1977: A killer is released from prison and returns home to 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 of truth and lies. All is ambiguous. Of only one thing is she certain… Stella Moon killed her own mother.
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Shelley Day was brought up in Newcastle and divides her time between her cottage on the Northumberland coast and the wilds of Galloway where her partner lives. She is a lapsed lawyer, academic psychologist and research professor who began publishing fiction in her 50s. Her award-winning stories have appeared in literary magazines, newspapers and anthologies. In 2013 she was named as an Edinburgh UNESCO City of Literature ‘emerging writer’ and read at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. In 2015 she received a Northern Writer’s Award. Shelley’s debut novel The Confession of Stella Moon won the Andrea Badenoch award, was longlisted for the Bath Novel Prize, shortlisted for the Dundee International Book Prize, and published to critical acclaim by Saraband in July 2016.
Shelley Day ~ Q&A
Describe yourself using three words? Hopeful. Late. Questing.
What inspired you to write your first novel? The million dollar question, to which there are multiple possible answers!
I’d started writing the novel before I realised that’s what I was doing. I hadn’t intended to write a novel at all! I was made redundant in my London job when I was 54 and I’d gone on a week’s writing course at Moniack Mhor near Inverness to see if I could learn to write fiction. I wasn’t thinking of doing it seriously. But the tutor – novelist Patrick Gale – liked the character I came up with in a writing exercise and said she should be in a novel. That was 2008, and that character was Stella.
I was pretty much full-on at that time with freelance work so it would be another few years before I actually wrote the first draft of The Confession of Stella Moon … Stella waited patiently, all that time.
The transition I had to make from academic and legal writer to fiction writer took at least three years of me trying to discard one identity and don a new one. Different kinds of writing use different parts of the brain, so, very slowly and painstakingly, I had to ‘unlearn’ many of the skills I’d been trying to perfect for the last 25 years! But as I say, Stella was prepared to wait ‘til I could catch her up. By then I was doing some serious Creative Writing classes at Newcastle University with Jackie Kay. She kept me on task with the book and kept telling me she believed in me. That made me keep going.
In terms of literary influences, it’s hard to isolate the really significant ones, and I could come up with different answers depending on which angle I was coming from … But right now three books come to mind that I can say absolutely made me want to write my own. And, perhaps more crucially – I don’t mean this to sound arrogant – these are books that I believed somewhere deep down that I might just have been able to write myself …
The first I read when I was in my 20s and a student at Edinburgh University. It was By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept by Elizabeth Smart. It is really just a novella, and it’s heavily autobiographical, a moving story of a doomed love affair. I loved its poetic prose and the way it played on the borderline between fact and fiction, I loved the contemplative melancholic voice and I thought, one day, I will try to write something like that.
The second big influence was Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons which I read when I was a PhD student at Cambridge – recommended to me by a psychotherapist as a ‘healing’ kind of a book. It wasn’t until after I’d written Stella that I saw my own book as a kind of urban Cold Comfort Farm, and I realised the profound influence it must have had on me all those years before.
The book that finally provoked me into writing my own was Morvern Callar by Alan Warner. Again it’s a short book but by hell, it packs a punch. The character of Morvern jumps right off the page and socks you in the guts repeatedly. Reading that book made me want – with a strange and terrible kind of desperate longing – to write a character that was as memorable as Morvern Callar.
I should put Jack Kerouac in there somewhere. And Anais Nin; all her diaries. And How Green Was My Valley. And Le Grand Meaulnes.
What time of day do you like to write?
I don’t have a particular time or place or routine or ritual or requirement or anything. I am very disorganised when it comes to writing. I have several things on the go at once – stories, a novel, bits of memoir, even a YA book half written – my writing hut is full of scribbled on bits of paper, notebooks, messages to myself on my phone, iPad and laptop, not entirely random, but almost. I do keep trying to get organised, to get everything under control, to be systematic, but somehow it never works out. The best I can do is gather the various bits and pieces into piles and label them up with post-its. I’m always trying to impose discipline on those piles and failing miserably. I think they laugh at me and disorganise themselves in the middle of the night.
