Fail again

Nearly four months since my last post! Ooof. This isn’t a very good blog, is it? Loads has happened, but I’ve been too busy to talk about it — my usual morass of college marking was swamped by the millstone of an Ofsted inspection, and for weeks all I’ve done is stare at assessment forms. Around all of that, I’ve performed some new stories at Spotlight in Lancaster, had work accepted by Jellyfish Review, National Flash Fiction Day and Ghostland Zine, was longlisted for a NFFD contest and am currently shortlisted for a Liars League competition on the theme of Heads & Tails. I’ve written lots of new flash stories and nearly finished what might be another collection, maybe, probably, perhaps. I also read my version of the Hobyahs at Verbalise in Kendal, which went like this:

 

I love telling that story, and I need a haircut.

Away from writing, Mon and I are now actively collecting the 214 Wainwrights, having climbed Helvellyn, Nethermost Pike, Dollywaggon Pike, Coniston Old Man, Illgill Head, Whin Rigg, Castle Crag and Helm Crag since my last post. It’s fascinating trying to decode old Wainwright’s spidery notes. He was barking. I quite enjoy the uphill climbs, and I absolutely love the sense of being atop the hills — the way the ranges link into plateaus, and it feels as though you’re walking on the roof of the world. Downhills are not so much fun, but there’s usually a beer somewhere at the bottom, so all is well. A Wainwright looks like this:

The big thing is the novel, I suppose. When I last wrote about it, it was finished, for the third time, redrafted, and sent away to my excellent agent, who gave me some excellent notes. As always, Sue sees what I can’t, and while she loved a lot about the book, there was a structural issue I hadn’t considered, and it needed sorting. She’s absolutely right about the structure, but I can’t go back to the book. I can’t. This is my third distinct version of The Hollows, as well as countless false starts and variations, and I honestly estimate I’ve written about 500,000 words of this story across about forty different incarnations. It has melted my brain and stifled my imagination. I thought for a day or two about whether I should redraft it again, but honestly, I didn’t have to think very hard. For now, The Hollows is shelved.

Given that it’s swallowed three years of my life, I feel surprisingly okay about putting it away. I did most of my grieving for the second draft, which was the one I loved most. The third draft deals with profound ideas, and is more LiTeRarY, but it lost all the impetuous fun of the second draft — it wasn’t fun to write, and I want to enjoy my writing. It had become such a corkscrew of ideas that I could barely think of anything else, and it was making me unhappy. Since putting The Hollows to one side, my brain has begun to thaw, and for the first time in a year, I’m feeling the fizz of ideas. Until that sensation came back, I hadn’t even realised it was gone.

In a few years, I think I’ll go back to the Hollows. There’s a whole world there, and that world is exciting, but I need a better story to navigate it. I’ve already sketched out the plot for a completely different (and simpler!) version of the same idea, and when I’m ready, I’ll see where that goes. Until then, I need a break from swamps and memories — and instead I’ve launched myself into one of the other stories I’ve had circling overhead. I’m taking the advice of sensei Stephen King, though, and writing this one with the door closed. I’ve learned a lot about getting ahead of myself. I’ve also learned why they called it ‘the difficult second novel’.

Because it bloody is.

That’s me for now. Fail again, fail better, right?

 

Cellar steps

Last night, more or less six months since I started, I gave the first draft of The Hollows to Mon to read, and I sent it to my amazing agent Sue. Mon and I took Dora out to tea, then she started reading. Sixty pages in and she hasn’t ditched it in a flurry of disgust, so there’s hope for me yet.

I thought it would easier to let go of the second book, but I was wrong. I thought I’d feel more confident, more certain. I don’t. If anything, the stakes feel higher. What if I’ve moved backwards? What if no one likes the story, the characters, the writing? I’m happier with this story than anything I’ve done before, but what if I’m wrong? What if I’ve got worse?

I didn’t entirely understand the proverb about not seeing the wood for the trees until I started writing novels. When I’m so immersed in my work, in my worlds, it’s easy to lose perspective on whether it’s actually any good. My own, personal instinct for story is stronger than ever, and getting stronger still; but there’s nothing on Earth to say it’s actually right. There’s no way to triangulate what happens in my heart with the world around me. In that sense, every novel – and I’ve written three of them now – is a first novel, feeling in the dark for cellar steps. Maybe it gets better in time. Maybe it gets easier. But I can’t imagine what that feels like, how that would be. It’s strange to be so terrified of the only thing I want to do. As Mon was reading, I glanced across at her every thirty seconds, every minute: which page is she on? What happens there? Oh lord, is that all right? Does that dialogue work? Do I believe it? Will she believe it?

