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.

Sandra Ireland – Interview with author of Beneath the Skin

Sandra Ireland, author of Beneath the Skin

Earlier this month I was lucky enough to get my hands on a preview copy of Sandra Ireland’s compelling debut novel Beneath the Skin. This beautifully written twisted thriller, featuring unhinged taxidermist Alys and ex-soldier and PTSD sufferer Robert “Walt” Walton, is a fascinating but disturbing read that will have you gripped right to the bitter end. I’ll be posting a full review of the novel in a few weeks to coincide with the release of the book, but in the meantime I decided to catch up with Sandra to find out what inspires her deliciously dark writing.


Where did the inspiration for Beneath the Skin come from?

I watched a documentary featuring Polly Morgan, a taxidermy artist. I was slightly freaked out about by the way she kept her specimens in a deep freeze, but it got worse! When she’s introduced to someone, she finds herself imagining their bone structure and all the things ‘beneath the skin’. I thought she would be a fascinating and disturbing (sorry, Polly!) character for a novel, and Alys was born. I should point out that Alys is entirely a creature of my imagination and not based on anyone!

Beneath the Skin is about former soldier Robert Walton’s journey after leaving the forces. What inspired you to write about the aftermath of war and what research did you do to get underneath the skin of a war veteran?

Walt came into the story after Alys. He was supposed to be a secondary character, but he developed a personality of his own. Although I had never contemplated writing from a male perspective, it seems to work. The idea of him being wounded made me think he would be a military man, and I’d been reading some modern war poetry which was very moving. This led me to do some research into PTSD and its treatment (art therapy, etc.) and I also read lots of combat diaries written on the front line. I interviewed my son’s friend, Ollie, who was in the Rifles for six years and served in Afghanistan. He gave Walt’s voice some authenticity, and insisted that he should also be in the Rifles!

Taxidermy features heavily in the book, is death and the preservation of it, is this something that has always interested you?

It’s something I became interested in, the more I developed the character of the taxidermist. I found the historical aspects of it fascinating. The Victorians were so keen to preserve things in death- it became almost cultish, and I think this is where we get our squeamishness from. Most people think taxidermy is very creepy and I’m sure that’s down to some very dodgy museum exhibits and small animals in glass domes! In the book, Alys’s hero is Walter Potter, a Victorian taxidermist who became famous for stuffing tiny kittens and having them play cricket, etc. This is totally abhorrent to us now, and I was interested in these changing notions of taste. Alys, of course, doesn’t even notice that others don’t share her passion for this sort of taxidermy!

One of the main characters in the book is Alys, a taxidermist, a character who is cruel and flawed in many ways. Do you enjoy writing characters who have a darker side to their nature?

I do enjoy it, but it’s quite tricky. You have to check constantly that they are acting ‘in character’, because they are unpredictable and often outside the writer’s experience. That said, it’s very liberating- there are no limits to the imagination!

Alys and Mouse’s difficult relationship added a really interesting dynamic to the book. Is writing about family struggles something that you enjoy?

Families fascinate me, because we have this idea that family members should always get along to some degree, with blood ties overcoming every obstacle. But real life isn’t like that- siblings have jealousies and unresolved issues, and fictional families should reflect that. My own family is boringly normal so it’s good to have a challenge!

Mouse was my favourite character in the book and her relationship with her son is so well observed. How does your own experiences of motherhood influence your writing?

I have two grown-up sons, but it seems like only yesterday they were eight, the same age as Mouse’s son, William. I think the experience of motherhood remains very fresh in the memory, so it wasn’t too difficult to imagine the interaction between Mouse and her child. And of course, maternal emotions don’t change when your kids leave home. You still experience worry, panic, guilt and all the rest of it!

The novel is a real page turner! How much planning did you have to do prior to writing, to create such a gripping novel?

Thank you! Writing a page turner was definitely one of my aims! I’m not a planner at all, which means I run into trouble when it comes to continuity and time frames. I carry the whole blueprint of the novel in my head. I know how it will end and what the characters have to experience, but other than the synopsis, none of it is written down. As I’m writing, I do pay particular attention to rhythm and pace. It’s the length and snappiness of the sentences that create the tension, more than the words themselves.

