Author Jackie Taylor and author-editor Cherry Potts talk about a shared love of mythology, and writing about selkies.
Jackie’s novel in short stories, Strange Waters, features selkies, and Cherry recently re-published Fish-fish, a selkie story in the brilliant magazine Mermaids Monthly. Fish-fish was first performed at Liars’ League (read by Math Jones – watch the perfomance here)
copyright Jackie Taylor
What was your first introduction to the selkie myths, Jackie?
Jackie: A couple of years ago, I was standing on a cliff overlooking Porthcurno beach in West Cornwall with some friends on a beautiful September day. There were lots of people in the sea below us – kids messing around in the surf and belly boarding, and some serious surfers, and dogs running in and out of the water. Lots of screaming and laughing. The sea was crystal clear and looking down, we could see, amongst all this activity, a pair of seals weaving around the people in the water – so graceful, and so powerful. And no-one down on the beach was aware of this – they couldn’t see what we could see from our perch above them. It was an extraordinary thing to witness. One of my friends started to sing a selkie lament, a song full of beauty and yearning. The seals didn’t stop and look up! – nothing like that – but it was one of those moments.
Cherry: Ah… now I’ve done actual on the ground (strand?) research into this. Seals don’t like seas songs, (bored by them I suspect). My wife Alix and I spent a blissful fortnight in Shetland staying on a clifftop farm, and trundled down to the edge every evening. One time there was a seal sitting out on a flat rock which we nicknamed ‘the cake stand’, and we tried singing to this seal. No response to sea shanties, no response to yearning songs of the sea (no idea what our hosts thought about all this, I’m sure they could hear – their prize bull definitely could!). So then we tried songs from the shows, and The Street Where You Live garnered attention, so we carried on, after half an hour of barking and flipper waving, and the seal sticking its head into the water, we had Sixteen seals, some hauled out on the rocks, some just bobbing like corks, gawping at us – and I am convinced, laughing their heads off – as we worked through the whole of Guys and Dolls!
Jackie: That’s fabulous. What a great image. I’m definitely going to try out a few show tunes next time I see a seal – I’ll let you know is Cornish seals react the same way!
Jackie: I live near the sea and I’m lucky enough to see seals regularly. I was swimming on my own last year, at first light. No-one else was around and suddenly a seal surfaced just a few yards in front of me. We looked at each other for what seemed like an eternity but was probably, well, thirty seconds. There’s something about a seal’s eyes – so expressive, so sad, so old. It’s very easy to imagine how there might be a connection between us.
Cherry: What a magical experience. I’ve never got close to a seal, but I can’t help imagining they have a sense of humour – dangerous anthropomorphism!
Jackie: Indeed! So seals are part of my world, but selkies didn’t appear in my short stories until I was bringing Strange Waters together. There was a strong thread through the stories of women wanting to be somewhere else, living a different sort of life. Living in Cornwall sounds like a perfect existence, but it’s not all Poldark and cream teas! There are a lot of people who live here but long to get away, for all sorts of reasons, so I was interested in exploring that. Tension between domesticity and family, and the call of freedom and the wild sea, are at the heart of selkie stories, and this was perfect for Strange Waters.
copyright Jackie Taylor (you’ll have to imagine the show tunes)
Jackie: So- I LOVED your story Cherry!
Cherry: Thank you! It’s a favourite of mine
Jackie: How did you come to selkies?
Cherry: I honestly can’t remember – I was an obsessive adolescent reader of folk tales, (of anywhere, my local library had an excellent collection) and while I can’t abide the vampire/ werewolf side of things, the water spirits draw me in. There’s a Welsh folk tale about a woman from a lake (the source of the Ystwyth, if memory serves – I’ve been there and it is a very strange place, very …quiet, in a not altogether happy way) she marries a farmer on the proviso that if he strikes her three times the game is up. Of course he does, and she goes back to the water. That one stayed with me, not strictly selkie-lore but connected. I’ve read loads or retellings of selkie myths, but no direct source material that I can remember, although I must have done.
