Author feature: The Confession of Stella Moon by Shelley Day

By | July 9, 2016

“Because dark secrets don’t decompose …” 

A black, brooding tale of matricide set in 1960s and 70s Newcastle in a family so dysfunctional as to be sinister. 

After serving a prison sentence for killing her mother, young Stella is discharged to restart her life. But her plans are soon ruined when she falls prey to a dark family secret that pulls her back into the past. 

Strange rituals, shame and paranoia haunt her, like the persisting smell of her mother’s taxidermy in the abandoned boarding house. Stella is caught in a tangled web of guilt and manipulation. 

What truth and what lies are behind the chilling confession of Stella Moon?

“A timely and intelligent book. This work has passion, insight and a real understanding of both risk and mercy, Shelley Day delicately explores the tangled layers of family grief and guilt and what it is to be a daughter.” – AL Kennedy

“Shelley Day’s voice is exciting and unique … and her fiction thematically rich.” – Jackie Kay MBE

In many ways it can be frustrating being a book blogger. There are so many wonderful looking books out there – and this is most certainly one of them – but it’s absolutely impossible to read every one. But I’m also immensely privileged, because I do sometimes get to share the excitement of a debut novelist – and some older hands too – as their publication date approaches. The Confession of Stella Moon by Shelley Day was published by Saraband on 7th July – and I’m sure Shelley won’t mind me saying that she’s been one of the most excited of them all. 

It’s been a thrill to share her experience – and I’m delighted to welcome author Shelley Day to Being Anne…

Hello Shelley, and welcome. “Matricide, infanticide and dabbling with the occult” – where did the idea for this story come from? Was it in your head for a while before you turned it into a novel?

I’ve asked myself the same question! And the answer is I never came up with an idea for a story. What I came up with was a character. Stella. She appeared when I first decided to learn to write fiction. It was 2008 and I went on one of those Arvon courses at Moniack Mhor, up near Inverness – a remote and very beautiful place. It was autumn; the wind was howling over the moors and the stags were bellowing – it wwas rutting time – and the whole place was magic. And that’s where Stella was born, in a writing exercise, one morning. 

The tutor, one of them, was the novelist Patrick Gale, and when I had my one-to-one with him, he looked at my work and said I should put Stella into a novel. I hadn’t at that point even thought about writing a novel. But all the way home on the train I was thinking novel novel he thinks I could write a novel, it was going round in my head to the rhythm of the train. Anyway I got home and life took over. I had to earn some money so I was just about flat out with freelance work for two or three years. 

But all that time, Stella was taking shape inside me. I kept on thinking about her. She became very alive, so when I did finally sit down to write the novel, all I had to do was let Stella tell her story, and that’s how it came out, Stella’s story. It wasn’t until I got to the end that I realized what the ending was. The ending completely surprised me. And as for ‘matricide, infanticide and occult,’ don’t believe what you read on cover blurbs!  There’s nothing occult about the book, not a jot or a tittle.

How would you describe your book? Literary crime, domestic noir – or maybe something other?

The book has changed in its various incarnations. It started off as just literary fiction, in a contemplative melancholic voice. By the time I got down to writing it more seriously as a novel, I had done various modules of an MA in Creative Writing at Newcastle Uni and I was reading a lot of literary fiction. It was always a very dark tale, however. As I worked on it – I rewrote it several times and practically edited it to death – I began to think about it as Domestic Noir, which may or may not be ‘literary.’ My agent liked its darkness. My publisher liked the ‘psychology behind the crime’ theme; they both saw it as a Crime novel. In one of the last edits I paced it up and made it more into something crime readers would enjoy, while not losing its psychological dimensions. That did the book a lot of good. It’s a lot tighter than it was in the early drafts. Now it’s a much more gripping read! So yeah, Psychological Domestic Noir, that’s how I’d describe it.

The story – and your writing – was attracting attention even before the book was published with an impressive array of shortlists, longlists and nominations. Did that surprise you? And did one give you more pleasure than any other?

It definitely surprised me when my book started attracting positive critical attention. I was gobsmacked actually. When Stella was only work-in-progress – I’m going back to 2011 – she won the Andrea Badenoch Award. That had the hugest impact. I’d say it changed my life. I knew then I was on the beginning of a very exciting journey and I just had to keep going. That kind of validation to a fledgling writer makes ALL the difference, it really does. But I also felt a sense of obligation to the family of the late Andrea Badenoch. That was a motivator, when my spirits flagged.

And now your novel has perhaps its most critical audience of all – the ordinary reader. Who do you think your book will appeal to? Did you have a reader in mind as you wrote? And what will success look like for you?

I didn’t have anyone or anything in mind when I wrote the book. All I wanted to do was to tell Stella’s story. I hope a very wide range of readers will be able to enjoy it. Even though it’s a dark tale, there are things in there that others will recognize about themselves, their lives, their relationships, about the flaws and the vulnerabilities that are ever present in all humans. It’s a novel about finding out who you are – a pretty universal theme. It’s a story about the past and the present, about family secrets, about trauma and memory and healing and forgiveness. Those are things we all know something about. So yes, I hope a wide range of people will be able to get something out of it. It’s set in the North East of England, so people who have connections to that area will be wanting a read!

I know you’ve previously written short stories too. How different was the discipline required to write a novel?

