Jersey Festival of Words: Myth, Legend and Historical Fiction

On Friday, I spend the morning legging it between my hotel and the Opera House, collecting signed books for the 10yo from the children’s authors he’s picked out of the programme. My favourite is Jim Smith (apologies to the others) purely because he draws every kid who has a book signed, in the style of Barry Loser. He does the 10yo from a photo on my phone.

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I make it into the auditorium in the afternoon to see Erren Michaels talk about the local legends she writes about in her short story collection, Jersey Legends. She jokes about having only an hour and 800 years’ worth of legends to cover.

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She tells us she became interested in the myths and legends of the island when she wanted to include some in a novel she was writing. She was surprised how many existed that she’d never heard of before. She thinks some were lost because of the change from the oral tradition to writing and the change in language on the island from Jèrriais to English.

During her research, she discovered that Jersey is rumoured to be the last refuge of the fairy population and this is a myth unique to the island.

A lot of the stories Erren brought to the page were from footnotes and fragments, rather than already existing stories, which meant she had to invent the story to go with them. She talks about how this fits into the fairy tale tradition, quoting Marina Warner on how fairytales don’t remain fixed stories. They have different roots in different parts of the world and they change over time and the form in which they’re told.

The White Lady, for example, is a staple of Jersey’s folklore but sometimes she appears as a ghost and others as a fairy queen. The Legend of the Black Dog, which is one of the island’s best known legends – there’s a pub named after it! – has become a violent creature in recent times but it began life as a benevolent spirit, a storm herald. She calls her own version of the legend, ‘a bit of a shaggy dog story’ as she attempted to incorporate the different versions of the legend. She shows us a map which has had all the places which have a black dog legend mapped on to it: the UK is covered with them and it expands into parts of Europe too.

Michaels is also an actress and she shows us part of the spoof television show, Hit or Myth? she co-wrote and performed in. (You can watch it on the link, it is entertaining and if you haven’t been to Jersey you’ll see a little of the island.)

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The Vioge is Erren’s favourite monster. The demon scarecrow came from a paragraph in an old academic book and has no mythological archetype. The same applies to the Crooked Fairy who she sees as the kind of monster who lives under the bed.

The tales are concentrated on the north shore of the island, she thinks, because there’s a cliff and they serve as a warning. Telling a child there’s a monster is often more effective than telling them not to go to the edge.

She shows us footage of The Venus Pool aka The Well of Death which has two legends attached to it. The first is that it’s the fairy’s bathing pool and if they caught you looking you would be struck blind; the second is that there was a siren-like prince and princess who drew ships onto the rocks. If there were any survivors, the prince would hold a fake court and sentence them to death. Corpses would be put into The Well of Death.

Erren ends by telling us about two more legends – The Water Horse, who was a sea kelpie, which is unusual as versions that exist in other places are fresh water. Because there were lots of versions of this tale, it made it difficult to write one coherent story. And the shipwreck of La Josephine which happened in 1865 or 1866. The figurehead of the devil was washed up into a cave. There’s no proper story to go with the figurehead or its position nd this used to annoy Erren as a child, so she created a story for her book.

She tells us there’s a second book on the way, this one containing the ghost stories of the island and that she hopes her work gives people access to the legends.

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On Sunday morning, at my penultimate event, I see another local writer, Caroline Lea, discussing her novel When the Sky Fell Apart and Jersey during the occupation. She’s part of a panel with local historian, Ian Ronayne, chaired by Cathy Rentzenbrink.

Caroline tells us that she’s interested in the silences in historical accounts of the occupation and the different experiences people had. When she started writing the novel, the voices of the characters came first. She made copious notes, from which the plot emerged.

She worried about the local reception as she had fictionalised a subject which was in living memory. She made the commander far more vicious than the one present on Jersey at the time and worried about causing offence to relatives of those whose stories she used and changed. She comments on the possible tensions between creating a book to be read and enjoyed and respecting life events.

The panel discuss collaboration, ‘whatever that dirty little word means’, says Caroline. She says it’s difficult. People seen to be collaborators were quite often ostracised but she sees it through a lens of what parents will do for their children and that there’s a conflict with the moral boundaries of the 21st Century where it’s easy to look back from and judge. She says it’s a rich field for exploration, fascinating and complex. There’s a discussion between the panel as to how the punishment of collaborators by men immediately after the end of the war was to do with men’s feelings of impotency. They refer to ‘the battleground of women’s bodies’.

Caroline also links this to ‘the gossip machine’ which she says is fascinating under occupation. It creates a hierarchy: who’s taking a stand? Who’s using gossip and sly letters to settle old grudges?

She says she writes historical fiction because it’s where her writing voice seems to sit most comfortably. She likes the feeling of settling into a world where you know the framework and the boundaries. She quotes Kate Atkinson, ‘History has these silences within it’, before telling us that her next novel is set in 17th Century Iceland. There’s safety in historical distance, she says.

She ends by discussing the character of the English doctor in her novel When the Sky Fell Apart. She says he presented problems initially. Because he’s reserved and emotionally restrained there was a danger that readers would think he didn’t experience emotions. But he has the biggest moral dilemma. He’s ‘totally isolated in this place of total isolation’. She refers again to ‘the silences that have to happen during occupation’. In the first draft, all the voices were in first person. This didn’t work for the doctor because she couldn’t show the lies he tells himself. She did a complete rewrite in third person which opened up his character, creating a distance between the internal and external portrayal of him. She says her editor ‘asked the right questions’ about the doctor’s background which allowed her to make him more sympathetic. There’s a fine line between the space to ask questions in order to get to know a character and explaining too much.

 

 

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7 thoughts on “Jersey Festival of Words: Myth, Legend and Historical Fiction

  1. I’m so glad you had a great time! Totally deserved. Also, every year since I read The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society I have wanted to visit the Channel Islands. Totally unafforadable for a student, I have to say. Maybe I will get to visit you one year at the Festival 😛

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Part of the Territory – Caroline Lea | The Writes of Woman

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