I am very pleased to welcome Shelley Day on the blog today.
Shelley Day has been a family, criminal and litigation lawyer, a psychologist and research professor who has headed academic departments and research centres at leading universities and authored many publications on family psychology. She began writing fiction in 2007 and her short stories have appeared in anthologies, online and in newspapers and magazines, including New Writing Scotland. The Confession of Stella Moon, her first novel, won the Andrea Badenoch Prize, was shortlisted for the Charles Pick Fellowship when it was still a work in progress, shortlisted for the Dundee International Book Prize and longlisted for both the Bath Novel Award and the Guardian Not the Book prize.
Welcome, Shelley. Tell us a little bit about you…
Well, I’ve come to this publishing my debut novel malarkey rather later than most people – I’m 63! I’m one of those people who’ve always written. But I didn’t take my fiction at all seriously until 2007 when I was made redundant. I was shocked at first, then afraid, then grateful. And I’ve stayed grateful because redundancy turned out to be the very thing I needed to get me off the Treadmill. It gave me the chance to do what I’d always wanted – to write fiction. I started with a basic Open University course and I was immediately hooked, completely hooked. And I’ve never looked back.
My debut novel? My publisher came up with this amazing strap-line for THE CONFESSION OF STELLA MOON – “Because dark secrets don’t decompose.”
It is a black, brooding tale of matricide set in 1960s and 70s Newcastle in a family so dysfunctional as to be sinister. After serving a prison sentence for killing her mother, young Stella Moon is discharged to restart her life. But her plans are soon ruined when she falls prey to a dark family secret that pulls her back into the past. Strange rituals, shame and paranoia haunt her, like the persisting smell of her mother’s taxidermy in the abandoned boarding house. Stella is caught in a tangled web of guilt and manipulation. What truth and what lies are behind the chilling confession of Stella Moon?
It’s published as a CRIME novel, but it’s not a police procedural, or a whodunit. It’s more of a whydunnit, an exploration into the psychology behind the crime.
Your inspiration for The Confession of Stella Moon?
People often ask me this, and I’ve often thought about it, but there is no easy answer! It was the character, Stella, who came to me, in a writing workshop, in October 2008, at Moniack Mhor, in the remote Scottish Highlands. Stella just suddenly landed, fully fledged. It was during a writing exercise. And tutor Patrick Gale – whose novels I loved and still love, his latest one A Place Called Winter is magic, and his best yet – Patrick said I should put Stella into a novel. So I did. But not straight away. In fact, not for another couple of years. After my redundancy I was working freelance which took up all my time and there was no room left for being creative, so the couple of pages of scrawl with Stella on languished in the metaphorical drawer, though I didn’t ever forget about her. Then in 2010 I decided on the spur of the moment to do the NaNoWriMo thing. That was in the November. That’s when I bashed out the crappy first draft of what was to become my debut novel. I had to give myself permission to sit down and write and not be distracted by the possibility I could be writing complete rubbish. I think it was Hemingway who said something like all first drafts are rubbish, that’s just the way of things. You work on them to make them better. So I basically sat down that Novemeber, 1600 words a day, and I bashed out Stella’s story. By the end of the month I had 73,000 words, which I’ve worked on hugely since then …. There’s very little left of that original script! But that’s a whole other story. So, in answer to your question, I don’t know what the ‘inspiration’ was. Stella came to me, as a character, and I wrote her story. NaNoWriMo made me do it at that particular time. The novel was set in places I remembered from childhood, places that had meant something to me. I set Stella’s story in those places. I didn’t know how the story was going to pan out until I’d finished it.
How does it feel to be a debut author?
Being a debut author is both very exciting and very nerve-wracking. It sounds daft, but when I was writing the novel, I wasn’t thinking at all of publication. That didn’t enter my head until much later. When my novel was still work-in-progress, it won the Andrea Badenoch Award. I was gobsmacked. That Award changed my life entirely. Not only did it make me suddenly begin to have some kind of faith and trust in myself as a writer, not only did it enable me to begin to think of myself as ‘a writer’, not only did it give me some money so I could take time out to write and not have to do freelance work 24/7, but it also gave me a free manuscript appraisal with the TLC and the opportunity to meet lots of agents and publishers at a wonderful London Salon run by New Writing North. The TLC helped me edit my manuscript and then they loved my book so much they helped me get my agent. And suddenly, the prospect of publication was on the agenda. So it’s all been a bit overwhelming. It was only today that my box of copies of my book came through from the publisher. I was so excited I made myself feel sick. My partner took a photo of me holding my books, me looking completely beside myself with excitement, and I posted it on Facebook. Hundreds of people have ‘liked’ it. Loads of people have said they want to come to my launch events to help me celebrate. So being a debut has the most massive up-side. So many people are pleased for you and want to share in the celebrations and that is all very heartening and encouraging. The down-side of being a debut is that all this is new to me. I am treading an unfamiliar path. It’s a long road to publication, and it’s a bumpy one, and you’re feeling your way in the dark. It’s scary, coping with rejections and – even worse – silences; feeling like you don’t know what you’re doing but you have to just forge ahead and do it anyway. It’s often very lonely; you don’t like to keep bothering your publisher or your agent, because you know they’re busy people. You don’t know what the protocol is, for anything. You’re completely green but you’re supposed suddenly to be very good at social media and websites and blogging and networking and … well … sometimes you just sit back and think, when your day’s taken up with all the mysterious machinations of publication, you remember that all you ever wanted to do was to write …
Where and when do you write?
