Interview with Shelley Day, author of The Confession of Stella Moon

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!

Shelley Day’s novel The Confession of Stella Moon is available in both paperback and ebook.

Review – No Man’s Land, National Theatre Live at DCA, Dundee

I have been desperate to see a National Theatre Live performance for years now, but it’s something I’ve never quite gotten round to it. The initiative, that broadcasts National Theatre productions live to cinema venues around the world, has been spreading theatre joy since 2009 and ensuring that those of who don’t live near a National Theatre, don’t have to miss out on their spectacular productions.

When I finally got a ticket to see Harold Pinter’s classic play No Man’s Land, which was being broadcast live from the Wyndham’s Theatre in London, I was so excited to see how it was all going to work. As I made my way into Dundee Contemporary Art’s (DCA) cinema I was struck by how much it felt like I was entering an actual theatre. With beautiful views of Wyndham’s Theatre on the screen and the sounds of the audience’s chatter filling the room – the DCA contained that amazing pre-performance buzz, which I’ve never experienced in a cinema before.   

When the performance began – with the theatre’s curtain going up, the DCA audience were exceptionally quiet, taking great care not to chat or rustle their popcorn – it was as if we too were worried about distracting the actors.

The play was every bit as spectacular as I dreamt it would be. Pinter’s No Man Land is as poetic as it is dark and deliciously funny. Starring Sir Ian McKellen as Spooner and Patrick Stewart as Hirst, the story begins when the two ageing writers return to Hirst’s stately home after meeting for the first time in a pub on Hampstead Heath. As the pair become increasingly drunk, their friendly but boastful banter changes into something more serious and when they are joined by two younger men, the evening takes a sinister turn.

The small cast, which also included Owen Teale and Damien Molony, were superb and had both the theatre and cinema audience laughing along and gasping in equal turns. When the performance came to an end, I couldn’t stop myself from clapping along – it just felt rude not to!

After the event we were treated to a live question and answer from the four strong cast along with the Director of the play, Sean Mathias, which gave both audiences fresh insight into Harold Pinter’s original play, 41 years on.

I left feeling richer for having seen my first National Theatre production and very much looking forward to seeing the next one live at the DCA.

National Theatre Live are broadcasting a number of theatre productions in 2017, including Saint Joan, Amadeus, Hedda Gabler and the Twelfth Night all of which will be shown at the DCA. For more information and to book tickets, visit: www.dca.org.uk

*Disclaimer – I was provided with a ticket for this showing of No Man’s Land in exchange for a fair and honest review.

 

Review: Sinbad at the Webster Memorial Theatre, Arbroath

Every year my family and I make a point of going to see the pantomime at the Webster Memorial Theatre in Arbroath. Filled with fun and frolics, it’s the perfect way to get our Christmas on for another year. After all Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without shouting “He’s behind you” to the pantomime dame and “Oh no she didn’t” to the dastardly villain.

This year’s production is Sinbad written, as always, by the wonderfully talented playwright John Binnie. The swashbuckling adventure stars panto favourites Nathan Byrne as Sinbad, Graham Crammond as Baghdad Betty, Isabelle Joss as Velma, Sita Iona Pieraccini as Princess Persephone and Simon Donaldson in multiple baddy roles including the Evil Vizier and the terrifying Cannibal Chief.

When our panto hero Sinbad sets off to sail the seven seas to find his long lost father who is missing presumed dead – an adventure filled with high jinx follows. Because Sinbad can’t go on this journey alone! Oh no!  His mother and two suspicious men, who look surprisingly like disguised women, come along for the ride, leading to a tropical adventure filled with danger, romance and songs a plenty.

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We absolutely loved the show and my two girls aged 4 and 7, were absolutely riveted throughout. As always the Webster Memorial Theatre’s panto production was pitched absolutely perfectly for the family audience. We laughed and we yelled and we sang along and every single person in that theatre left with an extra festive spring in their steps.

Sinbad at the Webster Memorial Theatre is a pantomime not to be missed! I can’t wait to see what they have in store for next year.

Sinbad is on at the Webster Memorial Theatre until the 24th of December. For further information about the production and to buy tickets, please visit: http://www.webstertheatre.co.uk/


*Disclaimer: I was very kindly provided with tickets to this performance in exchange for this fair and honest review.

 

George’s Marvellous Medicine at the Dundee Rep – Review

I was brought up on a diet of Roald Dahl. Matilda, The Witches and George’s Marvellous Medicine were my all time favourite books and kept me captivated through most of the 80s. Of course, I’ve also watched Matilda and The Witches on the big screen too – and although I enjoyed them both, for me the movie versions never had quite the same appeal as the books.