Cherry: Your selkies are clearly Cornish, and I wonder if you think there are regional differences (you don’t have to answer this one, but I am genuinely interested!)
Jackie: I’m no expert, but one thing that struck me when I started reading around the subject was how many different selkie stories there are, and how widespread, which I think says something about how the nature of these tales resonate so strongly – romance, tragedy, longing and love, all mixed in with the symbolism of the sea. This is fertile ground for story-telling and lends itself to reinterpretations and reimaginings.
I’m not sure how ‘authentic’ a Cornish selkie is. Our native merman is the Bucca Dhu, not a friendly soul, I’m afraid!
Cherry: And the Mermaid of Zennor of course!
Cherry: You could have written this book as entirely near future climate fiction, but the selkies really add something, without being front and centre – what was the decision making for this?
Jackie: The intention was always to have contemporary issues sitting right at the heart of the collection. The selkie-ness wasn’t an add-on, but a linking thread between some of the stories, not centre stage, but present, adding another layer. I wanted the mythology to be part of the background, another element of contemporary life in Cornwall. We live in the midst of stone circles and fogous. King Arthur lived just over the road (allegedly). People come to visit Cornwall because we are ‘steeped’ in myth and legend, and it’s easy for that richness to overtake and swamp all our other stories. It’s become a bit of a mantra, but I’m interested in what’s behind the postcard.
Cherry: I spent my adolescence reading about King Arthur thanks William Mayne Earthfasts, and the spectacularly good Merlin books by Mary Stewart, but despite visiting Cornwall several times I’ve never been to Tintagel! A dawdle round Glastonbury was enough to put me off the tourist sites for life. Fogous and stone circles, on the other hand, fascinate me. And ‘cup and ring’ marked stones. If there’s an ancient monument on a map I will detour to check it out.
Castlerigg. copyright Cherry Potts
Cherry: I loved Pelt, the story in the collection which most closely examines the Selkie concept, with Marissa yearning, not for the sea, but the hinterland as far from shore as she can get; but there are constant links through her daughter and great granddaughter as the strain gets weaker, but keeps surfacing, how did you decide which elements to keep for the later generations, and how much do you think Gilly, for example, realises that this is what is going on?
Jackie: I’m glad you liked this story. It was a classic ‘what if?’…what if I turned this on its head, and my selkie was desperate to settle down with a human partner and embrace a life of land-based domesticity, and didn’t want to escape back to her wild life?
Cherry: Although its not the fisherman/farmer’s wife life she’s after is it? the bright lights of the city are what she’s after, just like Chloe and Grace and Gilly…
Jackie: I like the idea of a residual tug of the sea on the heart, rolling down the generations, surfacing in different ways. I think Gilly is aware of her heritage, but in a background way. This is just one of many of Gilly’s stories, something she’s aware of but, actually, she has other, more pressing things to think about.
I do think it’s something we see in ourselves – a pull towards a particular type of landscape or environment. The sea is definitely my element. ( And did I mention that I have slight webbing between my fingers? )
Jackie: Fish-Fish has a strong tang of salty sea air around it; the descriptions of sea and weed and pelt are gorgeous. Is the sea your element? How do landscapes/seascapes influence your writing?
Cherry: If I could, I would live by water, but it would have to be the sea or a river, lakes make me uneasy – I like moving water… and salt marshes! Landscapes are very important to me, some places have a very special atmosphere and I take strong likings and antipathies to places, including ones that have been severely manipulated for good or ill by humankind. Some mountains take my breath away, some scare me. Wast Water made me shudder, I had to be dragged away from a particular wood in Wales… I have a hatred of London City Airport seen from the air – so bleak – a recent garden visit had me planning how I could live there!
copyright Cherry Potts
Writing wise, it varies, I’ll never not know where a story is set, at least in broad terms, but some stories require and lean on a setting. Sometimes I have to research to rationalise the landscape in my mind and pin it somewhere real, sometimes it can stay implausibly mythic.
