Shelley Day’s debut novel The Confession of Stella Moon was published in 2016 by Saraband. The novel won the Andrea Badenoch Award, was long-listed for the Bath Novel Award and the Guardian’s #NotTheBooker prize, and shortlisted for the Charles Pick Fellowship and the Dundee International Book Prize. Her debut collection of stories What Are You Like is the first book of mainly flash fiction to be shortlisted for the Edge Hill Prize. We caught up with Shelley to ask her some questions about writing and the short story.
What is the relationship between your identity and your writing? Do they affect each other?
For me, the writing process involves a displacement of my ‘ego’, my ‘identity’ (however defined), of myself; I believe there’s some shift at the heart of the creative process that involves the writer becoming, as it were, ‘beside herself.’ My writing materialises in some kind of ‘third space’ where ‘I’ am neither wholly present nor wholly absent, but somehow suspended and, yes, that positioning of the self can and does affect the writing – its tenor, its tone, its style, if not the actual content. So yes, there are links, but you can’t easily locate or track them. Having said that, if I look at much of my work, I am aware of reflections, echoes, fragments of images, shards of memory that surface among the words, and in the gaps between the words, and which clearly have acquired some significance for me as a person (as distinct from me the writer) somewhere along the line. Places and objects, for example, can invoke deep resonances or prompt the coming-back-to-life of incidents and feelings buried or long since forgotten.
How have you found writing over lockdown? Did any particular book/s or writer/s help you get through it?
For me, in short, I couldn’t write. From the start of it, I couldn’t even edit. I had a ton of stuff I’d brought back from Paris when Lockdown happened there in March, loads of notes to work on, but I could hardly touch them. I felt later on, when things did begin to lift, that I’d spent the last few months being only half alive, that’s what it felt like, like I wasn’t alive enough to write anything worth recording. This in itself took a toll on my mental health because I don’t usually feel that good when I am not writing. It’s not at all a state I like to spend any time in. Having said that, I did do some creative work, and as it turns out I am extremely proud of the outcome! I decided early on to make a Lockdown Zine! I got family and close friends in different places fired up and rallied round to produce creative bits and pieces and I edited them and copied and coloured and cut and pasted and after a few months, and a lot of cash spent on colour cartridges for the printer, we produced our QUARANZINE. Working away on that Zine got me through what was, in fact, a fallow few months creatively otherwise.
Reading? A favourite discovery was ‘The Lady and the Little Fox Fur’ by Violette Leduc. I also discovered Mavis Gallant which was a godsend.
What are your feelings when you sit down to the blank page?
I can’t say I ever sit down to a blank page. I always carry a notebook. I often scribble down notes, lines, snippets of this and that, images that come into my head, etc., whilst I am walking or just doing something else entirely. Lines often come to me when I’m driving long distance at which time it is hard to note them down. I like spending time looking at modern art, or tramping the streets, being a flâneuse, just looking. I like sitting in cafes and reading poetry. I am always jotting stuff down. When we were little kids and we’d finished our ‘proper’ work in the class, we were allowed ‘jotter time’ when you could write or draw whatever you liked and your jotter was totally yours and private; I loved that. My jottings now, some 60 years on, are an extension of the passions of then.
Sometimes the pieces I scribble down on-the-hoof are just a few words, or they can be quite long and involved and meditative, depending on mood. Much of the shorter pieces I write are very place-specific. I always intend to transcribe the notes onto my laptop and work up proper pieces … I have plenty stuff in those notebooks to keep me going for many years! Plus I have a big fat folder of unfinished stories; sometimes even a tiny piece can take years to mature and find its feet. I have a more than half-written novel. I have another part-written novel. I can, if I am in the mood, work on anything from that Pandora’s box of things-started. So, no, blank pages are not a problem for me. Maybe more a problem is that I have a Pandora box, bursting at the seams.
Syd Field says that before a scriptwriter writes a single word of dialogue, they should know 4 things about their screenplay. The beginning, the end and Plot points 1 & 2. Do you need to know anything before starting a story? And if so, what?
Before I start a story, I don’t need to know anything beyond the initial inspiration which may come in response to something I see or hear or remember, or it may arrive out of the blue; it may take the form of a line, a title, an image, or perhaps even just a few words I have jotted down in my notebook. Whatever the form it takes, this initial greeting will arrive with some indication of its nature, of its Voice, and some indication of where it wants to go. This will be as much as I need to ‘know.’
Finish these statements in no more than six words:
- Stories are … truths conveyed in fictional form
- Stories should … plant our feet in others’ shoes
- Stories don’t … let you go, so watch out!
Here is the first sentence of the first story readers encounter in your collection, “Your mother, leaning up at the table in the yard, cleans herring.” Seeing it now, isolated like this, if you could rewrite it, would you and how would you change it?
Tricky question, as that opening line was already rewritten many times before it went to publication!
The issues are – and always were – that of the Point of View and tense (I used present tense even though the piece clearly presents itself as a snippet of memory through the eyes of a child in the 1950s). So. Were those decisions the right ones for this piece? I thought so at the time I sent off the MS, but I equally could have worked with a first person narrative voice and a past tense perspective. I chose the second person POV because I like the distance it gives. I like how it allows the narrator to talk to herself, to stand beside herself and reflect on what is happening to her. I chose the present tense because of its immediacy, because of how it allows us to bring even a far distant past alive. I have often noticed how, in ordinary conversations, when someone starts to tell you a story about a thing that’s happened to them, they will often suddenly begin talking in the present tense, taking the listener through step by step as though to relive the experience. There seems to be a natural human tendency to storytelling and people have perhaps an almost innate grasp of the ‘techniques’ necessary for capturing a listener’s attention that are formalised in creative writing classes!