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Q&A with Deborah Sheldon

Deborah Sheldon is a writer from Melbourne, Australia. Some of her latest releases, include the dark literary collection 300 Degree Days and Other Stories, the bio-horror novella Thylacines, the dark fantasy and horror collection Perfect Little Stitches and Other Stories, and the bio-horror novel Devil Dragon.

Upcoming titles include the horror novel Contrition later in 2018, and a retrospective dark fiction collection in 2019. Her short fiction has appeared in many well-respected magazines such as QuadrantIslandAurealisSQ Mag, and Midnight Echo

Your latest novel Contrition is a horror story with noir undertones. It follows John Penrose and his high-school sweetheart, Meredith Berg-Olsen, who is “more dead than alive”. Can you tell us a bit more about what readers can expect?

I wanted to write a slow-burn mystery that turned, by degrees, into a fully-fledged horror story. By tightening the pace and narrowing the focus as the chapters race along, I’m hoping to funnel the reader into a claustrophobic and unsettling experience. Contrition features two timelines: the mid-80s and the present day. Part of the puzzle for the reader will be figuring out how, why and when these timelines converge.

Where did you get your inspiration for this book?

Some time ago, I met a couple who lived together. I knew only their first names and almost nothing else about them apart from this: they were not related, were not romantically involved, she seemed to hate his guts, and yet he stayed with her and kept paying the bills year after year. It didn’t make sense to me. I kept turning their weird relationship over and over in my mind trying to fathom its underlying dynamic. So, my “backwards extrapolation” on these strangers ended up forming the basis for my novel.

You’ve been a professional writer for over 30 years and have written everything from medical articles to horror stories. What do you think are some key skills and traits needed to be a successful writer?

Always be learning. Hemingway said it best: “We are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master.” If you continuously approach writing with the same kind of respect and curiosity that you had at the beginning of your career, the passion will never leave you.

Seek out new challenges to stave off boredom and writer’s block. My enthusiasm for trying out new writing disciplines is why I’ve had such a varied career. Thinking “I don’t even know if I can do this” is a stimulating dilemma to ponder. It gets the creative juices flowing.

Get used to rejection. It’s a tough industry. My solution is to have at least half a dozen projects in circulation at any one time, so a single rejection letter doesn’t bother me. I just find another market and resubmit.

A lot of your stories use Australian flora and fauna, including your recent novella Thylacines, which follows a genetic experiment gone horribly wrong. What is it about Australia’s landscape and creatures that appeals to you?

It’s what the hoary old adage “Write what you know” means to me. I’m Australian; that’s where all of my inspiration comes from. There is a push from some quarters in publishing that stories shouldn’t be “parochial”, that they must have “universal appeal”, which I believe is a form of cultural cringe. Setting is the most important character in a story. One of the things I admire about American novelists and scriptwriters is their absolute commitment to documenting their own culture. Australian writers should be encouraged to do the same. At least, that’s what I’ll continue to do: create Aussie stories from my Aussie perspective.

How do you think your membership with Writers Victoria has helped you as a writer?

Writing is a solitary pursuit, so professional connections – such as being a member of Writers Victoria – keep me in the loop. I enjoy the feeling of being part of a community. And the information about competitions and submissions is valuable.

You spent several years writing screenplays and working in television. Do you find that writing horror stories that will be read instead of watched is quite a different experience? Do you approach the two formats differently?

Writing for viewers rather than readers is very different. A scriptwriter has the luxury of visuals, music and sound effects to provoke emotion in the viewer. The prose writer has only words on a page. So, yes, it’s a challenge for a short story writer or novelist to frighten a reader. However, I draw inspiration from old Hollywood horror films. Because of the strict censorship rules at the time, films couldn’t show blood and gore. Classics such as The Body Snatcher (1945) and Cat People (1942) demonstrate that a writer can do a hell of a lot with characters, mood and dialogue to provoke goose bumps.

Like you suggested, the two formats require different approaches. As a scriptwriter, you’re but one team member bringing a project to fruition. The core team also includes the director, actors, cinematographer and production designer. You have to realise that the script is not your baby – it’s everyone’s baby! So, don’t be precious about it and don’t step on anybody’s toes. Conversely, as a short story writer or novelist, you are the sole owner of that project. An editor (if he or she is a good one) will offer suggestions to help you polish your writing and make that story the best it can be. However, the final say is always yours.

What does your typical writing day look like? How do you get in the right mindset?

I write three or four days a week for about four or five hours per day. Depending on the project, I might aim for 2500 words of a publishable standard per week. This gives me a novella in four months and a novel in eight or nine. To get myself into the right mindset, I rely on the “Pavlov’s dog” approach. For the 24 years I’ve lived in this house, I have always written in my study. By association, every time I sit in my office chair, I’m ready to write, like a dog salivating to a bell. To get myself started, I edit my writing from the previous day. Once I’ve done that, I’m warmed up and ready to go.

What are you working on next?

I wrote my novel Contrition and my novella Thylacines back to back. After two long-form projects, I’m eager for a change of pace. At the moment, I’m working on a range of short stories: some for submission to magazines; others to keep for my retrospective collection of dark fiction (as yet untitled), which IFWG Publishing Australia is releasing next year. Once I’ve had my fill of short stories, I’ll start on my next novel. It’s in a subgenre I’ve never attempted before. Will I be able to pull it off? I’m not sure yet, but I’m excited about the challenge and I’ll give it my best shot!


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