A sealskin coat

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The Visitors is a little bit about selkies. Selkies are seals, and they are also people. They have a fur coat that allows them to take the form of a seal. When they step out of the coat, they become human. Selkies can be men or women, but they are always extraordinarily beautiful.

There are a multitude of selkie stories, but the most common starts with a selkie woman removing her coat and dancing on the shore. A young man – usually a fisherman or crofter – spies her dancing, and steals the coat. With her fur held hostage, the selkie has no choice but to marry the man. They live together for a while, but then the selkie finds her skin and escapes back into the sea. The man is left to nurse a broken heart. Often, the couple have children. In some stories, it is a child that finds the coat, and returns it to the mother. Sometimes the selkie takes her children back into the ocean, and sometimes they are left behind. In that version of the story, the mother and children meet in the surf to play.

In the other typical selkie story, an island woman cries seven tears into the sea to attract a selkie mate. Selkie men give children to barren women.

db44_SelkieI love the idea of selkies, but I struggle with some aspects of these traditional stories. They crush female independence. In the first, the selkie is kidnapped and loses years of her life to captivity. The man takes what he wants, and is punished only by the accident of her escape. In the second story, the male selkie is a god, and the woman summons him on bended knee. Either human men dominate supernatural women, or supernatural men dominate human women. Both men and women mean more to me than that. When I started writing The Visitors, I wanted something different from selkie stories. I wanted equality. That’s been my guiding light for the novel, from start to finish. John and Izzy share traditional tales, but Ailsa and Flora question the validity of that tradition, and take a closer look at what it means to be a selkie.

Selkies are special. I watched the seals hunting in the bay at Grogport, and saw them bask and splash in Portnahaven harbour. There is life and knowledge in their eyes. When you look at them, they look back. On Kintyre, we walked the coast around Skipness on a grey, steely day, and we were followed by a seal. For half a mile or more, as we skirted the coast, the seal stayed twenty or thirty yards away from us. It seemed to move without locomotion, so that dark snub head simply kept pace with us, looking towards the shore. We sat on old stones to eat our lunch, and the seal bobbed and ducked at one end of the headland. It didn’t move away until we struck back inland, and then it vanished in a wink. I looked back to seek it out, but the seal had gone.

I asked my friends about seals and selkies, and they swamped me with stories. Chris gave his first pocket money to Save The Seals. Tom talked to the seals in a sealife centre, and the seals talked back. Dan’s friend confused swallows for seals in a dream, so he drew her a picture of a swallow with a seal’s head. Kirstin’s father whistled to the seals in Shetland, and they popped to the surface to see what all the fuss was about. Jon was kissed by a sealion. Sakina can’t shake the tale of the seal maiden. Ross works in Copenhagen, and daydreams that commuters with sealskin coats are modern-day selkies. Amy holidayed on Mull when she was seven, and spent the summer playing with a selkie called Della.

Why do we give seals such humanity? They are manifestly foreign to us, but the connection is overwhelming.

When I was 25 or 26, I spent a year working and backpacking in Australia. I remember snorkelling on Ningaloo Reef, diving as far down as I could go. I looked up exactly as the sun dropped behind a cloud. The water turned suddenly cold and pressed against me, and I felt very afraid, scared of the deep and the dark and the cold and the blue. When I think of selkies, they are underwater, floating with perfect neutral buoyancy, and shafts of sunlight sway woozy on the surface above. The darkness drops away behind them, and the selkie exists in two places: as a seal, utterly unafraid, and as a human, drawn against the current, compelled to the surface. Selkies live in thresholds. The selkie woman, when she escapes, returns to embrace her children in the surf. The shoreline, changing always with the tide, is where seals and people meet as selkies. It is a nowhere place, and yet it is all they have.

Faroese_stamp_580_the_seal_womanA hunter doesn’t know his wife is a selkie. While hunting, he sees her as a seal, and harpoons her. She becomes human, and dies in his arms.

The crofter is left heartbroken on the shore, and his selkie wife returns by stealth to see her children.

This selkie is allowed only one night of the year to be human.

Two lovers share a single skin, so that they can never be together in the same form; always one as a seal, and one as a human.

Selkies are born from the souls of drowned sailors.

Selkies are cousins to the muc-sheilche, the kelpie, the nokken, the finfolk. Those creatures are killers and enemies to men. So what makes the seal a victim? A romance? A tragedy?