I’m not an organized person. I used to be a lawyer, in a former life, and I had no trouble at all behaving like an organized person in those days. But now that I write fiction, I’m all over the place. I can write anywhere. Or nowhere. I don’t have a discipline, although I’ve often wished I did. I feel envious when I hear other writers talking about how disciplined they are about showing up at their desks and getting the requisite number of words onto the page before they allow themselves to get up from the chair. I am not like that. I‘ve tried and failed. I’m much more random. I carry a notebook always. I make notes in it all the time. I write tons of lists. I don’t usually do anything with them, though I think I should. Someone said if an idea comes to you, spend time with it. That’s what I do. I can write anywhere. Or nowhere. If I want to write something, it doesn’t matter where I am or what time it is, I will write it if it wants to be written. I’ve had some of my best ideas on long car journeys when I am driving, which is very inconvenient. I think my muse inhabits motorway verges and embankments and she waits for me to be hurrying along in the fast lane already behind schedule before she decides to start waving frantically.
Are you a planner or a pantser?
Give me pants every time. Here’s the thing: Once I had a great idea for a YA novel. I was completely gripped by the idea and the characters who arrived demanding to be given life. The story from start to finish opened itself up in front of me, begging to be written. I dropped everything and wrote a detailed synopsis. Then I wrote the first 15,000 words of the book. I never finished it. I didn’t finish it because I lost interest. I lost interest because I knew where the story was going. There was nothing left to find out. I’d done such a detailed synopsis I’d made the whole thing into a paint-by-numbers situation. It was a great idea. It’s still a great idea. The characters are lovely and fascinating and complex, and I feel their disappointment that I’ve invited them in only to leave them hovering in a no-man’s land. Maybe I will come back and rescue them one day, I don’t know. I’ve written lots of short stories and I start with an image usually, or a few words or a phrase. I write from that. I never know where the story’s going. I once wrote a story and it wasn’t until I got to the final sentence that I realized the narrator was dead. I know lots of people plan and they say it’s daft not to plan because you can go up dead-end alley if you’re travelling by the seat of your pants. That’s true. Some things I write go nowhere, some take ages and then they don’t work at all. I can live with that.
Do you do any research?
I didn’t do much research for my debut novel because I have a professional background in both law and psychology, and so in THE CONFESSION OF STELLA MOON I was basically writing what I knew about already – criminal states of mind, family secrets, matricide, shame etc. Other things I’ve had to research. For example, there’s a taxidermist in my novel. It was fascinating finding out about that. I went to the Wellcome Institute in London and looked up stuff about that, and about Victorian instruments of abortion. I visited a taxidermist and observed him in action. Recently I’ve been working on a story about a geologist and I’ve had to look up about that, and pick the brains of a geologist I know. Then my new novel is set in Paris, and I’ve had to find out about that. I applied for a travel grant to go there, but I didn’t get it. I will have to make a visit though! Place is very very important to me and I need to be in a place to be able to soak up its atmosphere, get the real feel of it. I do use the internet a lot for research. Despite having been a Research Professor in a former life, I am not a systematic researcher. I tend to follow my intuitions, follow my nose, go with my gut instincts. I often come across websites that have ‘resources for writers’ and such like, and I get excited and save them to my desk top, and think ‘way hey, those links are going to solve all my problems’ … But you can guess. Nine times out of ten I never look at them again. If I need to find something out, I just follow my nose and see where it takes me. Or I go there in person. Or I ask someone. Or I just make something up.
Do you read inside your genre or out when writing?
I am completely eclectic in my reading and I read all the time regardless. Reading’s one of the things in life I enjoy the most. I’ll read anything basically. I usually have a few books on the go at the same time – a novel, a collection of short stories, a collection of poetry, a book about writing, and at least one ‘work-book’ by which I mean a book that’s to do with some project I am working on at the moment. Currently on my reading pile are Doris Lessing’s Golden Notebook (novel, re-reading), Janice Galloway’s Jellyfish (Short Stories), Jackie Kay’s Darling (poems), AL Kennedy’s On Writing, and an edited book on the Ethics of Life Writing.
Your author heroes?
Another very difficult question to answer! Jean Rhys. Siri Hustvedt. Ali Smith. Alan Warner. Jenny Diski. Muriel Spark. My list of favourites is huge. I could pick out a different handful several times a day!
Thank you, Shelley, for joining us today.