Dora woke at 4.30am this morning, claiming it was too dark to sleep. I put her back to bed, where she fell asleep in moments, but then I couldn’t because, ahahaha, it was too light. So I’ve been up for hours, listening to songs I love, making a Mogwai mixtape for a friend, catching up on email, gazing out the window and thinking, thinking. There’s no light quite like the glow of dawn. The world is luminous, and then it turns to gold, and it sleeps on into the rising sun. No one knows but foxes, cats and milkmen. I imagined what it must look like on the river Kent between Burneside and Staveley right now, right now, with no one there at all, only the swallows and the martins flitting on the river, vapours coiling on the water, sun sliding sideways through the trees, a hidden valley with half the world in shadow and half the world on fire.

I know what my next four or five novels look like, and I have fourteen flash stories to write. Today, though, I’m taking my daughter swimming. She’ll be Peso the penguin and I’ll be Kwazi the cat, and we’ll look for treasure and help sick sea creatures along the way. Dora loves swimming, but she’s scared of having water on her head – she won’t jump in, and hates being splashed. But today, for the first time, we’re going to see how things go with goggles. Maybe – with some support, some courage, and some curiosity, today will be the day she looks underwater, the day she discovers there are other worlds, other places, other ways to see. Letting go is hard. Feeling for that cellar step is hard. Maybe all of us need to be brave.

Edinburgh International Book Festival

I haven’t really had a chance to share this yet, but I’m thrilled to report that I’ll be at Edinburgh International Book Festival this year, appearing alongside the intimidatingly talented Chigozie Obioma to discuss his debut novel, The Fishermen, and mine, The Visitors. This is really exciting, and very humbling. I’m delighted to be contributing to such an amazing event.

I have also just discovered that all debut novelists are entered into the First Book Award. I’m up against some outstanding competition, so if you’ve read and enjoyed The Visitors, I’d be hugely grateful for your vote: mosey over here for the full longlist.

Crumbs chief!

2014 and all that

This year has been both breathtakingly excellent and occasionally extraordinarily hard. I’m focusing on the good stuff though, because we’re all spinning through the mind-boggling vastness of space on a giant oxygen machine and really, when you think about it, where’s the sense in dwelling on the rough?

So here we go; in no particular order:

1. The Visitors being published

The culmination of two years’ work and the start of an awful lot more to come; in June, the wonderful folks at Quercus Books were kind enough to publish The Visitors. I wrote about the publication here, and it kept on running. Somehow, people keep enjoying it. I’ve summed up the reviews here, and there are reviews from actual real life readers on Goodreads and You-Know-Where. Writing was hard, editing was very hard, and now it’s out there in the wild – it doesn’t need me any more, if it ever did. I haven’t really come to terms with the book being published, other than it makes me scared, humble and really, really happy. Writing is all I want to do, but sometimes every step feels like the first step.

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2. The Hollows

In the twelve months – to the day, madly – since I started, I’ve probably written about half The Hollows. Unfortunately, for reasons like this and especially this, I’ve had to cut gigantic chunks of it; so much, in fact, that I’ll basically have to start again next year, and crib the pieces I can still use from the manuscript. This would be a very bad thing, were it not for how excited I am about those pieces that are left. It’s been bruising, definitely, but the process is now beginning to tip me in positive directions I probably wouldn’t have gone by myself, and that’s terrific.

3. Flashtag short short story slam

Over the last two years, I’ve been trying to read more of my work aloud; I pushed myself further this year by entering a story slam in Manchester. I memorised my three stories so I could concentrate on performing them, rather than reading them, and I was lucky enough to win. That was great, and I was delighted, but what really blew my mind was the culture of live literature I witnessed in Manchester. It’s raw, it’s funny, it’s friendly, it’s immediate. It’s everything short stories and poetry and flash fiction should be about, and it completely affirmed the value of storytelling as an act of community. Stories are a thousand things, and one of those things is churches.

4. Clowning

Way back in February, I attended a clowning workshop run by Belgian storytelling maestro Fred Versonnen. This is the best £25 I’ve ever spent, and it’s true to say that my life hasn’t been quite the same ever since. I see things differently now – I write differently now.

fred

5. The Year Of The Whale

I started this novella more than five years ago. Getting it finished was a thrill – I surged through the final chapters, and I’m pleased with it. It still needs redrafting, but I’m not quite ready to get back into it. It’s waited five years – it can wait a little longer.

