Delighted to welcome Su Bristow to the blog today to chat about her moving and thought-provoking debut novel, Sealskin, out now with Orenda Books.
Su, can you tell us what inspired you to write a retelling of the Selkie legend?
There are some stories that just speak to me, and this is definitely one of them. Like all the best stories, it has many layers. It’s about how we as humans connect with the natural world, and how natural and supernatural intertwine. It’s about love, and the way it can grow in the most unlikely circumstances. It’s about how we can wound one another, and the long-term consequences of that, both for individuals and the wider community. And it has a beautiful setting.
On a more personal level, as a half-Scot growing up far from Scotland, Scottish mythology particularly fascinated me as a child. And as a young woman, I definitely identified with the compromising of my own identity that went with being in relationship or marriage, and of course with being a mother. It was later, being older and having a son of my own, that I became more interested in the shaming of male sexuality that goes on in our culture. And that’s what made me decide to write the novel from Donald’s point of view.
Although your main character, Donald, commits a horrible act at the start of the book throughout we see him grow and learn and become a better man. Is the ability of humans to change their nature a theme that you set out to explore when writing this novel or did it emerge naturally?
It’s not so much about changing our nature as about learning to live with it. We all get things wrong as we go through life, though not often in such a terrible way as Donald does. And we all end up wounded in one way or another. It’s our job as human beings not to be defined either by our wrongdoing or by our victimhood, but to grow through and beyond these things, to develop our potential as fully as we can. And in my professional life as a herbalist and a counsellor, I’ve worked with hundreds of people over the years who are trying to do just that. We do have the ability to transcend our history and extend our limitations, and it’s an immense privilege to witness how far we can travel.
The sea is an important character in the book too and the landscapes that border it, and your writing of both is beautiful. Is this pull between the two and how both can be either welcoming or harsh at different times to different people, something that you have experienced from living by the sea?
I’ve never lived by the sea, though of course I’ve spent a lot of time near or on it in one way or another. But it’s one of the many natural environments that we can approach in many different ways. If we try to master and control it, it will always be a struggle, and we view it, like Donald at the start of Sealskin, with fear and even hatred. If, on the other hand, we try to understand and surrender to forces greater than ourselves, there is great beauty to be experienced. In the character of Mairhi, I tried to convey the joy and playfulness of someone who is thoroughly at home with the sea.
Although set in the past, its message of community, support for others and love being key to successful societies feels very apt today. Do you think it can have more impact to shine a light on problems of the modern world by using history to highlight them rather than contemporary stories?
I think we can shine light on our problems from all sorts of angles – the more the better! And history and legends remind us that there is nothing new under the sun. Whatever we are struggling with in the present day, someone has been this way before, and they may have valuable insights to share with us. And certainly these days, there is a global community, linked as never before by travel and by the internet. We have to learn how to live with difference and how to support each other through all sorts of challenges, whether we like it or not. The small communities of the past have a great deal to teach us in that respect.
What can we look forward to next from you?
A short story of mine is being released later this year, based on the old Norwegian stories about trolls, and how the way to outwit them was to keep them occupied by asking them riddles. At sunrise, they would turn to stone. They are portrayed as stupid and easy to deceive, but it’s one of those stories that has a logical flaw: if trolls are so stupid, why would they enjoy riddles at all? Why not just eat the human being straight away? So maybe, if you look at things from a troll’s point of view, there is quite a different story to be told…
Book blurb: 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, 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.
About the author: Su Bristow is a consultant medical herbalist by day. She’s the author of two books on herbal medicine: The Herbal Medicine Chest and The Herb Handbook; and two on relationship skills: The Courage to Love and Falling in Love, Staying in Love, co-written with psychotherapist, Malcolm Stern. Her published fiction includes Troll Steps (in the anthology, Barcelona to Bihar), and Changes which came second in the 2010 Creative Writing Matters flash fiction competition. Her debut novel, Sealskin, is set in the Hebrides, and it’s a reworking of the Scottish legend of the selkies, or seals who can turn into people. It won the Exeter Novel Prize 2013. Her writing has been described as ‘magical realism; Angela Carter meets Eowyn Ivey’.
Thanks for such a thoughtful and insightful interview, Su, and for a great novel that is filled with beautiful writing.
You can get a copy of Sealskin through various retailers, all of which are detailed here on the Orenda Books website.