Beneath the Skin is your debut novel. Can you tell me a bit about what you’re writing now?

I was recently awarded funding from Creative Scotland to write my second novel, another psychological thriller, which is set in an old watermill. The funding has enabled me to undertake a residency at Barry Mill, Angus, so I’m on hand to observe the landscape, and research the folklore and traditions associated with milling. The novel is based around an old Border Ballad, which features dark deeds in the mill pond! It has a very modern twist.

Do you have a writing routine that you can tell us about?

I like to get up early and write before my brain clicks into domestic mode. I try to write 500 words every morning, which sometimes works out and sometimes doesn’t! I invariably end up on Twitter or Facebook, but that’s all part of the writing life too!

Beneath the Skin

You can read more about Sandra Ireland and her writing over on her website: www.sandrairelandauthor.com

Beneath the Skin will be published by Polygon on the 22nd of September. You can pre order a copy on Amazon.

Interview with Tammy Cohen

WSWB hi-res coverThere is nothing I like more than sitting down to read a good psychological thriller. Having read Dying For Christmas by Tammy Cohen previously, I already had high expectations for her latest novel When She Was Bad, but I’m happy to say that she completely smashed them! This novel isn’t just great, it’s flipping brilliant!

After devouring my copy, I caught up with Tammy to ask her a few questions about her magnificently gripping novel…..

When She Is Bad, is a delicious psychological thriller (which I seriously couldn’t put down), set in the workplace – a rarity in fiction! Can you please tell me why you decided to set it there? Have you had any bad experiences of working is that sort of environment?
Thank you! To be honest the workplace setting came about principally because I’d done three domestic thrillers in a row and needed to do something completely different. And obviously workplaces are a great setting for thrillers because we spend so much of our lives there and yet often we hardly know our colleagues. And when you factor that in with all the office politics that invariably goes on at work, you end up with a bit of a tinderbox situation – and as a writer all I had to do was toss in a lit match. And you guessed right about the personal experience. Many years ago I worked in a magazine office where the boss, like Rachel in When She Was Bad, operated a divide and rule system of management and pitted us all against each other. It was such a miserable experience, I’ve never forgotten it.

Every one of the characters in When She Was Bad is flawed, something that is also echoed in Dying for Christmas. Can you tell me the reason for this?
I never set out to create flawed characters, only real ones. To be honest, I always write characters I consider to be fairly normal so it always surprises me when readers talk about how flawed or unsympathetic they are. I’m starting to feel I have much lower standards than everyone else! As a reader, I’m always more intrigued and engaged by the complicated characters than by the straightforward nice guys and girls. It’s clearly a flaw in my own personality!

The novel is a real page turner! How much planning do you have to do prior to writing to create such a gripping novel?
The writing world is split between those who plot and those who don’t. I belong in the latter group, although I often wish I didn’t! I usually start off a book with an idea of the nub of the story – a spurned woman who stalks her ex lover’s family, a couple caught in the middle of their best friends’ increasingly acrimonious divorce and, in this case, a bullying boss introduced into a previously harmonious workplace. Once I’ve got that nugget at the heart of the book, I sit down and start writing until gradually the characters emerge, and they in turn propel the plot forward. It’s a very panic-inducing way of writing and quite often I’ll get to the middle of a book and completely freeze, not knowing which direction it should take. I’d love to be able to sit down with a stack of post its and a white board and plot out a whole book before writing the first sentence. I think that must give you a really enviable sense of security. But unfortunately it’s not the way I work.

You’ve recently turned your hand to thrillers after previously writing contemporary fiction which focused on relationships, under the name of Tamar Cohen. What made you decide to shift genres?
After three books that were classified as dark, contemporary women’s fiction, I was starting to feel constrained by constantly questioning the authenticity of what I was writing: ‘is this how most people would react? Can readers identify with this?’. There was always an invisible line I couldn’t step over. With crime, I can cross that line, push the boundaries. It’s no longer about what most people would do but rather what one person, often one very abnormal person, might do. It’s no longer about what’s probable but about what’s possible, and that’s very liberating.

