Elisabeth Gifford shares the Gaelic myth of selkies and mermaids
An interview with Elisabeth Gifford,
Author of The Sea House
What happens when you bring the truth of who you are and where you’ve been into the light? In her impressive debut novel, The Sea House (St. Martin’s Press/April 15, 2014/ISBN: 978-1250043344/$25.99), author Elisabeth Gifford introduces readers to characters who are forced to dig up the pain and secrets of their past in order to let the fresh air of faith and grace purify and heal the broken places in their heart.
Gifford was inspired to write The Sea House after coming across a letter in The Times archives from 1809, in which a Scottish schoolmaster claimed to have spotted a mermaid. Weaving the ancient Gaelic myth of the selkies into her story, she has created a sweeping tale of hope and redemption that is an ode to the healing readers can find when they acknowledge the truth about themselves.
Q: Your new release, The Sea House, is a fascinating historical mystery that was born out of a letter you found from an old edition of The Times. Can you tell us about the letter?
The Sea House is based on a real letter written to The Times newspaper in 1809 by a Scottish schoolmaster, reporting a mermaid sighting. There were lots of mermaid sightings up to 200 years ago around Scotland and even a recorded mermaid funeral in the islands. There were also persistent legends of selkies, seals who could take off their sealskins on land to become human. I thought these were simply old fairy tales from a more credulous time, but it may be that these sightings and legends were connected to something very real. For thousands of years the native Sea Sami used to kayak down to Scotland from Norway using Eskimo technology. Their sealskin kayaks would become waterlogged after a few hours and lie just below the sea surface looking like a wavering tail. On land, they removed their sealskin jackets and became human — just as described in the legend of the selkies. Some must have married locals and stayed on the islands, giving rise to certain families such as the MacOdrums, who were said to have come from the seal people.
It’s a theory that’s hard to prove, as the Sea Sami tribe was forcibly assimilated into Norwegian culture 200 years ago and disappeared — at exactly the same time the mermaid sightings stopped. The only evidence we have left is The Times mermaid letter, a kayak held in Aberdeen museum with Norwegian pine struts inside instead of the usual Eskimo baleen and of course the old legends of mermaids and seal men.
Q: One major theme in the book is the power of acknowledging and telling your story. Why do you think this is such an important part of finding personal healing?
You meet people who have had terrible childhoods yet still emerged loving and positive people. Other people become very bitter about relatively common hurts. I wanted to look at what makes the difference. My father was a neglected orphan, and I saw how his faith gave him the means to remain a very contented, loving and patient father and pastor. The way we see our history and tell our story affects how we live.
I read Talking of Love on the Edge of the Precipice, which is known as “the book that healed France.” Boris Cyrulnik, the author, was Jewish and as a child was left hidden and neglected in a farm loft for years during World War II. He also lost all his family. Now he helps trauma victims retell their sad stories in terms of a bigger arc that includes a source of love and allows their story to end in hope. For Christians, we have the option of rewriting our stories around the extravagant love shown to us on the cross, if we choose to.
Q: One character in the book is a woman in the process of building her dream home with her husband. However, a discovery buried under their house mars her perfect plans, causing her to confront her painful past. In what way is her discovery a metaphor?
The baby buried beneath the house was inspired by a real case of a baby discovered beneath a croft house in Orkney. It is a metaphor for the way Ruth has to acknowledge her past, just as she needs to understand why the child is there in her home. I also wanted to convey to the reader the kind of physical fear people sometimes experience when coping with the effects of poorly understood or unacknowledged trauma, as well as showing there is a way to get beyond that fear. It’s really up to the reader to work out what they think is the truth behind the story. A story is a drama and is all about the choices people make. The metaphors and similes have to be earned in the story and come naturally. In a way, a story itself is a kind of life metaphor.
Q: In The Sea House, we also meet a vicar who must confront his own ideas about his relationship with God. What lessons about faith can we learn from his spiritual journey?
In classic fairy stories, the hero works out how to win the princess and is pretty pleased with himself. Then about halfway through the story, it all goes wrong, and what used to work isn’t enough. At this point the hero has to go deep into his character to save the day.
