‘Reading is like learning a language; you soak up good writing without being fully aware’
A Q&A with Su Bristow, a medical herbalist whose third book is her debut novel, Sealskin
Su Bristow: reality is relative, and sometimes people’s take on reality can’t be reconciled, and that has to be OK
What was the first book to make an impression on you?
That’s a hard one! I think it would have to be a fairytale rather than an actual book. I loved The Snow Queen from an early age. Something about how people can be “cold” inside, but still look the same, really struck home. That, and how Gerda never gives up.
What was your favourite book as a child?
Probably the Narnia stories by CS Lewis, especially The Magician’s Nephew.
And what is your favourite book or books now?
What have I loved recently? All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver.
What is your favourite quotation?
Only in silence the word
Only in dark the light,
Only in dying life:
Bright the hawk’s flight
On the empty sky.
– Ursula le Guin, Earthsea trilogy
Who is your favourite fictional character?
I can’t possibly pick just one! Philip Pullman’s Lyra, maybe. Or Piglet!
Who is the most under-rated Irish author?
Well, it would have to be Seamus Heaney, for me. Poetry doesn’t get the recognition it deserves.
Which do you prefer – ebooks or the traditional print version?
Definitely real books!
What is the most beautiful book you own?
The Earth from the Air by Yann Arthus-Bertrand. It’s a huge book of marvellous photographs. If you’re ever in danger of losing your sense of wonder, there’s the cure.
Where and how do you write?
Anywhere, especially on journeys and in between other things. Usually on the computer.
What book changed the way you think about fiction?
Mary Renault’s The Persian Boy. It made me see that fiction can be a wonderful gateway to history.
What is the most research you have done for a book?
The Herb Handbook, my second book on herbal medicine, covers the basic philosophy of herbal medicine and a long list of herbs. They’re all ones I use in practice, but I had to check all the up-to-date research.
What book influenced you the most?
Probably Le Guin’s Earthsea trilogy. The combination of brilliant storytelling, beautiful economical writing, magic and the underlying philosophy of Taoism was a complete revelation to me.
What book would you give to a friend’s child on their 18th birthday?
That would partly depend on what they enjoyed reading; it’s no good giving books you think they “ought” to like. Myself, I’d have liked to be given something like The Making of the British Landscape by Nick Crane. Something you’d refer back to again and again.
What book do you wish you had read when you were young?
Maybe some of the huge sagas I never got round to, and probably never will now. War and Peace, Great Expectations, Dubliners…
What advice would you give to an aspiring author?
Read, and read, and read! It’s like learning a language; you soak up good writing without being fully aware. Have writing friends for mutual critique and good company. It can be a lonely business. And beware perfectionism! You’ll fall short of your own goals, over and over again, but that’s better than not doing it at all.
What weight do you give reviews?
Ah, now there’s a question! It’s hard not to mind when people misunderstand or don’t like my work, and it’s also hard to really accept the extravagant praise when it comes. I decided not to look at Amazon more than twice a day (my debut novel Sealskin is out on February 15th, so it’s all new to me) for my own peace of mind. How long I’ll stick to that, I don’t know!
Where do you see the publishing industry going?
Well, I don’t think real books are dying out. Beautiful hardbacks seem to be popular. But younger people often don’t seem to read much; film and television are too easy and too beguiling. So I’d be on the lookout for really good stories for children and young adults that will keep them engaged and – with luck – make readers of them for life.
What writing trends have struck you lately?
The rise in flash fiction. Poetry getting more attention, and performance poetry in particular.
What lessons have you learned about life from reading?
How to see things from all sorts of points of view. That reality is relative, and sometimes people’s take on reality can’t be reconciled, and that has to be OK. That we make sense of the world by telling ourselves stories, and we’ve probably been doing that since before we were human.
What has being a writer taught you?
Humility, I hope! It’s hard work and often unrewarding. The importance of being physically active and being sociable, as a counterbalance to all that screen-staring.
Which writers, living or dead, would you invite to your dream dinner party?
Chaucer. Ursula le Guin. Alan Garner. Neil Gaiman. Jane Austen. I’m sure they wouldn’t all get on, but it would be wonderful to see how they interacted!
What is the funniest scene you’ve read?
The scene at the end of The Best a Man Can Get by John O’Farrell, when the hero’s wife is giving birth, they are trying to have a serious conversation about their relationship, and the tape of whale song keeps interrupting. I can’t describe it without laughing.
What is your favourite word?
I couldn’t pick out one word in isolation. They need each other to lean against or bounce off, don’t you think?
If you were to write a historical novel, which event or figure would be your subject?
I used to have a thing about the Duke of Monmouth, one of Charles II’s illegitimate sons, who led a short-lived rebellion against James II. Now? I’m not so sure. In the archives here in Exeter there is the Exeter Book, the first text in Old English that we know of. During the Civil War, it was thrown out with the other books in the cathedral and they were all going to be burned, but a local doctor saved some of them – including the Exeter Book – and hid them until it was safe to return them. There might be a story there…
What sentence or passage or book are you proudest of?
That’s easy! My soon-to-be-published novel, Sealskin. It’s a retelling of the Scottish selkie legend, set in the Hebrides, and it won the Exeter Novel Prize in 2013.
What is the most moving book or passage you have read?
I can’t single out one among so many. And so often, the moving passage comes almost at the end. Nobody likes spoilers! But here’s one I’ve re-read recently: Sydney Carton and the unnamed seamstress at the end of A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens.
If you have a child, what book did you most enjoy reading to them?
There were so many! The Moomin books, Winnie the Pooh, The Tiger who Came to Tea. I have a daughter and a son, and they both loved those. And Harry Potter, with my son; that got him reading when nothing else could.
Su Bristow is a medical herbalist, and I’ve written two books on herbal medicine, The Herbal Medicine Chest and The Herb Handbook. Now, my prizewinning debut novel Sealskin is about to be published by Orenda Books. The ebook is out now