I’m thrilled to welcome Su Bristow to the Nut Press today. Su was the first winner of the Exeter Novel Prize and the resulting novel, Sealskin, is out now from Orenda Books.
Su, I was lucky enough to be at that first prize-giving ceremony for the Exeter Novel Prize. Can you give me an idea of what happened after you won the award and how you went from prize-winning writer to published author, and the time it’s taken to make that transition?
Immediately afterwards? I went away in a daze, had dinner with some good friends, and spent two days working through the flood of facebook and twitter responses. It was amazing! And after that, I set to work to finish the book. The competition only required a synopsis and the first 10,000 words, and I’d done about 50,000 at that stage. By the time I’d got to the end, submitted it to Broo Doherty (the agent who judges the competition) and worked on her suggestions, another year had gone by. Then there were about six months of rejections, until Sealskin was accepted by Karen Sullivan of Orenda Books. She was busy establishing her business, and the first publication date she could manage was early 2017. So here we are, three years on!
What advice would you give to other writers considering entering writing competitions?
Tell yourself you might win, and be prepared! Ideally, you’d have the finished manuscript ready for submission. Beta-test it with readers who ‘get’ what your writing is about, and have good critical abilities. And listen to what they say! Build a good social media platform on facebook and twitter; that shows prospective agents or publishers that you’re willing to put in the necessary work to publicise your book.
Had you completed the manuscript for Sealskin when you entered it for the Exeter Novel Prize, or did you do so after you’d submitted your entry?
See above. I knew where it was going, but it took about three more months to complete.
From the extract I’ve read, your novel Sealskin centres around a myth which I find fascinating, that of the selkie, a creature who lives as a seal in the water and sheds its skin on dry land to take a human form. What interests you about the myth and what did you want to explore by writing about it in your novel?
Where to start? Stories that blur the boundaries between human and animal are told all over the world. We place ourselves outside nature, and yet we want to be part of it. The selkie stories come from the coast of Scotland and the islands around it, and I’m half Scottish so they have a special appeal for me. And this particular story… It’s beautiful and haunting, but there is ugliness at its heart. The legend says only ‘He took her home to be his wife’. She had no choice, and yet she lived with him and bore his children. So if that really happened, how could it possibly work? That’s where Sealskin began.
Selkies are supposedly peaceful, beautiful creatures, non-threatening to human beings, but the one in Sealskin has a rude introduction to the human race. Do we come to understand why Donald acts as he does at the beginning of the book, and see the repercussions of his actions?
Donald is a lonely young man who feels he will never belong. When this marvellous thing happens, he is transported by the magic and overwhelmed by his own feelings. Almost at once, he knows he has done wrong, but it’s too late to take it back. The only way out is through. So yes, the whole story is about the repercussions.
Or is the novel about Donald, his mother and the wider community coming to terms with having a selkie in their midst?
It’s about that too. In a small community, any kind of change sends ripples through everyone’s lives. The legend doesn’t touch on this at all, but it’s an essential part of the novel.
And did you want to comment on how we humans so often seem to destroy beauty in nature, whether intentionally or accidentally?
Yes. We love it, and we want to own it in some way. From writing about it or painting it, to putting animals in cages, our responses usually have more to do with our ‘needs’ than with the natural world itself.
And finally, if you could shed your skin and temporarily take on another form, what would it be, and why? What would you want to do with or in your new form?
What a question! There’s new footage of seals underwater, showing how graceful and playful they can be. I wouldn’t mind that; I’m a poor swimmer and can’t stand the cold, so it would be marvellous to have the freedom of the sea. Or maybe I’d be a bird. Do I only get one go? There’s always a catch with these magic wishes…
Sealskin is out now as an ebook and comes out in paperback on 15th February 2017. It is published by Orenda Books. It is available from Amazon UK, Foyles, Hive (supporting your local independent bookshop) and Waterstones. You can find out more about Su Bristow on her Website or on Twitter.
My thanks to Karen Sullivan at Orenda Books for sending me a review copy. My review will be up on the blog soon.
Su’s blog tour for Sealskin started on 5th February and continues all month. Here are all the great blogs taking part: