Siegel’s book. For more information, visit www.nypl.org.