Talking Myth, Magic, Selkies and Sailcloth with Deep Water author Lu Hersey

Lu Hersey’s novel Deep Water won the 2013 Mslexia Children’s Novel Writing Award. Since it was published in 2015, it has been shortlisted for the Wirral Paperback of the Year Award and it was named by The Guardian as one of the best children’s books of 2015. In my house Deep Water has fans of many ages, so it’s a delight to ask Lu about her writing process and how she weaves in the myth and magic that runs through her work…

Why are you drawn to myth, magic or fairy tale?

 I’m a big fan of Joseph Campbell, and the idea that myth is the most ancient form of storytelling. There are elements of truth in mythical stories which I find fascinating. I know some myth is bizarre and far-fetched, but I like that there are elements that reflect reality.

 In a lot of myth, you can trace back where it’s come from, for example, if you think of the Bible and the flood story. You find flood stories in so many societies because of the real history of the end of the last ice age, when the ice melted and the sea levels rose -  and so flood stories feature in myth worldwide.

 How do myth and magic influence your writing?

I like to create a contemporary setting, but with ancient myth in it. If you just read a book of mythical stories, it could be quite dry. But if you thought of myth as being real, that would be really interesting, I think. That’s what I like to do, bringing myths up to date: it’s what I call kitchen sink paranormal.

 In Deep Water you use the selkie myth, and what have you done in your latest novel?

Broken Ground is a take on the Morrigan myth, but I’ve used a British goddess called Andraste. She’s the one that Queen Boudicca called on when she went into war against the Romans.

I have researched Celtic goddesses and myth a lot, looking into the way people worshipped in woodland groves and how they venerated trees and so on. Andraste is a land goddess. She’s protecting the land - which is where the fracking link comes in. She comes back from the other world, because fracking has disturbed the ground both in her world and this one.

 That sounds amazing! I can’t wait to read it.

 What does this mythic element add to contemporary children's literature? Why is it still relevant?

I think it’s relevant because of the collective unconscious. I think that’s something that really exists, so therefore you get archetypes which appear in myth, which I think are still relevant. I like to work with these archetypes - for example, the shapeshifter myth, which I really like and which I used in Deep Water. But all mythical archetypes are, I think, still relevant, and they emerge in the way we tell stories.

Can you say more about this?

So, believe it or not, I had no idea how they made the knot charm in Deep Water. But, if you go to the witchcraft museum in Boscastle, they’ve got pictures on the sign outside, of women ‘selling the wind’. So fishermen would be interested in having a fair wind, and they’d pay money for a charm of some kind. And so I made up the weather charm.

 I was going to use rope, but I thought my heroine would have a problem undoing the knots, so I made it from sailcloth tied into three knots: one knot was for a light wind, one was for stronger weather, and one was a bloody hurricane. And then I discovered really recently, since the book has been published, that that’s exactly what happened. They used to do it in Scotland, and people in Nova Scotia have still got that tradition: one knot for light wind, two for a stronger wind and don’t even go there with the third one.

 I was really stunned by that. I didn’t know about it. I made something up and it turned out to be real. Something similar happened when I was writing the selkie myth. There’s a gold chain in my story, and after I wrote that bit, then I read a story where a woman recognises her son as a selkie because he’s wearing a gold chain, and I thought ‘Oh, that’s weird.’

 That’s just given me a shiver down my spine!

 What is your favourite mythical character and why? 

 If I was going to meet one, I’d like to meet a unicorn. Although, I do like dragons, too. I’m not sure about sea monsters, I’d be terrified!

 What advice would you give to an emerging writer who is drawn to use myth and magic in their own writing?

 When Deep Water went out on submission, a lot of publishers rejected it on the grounds that seals aren’t sexy! Perhaps they were expecting a nice voluptuous mermaid, and although they liked the writing, they didn’t want fat blubbery seals. So I’d say: pick something attractive! You’re probably better off with werewolves, zombies or vampires than you are with blubbery seals…

 And on that note - she says, laughing – thank you so much Lu Hersey! That’s been fascinating. You can read more on Lu’s blog here, or by following Lu on Twitter here.

 Deep Water is published by Usborne. Broken Ground is currently out on submission.