Julia Langbein

How Improv Comedy Helped Her Write Her Debut Novel, ‘American Mermaid’

Cover of Julia Langbein: How Improv Comedy Helped Her Write Her Debut Novel, ‘American Mermaid’


I read American Mermaid on a flight from Boston to Los Angeles. I’m not sure if it was the reading, the garbage cup of coffee I sucked down, or the turbulence, but I encountered my first bought of plane sickness, feeling nauseous for the entire 6-hour and 35-minute flight. Julia Langbein kept my spirits up with this laugh out loud novel debut about broke English teacher Penelope Schleeman who writes a best-selling novel titled American Mermaid. With the promise of a big paycheck, she moves to LA to turn her feminist book into a big-budget action film with the help of two screenplay writers, Murphy and Randy. As Penelope navigates Hollywood, LA parties, and working with two men who have a very different interpretation of her book, things start to happen that she can’t explain. Is she losing it, or is her mermaid character real? Excerpts from her novel are woven throughout the book while it’s being planned for the screen, which adds a nice touch for the reader, who gets to see both sides of the story and meet the mermaid this is all centered around.

I spoke with Julia over Zoom where we discussed writing two stories in one, how comedy and performing improv influenced her writing, the importance of note-taking, and why we need to talk about money more often and honestly.

Kailey Brennan DelloRusso: What was the initial spark for American Mermaid?

Julia Langbein: I actually find that to be a really difficult question to answer because there wasn’t one leaping off point. But about five or six years ago,  I just started to find myself obsessively talking about the idea of a mermaid story. And I think people started to get annoyed. I was like; I have to stop talking about this and start doing it. But also, the real reason this book got written was that I was doing a lot of improv comedy at the time. I had done it a lot in my twenties, and then I stopped and went to grad school. While I was a research fellow at Oxford, supposedly doing a bunch of serious work— I had serious deadlines and stuff— I was sneaking off once a week and doing improv again.

When I got too pregnant to do improv anymore, there was this complete grief about not being able to do comedy. I missed it so much. I couldn’t live without it. So I sat down at my desk, opened a document, and basically started doing improv games and thinking with my improv mind on the page. I only knew about the rigors of writing through my academic training, but that’s how this book got gestated.

KBD: Oh wow. So what was the interest in mermaids? Where did that come from and what do you find interesting about their lore?

JL: When I was younger, like all Disney movies, The Little Mermaid really got me. Or rather, it captivated me. There are a lot of things going on there. I don’t understand what people find so alluring about mermaids. I mean, I find them alluring too. I don’t understand myself. It’s like they’re half fish. Like, what is that hybrid? And yet they’re so sexualized and such objects of desire. The Little Mermaid of all the fairy tales out there, is the most nakedly transactional. It’s a bargain that she makes. She sells something in return for something. That’s incredibly modern. The traditional myth of mermaids is that they lure sailors and then kill them. So, again, they’re very strange objects of desire. But also the way that we think of them and their own sexuality, if you will, their own desires are really ambiguous. And that’s what interested me most.

Penelope, the main character in this book—the writer, not the mermaid—she’s uncomfortable with desire. She wants to escape desire. She sees desire as a liability, and she wants to figure out what personhood is without desire. And I think there’s a reason that she had these fantasies about a mermaid as a character because they’re kind of ungendered, and they can be ideal in that way.

KBD: Speaking of Penny’s desires, I was really interested in her relationship with money. She wants more, but feels bad about wanting more. I was hoping you could talk about why this was important for you to include. We still don’t talk about money very honestly, especially in creative industries.

JL: I’m so glad you asked that question. I’m totally obsessed with class. A huge part of my academic work, as an art historian was thinking about class, and the kinds of ideas that culturally are considered appropriate for certain classes and not other classes. I wrote a lot about access to things like modernist art or what was later shaped as high art, but had once been popular art. So I’m really interested in all those questions, and I agree that class is not talked about. Money is not talked about.

Penny is precarious. She’s an English teacher in Connecticut, which is actually a state in which the salaries are pretty decent. But still, living wages in the US are hard to come by and everything is so insanely expensive. It’s something we all grapple with, and especially if you want to do something that doesn’t involve selling yourself in certain ways. She just wants to be a teacher. That’s all she wants.

Professions like caring professions, teaching professions, academia, journalism—these were once considered safe middle-class jobs and they aren’t anymore. There are also a lot of much worse, very low income jobs in which it’s impossible to make ends meet in America. But I think even that kind of security is being eroded from the middle. It’s a well known fact that there are teachers in the US who drive Uber in order to pay for school supplies.

Penny just wants to teach and be able to afford medical care and dental care and all these things. Especially when you have a top flight education as she does. A lot of people in her world seem like they just waltzed into these really lucrative jobs, and it almost feels like some kind of fault of yours or error to want to do something that isn’t just a big money spinner.

KBD: Yeah. I’m really interested in class too. I feel people in publishing are trying to be more transparent about how things work in the literary community but  I couldn’t give you an answer, even though I’ve listened to a million podcasts about it. It’s this thing that isn’t talked about in full, but we all need money to survive.

JL: There was an article that went around in academia a couple of years ago by a woman who had a tenure track job, which are few and far between these days. But she had won the golden ring, and she was saying that she still couldn’t make ends meet because of the cost of paying for her own images and books and the all various things. I think it’s really, really important for people to admit when the thing that they’re doing is not paying enough for them to live decently.