When we visited Islay, we drove out to Portnhaven. We clambered across the rocks to the weedy edge of the harbour, and we watched the seals. Half a stone’s throw across the water, they gathered to sunbathe by the dozen. They winked as though the Atlantic was a hot tub. They flickered in the water, phantoms bound in straps of kelp. They came so close that I found myself laughing aloud – laughing in wonder, joy and disbelief.

When I started writing The Visitors, I wanted to explore that connection with the seals, that projection of knowledge, and emotion, and empathy. I don’t know if I succeeded, but I’ve fallen more in love with seals and selkies.

My wife found this picture of a seal. It was taken in California, rather than Coll, but it’s the way I see a selkie. Curious and cautious, incredibly close, and impossibly distant.

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A love letter to an island

P1050513The idea for The Visitors fell into my head almost fully formed while on holiday in Grogport, a tiny hamlet on the east coast of the Kintyre peninsula. It’s connected to the mainland by a narrow isthmus, and it feels like an island. The beaches are sandy and studded with pebbles. Hills rise steeply from the shore and narrow roads wind around the coast, ducking inland to skirt the inlets. To the east, Arran lurks like a beached whale, and Gigha is smudge in the haze on the horizon to the west. Abandoned crofts explode with rowans, and in places the ferns fall into the road, wet and green.

P1050459My daughter was three months old, and the long drive from Cumbria had unsettled her. She started waking early – around five in the morning – and wouldn’t go back to sleep. My wife and I made coffee and watched the sun rise over Arran, casting blue light on the millpond Kilbrannan Sound. From the kitchen window, we saw herons stalk the surf, lashing down on crabs or minnows. Seals hunted in the bay every evening, and an otter dismembered fish on the shoreline. The garden thronged with little birds, and at one point I saw a kestrel sitting on the washing line, no more than five yards from the house. When we walked around the island, there were butterflies in the gorse, spiders on the sand, bees in the grass, gulls wheeling on the updrafts. I was shaken, at times, by how much life was around me, living as it always had, as though the land itself was alive and conscious. In so many places, it looked as though people, civilisation, had simply given up and moved elsewhere. It felt as though the land was waking after centuries of slumber, and just beginning to stretch.

On the third or fourth morning, watching a seal swim like quicksilver in the bay, the spark of a story flared brightly inside me. It caught fast, and began to smoulder. That story became The Visitors. Selkies, living in Grogport. A murder mystery. A young girl, desperate to leave an island. And it would be an island, I decided; the Kintyre peninsula was beautiful, but didn’t do everything I wanted for the story. I started drafting a sense of what the island looked like. I called it Bancree. As I began to write the story, the island evolved too, morphing into something real enough to touch.

P1050458Bancree is a scrapbook of my Scotland. I grew up in Inverness, where I could see Ben Wyvis from my bedroom window. We walked our dogs on the shingle beach at Ardersier and through the sodden plantations of Culloden. I’ve been canoeing and camping on Loch Maree in torrential rain, and climbed the boulder fields of Torridon and Glen Nevis. I’ve been to the top of Schiehallion, and walked on the clifftops of Dumfries, and fallen out of bars on Tobermory, and seen friends crash cars by the shore of Loch Ness. I’ve taken the train from Edinburgh to Inverness so many times that the journey is engrained in my memory. From the top of Glen Affric, with June snowmelt still feeding the burns, I’ve seen both coasts glitter in the sun. Scotland has a hundred landscapes that sing to me, and I collected something from each of them to build Bancree.

P1050526The island is my love letter to Islay, Jura, Gigha, Mull, Iona, Ullapool, the Highlands, the Black Isle, Moray and the Great Glen – to the landscapes I grew up in, the landscapes I love. I’ve never tried to sketch Bancree or make a map. I know what it looks like, and where to find Grogport, and Tighna, and Izzy’s hut, and the windfarm on the Ben. But more importantly, I can drive the road around Bancree simply by closing my eyes. I can feel the scrunch of shingle underfoot, and the batter and bluster of the Atlantic coast. There is dew sagging on spiderwebs, spun between the thorns of gorse, and rafts of flotsam hefted on the beaches. Dead, empty crabs still scuttle on the breeze. The twiggy scratch of heather, the rivulets of water in the bracken. Titanic clouds, dark and warm and scudding low enough to touch. The fluttering machair, alive with bees. Fog that swallows the tops of trees and telegraph poles. The water in the bog pools, dark with peat, staining all the world around, pouring brown from every tap. Sands that hiss and sing as the wind rolls across the beach in waves.

