Today I’m back with another of the authors from Book Connectors on Facebook, Shelley Day whose debut novel The Confession of Stella Moon was published on 1st July 2016 by Contrabrand. The Confession of Stella Moon is available for purchase here in e-book and paperback.
To celebrate publication, Shelley kindly agreed to be interviewed for Linda’s Book Bag.
The Confession of Stella Moon
1977: A killer is released from prison and returns ‘home’ – a decaying, deserted boarding house choked with weeds and foreboding. Memories of strange rituals, gruesome secrets and shame hang heavy in the air, exerting a brooding power over young Stella Moon. She is eager to restart her life, but first she must confront the ghosts of her macabre family history and her own shocking crime. Guilt, paranoia and manipulation have woven a tangled web. All is ambiguous. What truth and what lies are behind the chilling confession of Stella Moon?
An Interview with Shelley Day
Hi Shelley. Thank you so much for agreeing to answer some questions on my blog about your writing and your debut novel The Confession of Stella Moon.
Firstly, please could you tell me a little about yourself?
I wonder what sort of things your readers might want to know about me!? That I’m 63, and just publishing my first novel? That I’ve had two careers before now – litigation lawyer and academic psychologist – which both feed into my fictional work? That I’m glad I was made redundant in 2007 – it gave me the spur to get serious about my fiction? That I live half in my native Northumberland, and half in Scotland (where my partner of 35 years lives)? That I’ve got the same best friend I’ve had since I was 11? That I’m a coffee addict? That my favourite artist is Louise Bourgeois? My role model Patti Smith …?
When did you first realise you were going to be a writer?
There wasn’t a time that I realised I was ‘going to be a writer;’ I always just was. Writing’s something I’ve always done, right from being a little kid, it’s part of who I am. I chose jobs where I had to write stuff. I started my novel without realising I was starting to write a novel. Writing’s just something I’ve always done. It’s strange though, because the identity-label ‘writer’ is something different altogether. It’s elusive, a claim you can’t easily make; you don’t ever really feel you’re entitled to it! Even after I was writing full-time (freelance, and fiction) I avoided calling myself ‘a writer.’ You’d meet people and they’d ask, ‘and what do you do?’ and I’d get all hedgy and mumble into my drink. You don’t want to say you’re a writer in those settings because it can make people wary: ‘Oh, a writer?’ they say, sounding incredulous, ‘Should I have heard of you?’ I did some modules of a Creative Writing MA at Newcastle Uni when I was first learning my craft. I tried, then, to see myself ‘as a writer,’ to claim space for myself ‘as a writer.’ But I never really succeeded. I’m just me, a person who writes.
If you hadn’t become an author, what would you have done instead as a creative outlet?
As I say, writing has always been such an integral part of my life, I can’t imagine coping with the world in any other way. I have often wished I could draw and paint, but I have no talent whatever in those departments. And one of my biggest regrets is that I never got good at playing a musical instrument, and never got good at singing. I love music, especially oratorio. And I wish I’d learned to play the organ.
Do you have other interests that give you ideas for writing?
That’s a hard one, because I don’t know where ideas come from! My longer fictional pieces begin with a character; they are someone I ‘know’ instinctively and in great depth, though they’re purely fictional and not even tangentially based on anyone I know. They arrive, with their baggage, and their name tags, like Paddington, and I write their story. In my shorter fiction, I begin with an image or a phrase that comes for no apparent reason. I often get good ideas on long drives – it’s the monotony and solitude of motorway driving that makes a space in your head where ideas can sneak through and make themselves known. I like reading and walking and the sea, and the hills, and Norway, and Galloway, and hanging out with my pals and my family, and Edinburgh, and New York, and Paris, and poetry and film and visiting galleries … I guess all those things work away below the surface making ideas happen.
How do you go about researching detail and ensuring your books are realistic?