While Alexander says he believes in grace, he really believes in a formula where his particular failures cannot be forgiven. So he tries incredibly hard to become a better person. Only after he sees how miserably he fails as a pastor does he let go and accept the mystery of grace. In many ways, he follows a pretty common Christian path from an early faith in our ability to “become good” to a mature and knocked-about faith relying on grace and love.
Q: What parallels can be drawn between the storyline of The Sea House and the Gospel message?
The thing that hit me when I began writing was the image of a seal man unable ever to return home. This mirrored how, for many people, something happens that means they can’t find a home for the person they are. It’s the same for Moira, who gets evicted from her village in the clearances, and with Ruth in the cold children’s home. They represent the longing for a true home that often sets people on their way to a faith.
It’s also interesting to note that a lot of the Gospel teaching is in the form of stories. Stories show us a lot about how choices pan out, about character and about what is of real value. In The Sea House, Ruth and Alex have to battle to work out what is true and what is not true and then choose what they will believe about who they are and where home is. We all live by stories about how the world is. Not all of them are true — but some are, and they may be the ones that sound quite unlikely at first!
Q: The characters in The Sea House discover much of their redemption comes from reconnecting with their personal pasts and their family history. Why do you think this is so important?
I suppose there’s a human impulse to invent a better self so other people, and even God, will like us more and not turn away from us. That can lead to us living two different lives. In some cases, prominent Christians actually have complete double lives. Jesus came to a very real and ordinary world, and that’s where God meets us. He sees all of us and doesn’t turn away. Facing up to who we are and where we came from is a form of accountability, and the “real you” is the only person who can form genuine relationships and be happy and fulfilled. And that is only if we are willing to accept the grace and love of others.
Q: This is your debut novel, but you’ve been a writer for some time and have an M.A. in creative writing. What is your favorite part of the fiction-writing process?
It’s very exciting when you find the voice for a new character and they begin to live on the page. They can become quite opinionated about the plot. I also get really excited by story structure and the way it gives the reader a chance to live other lives and develop insight and empathy. I also love evoking real places and their physical impact, so writing about the very beautiful Hebrides was pure pleasure.
Q: The Sea House is rich in history and Gaelic myth. What kind of research did you do in preparation to write the novel?
It started when my family fell in love with the beautiful and remote Hebridean islands in North Scotland. I was feeling very stressed at the time, and when we saw an advertisement for a white cottage on a remote island, we decided to rent it. We became hooked on the area’s quiet beauty and its continuity with old ways, customs and legends. The Gaelic Outer Hebrides are something of a time capsule where the old crofting ways and Gaelic still cling on. While we were there, I talked to Harris artist Willie Fulton, who shared his stories of living in a crofting village throughout the past half-century and the remarkable people there. I read all of the books I could get my hands on about the time period and met with John MacAulay, who wrote Seal Folk and Ocean Paddlers, an historical account about what really lies behind the seal people legends. He gave me permission to use his research in the novel. In the islands the past always feels very present.
Q: Have you always had a fascination with mermaids?
I initially became interested in the selkie and seal people myths when I heard the children’s story from my daughter while we were in Harris. Standing on a remote island shore on a deserted beach facing the Atlantic, it seemed very possible a seal man might appear. The mermaid legends were first told in Gaelic, legends going back thousands of years, but they are still told and sung today, especially on Uist island. The folk singer Julie Fowlis, who sang the Gaelic songs on Disney’s Brave soundtrack, came to the Glasgow book launch and sang a song taught to her on her island of Uist. That song was written more than 200 years ago by John MacOdrum, who was said to be a seal man’s descendent. Due to the clearances where villagers were evicted from the land, the MacOdrum clan descendants are now only found in the US and Canada. I’ve been in contact with some of them.
Q: What is the message you hope readers walk away with after they close the covers of The Sea House?
Hope . . . and the power of love and grace. We don’t just get to choose how we tell our past stories, but we can also choose how our future story will be written.
To keep up with Elisabeth Gifford, visit www.elisabethgifford.com, become a fan on Facebook (ElisabethGiffordAuthor) or follow her on Pinterest (LizGifford355).