Bancree is as real as a dream to me. It is vivid and bursting with life. I can feel the rub of sand between my fingers, but there is no map to go there.

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Roberto Bolano – The Third Reich

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I’ve just finished The Third Reich by Roberto Bolano. He fascinates me, as both a writer and a reader, and I’ve now only two novels left before I’ve read all of his work. The Savage Detectives is my favourite ever novel, and I think Bolano’s prose is pretty much close to perfect. There’s no doubt, however, that a lot of his unpublished work wouldn’t have seen the light of day (in English, anyway) without his posthumous rise to fame. Some of his novels should have stayed in the drawer, and The Third Reich only just squeezes out of that category.

It’s an intense, engrossing study of one man’s slide into paranoia, returning to Bolano’s common themes – Fascism, the birth and death and being of nations, poetry, love, sex, anxiety, terror, innocence, dreams, language – but is very insular, very claustrophobic, and too long.

German war games champion Udo Berger goes on holiday with his partner Ingeborg. They meet another German couple, Hanna and Charly, and the four of them fall in with local layabouts and petty crooks. When Charly goes missing, only Udo stays, against all reason, drawn deeper into his WWII game, deeper into his obsession with the hotel owner.

The game allows Udo to replay World War II, as Germany, and win. He starts to lose to a complete novice, and his fatalistic delusions – like Adolf Hitler’s – drive him to a bitter defeat. As the net of Allies closes around him in the game, so Udo’s paranoias choke his spirit in real life, and his dreams merge with the everyday. His psychological collapse mirrors that of the Axis. ‘I’m not a Nazi,’ he bleats, at one point, ‘I’m more like an anti-Nazi.’ His protestations are interspersed with hero-worship of successful German generals. Bolano (who fought against Pinochet in Chile, and despised Fascism) uses The Third Reich to crush the Nazis all over again.

It’s a profound and complex book. As Udo unravels, his thought processes make increasingly random connections – this is one of Bolano’s greatest strengths, in both dialogue and inner monologue – and his claustrophobia is compelling. But Third Reich is also too slow and too long, and once Udo’s hubris has been established, his collapse is prolonged and the climax, when it comes, is vague and dissatisfying. This deliberately mimics the real War, I suppose (each turn of the board game is marked out in quarters – Winter ’42, Spring ’43, and so on) but means the narrative drags in a mirror of the attrition on the board.

It remains an interesting addition to Bolano’s canon, and I’m glad I had the chance to read it, but it’s far from his best or most interesting work. As with all his novels, though, the prose is nothing short of scintillating. Bolano was a truly gifted writer. Whenever I’m flagging, I read a sentence or two at random from one of his books, and it gives me the energy to get back to work.

A Song In My Own Language

On Friday night, Fred Versonnen performed ‘The Elephant Story’ at Dreamfired, and it was magnificent. The open mic night was as interesting as ever, but one of the scheduled performers couldn’t make it – and so Fred agreed to do another 10-minute spot before the interval. Fred is Belgian. He started by apologising for his (obviously excellent) English, and then announced that he was going to sing a nursery rhyme – ‘A song in my own language,’ he said, which is a phrase I’ve been unable to shift. And then he sang.

I don’t know a word of Belgian, but in that minute, or maybe two, Fred managed to generate genuine laughter and even a sense of the bittersweet, entirely through action, expression and body language. It was remarkable. I later discovered the song was about the birth of seven cats – six big and one very small - and all the mice running away.

He then performed a story I’d heard before, about a young monk who goes out into the world, tasked with discovering the meaning of life. Although I’d come across it before, Fred piled farce upon farce on the poor monk, earning howls of laughter from the audience – again using expression, the shape of his body, and most especially – pauses. (I’ll have a lot more to say about Fred, and pauses, and Fred’s pauses, when I’ve finished thinking about them, but that’s for another post.)

After the interval came The Elephant Story. This was my first experience of storytelling that did not have conventional myth or fairytale at its core; from Emily Parrish performing Loki, to Peter Chand’s Punjabi Grimm tales, to Kat Quatermass and her queer fairytale city, all the amazing storytellers I’ve witnessed have drawn at least a little something from our shared bank of generational stories – the lexicon of myth that has been passed around firesides and whispered over cribs for centuries.