6. Marrow/Cerys Matthews reading Circle Stone

Finishing Marrow was another big deal in my writing year. I haven’t written as much flash fiction this year, because I’ve been mentally wasted from work, and that kinda gets in the way, but I did, finally, finish and self-publish a flash fiction collection called Marrow. Of the hundred I printed, I have about twenty copies left, and people seem to like it, which is a source of constant wonder. I wrote about my decision to self publish here. I sent a copy to the excellent Cerys Matthews, and because she’s absolutely awesome, she read out one of the stories on her BBC6 Music show. This is, and will always be, the coolest thing that ever happened to me.

7. Gruff Rhys at Kendal Library

Gig of the year, hands-down. I wrote about it here, but in summary, Gruff was majestic, wise and funny.

8. Greece

One of my favourite ever holidays. A week of sunshine, warm evenings, seashores, swimming and the boundless comedy available on tap from my daughter Dora. We had a fantastic time: ruins, eagles, Mythos and pizza. I love holidays because I’m with my favourite people, I get to read a lot, and I get to think a lot. It went like this.

9. Friends

It’s been another good year for my friends. Iain Maloney published First Time Solo, his excellent debut novel, with Freight Books; also with Freight, Anneliese Mackintosh’s debut novel/story collection/autobiography Any Other Mouth was released to stupendous acclaim, going on to win the Green Carnation Prize; Salt published one of my books of the year, The Rental Heart by Kirsty Logan; Kirstin Innes landed an agent and then a publishing deal for her debut novel Fishnet; and I was lucky enough to read a draft of Ali Shaw’s new novel, The Trees, which is simply scintillating. I’m delighted that Bloomsbury are going to publish it, because Ali is a wonderful human being, an outstanding writer and a great friend.

10. Getting married

Just amazing. We did damn near all of it ourselves, and when I say ‘us’, I mean that I did 10% after I’d finished work, and my tireless, hilarious, wonderful, perfect new wife Mon did the rest. It was a lot of work to pull it all together, but we basically hosted a mini-festival in a back garden with a marquee, a stage, a band, a PA, scores of hay bales, lighting and decoration. We then partied till the following morning with our wonderful friends. My brother gave what was widely considered to be the best best man’s speech anyone had heard, and local legends Seven Seals played their very finest. It was phenomenal. What a day – a thousand thanks to everyone who brought it all together.

Mon is my everything, and I’m beyond proud to call her my wife.

si mon

So there we go. It’s been a good one, despite the harder stuff. Some of the things that have knocked me hard – like the Hollows, like the Scottish independence referendum – will come around again, and next time we will get them right. And other things – like working too hard – will change, because they have to.

Dora’s gone to bed. This is the first year she’s been old enough to really understand what’s going on. We helped her write a letter to Santa, which she signed herself, then made sure to leave a whiskey for Santa. (Jura, in case you’re asking. Santa’s quite particular about that.) I read her Where The Wild Things Are, and we roared our terrible roars, and gnashed our terrible teeth, and she asked me what the words mean: “…and …it …was …still …hot.”

These are the moments we’re working for.

Happy Christmas, folks.

dora

A tangled ball of things

I’m absolutely delighted to say that The Visitors has taken first place in the Not The Booker prize 2014. Run by The Guardian, the competition is presented as a slightly tongue-in-cheek parallel with the Man Booker Prize. The actual prize, for example, is a mug:

The Guardian cup prize for website.  Photo by Linda Nylind. 18/8/2011.

It’s taken an astoundingly long time to get this far – the first nominations were something like three months ago – and the way it accelerated into the final week was unnerving. The prize is awarded through a combination of public votes and a judging panel. After an agonising week of voting, The Visitors was neck and neck with Tony Black and his novel The Last Tiger (which sounds amazing). With the vote tied, we were awarded a point apiece, which left the three judges to reach a decision during a live video discussion about the shortlist.

I left work early and cycled home to watch the online stream of the discussion. By the time chairman Sam Jordison asked the judges for their final votes, I found myself pacing the room, wanting to know, not wanting to know. The anticipation was driving my heart out through my chest.

This is how it went:

*

So there we have it. It’s still sinking in, even four days later. After the decision was announced, Mon came home and took me out for lunch. That was the right thing to do. There’s no way I would have managed any work that afternoon.

It’s a truly humbling thing to happen, and I feel both proud and grateful that my book has had so much support. Please consider this a massive thank you to anyone and everyone who has bought, read, enjoyed, voted or commented on The Visitors. You’re amazing!