When I used to write nothing but academic books, they were jam-packed full of research, down to the tiniest detail. I used to love that aspect of that kind of writing. But with my fiction, making things up predominates. I do read a lot around whatever I am interested in for the moment, not formal Research-research, just following my nose, going with wherever that takes me, getting the feel of a place or a situation or whatever it is. I may go to places. Or look at particular paintings or sculptures, they may help me get a better feel of what I am working towards. I can do that alongside writing, because you can’t write all the time. When I have a draft, I will see where the gaps are, where maybe I need some more focussed research. In The Confession of Stella Moon, for example, one of the characters is a taxidermist, and I delved into that and became very fascinated with it. Another character is a Spiritualist and I found out loads about that too. I found out far more about those things than I could ever actually use in the novel, but it was fun, and finding it all out gave me a strong feel for the subjects and a deeper understanding of the characters. My backgrounds in both law and psychology also give me a wealth of material on which to draw.
Which aspects of your writing do you find easiest and most difficult?
I can’t honestly say that I find any of it very easy. You write under some kind of compulsion, and it is neither easy nor enjoyable for the most part. The nice thing is ‘having written.’ When you’ve got a decent few words for your morning’s work, that’s a good feeling, and there’s nothing quite like it. Having written a few OK sentences, that’s what makes you feel good about yourself and keeps you going. But that feeling never lasts. It’s always superceded by the same old restless longing, gnawing self-doubt, and plain resistance ever to put pen to the page again! It’s a queer business, writing! But, having said that, the actual writing bit is, in fact, the easiest bit. It’s what comes after that tears your soul in bits. The road to publication is long, bumpy, and arid. You feel so alone, so completely alone. That’s the worst thing. You’re floundering alone in the dark, going round in circles, every despairing cliché in the book applies to you on the road to publication. I’m shortly launching my debut novel. I sincerely hope I’ll be able to put all this behind me and just enjoy and celebrate next week! But I’m wary! I was reading a blog post earlier on today by Jessie Burton who had such huge success with her debut novel The Miniaturist. Basically she found ‘success’ even harder to bear than ‘failure’ and it took a psychological toll on her … It’s difficult to explain why the creative process can involve such a lot of anxiety, but it does, as many writers will testify!
(So many of the writers I know will understand exactly what you’re saying there Shelley.)
What are your writing routines and where do you do most of your writing?
I’m very envious of writers who establish routines for themselves and stick to them because I’ve tried and I just can’t do it. My former careers have involved me adhering very closely to the strict timetables of others, so perhaps it’s a backlash, now that I’m self-employed, the random side of my character has surfaced and I enjoy the freedom too much to give it up to any silly old routine! I’m lucky in that I can write almost anywhere. If I am going to write, it doesn’t matter where I am. The hardest place to work is at home. I get easily distracted when I’m at home. Even though I have a lovely wood writing studio outside taking up more than half my tiny garden. That’s better than trying to work in the house. All my books are out there, and boxes of papers, and I have things on the wall that I like looking at. But best of all, I think, are cafes and libraries. My favourite place on earth to work is the Cambridge University Library. It has a good tea room. There’s also the Lit&Phil in Newcastle. Edinburgh Central Library, up in the Reference Room, is good too. Wherever I travel, I will make my way to the public library. Oslo has a lovely space called the Literaturhuset, with a great café. The Baltic gallery in Gateshead has a fab café, and a small library that’s always quiet …
When you’re not writing, what do you like to read?
My favourite book at the moment is Patti Smith’s M Train. I’ve read it three times already. It’s brilliant, the prose so simple and direct, you feel you’re hanging out with her there in Greenwich Village … But basically I’ll read most things, though I don’t usually go for SciFi or Romance! I have lots of friends who are writers, and so I am always reading widely across a range of styles and genres. I attend a lot of literature events and so will usually buy a book, probably something I wouldn’t have looked for (or found) in a trad book store! I read a lot of poetry, partly because my partner’s a poet. I like the classics. I go to those again and again. Siri Hustvedt, Muriel Spark, Elizabeth Bowen, Gertrude Stein, Virginia Woolf, all favourites. And the Scandi Noir stuff. I like browsing in libraries and in bookshops, especially indie bookshops, and finding new things. Or I will get something I read about, or that someone recommends. I’m very eclectic as you’ll see if you look at my Goodreads page! I’ll write a quick review about most things I’ve enjoyed.
You’ve had a lot of previous success with your short stories. How does it feel to be publishing a debut novel?
