From the Author of The Gracekeepers
Bright night, May light, milk moon. They ran. Their paws were damp with blood…Inside her, I was so close to being happy. So close to being outside her…Already my fingers were separate, the buds of my incisors formed, the fists of my lungs getting ready to open….But in the end, we can only be one person. (From A Portable Shelter by Kirsty Logan)
‘Liminality’ is the word that comes to mind as I settle into a conversation with Kirsty Logan, one of the newest, most original voices on Scotland’s literary scene and winner of this year’s Polari Prize. Her work inhabits a landscape of both mythology and mundanity, is situated between land and sea and is populated by selkies, werewolves, witches and other beings in a state of flux.
‘I’m fascinated by boundaries and places of change,’ she tells me.
With two short story collections and now a widely acclaimed debut novel, The Gracekeepers, under her belt, Logan has already drawn comparisons to such genre-defining heavyweights as Angela Carter. But if Carter was interested in dismantling the tropes of the fairytale, Logan exploits them for their internal logic and inherent dualities to create a uniquely 21st century mythology, encompassing sexuality, gender identity, loss, love and landscape.
Her stories are a combination of tradition and invention. ‘I don’t want the reader to feel the ground they’re on is too steady’, Logan says. ‘I want them to think, I know what kind of story this is, and then to play with that. I like that about fairytales. You get settled in the story and all of a sudden a golden dart comes down.’
Perhaps Logan’s most notable golden dart is her Gracekeeper, Callanish, a marginalised character with a conflicted identity, tasked with carrying out the death rituals of her society. That society is itself located on the margins, in a watery world where land is disappearing beneath the rising sea. Land equates with power, and the sea-dwellers in this new world order are relegated as second-class citizens. It is to one of these sea-dwellers – a circus performer named North – that Callanish is drawn, and they must overcome the tides of prejudice, stigma and fear, which, even as they throw the two together, would keep them apart.
This world feels at once a plausible dystopia and also the stuff of lands far, far away. And that’s exactly the kind of world that attracts Logan. She recalls a childhood of Scottish holidays, where visits to the sea, walks through the forests and day trips to castles blended with bedtime stories of princesses and enchanted castles. ‘Those worlds felt magical and distant, but also real: here and tangible,’ she says.
Whilst she admires the purely fantastical worlds of, say, Lord of the Rings, it’s the prosaic she finds truly enchanting. ‘The real stakes – the real emotional stakes – are mundane, but much more powerful.’
She points to some of the classic fairytales like Hansel and Gretel, or Rumpelstiltskin. ‘On the one hand you might have a dress made of gold or hair made of the moon, but on the other you have questions like, I don’t have enough food, or my parents can’t support me, or my mum has promised I can do this thing, and I can’t do it. It might not end the whole world, but your world will end. That’s where the real horror and beauty of the world lies, in the mundane.’
One encounters similar problems in her stories: How can I build a future with insufficient resources? Will my mother accept me even if I’m not like her? It’s just that, in Logan’s stories, sometimes that difference lies somewhere between woman and seal, or baby and wolf.
Which takes me back to her selkies and werewolves. When I ask her about this, about the otherness lying just beneath the skin, she says she’s conscious of the pressure to ‘choose one way to be, conscious that you can be two things at once.’ She points to her own sexuality, her upbringing between England and Scotland, the way the tide blurs the boundaries between water and earth. She’s drawn to ‘places and people who reverse those boundaries.’
In fact, her stories do tend to borrow from life.
The impetus behind The Gracekeepers came with the loss of Logan’s father. Still grieving that loss and searching for ‘a structure for mourning’, she was on a boat one day when she saw life buoys with lights sitting in cages on the water. They reminded her of bird cages, and so the character of Callanish was born. Even as she was creating a character who offers ritual sea burials of birds (‘graces’) to mark the passing of human beings, the act of writing came to mirror that ritual, becoming ‘a secular mourning system.’
She says it’s sometimes easier to communicate complex emotions by ‘making them into something concrete, something you can explore. If you want to say, This person is gone, and I’m not ready for them to be gone, sometimes you write a person who’s in so much darkness that he eats lightbulbs. Magical things function as a way to explore emotion.’
I ask if, in a story which touches on so many points of cultural relevance, she also meant to create a narrative around climate change? The answer is no, but Logan points again to the enduring quality of the fairytale. ‘The current political climate influences the way people read the stories. All you can hope when you write a story is that, if it has meaning for you, it will have meaning for other people.’ She’s not interested in prescribing what that meaning must be.
‘It’s so important that people feel an ownership over stories and over the way we tell them. These stories are ours. We can do anything we want to them. They belong to us.’
And so she returns to the tales that ‘speak to our fears and our hopes and our desires’, because ‘there’s a selkie in all of us, a vampire in all of us.’ And if it’s truly in the in-between places that we all exist, I, for one, am happy to have Logan taking us there.
Lindsay Terrell is the Book Marketing Manager at Publishing Scotland. She provides marketing support for our members and their books, and manages BooksfromScotland.com, along with its associated newsletter and social media accounts. She worked at Canongate Books for five years, prior to joining the Publishing Scotland team, most recently as Marketing Executive in Canongate’s award-winning campaigns department.