Releasing a book into the wild is a terrifying thing to do. I spent so long wrapped up in Bancree by myself that it still feels raw to share the island with other people. Knowing that folk might like my story conjures a huge, tangled ball of things: relief and disbelief, elation, a lurch of adrenaline.

I’m absolutely thrilled, but I’m also looking ahead. I have more books to write. Not The Booker coming to an end coincides with my backlog of film jobs beginning to ease. In a week or so, I think I can get back to writing regularly. It’s been months since I had concerted time to work, and I can barely remember big chunks of The Hollows. My first few sessions will be stripping things away, I’m sure, and clearing the ground to start again. I can’t wait, and I’m glad to be returning on the right side of Not The Booker.

Thank you, people. You are a galaxy of stars.

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Not The Booker

I’m cautiously delighted to say that The Visitors has been shortlisted for the Guardian’s Not The Booker prize. It’s been a rather bruising process to get this far. The longlist was very long, featuring a hundred novels. Not The Booker is infamously decided by public vote, which leads to all kinds of hijinks from authors, publishers and agents drumming up support. That’s a hundred clusters of psychic tension detonating online simultaneously. No wonder things get heated.

I was in Greece for the first two days of the week-long voting window, by which point there were already clear leaders. With five days to go, I started doing what most of the others had done, and announced my part in the longlist as loud and far as I could. I was fortunate that a lot of people who’d read and liked The Visitors voted for me, and I managed to reach the shortlist. I’m extremely thankful and humbled by the support for my book.

The shortlist holds some intimidating competition – genuine literary titan Donna Tartt, no less, as well as Louis Armand, Mahesh Rao, Tony Black and Iain Maloney. I’m a little concerned that The Visitors seems to be the only work of genre fiction on the list; I’m worried it won’t be deemed worthy enough. And now I’m actually up for review, there’s the prospect of this sort of evisceration at the hands of Sam Jordison, too. Ouch. All in all, I’m expecting dark things from the Guardian readers – which begs the question: why bother entering?

I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately. The first time my agent and I went to meet my editor at Quercus, we discussed the importance of promotion and self-promotion. It’s simply a mandatory part of an author’s life, now – especially a debut author. Publishers are spread thin. They can’t afford to spend time plugging new writers, and that means new writers have to plug themselves.

It’s unfortunate, then, that I’m not great at selling myself or my work. I feel embarrassed at intruding on other people’s time, and I despise arrogance so much in other people that I cringe at anything that could make me seem arrogant. It took months of goading by my wife before I summoned courage to introduce myself to my local library and local Waterstones. On both occasions, I fumbled through a minute of apologies before finding a way to explain who I was, that I had a book out, and that I wanted to say hello. They were perfectly nice, and keen to discuss running some future events, but the process leaves me feeling weird, and even a little cheap.

If I’m ever going to find a way to write full-time – or, being more realistic, to better balance my life and jobs around writing – then this is the sort of thing I need to do. As my Dad says – you’ve created a product, and now you need to sell it.

Books are products, for sure. I think stories are far more than that. Books are the vessels that carry stories, though, so maybe I’m splitting hairs. I know that I want to write stories, but also that I don’t really want to sell my own books, because it makes me feel so uncomfortable; I know that I want as many people as possible to read my work, and that selling my own books, and selling myself, is one of the only ways I can find to keep writing my stories. For most writers, that’s the binary pair of modern publishing.

When I try to reconcile these two distinct strands of my industry, I have to accept that all I want to do – what I wish for every day – is to write full-time and get these stories onto paper, into people’s heads, into people’s hearts. Whether I like it or not, that means playing the game.

I don’t know how it’s going to go, but my money’s on Tartt or Black.

Weird days. Remember Remember have been helping:

 

Tipping

I had two brilliant days on The Hollows last week, and it’s entirely thanks to my friend Ali. I’d just finished reading a draft of his new novel – which is absolutely scintillating and is going to be massive – and called to talk to him about it. We spoke for a long time about lots of things, and he ended up clearing my head of cobwebs I didn’t know I was carrying.

This is how it is: I’ve been enjoying my first forays The Hollows, but it’s been tough going in places, because I’ve been trying to build the story chronologically, making each current chapter as clean and tight as possible before developing the next. It was only through talking to Ali that I remembered that I don’t write like that. I’d forgotten that I’m writing for me. Or, as Ali put it: “Writing’s a big fuck you to the world.”

