It’s very rare that I publish two posts a day on Being Anne, but I’m so excited about this one that I just couldn’t bear to wait for my next free day. Do you remember my review of Sealskin by Su Bristow? You can read it again here, and the immense impact this wonderful book had on me when I read it hasn’t diminished one bit. I think of it often, I tell people about it, I’ve bought copies as gifts – I thought it was just phenomenal, another magnificent find by Orenda Books, and so did everyone else I know who read it. I was lucky enough to be at the launch party, and the silence as Su read her words to a rapt audience will long stay in the memory.
I’m delighted – and feel just a little bit honoured – to welcome author Su Bristow to Being Anne…
Hello Anne, and thank you so much for inviting me to be your guest on the blog. You asked me to write about the lead-up to publication of Sealskin. As it’s my first novel, the process was all new to me. Is this what usually happens? Well, from talking to other writers who are a little further down the road than myself, ‘usually’ doesn’t seem to apply. I’ve met people whose books have slipped into the world with barely a ripple of publicity, and others for whom the red carpet was rolled out. So how was it for me?
I can only guess at what went on behind the scenes between Karen Sullivan at Orenda Books, Anne Cater who organised the blog tour, all the people who read review copies and provided quotes, and whoever else was involved. To all of you, my heartfelt thanks.
All I know is that I woke up on February 5th – day one of the blog tour – expecting to see a review of Sealskin on Steph’s book blog, and an article I’d written about the selkie legend on damppebbles. I wasn’t at all prepared for the blizzard of tweets, retweets, shares and comments on twitter and Facebook. My notifications went from a few to around 300 a day, and stayed that way for the rest of the month.
It was my first real taste of the blogosphere as a community, and it was, quite simply, awesome. It felt a bit like being pelted with something soft that doesn’t hurt, but fills the air so you can’t see much else. Flowers, maybe, or thistledown. And the comments were nearly all overwhelmingly positive, too. Did they really like it, or were they just being nice? My friends laughed at that. We told you so, they said. They really, really liked it.
The paperback came out on 15th February. By pure coincidence, Amazon and Kobo put the ebook down to 99p that weekend, and I watched with bemusement as it zoomed up the ranks to finish at number one in two categories, and number two in mythology to Neil Gaiman’s newly released ‘Norse Mythology’. I’m very happy to be second to Neil Gaiman, any day!
We didn’t hold the London launch until 8th March because Karen was away. By then, I was really looking forward to meeting some of the bloggers, as well as all the friends and family I’d invited. Goldsboro Books – and Broo Doherty who is my agent and has her office there – had created a magical display of books and selkie pictures, and the multi-talented Karen Sullivan had made a wonderful cake that looked like a beach, complete with shells, fishing net and an icing copy of the book. ‘We’re not eating that!’ said my daughter when we got home, and she stowed it away in the freezer.
And there they were in person: Vicky Goldman, Jeanette Hewitt, Jen Lucas, David of Blue Book Balloon, Karen Cocking, Leah Moyse and – of course – Anne Williams herself. Forgive me if I can’t name you all! There were many meetings that night, including friends I hadn’t seen for years, and some who’d come a long way to be there. I may have been a little emotional.
The next day I went with Sophie Goodfellow – who does some PR for Orenda Books – to Radio 2 to be interviewed by Jonathan Ross for the Arts Show. Why, out of all the submissions he gets, did he choose Sealskin? Who knows? I felt strangely calm. Perhaps, as someone who spends most of my working time one-to-one with patients, there’s only so much of the spotlight I can cope with. And he was charming; he’d read and enjoyed the book, and he asked good questions, so the interview itself flowed easily. I walked back to Waterloo in the early spring sunshine, and didn’t begin to feel exhausted until the evening. The Arts Show is on from 10 till 12, but I’m afraid I went to bed! I didn’t hear it until I was back in Exeter, courtesy of iplayer.
The last big event has been the Exeter launch of Sealskin, at the awards ceremony for the fourth Exeter Novel Prize. Sealskin won the prize in its first year, so it was wonderful to be able to hold up a newly-minted paperback and say to the finalists, ‘Look! This is what can happen!’ And doubly satisfying because the ceremony took place in the Devon and Exeter Institution, where I wrote quite a lot of the novel. The books were provided by Crediton Community Bookshop, who went away almost empty-handed and well pleased.
‘So, how are the sales doing?’ as everyone keeps asking. And of course, I don’t know. Only the publisher can see actual figures; all I can see are the rankings on Amazon, which of course are far from the whole story. I won’t know until the first royalty statement arrives, and then – another thing I’ve learned along the way – I’ll give a suitably vague response. It’s not a question writers ever ask, or answer. But Sealskin seems to me to be doing just fine, and that’s down to the hard work of a lot of people, a lot of goodwill, and a helping of luck on the side.
And an author with a very special talent. Sue, thank you so much for joining me – I loved reading about your experience, and I’m sure everyone else will too. Might anyone not have heard about the book, do you think? Let’s just make sure…
Sealskin by Su Bristow, published by Orenda Books
What happens when magic collides with reality? Donald is a young fisherman, eking out a lonely living on the west coast of Scotland. One night he witnesses something miraculous … and makes a terrible mistake. His action changes lives – not only his own, but those of his family and the entire tightly knit community in which they live. Can he ever atone for the wrong he has done, and can love grow when its foundation is violence?
Based on the legend of the selkies – seals who can transform into people – Sealskin is a magical story, evoking the harsh beauty of the landscape, the resilience of its people, both human and animal, and the triumph of hope over fear and prejudice. With exquisite grace, Exeter Novel Prize-winner Su Bristow transports us to a different world, subtly and beautifully exploring what it means to be an outsider, and our innate capacity for forgiveness and acceptance. Rich with myth and magic, Sealskin is, nonetheless, a very human story, as relevant to our world as to the timeless place in which it is set. And it is, quite simply, unforgettable. For fans of Angela Carter, Eowyn Ivey, Alice Hoffmann and Geraldine Brooks.
About the author
Su Bristow is a consultant medical herbalist by day. She’s the author of two books on herbal medicine: The Herbal Medicine Chest and The Herb Handbook; and two on relationship skills: The Courage to Love and Falling in Love, Staying in Love, co-written with psychotherapist, Malcolm Stern. Her published fiction includes ‘Troll Steps’ (in the anthology, Barcelona to Bihar), and ‘Changes’ which came second in the 2010 CreativeWritingMatters flash fiction competition. Her novel, Sealskin, is set in the Hebrides, and it’s a reworking of the Scottish legend of the selkies, or seals who can turn into people. It won the Exeter Novel Prize 2013. Her writing has been described as ‘magical realism; Angela Carter meets Eowyn Ivey’.