Writing a novel’s very very different from writing stories. I wrote Stella in fits and starts, sometimes stopping for months at a time and working on stories instead. I have a short story collection coming out next year, so I was always dabbling with those at the same time as the novel. Stella was often very difficult to write. Not because it drew on any of my own actual experiences – it didn’t – but because writing about a character who is traumatised can be psychologically disturbing to the writer. So I had to keep leaving it alone and doing something else. 

I think with a novel – or at least a novel like this one – you can’t keep going and just write it all at once … you need to have breaks from it to recover your equanimity! Stories don’t seem to penetrate so deep. Or if they do, you can draft one fairly quickly, over a week or so, and then you leave it well alone and come back to it later, and that’s easier on the soul I think. You don’t have to live with a story for years on end, which is how it can be with a novel. 

I know you dedicated time and effort to learning your craft – including that Arvon course with Patrick Gale (which must have been simply wonderful). Would you recommend such preparation to all?

I’d definitely recommend learning your craft to anyone starting to write. I personally love learning, I always have, and I never want to stop. For a writer, there is always always something to learn. I did various modules of an MA, and I’ve done masterclasses and workshops and all sorts like that, and it all really really helps. 

Where you have to watch out though is not to let what you ‘know’ get in the way of what you want to write. Creative writing comes from somewhere different. I like to think of it as the ‘unthought known’ that comes out when you write. It’s stuff you ‘know’ deep inside, but don’t know you know. It’s best just to get your words down on the page, then when you have your draft you can think about it later. You have to give yourself permission to write what wants to be written and to trust it. If you ‘think’ about what you’re writing too much too soon, you can kill your creativity stone dead. I didn’t finish my MA for that very reason. I just wanted to get on and write the first draft of my novel. I needed to shut off the critical analytic part of my brain to be able to write the story.

Tell me a little about your path to publication as an author – what have been the most difficult parts?

I know I’ve been lucky. I got a prize early on. I had great encouragement from tutors at Newcastle Uni, especially Jackie Kay who always believed in me and kept giving me copious supplies of magic dust. I got a free read from the TLC and manuscript appraisal. I’ve had ongoing support from New Writing North, and friends at the Scottish Book Trust and the Edinburgh City of Literature, and a lot of other writers who I’ve met along the way. There’s so much more I could say about how lucky I’ve been with it all. My agent. My publisher. 

But. And there’s a big but. The path to publication is really really difficult. Practically, materially, psychologically … it’s a very long and a very bumpy road. Even when, like me, you’ve had a lot of luck. Generally, the worst bits are getting past ‘gatekeepers,’ of which there are many, rotweilers straining at chains and snarling at every step of the way, just waiting with teeth bared. You need real help and armour and solid unwavering support to get past them or to trick them … Most of all you need to keep believing in yourself and your wrtiitng. My friend says the successful people are those who haven’t given up. Nuff said. 

And how do you write – are you now writing full time? Or are you still fitting it round a busy life?

I can write more or less full time now, as I have some pension coming in now I am 63, and I still do freelance academic work, though that’s harder and harder to get in the current climate. You can only write for a couple of hours a day though. The rest is editing, research, admin, reading. The actual writing is only a small part. I don’t have a routine, though I wish I did. I am not an organized person, though I wish I was. Every year I make a resolution about discipline. I think of Hemingway. And within a few days I’ve lapsed completely. The best ideas come to me when I’m driving, long distance, alone, in the fast lane. Which is very annoying.

Your writing has been described as “exciting and unique” – but if someone were to say “your writing reminds me of…”, who would you really like them to mention?

That is a very difficult question, firstly because I wouldn’t want to be presumptious! And second  because I have so many literary heroines (yes they are mostly women) that I’d be on for ever if I was to start listing them. Someone recently said my writing was like Janice Galloway meets Sophie Hannah and I was very chuffed about they said that, even though I don’t believe it. Of dead writers, I love Virginia Woolf and Gertrude Stein, Jean Rhys, Beryl Bainbridge, Agota Kristof, Jenny Diski … Living ones, Ali Smith, Jackie Kay, Janice Galloway, AL Kennedy, Toni Morrison … But my writing’s not like any of them!

And what’s next for you? Are you already wrestling with the difficult second novel?

I’ve a collection of short stories coming out next year. It’s called A Policy of Constant Improvement, though I have yet to write the story with that title. I was lucky enough to win a New Writing North Award for it in 2015 and I’ve been mentored by the very wonderful Carys Davies. So that’s the next exciting thing. 

And yes, I am wrestling with a new novel. As with Stella, I have started with a character – Clara – and she is currently leading me a merry dance. I’ve no idea where she’s going, but I like it best that way.

Shelley, thank you – I wish you and Stella every success. In addition to Amazon, The Confession of Stella Moon is available at Waterstones, Blackwells, and from good independent bookshops.

Shelley Day has been a family, criminal and litigation lawyer, a psychologist and research professor who has headed academic departments and research centres at leading universities and authored many publications on family psychology. She began writing fiction in 2007 and her short stories have appeared in anthologies, online and in newspapers and magazines, including New Writing Scotland. The Confession of Stella Moon, her first novel, won the Andrea Badenoch Prize and was shortlisted for the Charles Pick Fellowship when it was still a work in progress.

Follow Shelley on Twitter or via her author Facebook page: she also has an excellent website.