One of my favourite novels from last year was The Confession of Stella Moon. It’s a gripping tale about a woman who has just been released from prison, after serving time for killing her own mother. Haunting and disturbing in equal turns, the book is a real page turner and one that I would highly recommend. I caught up with its author, Shelley Day to ask her where she got the idea for her deliciously dark debut novel.
Where did the inspiration for The Confession of Stella Moon come from?
I didn’t have an idea for this book, or any book, when I started writing! It was the character, Stella, who first came; she appeared during a writing exercise. She arrived fully fledged, complete with baggage, I could see her and hear her and I knew that I knew her. She was as real as a real person, although she’s not based on anyone I know in real life. I’d been made redundant at work and I’d gone to Moniack Mhor near Inverness on an Arvon residential writing course because I wanted to learn to write fiction. The tutor was the novelist Patrick Gale. When he read my few paragraphs about Stella he said she was a great character and she should be in a novel. So all the way home on the train I was thinking novel, novel, he thinks I should write a novel … But I was taking on a lot of freelance academic work to earn some money, so it wasn’t until a few years later that I actually got started on the novel. By then I’d signed up for some MA Creative Writing modules at Newcastle Uni, and Jackie Kay was the tutor who encouraged me to get down to some serious work on the book.
The Confession of Stella Moon is about Stella’s quest to come to terms with her own demons and her grizzly past after leaving prison. What inspired you to make your protagonist such a flawed character?
As I say, Stella came to me fully fledged, warts and all. I don’t feel that I manufactured her, or even chose her. She was just there, in that original writing exercise. And she was patient. She hung around all the while until I was ready to put her into the novel. I have a background in Psychology, and I think that must inform the way I think about people, and the way I create my characters. People are complex mixtures of different – often opposing! – traits and tendencies. We all drag copious amounts of baggage with us. A character who isn’t flawed, who didn’t have ambivalences and internal turmoil of some sort, wouldn’t be a very real character!
Did you have to do much research for writing the book?
The book is set in Newcastle and Northumberland in the 60s and 70s, and these are places and times that I know intimately, and so I didn’t have to research those; I just relied on what I knew, and I used memory of places as a jumping off board to imagine ‘what if?’ … Muriel – the mother in the story who dies at the beginning – she’s a taxidermist, and I did have to research that. I used the internet and also visited a taxidermist’s studio … Really interesting, that was! And the grandfather in the book is a herbalist who’s involved in some dodgy goings-on, so I did quite a bit of research to get a feel of that. The Wellcome Library in London is a brilliant place, for ancient tomes and old medical instruments … absolutely fascinating!
The novel is very dark and filled with secrets! Are you naturally drawn to dark subjects when you are writing?
I was definitely drawn into the Noir Zone when I was writing that novel! I’m really interested in Family Secrets, and how they can blight lives … And I used to lecture in Psychology in my former life, so I’ve long been interested in people’s deeper motivations and the darkness that dwells deep within us all … I remember reading a psychoanalyst, Nicolas Abraham, he was a contemporary of Freud’s, and he had this idea of the ‘Phantom’ which was a Family Secret that you might not know anything about but which nevertheless hovered over you like a ghost, exerting an influence over the course of your life … I wasn’t consciously thinking about that when I wrote the book, but with the benefit of hindsight I can see how such a phantom must have been hovering over me as I bashed out words on the keyboard in the dead of night
Family, and the damage that families can do to each other, is a theme throughout the book. Can you tell me what made you write about those dynamics? And did your background in psychology have an impact?
