Ginger Nuts of Horror
Deborah Sheldon is a writer living in Melbourne, Australia and has publishing credits in a string of anthologies and journals as well as novellas and novels that lurk in the darker area of fiction. I thought I would take some time to have a chat about her writing. I am particularly interested in hearing about her new bio-horror novel being published by Cohesion Press later on this year.
GNoH: Hi there, Deborah. Can you please tell the Ginger Nuts faithful a little (or a lot) about yourself?
I’m married and we have a teenage son. I’ve been a professional writer for 30 years, with credits across a range of media. I don’t know why I love writing so much. My brain is hard-wired to crave it. I become restless if I can’t write. Maybe part of it stems from my love of reading. Well-written books of any kind – novels, novellas or short story collections – are incredibly inspiring.
A lot of exciting things are happening at the moment. My upcoming books include ‘Dark Waters’ and ‘Ronnie and Rita’, ‘Perfect Little Stitches and other stories’, and ‘Garland Cove Heist’. The books may be coming out one after the other, but that’s a coincidence. It actually took about four years to write them all.
You’ll notice that my bio-horror novel, ‘Devil Dragon’, is not in the above list. More on that in a minute...
GNoH: I’d imagine a lot has changed in the publishing world in 30 years! How have you had to adapt as a writer?
In many ways, life is so much easier. Once, I would have to spend a day in a library and another day on the phone to gather research that I can now Google inside a couple of hours.
I wrote drafts longhand. If I wanted to move a paragraph, I literally had to ‘cut and paste’ using scissors and tape. Once I was satisfied with the draft, I would type it on my Brother electric typewriter, white-out fluid close by for typos. Of course, then the piece had to be taken to the newsagent to be photocopied, and then posted by snail mail with an SSAE...
Gad, so time-consuming! Computers, the Internet and email are such wonderful inventions.
Then the digital publishing revolution came along, and changed absolutely everything. Never in my life could I have foreseen or imagined such turmoil. The publishing industry was turned on its head in an incredibly short amount of time. My biggest challenge is trying to keep pace. A lot is expected of writers these days. When I published back in the 90s with Reed Books and Random House Australia, the only promotion I had to do was a couple of weeks of press interviews. Now, writers must be social media and marketing experts.
GNoH: Where did your love of writing come from and what is it in particular that draws you to the darker areas of fiction?
As a preschooler, I used to draw my stories or act them out with toys. At the age of about 11, I decided to be a writer when I grew up. I’ve never once regretted that decision. I’ll stop writing when I’m dead.
I write across the darker spectrum for many reasons, some of which are probably beneath my conscious awareness. I also love a challenge. And wow, the darker genres are challenging! For example, a jump scare is easy to achieve in a movie – a quick edit and a blare of music is usually enough – but to create a jump scare on paper? That’s a much harder task.
GNoH: Indeed. There are some truly exceptional writers out there within the dark fiction genre, but few whose work has truly scared me. I remember reading Michelle Paver’s ‘Dark Matter’ some time ago and there were some scenes in that book that really gave me the creeps. Without giving too much away, how does Deborah Sheldon hope to scare her readers? Also, are there any particular stories or writers you have found that deliver the scares successfully?
I think atmosphere and suspense are critical factors. Beyond that, I’m not giving away my secrets!
And oh yes, plenty of stories have scared me over the years, but the two that stand out are ‘The Shining’ by Stephen King, and ‘The Exorcist’ by William Peter Blatty. In ‘The Exorcist’, Blatty soon had me so jumpy that every time a character would go to open Regan’s bedroom door, I had to stop reading for a moment just to brace myself.
GNoH: Can you tell us what was your first published story and where was it published?
My first sale was an article on steroid abuse, published by ‘Australian Muscle & Fitness’ magazine in 1986. I was an 18 year old ‘gym rat’ doing my Bachelor of Arts, majoring in various writing disciplines. I remember, vividly, the shock of opening the SSAE and looking at a cheque instead of a rejection letter! I ran around in circles and screamed for joy!
After two decades of working mainly in non-fiction, I wanted to explore prose fiction.
In 2005, ‘Quadrant’ magazine published my first short story, ‘300 Degree Days’. In 2007, I began writing prose fiction in earnest. Literary short stories with a melancholic aspect were my first love. My collection, ‘300 Degree Days and other stories,’ published by Ginninderra Press, is available from my website (http://deborahsheldon.wordpress.com) as a free ebook when you sign up for my newsletter. The ebook offers a snapshot of my writing style, recurring themes, and preoccupations.
GNoH: Who or what has influenced you as a writer?
Everything that I’ve ever read has influenced me in one way or another. I’m a huge fan of twentieth century American literature, especially noir. The nihilism and moral ambiguity of noir appeals very much. (I suppose that means I’m a ‘glass half-empty’ kind of person!)
My husband is a tremendous influence too. He’s my ‘over-the-shoulder reader’ that I imagine whenever I sit at my keyboard. How do I hook him? Keep him turning the pages? Striving to make a piece of writing ‘unputdownable’ for him is what keeps me rewriting and revising.
GNoH: November of this year sees you venture into Bio-Horror territory with DEVIL DRAGON. Can you tell us what to expect from this book and how the project came about?