I know I can’t or won’t always write, and I’ve grown to accept that’s just the way of the world. If I’m going to write, the time and the place and everything else doesn’t matter a jot or a tittle.
What is your favourite book and why?
I don’t have a single favourite book. There are so so many that I have loved! The ones I re-read are: Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, The Golden Notebook, The Bell Jar, The Summer Book, anything by Virginia Woolf, anything by Muriel Spark, or Jean Rhys, Stefan Zweig, Bulgakov, Kafka, Dostoevsky … and those are only the novels I keep returning to. There are some great short story writers whose work I savour too – Katherine Mansfield, Lorrie Moore, Lydia Davis, Ali Smith, Edith Pearlman, Jackie Kay, Carys Davies, Amy Bloom, Angela Readman, Frank O’Connor, Flannery O’Connor, James Joyce … truly, I have far too many favourites to list here!
How did you pick the title of your book?
My book was originally called October for no good reason other than the action was taking place on the cusp of autumn/winter. Stella’s actual ‘confession’ (which is now in The Prologue) only appeared in the rewriting, so once that had appeared, a new title seemed called for …
Are the characters in your book based on real people?
What’s your favourite word?
Malarkey. It’s a word my grandmother used a lot. It’s the kind of word that can mean a lot of different things. It’s also a name, a man’s name. I have a story with a character called Malarkey Wall in it. He’s very enigmatic. Like his name. Malarkey.
If you were a colour what would it be?
Before November 8th, I’d have said Orange, but I’ve changed my mind and now I’d be Red. Bandeira Rossa. Read. Red or Dead. Red.
Do you plan your story beforehand or go with the flow?
I’m most definitely a Pantser and not a Planner. Once, an idea for a story came to me, in full, I knew exactly how it went, beginning, middle, end. It was a great idea. I never wrote it.
I can only write when I don’t know where I’m going when I don’t know what I think. I begin with a phrase, an image, perhaps a place; place/setting is very important in a story, it can almost be a character in its own right. A character emerges, and when I see them I know that I know them. I can tell they’re not going to go away. Then the character does things. And that is the plot.
I know all writers are different and many of them plan things and write brilliant books. But for me, a plan could constrain the character, and I wouldn’t want that. Sometimes I bark up entirely the wrong tree and have to discard a load of work that ends up going nowhere. So be it. That’s just how it is.
With The Confession of Stella Moon, the first draft wandered about everywhere. I rewrote it trying to beat it into shape, getting rid of the obviously very lumpy bits, but it takes more than one rewrite to get it right. I’d done several revisions before I realised what the ending was. I totally surprised myself. As I wrote the ending I was thinking Oh my God! I didn’t realise THAT was going to happen. O.M.G! Then every subsequent rewrite I was refining and refining the structure, guided by the ‘3 Act, 8 Sequence’ structure used by screenwriters which are a good kind of ‘template’ to superimpose.
Who is your favourite Author?
Has to be Shakespeare, doesn’t it? I mean, it’s all in there. And the Classics, those black Penguins, all of them. The Russians especially. Dickens. But today it is also Orhan Pamuk. Siri Hustvedt. Jenny Diski. Tove Jansson. Proust. Mikhail Bulgakov. Stefan Zweig. Flaubert. And Freud: have you read his case studies? They’re wonderful. And John Berger’s non-fiction.
If you could give any literary villain a happy ending who would you chose?
It has to be Tom Ripley!
Are you working on a new project? Yep. A collection of short stories A Policy of Constant Improvement is out in November with Red Squirrel Press. And a novel, provisional title Clara Says. And I’ve started a sequel to Stella ….
Do you have any upcoming events our members can attend?
During April and May, I am doing lots of events in libraries all across the North of England for the #ReadRegional campaign organised by @NewWritingNorth. These and all my events are listed on the ‘Events’ section of my website http://shelleyday.com
Giveaway ~ Free Raffle ~ 2 Copies Of The Confession Of Stella Moon
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HUGE Thanks to Shelley Day for being on my blog today and for the prize copies, also thanks to @Saraband books.
Come back soon.