So when I heard that George’s Marvellous Medicine was coming to the Dundee Rep, I was curious about how the deliciously simple but dark little tale would work on the stage.

Dundee, UK. 23.11.2016. Dundee Rep Ensemble presents GEORGE'S MARVELLOUS MEDICINE, adapted from Roald Dahl's book by Stuart Paterson, and directed by Associate Artistic Director, Joe Douglas. With design by Ana Ines Jabares-Pita and lighting design by Mark Doubleday. The cast is: Rebekah Lumsden (George Killy-Kranky), Ann Louise Ross (Grandma), Emily Winter (Mary Killy-Kranky), Irene Macdougall (Giant Chicken) and Ewan Donald (Johnny Killy-Kranky). Photograph © Jane Hobson.

I’m pleased to say I wasn’t disappointed. While some of the elements of the play such as the incredible set of George’s House, had an almost futuristic feel, the plot never strayed far from Dahl’s story, capturing all of its tremendously wicked humour.

As always the Dundee Ensemble cast gave wonderful performances. Rebekah Lumsden shone as George as did Emily Winter and Ewan Donald as the mischief maker’s parents. But it was Ann Louise Ross (Granny Island from Katie Morag) as Grandma who absolutely stole the show as the foul, repugnant and terrifying Grandma. She managed to be both menacing and funny all at the same time – making my little one jump and chuckle in equal turns.

The special effects and stunning set, added a magical feel to the production, ensuring that George’s Marvellous Medicine the play, was every bit as glorious as the book. I’ll never forget my seven year old’s face when Grandma started to grow – it was an absolute picture!

If you’re looking to take your children some where enchanting this Christmas, I’d highly recommend a trip to see George’s Marvellous Medicine. After all there is no place more magical than the theatre.

George’s Marvellous Medicine is at the Dundee Rep until the 31st of December. To book tickets visit: http://www.dundeerep.co.uk

Image by Jane Hobson

Disclaimer: I was given two tickets to see the Dundee Rep’s production of George’s Marvellous Medicine in exchange for this fair and honest review.

Dundee Literary Festival 2016 – Review

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When I was a little girl, it’s fair to say that I didn’t exactly fit in. I was rubbish at sports, useless at computer games and I wasn’t really the outdoorsy, go out and ride on your bicycle kind of girl. The only thing that I ever really wanted to do was just sit down and read. In front of the fire with a cat on my lap was always the best case scenario, but you know what, it didn’t really matter where I read, as long as I had a book in my hand I was happy.

It took me until adulthood to realise that being bookish was my kind of my “thing”. Perhaps I even rebelled a little against the label, because let’s face it, reading isn’t the most sociable of hobbies…

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Outer Edges with Amy Liptrot and Malachy Tallack, hosted by Stuart Kelly

Except sometimes it is! Once a year, when the autumn leaves start to fall, being a book geek like me is actually an extremely sociable thing to be – thanks to Dundee Literary Festival.

Now in its 10th year, the festival is THE place to be in October if you love reading. With a schedule packed full of book events for every taste right in the centre of Dundee, the event is every literature lover’s dream.

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First Writes with Shelley Day and Sandra Ireland hosted by Zoe Venditozzi

A few weeks back I attended the five day festival, fitting in as many events as I possibly could. You could say that the range of events I attended was pretty eclectic!- From A Rock & Roll Roald Dahl Party with Scots writer Matthew Fitt and Outer Edges with non fiction writers Amy Liptrot and Malachy Tallack to Haunting Afterlives – an event examining the work of Shirley Jackson and Josephine Tey – the subject matters were pretty diverse but I got something out of them all.

Attending debut author events with the wonderful Sandra Ireland, Shelley Day and Martin Cathcart Froden was a real highlight, especially to an aspiring novelist like me. As was seeing more established authors such as James Kelman, the only Scottish author to ever win The Booker Prize, read with such passion.

But for me, the best thing about Dundee Literary Festival is the sense of community that it has. It’s a fabulously warm and engaging event, full of friendly faces who all share the same love and passion for reading.

So thank you Dundee Literary Festival! Thank you for making me feel part of the best bookish gang in Scotland! I’m already counting down the days until next year!

Dundee Literary Festival is run by Literary Dundee as part of Dundee University. For more information, visit their website: http://www.literarydundee.co.uk/

Photographs by Bob McDevitt