Portland writer Emily Zack, pen name “MZ”, rehearses with dancers for a performance based on her novel “The Moorings of Mackerel Sky.” Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

What is the equivalent of a movie trailer for a book?

For Portland writer Emily Zack, the answer is a dance.

This month, Disney’s Hyperion Avenue will publish Zack’s debut novel, “The Moorings of Mackerel Sky,” a story about the residents of a Maine fishing town built on a legend about mermaids. To promote the book, Zack decided to lean on her background as a dancer. She is a classically trained ballerina, a contemporary and burlesque dancer, a choreographer and a founder of Vivid Motion Dance Company in Portland.

Zack gave advance copies of “The Moorings of Mackerel Sky” to three friends at Vivid Motion, and on Tuesday, the company will perform original works inspired by the novel in lieu of a traditional book launch. Guests at the one-night-only show will get a signed book with their ticket and a teaser for the story – but no spoilers. (“A dance trailer,” she told her fellow choreographers. “I want people to go and read the book and not know the big twists.”)

“I express myself through writing, but dance and choreography feeds my soul, and my community is a big part of who I am,” Zack said. “I looked at the network that I had, and I just really wanted to do something fun and special with this book.”

Choreographers who worked with Zack on the production said their dances are an invitation to read their friend’s book.


“Having taken elements from the book and turning them into movement, it makes the book come alive,” said Jessica Jane Means, artistic director of Vivid Motion. “That’s what happens when you take a piece of literature or a piece of writing, and you put it on the body. It’s a different way to make something accessible.”


Zack, 45, is originally from Portland and lives in the city with her husband and two daughters. She spent 20 years as a French teacher at King Middle School before she left in 2022 and is now a full-time writer. She had been outlining the book for years and finally sat down to write it during the COVID-19 pandemic. Zack sent chapters to agents and found one who loved the book and secured the deal with Hyperion. (“An exercise in perseverance and faith and trust in my own ability,” she said of that experience.) The novel is published under her pen name “MZ,” chosen in part as a tribute to her students who knew her as “Ms. Zack.” The story is deeply rooted in her home state.

“My mother is from Jonesport, which is a lobstering town on the coast, a tiny, tiny town,” she said. “I really wanted to take that feel and put it in this book. It’s really a love story to the wilds of Maine and growing up barefoot on the blueberry barrens and how that really affected me.”

“The Moorings of Mackerel Sky” also grew out of pain. When Zack had a miscarriage 12 years ago, writing became an outlet for that experience.

“It devastated me, and this story came out of grief,” she said. “I started to create this character named Manon who lost her baby. Through her, I was able to heal.”


Manon lives in the fictional town of Mackerel Sky, which takes its name from the term for dappled clouds that look like fish scales. Legend says the small Maine town was founded by a sea captain who fell in love with a mermaid. Three hundred years later, the novel weaves that lore into the lives of its modern-day characters – the grieving mother who spends her days sewing quilts, a troubled teenager and the gruff widow who looks out for him, the star of the high school baseball team who is afraid to come out as gay.

“The message behind this story is death is part of life, and grief is all the love you have left to give,” she said.

Zack describes the book as magical realism. The original title for the book used the word “mermaids” instead of “moorings.” But Zack agreed to change the title because she wants it to be approachable to people who don’t typically read fantasy.

“This book is for middle schoolers and high schoolers who feel like they’re not understood,” she said. “This is for adults. This is for mothers. It’s for Mainers. It’s for people who believe in true love and family and the magic in every day.”


Zack writes like a dancer. She thinks about how the words look on the page, how the sentences flow and how she wants to convey emotion. She starts a story in the same way she starts a new piece of choreography – by thinking about her intention.


“I am trying to bring the intention of my book out through the dance,” she said.

To do that, she turned to her community at Vivid Motion. The company started more than 20 years ago when Zack and friends organized a holiday-themed burlesque show. Now, it presents three main stage shows every year and also offers classes. Vivid Motion welcomes all dancers regardless of body type, age, ability or experience. Zack is still involved as a dancer, choreographer and teacher. Her friends there described her as generous and compassionate.

Zack, second from right, rehearses with dancers for a performance based on her novel “The Moorings of Mackerel Sky.” Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

“She’s incredibly talented,” Means said. “She’s incredibly creative. She is incredibly adept at working with dancers of all levels, which is something that is really important at Vivid Motion. She does a really good job of making everyone really feel like a dancer.”

Zack approached three fellow choreographers with her idea. They immediately agreed and started reading.

“We tell stories through dance, so she’s given us a story to tell,” Means said.

The one-hour show will feature seven pieces, including an updated version of an old favorite – a mermaid dance from a production of “Peter Pan” by Vivid Motion in 2015 and 2016. The performance will involve nearly two dozen dancers.



Means was inspired by a line that repeats throughout the novel: “Tears make an ocean.” She said it captured the humanity she sees in “The Moorings of Mackerel Sky.”

“There’s so many reasons why we cry – joy, sadness, loss, laughter – and that for me was really, like, wow,” she said. “In the book, there is tragedy, there is loss, but there are also humorous moments and, just, humanity in the book.”

“Even though there’s lots of mermaids too,” she added.

Means choreographed two pieces – one somber piece about a heart-wrenching betrayal set to “Marco Polo” by Canadian artist Loreena McKennit, one lively and fun piece set to Pitbull’s “Fireball.” The experience has given her new insight on the book.

“I enjoyed reading it, and every time I turned the page, I was so excited for Emily,” she said. “It probably wouldn’t be a book that I would pick up of my own accord. This genre wouldn’t be something that I would be drawn to. Having this opportunity to translate that into something that always resonates with me, which is dance, has made me really connect to the story.”


Michelle Kapschull created a dance based on the unexpected friendship that develops in the book between neglected teenager Leo and no-nonsense widow Myra.

Choreographer Michelle Kapschull, center, works with dancers as they rehearse for a performance based go the novel “The Moorings of Mackerel Sky.” The dancers and choreographer are reflected in a mirror as they rehearse at Casco Bay Movers. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

“Their relationship started out with so much tension between them,” she said. “Myra is a firm personality, but immediately saw through and into Leo. She was empathetic but not soft necessarily. There was something about their relationship that really pulled me in.”

Kapschull has a deep background in belly dancing and often uses veils as props in her work. In this piece, some dancers will change the size and tautness of their veils to convey changes in the relationship between the two characters. Others will use the fabric the create an ocean on stage. The music is an opera in French, which she thought was fitting for Zack.

She said she hopes people leave even more excited to read “The Moorings of Mackerel Sky.”

“I hope it helps intrigue them,” Kapschull said. “I hope they are already intrigued. And I hope that when they are reading the book afterward, they recall some bits from the show.”

Zack said she is moved by the people who decided to volunteer their time to dance in this show and promote her book. She described the experience as “the most incredible” and also “the most humbling.”

“This book has been such an intimate seed in my heart,” Zack said. “I’ve planted it, and I’m watching all of these people tend it so gently and sweetly and kindly, and they do this because they are proud of me and they support me. That’s the best feeling in the world.”

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