KBD: What did your writing process look like for basically writing two stories at once? And did you know that both stories needed to be included right away, or did you find this through revision?

JL:  As I mentioned earlier, I had been doing a lot of improv comedy. One of the structures that we use in improv is called a Harald. You may have seen one performed if you’ve ever gone to UCB or Groundlings. Basically, when you’re performing a Harald, you don’t start your scene by doing something hilarious. You start a scene by doing something really simple and basic, and then you move to the next scene and the next scene, and then you go back to those same scenes. So you have A, B, C. Then you have A1, B1, C1, then A2, B2, C2 and so one.

You are sorry you asked (laughs). 

But it was an improv structure that I had been doing a lot, where the comedy doesn’t come from you being ridiculous or silly. The comedy builds slowly from returning to the same scenes and seeing what kind of juxtapositions occur and what kind of connections you can make between them.

So the way that I ended up doing the story within a story was that I started with Penelope, the writer and then I did the mermaid scene, and then I did another scene with Randy and Murphy for example. And then I just improved it. I went back and returned to those three sites over and over again and built. That’s what my note cards looked like, three colors that I returned to over and over again. It couldn’t have been easier in some respects. It wasn’t some torturous thing I had to discover. It was like a template ready-made for me. And I’d been performing this very structure live so much in the weeks before I started the novel that I didn’t even have to think about it. It was second nature.

KBD: That’s so interesting to see the connection between comedy and novel writing.

JL: Yeah. I don’t have a background in writing fiction. I never studied fiction. I wasn’t an English major. So I actually don’t know how else I would’ve approached it (laughs). 

KBDHow long did it take you to write this novel and what did your routine look like?

JL: I started when I was pregnant and couldn’t do improv anymore, so that was in 2017.  And then, I finished the first draft in 2019. So between 2019 and 2023, there were draft revisions, there was sending it to trusted friends, and getting responses. People were writing back and saying, the second half needs to be stronger, or I need this or that. So there were a lot of changes that happened, but I was done with a full draft of the novel within two years. During those two years, I was commuting between Ireland and Oxford, employed for the first year and a half at Oxford. I was still a research fellow. I wrote an academic book that came out in 2022, which is based on ten years of archival research, a really serious book. So I kind of wrote American Mermaid in the interstice of having young children, writing another book and commuting all the time, trying to carry out my obligations as a fellow of this college at Oxford, and so on. It is crazy that it ever got written, and it’s a real testament to, I think, compulsion. I would get an idea for a scene, and I would sit down and bang it out even though I was supposed to be doing something else. I would run over and give it to my husband and watch him read it and watch him laugh. I just knew that it was good, and I knew it had to happen. I got some early feedback from people that said, this is really good. This is really funny. You’re onto something. And I knew it had a life. I couldn’t bear the idea of it not being written. It wasn’t like I had to flog myself to write it. I was running to the computer. A lot of it happened in notes on my phone. A lot of it happened with vocal notes as I was walking a baby. But that’s how it had to happen.

KBD: I love that. I also love a messy female protagonist like Penny. How do you get close to your characters? When did you start to really understand her?

JL: I think that the fact that this book is about a book being written by this character is a way of getting to know her.  There has to be a rigor in your invented world. You can’t just say or do anything. It’s a math equation and you have to solve it according to the rules of math. People who write fiction know this. That there’s an internal rigor.

If you know what it is that a person has created, then that gives you some data about who that person is and vice versa. If I know something about Penelope and her sense of humor and what she’s doing in these real world scenes in LA, then that’s propelling me into a knowledge of what kind of things she would write about. So in a funny way, the fact that I have these two sides of the person, I have her being a person in the world, and then I have something she made, gave me leverage to develop her really faithfully and coherently. So that is something I think I lucked into in a way.

KBD: I’m so jealous of your process. You are like, yeah it was easy and fun to write! (laughs)

JL: Beginngers luck, man. You want to talk about mother fucking torture, talk about the fact that it took me ten years and, you know, like half a million dollars in grants and so many weighty promises I made to so many institutions to write my academic book. Which I think that’s part of it. That absorbed so much angst and so much effort that I didn’t have any self-consciousness left. I couldn’t have any beef with this next project. It had to be a place that I went to for joy. So don’t worry,  I’ve had my tortures.

KBD: Do you have any advice for debut authors?
JL: I read this once in a book by David Shields, I think. I’m going to paraphrase it or get it terribly wrong, but I wrote it down at the time and it really helped me. The notes you are taking about the book, are the book. Sometimes an idea will come to you, and you’ll write really sketchily, and you think you later have to take that and make it really literary, or that you have to somehow make that novelistic. But actually, if you look at American Mermaid, there are a lot of moments in it that are, for example, text conversations. Or thoughts that are actually how people think. A  lot of times, I took notes, and of course, I brushed up my notes, and I flushed them out, but a lot of times, the notes were the book. The notes themselves, in their raw form and the way they came to me, were good enough. And the edginess that they had to them produced more with that same edginess. I didn’t polish off the raw edges of the notes. Note-taking is really important and listening to your notes instead of later trying to turn them into something, thinking you know better.

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