Early Work

Painted at 13: Seal Man with Girl
Painted at age 13: Seal Man with Girl

It started with a song.

When I was twelve, I heard for the first time Joan Baez’s rendition of the ancient ballad, “The Great Silkie.” In the lore of west coast Ireland, Scotland, and Scandinavia, the silkies or selchies are a mythical tribe of seals that come out of the sea, take off their skins, and become human.

I am a man upon the land, I am a silkie on the sea…

It was a rich image for someone just emerging from the sea of childhood, shedding her girlhood and struggling to become an adult. And like so many time-worn songs, this one had the gaps and juxtapositions that force the listener to make leaps of the imagination. I listened to that song over and over. It was, as Kat says in Long Night Dance, “like a box that had the whole world in it, but no key.”

In “The Great Silkie,” a land-bound woman has a child by a mysterious man who comes to her out of the sea. Who was that woman? What did the seal-man look like? And what—here is the question every writer and narrative artist asks, all the time—what might happen next?

At 14: Seal Man with Spear
At 14: Seal Man with Spear

I was learning to draw and write. I painted pictures of girls in Scottish clothing, of men who were green like the sea.

I discovered I could write stories for myself, not just for school. They were always about a seal man and a girl who finds him on the beach. No one else read them; I hid them in a locked  box under my bed. Every few months I went through the box and tore up the stories that didn’t seem good enough.

I wrote story after story. Tore up story after story. By the time I graduated from high school I had torn up all of them. I had never shown them to anyone.

When I went  to college I stopped writing stories. I stopped painting, too. There just wasn’t time, and anyway—I told myself—I had to be a responsible adult and outgrow silly fantasies.

It didn’t take long to figure out that a life without fantasy’s metaphoric universe—its “paracosm”—was not only miserable but impossible. I changed schools and became a professional illustrator—largely of children’s books, since I had a knack for drawing active kids. For examples of my work as a children’s illustrator, click here.

As I grew as a writer-artist–thanks especially to the essays of Ursula K. Le Guin—I began to understand that well-written fantasy, also known as “speculative fiction,” is not an escape from reality but a way to explore it.

How can that be so?

Many things in life are so strange, painful, unimaginable, and new that we don’t know how, or can’t bear, to think about them. Yet our half-understood reactions to them may take form as characters and situations in our dreams, or in our art and writing. A fantasist—who builds worlds with words or images—practices a kind of semi-controlled, wide-awake dreaming. Carl Jung called this “active imagination.” Nall, the seal man from the world of Long Night Dance, Dark Heart, Listening at the Gate, and Roadsouls calls it “listening.”

As I “listened” I began to wonder about the stories I wrote as a teen. I wondered who the girl and the seal man were, and what happened to them. I realized that for all those years I had been painting and writing only the beginning of a story.

Over and over, in many versions, I had described how the seal man came out of the sea, how the girl found him on the beach. But there the story stopped. As a teen, that had been enough for me. But as an adult I saw I had not yet followed through with the question that is the most important one in any story: “What happens next?”

At 16: Torch

I decided I’d ask the story to continue, to play itself out and see what happened. And because in those days I still thought of myself as an illustrator, I decided to tell the story in paintings. The result was 315 watercolors that I called The Morning Series—because the only time I could find to paint was in the morning before work. To see examples from the Morning Series, click here.

I painted The Morning Series just for myself, the way as a teenager I had written stories just for myself. But of course I was working on professional projects at the same time, and by the time I had finished all those paintings I was the author-illustrator of several picture books. One day my editor at E. P. Dutton called to discuss a work in progress. She said, “Have you ever thought of writing older fiction?”

All the pictures, all the stories—hidden and torn up so long ago, newly painted as The Morning Series and still swimming in my imagination—rose up together.

“Yes,” I said.

I hung up the phone, got a sheet of paper, and began to write.

At 17: The Harpist. (Note the ink blot. Oh well!)
At 17: The Harpist. (Note the ink blot. Oh well!)



All material on this site, both text and graphics, is ©Betsy James, and may not be used commercially without her permission.

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Betsy James on Writing, Art, and Walking in the Desert

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