When Fish-fish was being performed at Liars’ League, Katy Darby who was directing, asked where it was set, so that Math could settle on an accent, and I realised that when I started writing it had been the US eastern seaboard (somewhere I’ve never been!) because the painter was American; and that because it was the 20s, I’d said it was a ‘dry’ town, but that it had morphed, through the character of Joel’s wife, into Western Scotland – plenty of selkie myths there, and dry towns too. I love that about writing, the way the introduction of a character can swing the whole shape and heft of a story in another direction.
Fish-fish actually came from a painting, Mr. and Mrs. Chester Dale Dining Out by Guy Pene du Bois (1924). In it, a very rounded and sleek couple are sitting uncomfortably at a restaurant table being observed by a waiter. I was struck by the hands, fingers together and rather podgy, and wondered why this otherwise well-executed painting focussed so much attention on these poorly drawn hands, and the idea dropped into my head – of course, they are selkies! I looked again at the waiter, they were ALL selkies.
Jackie: You’ve taken a selkie story and given it a different twist; Joel is a male selkie who marries a woman and settles on land. Although there are male selkie tales, I suspect it is much more usual to have a selkie woman centre stage. Was that decision about gender something that drove the story from the outset, or was it something that came out in the writing?
Cherry: There was such an ambiguous look on the waiter’s face, a mingling of longing and dislike and jealousy, and Joel was born fully-formed. I didn’t know quite what his tragedy was as I started writing, but it quickly took shape. It was a fast write, that one. Unusually for me, I didn’t go back and check the ‘rules’ for selkie folk. The absolutely key scene for me in turning it on its head, was when Joel offers his wife his pelt and she turns him down in horror at the idea of controlling him. Selkie mythology is all about men stealing a woman’s means of escape; coercive control in a nutshell, and I knew she would never do that, even when offered the opportunity.
Jackie: A question about craft: I often struggle with the endings of short stories, writing numerous versions, trying to get the right balance between offering the reader enough information for a satisfying conclusion, and not tying everything up in too neat a package. Fish-Fish has a perfect ending. Did this fall easily onto the page or did you have to search for this ending?
Cherry: I didn’t know the end when I started, but it was easy to find. As soon as Joel witnesses the couple under the pier I knew they were somehow connected, that they were there for him, but that it had to be his decision. It was thrilling to write, the idea and the solution rolled out in front of me as I wrote it, with almost no revision. I try to know what the end is early on, but some stories won’t be told where to go and take their own path, so that isn’t particularly usual, and I have a hard drive full of stories for which I can’t get a satisfactory ending.
Jackie: Thinking about the recycling of myths into contemporary pieces of writing, what mythologies are you drawn to in your writing, apart from selkies? Is this something you’ve explored before? Do you have any favourite modern retellings?
Cherry: Dragons! Mermaids! Gorgons! Sirens! Giants! Dryads, Naiads, Sphinxes, Norns (I might have made them up – very scary). Valkyries, Graeae, Fates and Furies! Elementals of all shapes and sizes… I wouldn’t swear to it, but it’s likely Joel is one of only a handful of male protagonists I’ve let into my mythological universe, there have been a couple of inept knights but apart from that, mainly women, or at any rate female creatures. I have a fondness for Jane Yolen’s trolls, and Tanith Lee’s various monsters, and Adele Geras has a way with a Greek myth or fairy tale that I enjoy. You’ll notice this list includes childrens books (and many are out of print!). Sometimes writers for older children do a much better job than those writing for adults. Among those writing for adults, Neil Gaiman is good at a mythologically inspired story – I wouldn’t call them retellings though. I’ve moved further and further away from that retelling thing myself, it’s more about picking an element from the smorgasbord of tales so good they’ve survived orally for millennia, and roughing it up a bit, giving an old story a firm shake by the scruff and seeing what falls out; and it’s usually the women, especially the voiceless, overlooked or denigrated.
The fact that I spend so much of my writing brain-space on it does mean that I am hypercritical of other people’s retellings – have they read closely enough, pushed far enough, twisted wildly enough? I can be a bit impatient with yet another… whichever myth is flavour of the month.
I’m hard to please, so your selkies had a tough audition, and passed with honours.