Fred’s story was different. His background is in clowning and the circus, and the story was a love letter to a way of life long gone. Set at the start of the 20th Century, the story follows a little boy called George ‘Slim’ Louis, who falls in love with elephants and runs away to join the travelling circus. Over the years, he experiences cruelty and compassion, cutthroats and camaraderie. His story is remarkable, but made amazing by the way Fred ties it to the stories of the elephants themselves – anecdotes of their strength, and intelligence, and suffering, and occasional violence. There are moments of unbearable barbarity and tragedy, and moments of hysterical joy. The Elephant Story is a parable of all animals in captivity and a truly exceptional show.

Fred is a very physical storyteller. I don’t mean that he moves around a lot, but rather that his movements are measured and completely organic in developing, exploring and reinforcing the power of the story. His ability to hold a neutral expression conveys extraordinary meaning to his words, and that gives an audience space to reflect, savour, empathise and drown – in sadness, in humour, in understanding.

The next day, I attended Fred’s clowning workshop. It was held a hall in Arnside. By some dumb coincidence, there were elephants in the windows. I learned a great deal in the workshop, though I also found it very challenging. I’m going to write about that another time, because I’m still making sense of the things I learned, still processing some of the questions it raised. For now, here’s a picture of a boy and a circus elephant.

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Dare!

I’m delighted to share the news that my 100-word story Dare has been Highly Commended in the National Flash Fiction Day writing competition. You can read it, along with the rest of the winners and commended stories, right here.

To reach the top 10 against such strong competition has really made my day. I’m also delighted to see Cathy Lennon take top spot with her story Never Let Me Go, because Cathy is lovely and her story is fantastic.

Someone landed on my blog a few days ago with the search term ‘is flash fiction a proper noun’. I’ve been giving that some thought, and the answer is no. But I love that flash fiction is becoming more established. It’s the perfect counterpart to my novel writing, and it keeps me keen. More thoughts on flash fiction to come soon, I think. I’ve written a host of shorter stories lately, and I want to take the time to explore what the format means to me.

In celebration, I’m off to see international storytelling superstar Fred Versonnen perform at Dreamfired tonight; and even more exciting, tomorrow I’m off to Arnside to attend his clowning workshop. I’m hugely excited about what clowning could do for my performance, and seeing Fred tell his stories is a perfect start.

Fred looks like this:

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National Flash Fiction Day shortlist

Oh wow! I’ve just discovered that my 100-word story Dare has made a shortlist of 26 for the National Flash Fiction Day writing competition!

The full shortlist is here, but I’m keeping good company with Tania Hershman, Cathy Lennon, Natalie Bowers, Clare Kirwan, Allie Rogers, Jane Roberts and the mighty Brindley Hallam Dennis, amongst many others. Apparently there were almost 400 entries, so I’m delighted to make it this far. Final results on Friday. Phew. I’ve earned my beer tonight.

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Know Your Enemy

I’ve just been emailed the list of all the contestants for the Flashtag Short Short Story Slam. If I wasn’t nervous before - which I was, actually - I certainly am now. Here’s the dirty dozen:

Ros Ballinger
Ailish Breen
Joe Daly
Joy France
Abi Hynes
Thomas Jennings
Mark Powell
Mark Mace Smith
Trisha Starbrook
Sarah Stuart
Simon Sylvester

Geriant Thomas

Joy France read at the open mic before my Verbalise guest spot, and she was amazing. I saw Ros Ballinger read some blinding poems at Lancaster Spotlight last year, and she was also very good. I know Mark Mace Smith and Trisha Starbrook by reputation – Trisha won last year’s slam, having never read in public before, and Mark is a noted slammer and favourite of my friend Ann The Poet. Some online stalking reveals the others to be an intimidatingly talented bunch of comedians, poets, theatre performers and practiced improvisers. Oof. We’ll be paired at random in the first round, reading a 150-word story head to head. The audience votes for their favourite to proceed into the second round. Round two cuts six readers with 200-word stories down to three, and the final trio read a 250-word story for top spot.

In the last week, I’ve written five or six new flash pieces, though none of them are quite right for the slam; they’ve either been too short or too long. I’m struggling especially with the first story and that 150 limit; I have a multitude of pieces of that length, but most are either abstract or downers, and I want something both bawdier and more focused for the slam. While I’m really happy with the story I’d read if I made it to the final three, getting through rounds one and two is becoming a real worry; it’s pretty much all I’m thinking about. I’m sure the right ideas will come, but I wish they would hurry up.

If you want to see me drop like a domino – and who wouldn’t? – the slam costs a measly £1 and should be a blast, so no excuses. Here’s the skinny:

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