TARRYTOWN, N.Y. – It's not every day that you find a mermaid hanging from the side of your steamboat.
But that's what the main character of "Sailor Twain" finds in Tarrytown author and illustrator Mark Siegel's book. The graphic novel follows the adventures of Sailor Twain and his boss, the lecherous, libertine Frenchman Mr. Lafayette over the course of a summer in New York in 1887.
“There's these two world views with these two men,” Siegel said. “At the start of their arcs they have different morals, world views, different ideas of being a man and different ways of thinking about women. Those are some of the deeper-running themes of the story.”
Siegel has lived in Tarrytown on and off since 2000. He has written several picture books and oversees First Second books, a publishing imprint of Macmillian Publishers.
His novel is set on the Hudson River as Twain runs his boat between Manhattan and Albany. Siegel sets scenes all along the river, including Tarrytown. Unlike most comics, Siegel chose to draw in charcoal.
"Sailor Twain" spent five weeks on The New York Times best-seller list and before that was a popular web comic. Siegel says he always intended for it to be a book, but he wanted to experiment with serialization—something authors in the 1880s made popular.
“I didn't know if anybody would actually come along for the ride and as it turns out many, many people did,” he said.
The series eventually garnered about 800,000 followers.
While writing, Siegel spent nine years doing research for his story, including themes like the women's suffrage movement and race relations at the time. He also spent a good deal of time researching mermaids and their myths, coming to see the real life obsessions and compulsions behind mermaids.
“Usually after two years I'm basically exhausted on any project,” he said. “Nine years in, it was still fascinating.”