Do you have a writing routine that you can tell me about?
When my children were younger I had a strict routine that was dictated entirely by childcare and I was actually very productive because I knew my time was limited so I had to focus., but since they grew older, I’m a lot less disciplined. Now I get up and answer emails and engage in social media, often for hours, lying to myself it’s all work – yes, even watching that video of the dog with the box on its head. Then I’ll take my own dog for a walk. So by the time I actually sit down to write it is often mid afternoon, which means I’m quite often working late at night. Like now!

Do you have any advice for aspiring novelists?
Only to write, and to keep writing, even when the nasty little voice in your head is telling you it’s rubbish. Write through the doubts. You can always edit at the end. And never think you’ve left it too late. I was forty-seven when my first novel was published, and it completely changed my life.

Your previous career was in journalism. How does that influence your writing?
Being a journalist means that I’m used to writing to deadline, and I’m not precious about my writing. Most novelists end up being on a book a year contract and that means you can’t be too much of a perfectionist – at some point you have to let your book go.

Can you please tell us about your favourite books and authors?
My favourite book is always the last one I read! I read loads but I’ve got a terrible memory and often forget books instantly I’ve read them. However there are some standout books that have really stuck with me. Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith, Lionel Shriver’s We Need To Talk About Kevin, Louise Doughty’s Apple Tree Yard. Over the last few weeks I’ve read a few great books that are due out later this year, like Louise Candlish’s The Swimming Pool, Megan Abbott’s You Will Know Me, and Sabine Durrant’s Lie With Me.

Can you tell me about what you are working on now?
I’ve just written a first draft of a book that is in a totally different genre to anything else I’ve done, but as I still haven’t read it through and don’t yet know whether it will ever see the light of day, I think I’d rather keep it to myself for now. But I’ve another psychological thriller to write next, which is where my heart really lies, so watch this space!

When She Was Bad is published by Black Swan and is available to buy right now!

Interview with Try Not to Breathe author Holly Seddon

Holly-Seddon-bw-1024x1024Just one week into 2016 and there is already a must read novel climbing the book charts. Try Not to Breathe is a gripping psychological thriller, perfect for cosying up with on these cold winter nights. I was lucky enough to read a preview copy a few weeks back, which had me staying up to crazy o’clock reading ‘just one last page’, and I can tell you, it’s definitely worth getting stuck into.

The novel is about a girl called Alex, a journalist who has lost everything she once loved, because of her unhealthy relationship with the demon drink. During the course of her work, she stumbles across Amy, a 15 year old girl who is living her life out on a coma ward after she was attacked 15 years previously. Something about Amy resonates with Alex, they are the same age, they liked the same music and they are both trapped. As Alex becomes invested in Amy’s story she starts to carry out her own investigations about what really happened that night, all those years before….

Afterwards devouring my copy, I caught up with the book’s very lovely author Holly Seddon, to ask her a few questions about her stunning debut….

They say that all first novels are autobiographical! Is this the case for Try Not To Breathe and if so can you tell me in what way?
Oh there are definitely autobiographical elements! Nothing dramatic, but some of the colour and flavour of Amy’s teenage experiences (like Amy, I was music-obsessed, ambitious and 15 in 1995).

My own journalism experience definitely helped with writing Alex’s career highs and lows. When we meet Alex in the book, she’s a freelance journalist (as I have been for millions of years) but she was once a columnist for the Times at a very young age. I certainly never scaled those heights, but I worked for News International so I know the old Wapping offices intimately and really enjoyed digging deep into those memories.

Alex was my favourite character in the book! Can you please tell me where the inspiration for her came from?
Thank you! That’s really hard to answer, because when I first wrote her she just popped onto the page. She really did. I was writing the scene in the hospital ward and the name Alex Dale and description of her just appeared, while I was writing. I knew that she would be a journalist as that was integral to the story, and that’s obviously a comfortable area for me, and that industry certainly has its fair share of alcoholism and general boozing. But she’s not based on anyone I know!

Where did the idea for the book come from?
The initial spark came from a radio show about persistent vegetative states. Someone described it as a “living death” and that really moved me and fired up my imagination.