This is an abstract thing to explain to myself. It’s not like I was writing someone else’s story, or writing with someone else in mind. But I think I’d spent so long redrafting The Visitors that I’d forgotten that it was rough, too, at the beginning; and, in starting to write The Hollows, I essentially picked up the same point of bug-eyed perfectionism that I left The Visitors. I was working back-to-front. I’d forgotten that some of whatever strength I might have as a writer comes from rewriting – from redrafting and reworking. I’d forgotten the unfolding joy of a first draft – of cutting loose, of jumping feet-first into all that glorious blank white empty space. Talking to Ali reminded me that this is my story, and I need to tell it my way.

When I had my next writing day, I sat down, disabled the internet, and raced through 3,500 words. The next day, I wrote the same again, as well as tearing apart swathes of what I’d already written, rebuilding the plot of the first third. It was exhilarating. I ignored the chronology and jumped ahead to work on scenes and chapters I’ve been dreaming of for months. In writing them, brand new scenes unfolded as though they’d been there all along. I worked late, and it hurt to blink by the end of day two, but I’d turned 18,000 words of clunky plot into 25,000 of viable draft. There’s a forever still to go, but the story is starting to move.

It’s funny how time and memory contrive to fool us. The Visitors didn’t write itself until I was well over halfway through. The first 50,000 words were hard, and the second didn’t need me there at all. That’s the bit I remember. Since then, I’ve been so immersed in my redrafts that I’d forgotten it took six months of slog to hit that tipping point.

First drafts are where the fun is. I’m going to dive in and get messy, and rejoice, and despair, and laugh, and burn myself out, and despair some more, because that’s how I live, and that’s how I write. It’ll take months from now, or years, but I finally feel like I’m getting The Hollows on course for where I want to go.

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The destination

The Visitors was officially published on Thursday, and I was away all day on a college trip – for the second year in a row, four of my students had made it to the semi-finals of the World Skills competition. We’d driven down to Hinckley on Wednesday, stayed up till 1am practicing their pitch, then risen at 6am to practice and get to the venue. They had a 5-minute presentation to deliver, and we stayed all day, waiting for feedback. Throughout that time, I was quietly flooded with emails, texts and messages – so many that I felt helpless – I could barely respond. Friends sent me photos of the delivered book – out of my hands, now, and into theirs – and all the while I sat with my students, and talked with other tutors, and wandered round Hinckley College. It felt incredibly weird to be so far removed from the book on its publication day. The students succeeded with their presentation, and won a place at the finals in November. We left at 4pm. It was supposed to be a three-hour drive back to Kendal, but took more than five. The motorway was a purgatory of second gear. It flattened me. I sat in traffic jams and wished I could walk along the central reservation, alone in a sea of stationary cars, the hubcaps and ring pulls and single shoes scattered all around.

Back in Cumbria at last, I dropped off the college car and walked an hour through the gloom to get home to my amazing wife. By the time I turned the computer back on, I’d had scores of congratulations from friends and family. I felt humbled and very lucky. Then, in a mark of the rollercoaster this trip has become, I received an email saying I hadn’t been awarded a Northern Writers’ Award. That’s disappointing, though I’m still very glad I applied.

Thursday was a topsyturvy day, but then I woke on Friday to the news that my short story What I’ll Do To Be In Love With You had been accepted by the National Flash Fiction Day anthology – and then, a few hours later, the amazing Tania Hershman alerted me to the presence of my story Art Is Long, Life Is Short on the BBC Opening Lines longlist. I’d long-since written that off as a rejection. Talk about frazzled. On Friday night, Mon and I drank a bottle of posh fizz and sat and talked it over. That felt good.

I don’t entirely know what to say about The Visitors being published. I’m proud of what I’ve made, and I’m delighted to share it with other people, but my good friend Ali Shaw warned me that it might feel something of an anticlimax, and he was right. I don’t feel any different in myself. I’m still planning lessons, ploughing through my mountain of marking, and stressing about whether my four-month hay meadow time lapse is going to work out. Publication hasn’t changed any of that. But it is an affirmation of all I want to do – to coax the stories in my head out into the light. It has also reminded me how blessed I am in my friends – I feel almost ashamed to have had such support from such incredible people. These few days have made my heart beat bigger, and I’m thankful.

All this has whetted my hunger to push on with the next novel. In that respect, I guess The Visitors is the culmination of the first stage of a long road. More than anything else, I know, with every cord of my being, that this is the right path for me. Writing is a journey, but publication is not a destination. I don’t want it to ever end. I want to walk till my heart gives out.

A sealskin coat

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Painting by Jessica Shirley http://jessicashirley.blogspot.co.uk/2011/03/selkie-girl.html

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.

seal