It doesn’t take long to familiarise yourself with the idea of selkies if they’re completely new to you. When I decided to write a novella about them (and then found that I couldn’t stop, and grew it into a novel, The Brides of Rollrock Island), I did a bit of Internetresearch, and I read a couple of books, but selkies were something I’d known about since childhood. I didn’t research too much, meaning, I tried not to disturb or obscure the basic impressions and mood I’d carried with me about these mythical creatures for so long.
I find this with traditional tales, that there are key things that I remember about them, and often quite a lot of the original story falls away in my memory and in my remaking of a story, sometimes replaced, sometimes not. When I wrote an extension of the Rapunzel story, for instance, all the politicking with the witch disappeared, and it became all about the golden hair, which eventually came to life and started sorting the story out for itself.
With the selkies, I think the key element that attracted me was the selkie coats. I still haven’t ever seen or touched a sealskin coat, so these coats are completely imaginary things to me. How heavy would they be? How much glisten do they have? How much fur? How strongly do they smell of the sea? How closely do they follow the form of the seal—or do they change, as the seal changes into a person, and become more like earthly coats, with more in the way of arms, and less in the way of a tail? How does the head of a thrown-off sealskin look? (Quite creepy, I should think.)
The coats themselves were fascinating to think about, but the effect they had on all the different characters was what drove the story. One of the first scenes I wrote was the coatroom scene, when a group of small boys, sons of land-men and selkie-women, find the town coatroom unlocked, and venture inside, and dress up in the coats and make fun of the mothers; the older boys know how naughty they’re being, but some of the younger ones have no idea what these things are, or the story behind them, and to others, like our narrator Daniel, they’re something of a revelation about his mother’s true nature, and why she suffers as she does.
The women, as is common in the old selkie tales, are in a constant state of longing to return to the sea, and the withholding of their coats is the one thing that keeps them from going home—so their life on land is lived in excruciating consciousness that the means of their rescue is right there among them, but unreachably locked up in the coatroom at the inn. For the men who paid the witch Misskaella to bring the selkie-wives ashore, the coatroom is where they store all their guilt and shame, and all their justifiable fear that their women, given the chance, will abandon them.
Stories about selkie women are always about the reunion of the woman with her true skin, and the loss of her to the sea. They’re quite simple, but they carry huge emotional clout. They’re highly romantic, but the romance always ends in tragedy—who could resist such a combination? I couldn’t, and The Brides of Rollrock Island is the result. Please pick up a copy, and weep and wonder with me!
Margo is the author of the tragic, sea-soaked fantasy novel The Brides of Rollrock Island, released this month, and dark fantasy Tender Morsels, published in 2009. Currently, she’s working on a new novel (it’s not cheery, either) and a fifth collection of short stories. Margo lives in Sydney, Australia. She maintains a blog at www.amongamidwhile.blogspot.com, and can be found on Twitter as @margolanagan.