Did you have to do much research for the book?
Some, but I used a huge amount of artistic license. I wanted to make sure that the portrayal of Amy’s condition was believable, if not entirely medically specific, but also that Alex’s alcoholism was realistic. The hard-drinkin’ hack beating down the story has obviously been done many times, but I wanted the alcoholism in Try Not to Breathe to be tragic and crushing, which it is, and not romantic. So I did a lot of reading into living as a functioning alcoholic, the potential medical problems that arise.

But Alex’s coping strategies, those were mine. In other words (because I’m not a hard drinker), I thought about how I would make something like that work, how I would structure my life to keep it ‘functioning’ and not just ‘alcoholic’. It scares me how easily we can all slip, how easily I could imagine it.

Music plays a big part in the book, how did this help the process? And did the REM song inspire some your writing?
Funnily enough, I only settled on the final name after my first draft was complete so I didn’t listen to the REM song at all while writing, even though I do love it.

Music is so ingrained in me, I’m such a nerd for it, that I couldn’t help but thread it through the story. As a teenager, music is a tribal, visceral thing. It’s a huge part of the process of working out who you are and how you feel. When we were growing up, we’d make mix tapes for friends, mix tapes for the people we fancied. Every song was a code for how wanted to be perceived or how we really felt. It just made sense to me that music would be vital to Amy, the perpetual teenager, and Alex, trying to understand her.

In try not to breathe Amy is trapped inside of her own body which must have been difficult to write. How did you get into the mind set to be able to write this so effectively?
The truth is, I had to totally clear my head and not write anything else before writing the Amy bits. With the other points of view, I could switch between Jacob and Alex while writing. With Amy, it was totally different. I also had to write them in bed. Which was a nice excuse.

This is your first published novel can you tell me a little about your career up until this point?
I always wanted to write books, more than anything else. But that was like wanting to be a premiership footballer or an astronaut, so I put it to one side and just always tried to do something that was as close to that as possible, while being realistic! I’ve been a writer for a long time, I started out in charities and freelancing for magazines and then moved into newspapers and online communities. I’ve been a freelancer and home worker for a long, long time though, I’m completely unsuited to office life.

Have you always wanted to write? And if so, was it always a psychological thriller that you planned on?
I wouldn’t say it was always going to be a thriller, but it was always going to be something dark and something with complex characters. I like asking the question, how did this person get in this mess? And I love stories that build up layer upon layer in the present day while peeling back layers of the past.

Any writing tips for wannabe novelists?
Write every day. Set yourself a minimum number of words, and hit it. Even if it’s 200 words a day, it all adds up. If you can hit 1,000 you’re flying. Protect your writing time, own it. Get up early, stay up late, write on the train, take a notebook everywhere. If you want it, you can do it. Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t because they don’t know.

And give up crap TV. Not all TV, I love good TV, but TV that you’re just half-watching out of habit, and not really enjoying. That time you’re spending is so valuable and you can choose to use it better.

What are you working on now?
My next thriller. It’s set in Manchester, which is very special to me as my husband used to live there and it’s an awesome city. I can’t say too much about it, but music is in there.

Which authors do you admire?
That’s such a hard question! Too many to list, but some of the authors whose books had the deepest effect on me at different points growing up were Peter Carey, Charles Buckowski, Irvine Welsh, Brett Easton Ellis, Douglas Coupland, Franz Kafka and Martin Amis. Two books I’ve read recently that really stayed with me are Any Other Mouth by Anneliese Mackintosh and The Versions of Us by Laura Barnett.

Do you have a set writing routine?
On the two days I have childcare, I write during those hours and I’m very strict about it. When I don’t have childcare, I write when my littlest one naps (if he naps!) and then at night when the kids are in bed, often until the early hours. My husband is incredibly supportive and does everything he can to help me carve out extra time too. I have a note on my phone that I constantly add to with ideas when I’m not able to properly sit down at the computer.

try-not-to-breatheYou moved to Amsterdam recently, how has the culture affected your writing?
Honestly, I’m not sure yet! I think I’ll be able to spot influences when I look back at the finished draft but right now, I’m too close to it to know. Amsterdam has affected my attitude and outlook though, the work life balance here is amazing, people are very straightforward and helpful and it feels like an easy place to be creative.

Try Not to Breathe: Shocking. Page-turning. A breath-taking psychological thriller. is published by Corvus and available to buy now. Just don’t be expecting to get an early night, any time soon.