Today I am delighted to be closing the fabulous blog tour for Seal Skin. For my stop I have a great guest post by the author. Don’t forget to check out the other wonderful stops. Seal Skin is out now and available to purchase from Amazon.
What happens when magic collides with reality? Donald is a young fisherman, eking out a lonely living on the west coast of Scotland. One night he witnesses something miraculous … and makes a terrible mistake. His action changes lives – not only his own, but those of his family and the entire tightly knit community in which they live. Can he ever atone for the wrong he has done, and can love grow when its foundation is violence? Based on the legend of the selkies – seals who can transform into people – Sealskin is a magical story, evoking the harsh beauty of the landscape, the resilience of its people, both human and animal, and the triumph of hope over fear and prejudice. With exquisite grace, Exeter Novel Prize-winner Su Bristow transports us to a different world, subtly and beautifully exploring what it means to be an outsider, and our innate capacity for forgiveness and acceptance. Rich with myth and magic, Sealskin is, nonetheless, a very human story, as relevant to our world as to the timeless place in which it is set. And it is, quite simply, unforgettable. For fans of Angela Carter, Eowyn Ivey, Alice Hoffmann and Geraldine Brooks.
Five books which have influenced me:
I’m going to list them in the order in which I read them, because each one added a layer to my understanding, as well as shaping the way I write.
The Owl Service, by Alan Garner.
I read all of his children’s books in my childhood and teens, but it was The Owl Service that first gave me that ‘Oh! Yes!’ feeling. The way he took the story of Blodeuwedd and wove it into the present day, and the sense that the stories born in one place are always playing themselves out through the people of that place, was immediately convincing to me.
His use of language is masterful, too, whether it’s the Welsh in The Owl Service, the Cheshire dialect in the Weirdstone novels, or the recreation of the Roman mercenaries in Red Shift. I heard him speak about that when I was a student; that, and the way early childhood traumas keep finding expression in the things that happen in later life, and how that is mirrored by the constant re-weaving of legends down the ages. It went deep.
The Earthsea Trilogy, by Ursula le Guin
I came to these in my mid-teens, and their effect was electrifying. The beautiful spare language was one thing; if I can write half so well, I’ll be happy! Then there was the logic of the Earthsea world, the way it hung together, that put it head and shoulders above most other fantasy of the time.
As a fledgling environmentalist, the idea of Equilibrium and the need for magic to respect the balance of the world, made immediate sense. And underlying all that, the Taoist philosophy, and the Jungian story of individuation. I’d already read Jung, but I went out and bought a translation of the Tao Te Ching immediately. I have it still.
Culture and Communication: the logic by which symbols are connected, by Sir Edmund Leach
I don’t know why, at Cambridge in 1975, they scheduled lectures by Edmund Leach in our very first term of studying Archaeology and Anthropology. Most of the other students seemed to be unmoved by what he was saying, but for this working-class girl, arriving in the groves of Academe with a head full of legends and fantasy, it was so exciting that I could hardly sit still.
What really spoke to me was the structuralist way of understanding how we create sacred space. Essentially, it’s about creating boundaries between this and that, in here and out there, the everyday and the magical, and so on. The lectures were drawn from the material in the book, and it was far more accessible – of course – to listen to Leach talking about his ideas than to read what he wrote.
In that sense, it was also an accidental lesson in how academic language can be a barrier to communication, and how enthusiasm can carry ideas and shifts in consciousness along with it. A lesson always worth remembering!
The Bloody Chamber and other stories, by Angela Carter
I think until Angela Carter came along, all the re-weavings of myths and legends I’d read had been inside what was then a sort of ghetto for fantasy and science fiction; next door to children’s stories, and definitely not a fit place for grown-ups. Angela Carter changed all that. Her stories were subversive, sly, feminist; they questioned the assumptions at the heart of the old stories, and sometimes stood them on their heads.
It was shocking to see these time-honoured stories woman-handled in such a way. Shocking, and delightful. It showed me that anyone – including me – could have ownership of them, and that seemingly inevitable outcomes could be changed. And they were funny! Humour is often in short supply in fantasy, and it’s very precious when you find it.
Women who run with the Wolves, by Clarissa Pinkola Estes
This came out in 1992, when I was a young mother, not long qualified as a herbalist, living in a Dartmoor village with my then husband. The subtitle is ‘Contacting the power of the wild woman’, and it spoke to me very powerfully, knee-deep as I then was in caring for other people and trying to make a living. Estes re-tells these stories with such poetry, such heart. Her academic credentials are impeccable, and yet her writing is full of soul: there is no contradiction.
One of the essays is about the Inuit myth of Skeleton Woman, and I remember telling it in my women’s group to the accompaniment of both tears and laughter. Another, of course, is ‘Sealskin, Soulskin’, about the selkie legend. Estes uses the story to illustrate how women suffer when they are cut off from their ‘wildness’, and that’s certainly how I read it at the time. She sees the fisherman as the masculine ego, and the seal-woman as the feminine soul. And that’s one of the story’s messages, certainly. But I think there’s a message there for both men and women, too. That’s where Sealskin came from.