‘Devil Dragon’ is about a scientist, Dr Erin Harris, who is obsessed with finding a living Varanus priscus, a giant Australian lizard that apparently went extinct some 12,000 years ago. There are occasional sightings, like Big Foot or Nessie. Erin cobbles together an expedition party and travels into the unexplored heart of a national park. A nerdy scientist, an elderly farmer and two gun-toting deer hunters stranded in the bush versus an apex predator the size of a campervan – what could go wrong?
I began writing it in early 2015. Usually, I decide on a piece’s length before I start. Most of the time I hit the mark; give or take. ‘Devil Dragon’ was supposed to be a short story for my horror collection, ‘Perfect Little Stitches and other stories’ (IFWG Publishing Australia, February 2017).
But ‘Devil Dragon’ turned out to be stubborn little beast.
I wanted the story to be about 4000 words. When I hit 8000, I figured, what the hell, so it’s a novelette. Then it became a novella... After the draft reached 19,000 words with no ending in sight, I realised, with some dismay, that I had a novel. And novels are hard to sell.
GNoH: An upcoming horror collection in the form of ‘Perfect Little Stitches and other stories’ will be upon us early next year. What can readers expect from this collection?
Above all else, I didn’t want the stories to share a ‘sameness’ that you sometimes find in single author collections. I went out of my way to make sure the manuscript reads more like an anthology by various writers. I used a range of horror genres and sub-genres – such as psychological, gore, neo-monsters, monsters, animals, mythological, historical, paranormal, etc. – and I varied the writing approaches. The 20 stories also differ in length from flash to novelette.
What can readers expect? Some spine-tingling excitement, I hope. The title story was short-listed in the Australian Shadows Awards, and another story highly commended in the AHWA Short Story Competition. Well-respected Australian magazines such as Aurealis, Midnight Echo, SQ Mag, and Tincture Journal have published about half the stories.
GNoH: Do you have a preference to writing short stories for a collection such as ‘Perfect Little Stitches and other stories’ or writing longer works? I found it very interesting that you decide on a story’s length before writing. I don’t think I have ever come across this as most writers seem to ‘go with the flow’, but it is obviously something that works for you, yes?
Regarding preference, it honestly depends on my mood. I crave variety, so I want to write longer works such as novellas or novels after I’ve spent a few months writing short stories, and vice versa. I enjoy writing all forms of prose fiction but short stories are my first love.
I decide on a story’s length before writing because of my background in non-fiction. For about 14 years, I wrote feature articles for magazines. Once an editor accepts your query, you agree on your maximum word count so the editor can plan how many pages your article will require. There is a bit of wiggle room – for example, accompanying illustrations or photographs can be made larger or smaller – but generally, you must stick to the agreed word count. If you promised 5000 words but deliver 7500, you’ll probably never get another assignment from that editor.
TV writing is another discipline that has strict constraints. For example, the script for a half-hour serial is about 22 minutes long, with the cliffhangers worked around the ad breaks. As a scriptwriter, you cannot mess with that format. If you don’t nail it, the script editors must work overtime to make corrections, and they probably won’t give you a second chance!
Once, when I was script editor on a medical project, I asked a new writer to prepare a 30-second script on a particular topic. She came back with a script running about six minutes. When I cut it back to the required length, she was furious. I tried to explain that the producers would not permit us to run five and a half minutes over budget. Every second costs money, and projects are strictly budgeted. However, she thought I was just being a bitch! The bottom line: the brilliance of your writing doesn’t matter a jot if you cannot work within the brief.
After 20 years or so of writing to word counts and time limits, the habit stayed with me.
GNoH: DARK WATERS your crime/noir novella was also published by Cohesion Press back in 2014. Set in Melbourne, the story looks at an outlaw motorcycle club and the events that lead to war with another rival club. Australia has a long history with motorcycle gangs. How did this story come about? There must have been plenty of places to research MC gang culture?
It’s relatively easy to make a reader like a Good Guy character. As a challenge, I wanted to write a story that makes the reader barrack for a Bad Guy. My theme came first: ‘Dark Waters’ would be about redemption. Can a bad man atone for his sins? And if so, at what cost?
After plotting the bare bones, I had to decide on the criminal setting. I picked outlaw motorcycle clubs because their evolution is both fascinating and scary. Once, a typical club might have been a bunch of blokes who liked to ride, with some members dabbling in illegal activity. However, various MC clubs have now morphed into sophisticated criminal syndicates with international connections. The cultural shift that has occurred over several decades is staggering.
Before ‘Dark Waters’, my knowledge of MC clubs was zero. Mostly, I consulted reports and newspaper articles online. Since the two main clubs in ‘Dark Waters’ are fictitious, I used artistic license here and there, such as taking inspiration from US gang culture. Finally, I had a consultant (who shall remain nameless!) to help me with the finer details of the manuscript, such as slang terms commonly used by Aussie MC clubs.
While ‘Dark Waters’ is about a bad man trying to become good, my other crime-noir novella, ‘Ronnie and Rita’, is about a good man turning bad. These stories are two sides of the same coin: the things we do for love. IFWG Publishing Australia is relaunching both novellas in December 2016. I’m very excited to be working with them on this project as well as ‘Perfect Little Stitches and other stories’.