EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Delia Sherman on ‘The Selkie Speaks’

[Interviewer’s Note: This is a series of interviews featuring the contributors of The Beastly Bride: Tales of the Animal People edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling.]

Delia Sherman‘s most recent short stories have appeared in the Viking young adult anthologies The Green Man, Fairy Reel, and Coyote Road, and in the adult anthologies Poe: New Tales of Suspense, Dark fantasy, and Horror inspired by Edgar Allan Poe and the forthcoming Naked City: New Tales of Urban Fantasy. Her adult novels are Through a Brazen Mirror and The Porcelain Dove (winner of the Mythopoeic Award), and, with fellow-fantasist and partner Ellen Kushner, The Fall of the Kings.

She has co-edited anthologies with Ellen Kushner and Terri Windling, as well as Interfictions: An Anthology of Interstitial Writing, edited with Theodora Goss, and Interfictions 2, edited with Christopher Barzak.

Changeling was her first novel for younger readers. Its sequel, The Mirror of the Mermaid Queen was published in 2009. She is a past member of the James Tiptree Jr. Awards Council, an active member of the Endicott Studio of Mythic Arts, and a founding member of the Interstitial Arts Foundation board.

Delia has taught writing at Clarion, the Odyssey Workshop in New Hampshire, the Cape Cod Writers’ Workshop, and the American Book Center in Amsterdam. She lives in New York City, loves to travel, and writes wherever she happens to find herself.


Charles Tan: Hi! Thanks for agreeing to do the interview. What convinced you that poetry was the best medium for your narrative?

Delia Sherman: Poetry, for me, conveys the essence of narrative rather than its particulars. I was interested in the archetype of the Seal Bride, rather than in the story of a unique and individual seal-woman–or in this case, her daughter. I was also interested in the ways in which children are influenced by their parents’ lives and prejudices. Sure, I could have written a prose narrative containing all that, but the effect would have been more diffuse.

Also, Ellen and Terri delight in asking me to write poetry, knowing that I don’t consider myself a poet, but will do my best to please them.

CT: What is about the Seal Bride archetype that interests you? For you, what does it represent?

DS: I’ve always loved stories of animals and birds that can appear to be human, just by taking off their skins or their feathers. One of the only songs I ever learned to play well on a guitar was “The Great Selkie of Skul Skerrie.” One of my first published stories was “The Maid on the Shore,” based on a traditional English ballad I first heard on a Frankie Armstrong album.

The fact that I seem to prefer seals over any other animal brides is something I hadn’t actually realized until this moment. Perhaps it’s because there’s a lot of very cool folklore about it. Perhaps it’s because I’ve spent most of my adult life near the sea, and frequently right next to it–particularly in Cape Cod and Maine.

CT: Since you don’t consider yourself a poet, what was the most challenging aspect when writing this poem?

DS: Well, the poetry.

I can’t rhyme for little green apples. What I can do is scan and make patterns. My training (such as it is) is in Elizabethan dramatic poetry; my taste runs to blank verse and dramatic monologues. I’m fine with metaphor and simile, with image and symbol and voice. I’m not so hot with lyric emotion. “The Selkie Speaks” comes as close as I’ve ever come to a lyric poem.

CT: There’s a form of reconciliation or showing the other side of the story at the end of the poem. What made you decide to go with this theme?

DS: It’s where the particular finds its way into the archetype, I guess. Not all animal brides are doomed. Not all men are greedy or violent or possessive. The man who stays on the beach, who sees the furious seal woman’s pain, loves her for what she is, and does not seek to own her, provides a counterweight to her mother’s personal bitterness and mankind’s poor husbandry of the riches of the sea. And I think happy, companionate marriages between men and women who respect each other (as far as is consistent with being actual human beings) should be every bit as poetry-worthy as angst, bitterness, and shame.

CT: What is it about the Beastly Bride concept that appeals to you?

DS: I love the idea of species fluidity, I guess, the sense of the maiden inherent in the swan or seal, the youth inherent in the bear or deer. After all, human beings are animals. And aren’t we most aware of our animal natures when love or hunger or hatred burns through reason and encourages us to do exactly what we desire to do, with frequently tragic results? At the same time, many fairy tales and ballads present us with animals who are nobler, truer, and kinder than the greedy human beings who desire to possess them. I guess I tend to read these stories as very early (and possibly unconscious) feminist texts. Let us control our lives, the animal brides say. Leave us our pelts or our feather cloaks. Let us choose when to stay and when to leave. We have the right to be treated as your equals. In our native element, we have powers you have not. We can fly in the air, breathe in the water, dig underground. Don’t chain us. Don’t separate us from our sisters. Learn from us.