Running Narrative

A lament, a dare, a novel about mermaids.

Carrie Golus, AB’91, AM’93

The year was 2009. The first Twilight movie was out, the second was being advertised everywhere, and Elizabeth Fama, AB’85, MBA’91, PhD’96—like many struggling young-adult authors—found it hard to feel happy about Stephenie Meyer’s outsize success. During one of Fama’s daily jogs with her children, Sally Cochrane, U-High’07, AB’11, and Eric Cochrane, U-High’09, AB’13, she says, “I was bemoaning the fact that these books were getting so much attention.”

So Sally and Eric challenged her to write a paranormal romance: “It would take you two weeks,” they told her. “You’re always worrying about lyrical prose. Just crank that thing out.”

“It was really very mercenary, the way we started it,” says Fama.

She was already a published author: her novel Overboard (2002), based on the true story of a teenage girl who survives a ferry sinking in Indonesia, had been named an American Library Association Best Book for Young Adults. But since then she had not published anything. A young-adult novel, Love at First, set at the University of Chicago, found an agent but no publisher. (“It has an autobiographical component,” says Fama. “I’m kind of glad it didn’t sell.”) Her next manuscript was a humorous middle-grade novel, Hipponapped, which included comics drawn by Eric—similar to the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series. But her agent didn’t like the comics and submitted the book without them. “I think that was damaging to it,” says Fama. Hipponapped didn’t sell either.

So Fama accepted her children’s dare and every morning, during their jog around the Point, they spun the story together. Mermaids were chosen as the paranormal creature, simply because they hadn’t been done yet. (“In fact, everyone was thinking the same thing, and a whole slew of mermaid books came out,” says Fama.) Set in Plymouth, Massachusetts, the story spans more than 150 years and weaves in a family curse, ghosts, the theft and destruction of a rare book, and, of course, romance.

Monstrous Beauty (originally called Syrenka, after the mermaid) was published by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux in 2012 to strong reviews, like this one in School Library Journal: “History buffs, fantasy lovers, and mystery fans will all find something to please them in this engrossing story.”

Once Monstrous Beauty was finished, Fama felt stalled creatively—so Eric challenged her to a novel-writing duel. Fama’s novel, Plus One, an alternate history thriller for young adults, will be published in 2014. Eric is still revising his novel, The Mile Corpse, which Fama describes as “a Joycean space opera, involving a political struggle between aliens and their human colonists, using the weapon of linguistics.” It includes a chapter written in unrhymed heroic verse as well as an embedded screenplay.

In the family novel-writing contest—judged by an unscientific panel of Fama’s husband, Chicago Booth finance professor John Cochrane; their younger son, Gene Cochrane, U-High’12, ’16; and mutual friend Quinn Colter, AB’13—The Mile Corpse was the winner. “John voted for Eric,” says Fama, “Gene felt strongly it was a tie, and Quinn was quite torn but eventually went with Eric on the basis of cleverness.”


(Photography by Gene Fama Jr., U-High’79, AB’84)