Well, it’s very exciting! And it’s also a ton of hard work! As with every stage of the writing and publication process, this one brings new highs, and also new dreads! As each new thing slots into place and you’re thinking YAY! Forward! Then suddenly your fiction-writer’s ‘what-if?’ brain clicks in and you start imagining all sorts of Doom and Gloom and Disaster scenarios … What if no-one likes your book? Or Worse! What if no-one notices it? What if no-one turns up at your launch …? (Recently I read a blog post about this very thing by a writer in America to whom this Nightmare had actually happened!!!!). So yeah. There are two sides, you flip from one to the other, willy-nilly; it’s impossible to stay on one side or the other, which is probably a good thing!
(I’m sure we’ll all love The Confession of Stella Moon, Shelley!)
How different or similar have you found the process of writing a novel as opposed to shorter fiction?
These are two very different processes that demand completely different skills. I wouldn’t say one was easier than the other, except insofar as you can obviously finish a short story far more quickly than you can a novel. In a short story, you’re generally exploring a limited situation with some small shift at the heart of it. The character has to be formed and firm; the writing’s much more focussed; the plot’s less crucial; you have to pin down emotions and ambivalences very accurately using specifics and sensory detail … The short story is a much more concentrated form, and is possibly harder to get exactly right than with longer fiction. A novel is the more forgiving form. You can’t afford to be vague and flappy or flabby etc, but you have greater scope to explore the nuances of character and place and the dimensions of situations. The most difficult thing I found with a novel is the structure. Not only do you have to get the tone and the tense and the POV and the characters and the dialogue etc all as good as they can be, but the whole lot has to fit into a structure that will carry the characters and the plot and the passage of time … That’s complicated! When my novel was in it’s fifth draft or thereabouts, I went to a masterclass with script-writer Alexandra Sokoloff and learned about the principles of Script and how they work on screen and how they can be made to work to make the structure of a novel as tight and as compelling as it can be. Interestingly, as I set to ‘superimpose’ the 3-Act-8-Squence structure on The Confession of Stella Moon I found, to my utter amazement, that the desired structure was already largely there! It had come out instinctively in the way I’d written the book! This is because I’ve grown up absorbing the narrative structures of my culture and now they’re deeply embedded within! Which may be a heartening thought, or an alarming one, depending on which way you look at it!
The tag line on your cover for The Confessions of Stella Moon ‘Because dark secrets don’t decompose’ contrasts brilliantly with the suggested decomposition of the image. How did that image come about and what were you hoping to convey (without spoiling the plot please!)?
That rather brilliant tag-line was thought up by my publisher! I thought it was great, how it captured something about the essence of the novel. I can tell you there’s a Family Secret at the heart of the story. A dark secret. Such secrets – having, in their time, been buried alive, so to speak – have a curious power; they don’t decompose, but hover like Phantoms across generations, blighting lives. Can’t say any more than that. Sorry!
There’s a theme of ambiguity running through The Confessions of Stella Moon. How far did that arise naturally as you wrote and how far was it a conscious device?
The ‘ambiguity’ theme was not consciously intended or deliberately imposed. It came of its own accord and I can only guess it’s there because I see ambiguity at the heart of everything! I don’t think in black and white, or make a strict line between ‘fact’ and ‘fiction’; to me ‘the real’ is varying shades of grey, its status inherently ambiguous. This harks back to my psychologist days of questioning everything, seeing layers in everything; realising how ubiquitous and important ‘stories’ are, how deeply they’re embedded – in our experiences, our memories, in the whole way we see the world; all that relies on narrative structures, and makes for ambiguity.
If you could choose to be a character from The Confessions of Stella Moon, who would you be and why?
I’d choose to be Stella, because she’s feisty and determined and a fighter. Ok, life’s tough sometimes, but Stella Moon is not easily defeated!
If The Confessions of Stella Moon became a film, who would you like to play Stella?
Tilda Swinton! Or Juliette Binoche! Except, of course, they’re both now in their 50s, so obviously too old for the part as Stella is 25 when the novel opens.
If you had 15 words to persuade a reader that The Confessions of Stella Moon should be their next read, what would you say?
You’ll care about Stella. You know her. She’s a bit like you.