Jessica Love refers to her debut, Julián Is a Mermaid (Candlewick), as her “backstage baby.” She created much of it between going on stage in two New York plays: the initial draft during a 2014 production of Jez Butterworth’s The River (starring Hugh Jackman) and the final art during a 2016 production of Julia Cho’s Aubergine at Playwrights Horizons.
The book, which tells the story of a boy who finds his people among the flamboyant participants of the Coney Island Mermaid Parade, floated into Love’s mind about six years ago. A boyfriend at the time had a family member who had recently come out as trans, and she was also watching “a lot” of RuPaul’s Drag Race.
“I was thinking about the way creativity and beauty can be used as a way to fashion your identity for yourself,” Love says. “And I wanted it above all to feel like a present to the people who needed it. A lot of the books that fall under this topic heading tend to feel like they’re instructing people how to behave, or how to explain the situation as if it’s a problem. I wanted to throw a little party.”
Love, the child of artist parents, had always had one foot in the visual arts and the other in theater: she studied the former at UC Santa Cruz, then crossed the country to study acting at the Juilliard School. And even as she avidly pursued an acting career, the idea of creating something that endured beyond a performance or production captivated her. “If I got hit by a bus, a book would be there the next day,” she says, adding that once she had the idea of Julián’s story, “I knew I had to finish it and put it out into the world.”
Love considered self-publishing, then decided to see if anyone in her theater network could connect her with an agent. In her Broadway debut, The Snow Geese, she became friends with Mary-Louise Parker, who, it turned out, was working on a book of her own. Parker’s agent showed Love’s book to another agent, Meredith Kaffel Simonoff, and a match was made. “The dovetailing couldn’t have been more snug,” Love says.
Simonoff helped trim the manuscript from what Love called an “insanely long” 45 pages and put together a proposal. Candlewick was their first choice, but the publisher initially passed—and then, months later, in a twist worthy of the theater, Candlewick’s Katie Cunningham called. “She said somehow the manuscript ended up on her desk and she wanted to make the book,” Love recalls. “And then we did a dance of joy.”
Late in the game, Love made a big decision: she redrew the entire book on paper that had the same weight and tone as Kraft paper. The original white paper, she realized, wasn’t doing justice to the darker, warmer tones of her characters’ skin or the pastels of the mermaid and water elements. Her art director, Ann Stott, agreed. “As soon as I put the characters on the brown paper, I breathed a sigh of relief,” Love says. “It was like my characters were saying to me, ‘What were we doing on this white void?’ ”
Love, who has been working as an actor “for years and years,” says nothing compares to what she’s experienced with the publication of her book. “Every day I get emails from parents with pictures of the kids dressed up like Julián, telling me how much their family needed this book,” she says. “To see this thing that I made toddling off into the world is a completely magical feeling.”
She’s taking a break from acting this summer while she promotes Julián. Among the events is a June 30 reading at the Coney Island Museum, although she notes that reading her own book aloud is “way more nerve-wracking than being in a play.” Success has also gotten her enough art commissions, including murals for nurseries, that she doesn’t have to worry about side gigs such as bartending, waitressing, and nannying (she has also taught dialects for the stage at the Barrow Group Performing Arts School).
But Love imagines she’ll go back to balancing acting and writing soon. “Acting is where I get my community, and the visual arts are much more solitary,” she says. “So I find it helpful to tack back and forth between the two.”
As for her next book, Love will only say, “It’s a hero’s journey for girls.”