I really don’t know what made me choose the themes of my novel – shame, and family secrets, and baggage, and memory, and ghosts of the past, and what it means to write a life … I didn’t consciously choose any of them, and they have only become apparent to me with the benefit of hindsight now the book is finished. It’s very hard to explain, because all I started off with was Stella, and I sat down to write her story, and all that happened, happened. I just wrote down the words that came into my head as Stella’s story unfolded. I didn’t know what the end was going to be until I got to the end. Then I thought Oh My God, I didn’t realize that was going to happen … But yes, I’m sure my background in Psychology has an influence, and my background in Law as well, and all my own memories of the place I grew up in, and all my experiences. And I think novelists too draw on great wells of childhood imaginations, dark monsters and horrible slimey things, too awful to contemplate, and feelings, anxious angry fearful feelings, too scary to allow to the surface – so they all get well buried, and they’ll usually stay buried, until you start writing fiction, and they come crawling back out …
Can you tell us a bit about your background and how you came to being a writer?
I’ve always written, but in my formative years it never occurred to me that I could be a writer. I didn’t know anyone who was a writer or who was remotely interested in writing. I came from an ordinary working class family, left school at 16, got a job and didn’t go to uni till I was in my early 20s- the first in my family on both sides ever to go. I studied Psychology at Edinburgh, did a PhD at Cambridge, then studied Law in London – I’ve always been one with a massive hunger for learning new things. All the while I was writing, writing, writing, stuff for college, for my various jobs, for me, poetry (not actually worthy of the name, but you know what I mean), stories for the kids when they came along, diaries, I kept a diary from age 11 to my late 20s and only stopped when the whole lot were stolen, every single one … I can hardly bear to think about that. It was so traumatic and took a massive toll on me. It was a long long time before I could write anything again … Anyway. Skip forward 30 years, I’ve had two careers, and I’m made redundant, and YAY! I decide to study how to write fiction, to fulfill a lifelong dream.
The novel is a real page turner! How much planning did you have to do prior to writing, to create such a gripping novel?
As I said, there was no planning. Only Stella. I told her story as she told it to me. Twice I had substantial editorial help. The first was after my first draft of the book won the Andrea Badenoch prize. The Literary Consultancy in London gave me a ‘manuscript appraisal’ as part of my prize. They loved my book, thought it had commercial potential, and helped me find my agent, Jenny Brown. Then when the book was shortlisted for the Dundee International Book Prize, Jenny arranged to get me some help with structure and pace from a crime writer, Russel McLean. Then it was copy-edited a bit when it went to the publisher. But no, there was no planning. And I should also say that much of the early stuff I wrote did not survive my own multiple revisions and re-writes that I did in the earliest stages of the book …
The Confession of Stella Moon is your debut novel. Can you tell me a bit about what you’re writing now?
I’ve been putting together a short story collection A Policy of Constant Improvement that I won some money for last year. That’s not quite finished yet. But it’s been good to have stories to work on because they don’t demand the same kind of prolonged and sustained attention that a novel does, and since Stella came out in July I’ve been taken up hugely with doing Book Festival and meet-the-author events, and so I haven’t actually had much time to get settled into any writing routine … But I’ve also been working on a sequel to the Stella book. I am not yet sure where it is going, because I have been concentrating on getting ‘the voice’ right … I’ve rewritten the first 15,000 words several times now, trying to get ‘the voice.’ Once I get that right … I’m also planning a prolonged trip to Norway in 2017 for writing purposes ….
Do you have a writing routine that you can tell us about?
Ha! That’s a joke! Hahaha ha! *falls over laughing*
What kind of books do you like to read and do you have any favourites you’d like to mention?
I’ll read anything, except I’m not very keen on Fantasy or SciFi. And I don’t like anything gimmicky. But apart for that, I read widely. I prefer literary fiction best of all I think. I’ve just read Ali Smith’s latest – Autumn. Brilliant. I have lots of favourite writers, alive and dead. Siri Hustvedt. Tove Jansson. Ali Smith. Jackie Kay. Patti Smith. Sebastian Barry. Orhan Pamuk. Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche. Muriel Spark. Beryl Bainbridge, Jhumpa Lahiri. AL Kennedy. Bulgakov. Janice Galloway. These are just the favourites that immediately spring to mind. I read crime too, I love Val McDermid’s books, and Mari Hannah, and some Nordic Noir. And don’t even get me started on short story writers …. Too many, too many!