By Alaina Leary
Today we’re pleased to welcome Ashley Herring Blake to the WNDB blog to discuss her MG novel Hazel Bly and the Deep Blue Sea, out May 25, 2021!
Hazel Bly used to live in the perfect house with the perfect family in sunny California. But when a kayaking trip goes horribly wrong, Mum is suddenly gone forever and Hazel is left with crippling anxiety and a jagged scar on her face. After Mum’s death, Hazel, her other mother, Mama, and her little sister, Peach, needed a fresh start. So for the last two years, the Bly girls have lived all over the country, never settling anywhere for more than a few months.
When the family arrives in Rose Harbor, Maine, there’s a wildness to the small town that feels like magic. But when Mama runs into an old childhood friend—Claire—suddenly Hazel’s tight-knit world is infiltrated. To make it worse, she has a daughter Hazel’s age, Lemon, who can’t stop rambling on and on about the Rose Maid, a local 150-year-old mermaid myth.
Soon, Hazel finds herself just as obsessed with the Rose Maid as Lemon is—because what if magic were real? What if grief really could change you so much, you weren’t even yourself anymore? And what if instead you emerged from the darkness stronger than before?
What drew you to the Rose Maid and to mermaid myths as a central point of this story?
I wish I had a super interesting answer for this question, but I think the Rose Maid came together from several different ideas. Maine, the setting for the book, had a very foggy, misty, seaside feel to me, at least the town I created did, and a mermaid myth seemed like something the locals would love in that environment. Something a little spooky, but also rooted in a real historical person from their town, and a touch of magic. Then, the idea for the myth, how Hazel would find herself inside of it, just slowly came together as I plotted and wrote the book.
You have written both YA and MG. What do you see as different, especially from a craft perspective, about each?
The biggest difference, as simplistic as it sounds, is really that there are pretty huge differences between a twelve-year-old and a seventeen-year-old. To me, that middle grade age truly is “middle,” where kids are stuck in between being a kid and being a young adult, which is a really fraught time. You’re just starting to understand yourself apart from your family, friends and social life are starting to claim equal space with family, and while it is absolutely true that identity can be discovered, explored, and changed at any age, that middle-grade age is often—though certainly not always—the first time a person is really starting to think about who they are in the world and how they take up space. More than anything, I think these elements influence how I write middle-grade stories and differentiate it from YA.
I was drawn to this book because, like Hazel, I lost my mom young. Why did you want to explore the ways that grief impacts kids at this age? What do you think is unique about portraying the experience of grieving as a child or young teen?
Part of my inspiration for the book was that I lost my mom as well, though not young. I was 32, but I had already lost my dad, so I experienced a certain unmooring that I wasn’t prepared to face until far later in life. I wanted to explore grief in general, but with Hazel, I was able to dive into what it might be like to lose a parent at a very young age and how that would inevitably change who you are forever. I think for Hazel, because she was in that fraught middle grade period of her life, it was even more profound because her first experience of really sifting through identity was inevitably linked to her grief. I don’t think that’s something she—or anyone who loses a parent at a young age—can ever really change about themselves. That loss is part of them. And really, that’s what I wanted to portray in this book. When you experience that kind of loss, you never get over that, and there is some comfort in understanding and accepting that fact. But—and this is a big but—there is absolutely a life after that loss. It will change you, but you will continue to change and grow and learn and love, and that is what those of us who have lost someone needs to really hear and embrace.
The world-building in Hazel Bly creates a poignant world in Rose Harbor, where Hazel moves, but also in Hazel’s previous home in California. How did you create such compelling worlds in a contemporary novel? What was your process for building Hazel’s worlds and her connections to the places she’s lived (and how that may impact her grief)?
In this novel, in particular, I wanted to have a setting that really mirrored where Hazel was in her life. It couldn’t be a sunny, perpetually blue-skied beach setting. It needed to be moody, complex, full of mystery. I think setting is a great way to reflect character arcs. As for how I create it…that is the question. Setting is another one of those story elements that really comes together as I write it. Small details are important, giving the setting itself a personality just like any character. Aside from that, I think the places we’ve lived as kids influence our memories in more powerful ways than where we live as adults. Each place in our lives is important, but they call them “formative years” for a reason, and towns, homes, schools, they’re powerful. I can still remember how my childhood home smelled, remember the feel of riding my bike down a huge hill in our neighborhood we all called “Killer Hill.” For Hazel, place was forever linked to the life she lost, but also to the life she didn’t think she could fully live, only survive.
I can’t help but adore your cat, Hazel, that you adopted in 2020. Did you name her after Hazel Bly? How is she different from Hazel the character? I name my cats after fictional characters too and I just got a kitten in March, so I’m obsessed.
This is such a fun question! I wish I had an equally fun answer, but the truth is, I just love the name Hazel. Hazel the cat just seemed like my cat’s name! It just felt right and that she shares it with Hazel Bly is a happy coincidence. She’s actually the snuggliest, sweetest cat ever…so the exact opposite of Hazel Bly.
If you could design your dream panel to promote Hazel Bly, what would it be about? What other authors would you love to have on it with you?
I would love to be on a panel with other authors who also tackle difficult subjects in their middle-grade books, not just grief. Nicole Melleby, Kacen Callender, A.J. Sass, Brandy Colbert, Lisa Jenn Bigelow, and Kathryn Ormsbee.
If the characters in this novel showed up on your doorstep in real life, who would you get along most with?
Another great question! Honestly…probably Hazel. I would love to say Lemon with her optimism, but I’m a bit of a moody curmudgeon myself, but hopefully, the kind that Hazel ended up being by the end of the book. I think I’d also get along well with Jules and their love of art, books, and calming presence.
What other books do you see Hazel Bly as being in conversation with? And do you have any forthcoming or published books you’d recommend?
I definitely see it alongside Nicole Melleby’s How to Become a Planet, which is releasing the same day as Hazel Bly, as well as Lisa Jenn Bigelow’s Hazel’s Theory of Evolution. I could go on and on with book recs, but some of my recent faves are Ana on the Edge by A.J. Sass, King and the Dragonflies by Kacen Callender, The Only Black Girls in Town by Brandy Colbert, Generation Misfits by Akemi Dawn Bowman, and Candidly Cline by Kathryn Ormsbee.
What’s one question you wish you were asked more often (and the answer)?
Wow, this one stumped me! If I may brag on you a bit, I really love the questions here and how they focused on ideas, craft, a character’s growth, and emotions, and how that relates to young readers, as opposed to just one aspect of my main character’s identity. Not that I mind talking about Ivy, Sunny, and Hazel’s queerness—I don’t at all! I obviously want to put queer MG into the world. But I do appreciate recognizing that queer kids—and all marginalized kids—are more than one thing. We all are. Other than that, I’m always ready to talk about my cats more.