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Something to Say: Deborah Sheldon

Today we’re speaking with the Melbourne writer Deborah Sheldon.

Some of Deborah’s latest releases, through several publishing houses, include the noir-horror novel Contrition, 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 (winner of the Australian Shadows Award “Best Collected Work 2017”) and the monster-horror novel Devil Dragon. Deborah’s short fiction has appeared in many well-respected magazines such as Quadrant, Island, Aurealis, SQ Mag, and Midnight Echo. Her work has been shortlisted for numerous Aurealis Awards and Australian Shadows Awards, long-listed for a Bram Stoker Award, and included in “best of” anthologies. Other credits include TV scripts, feature articles, non-fiction books, stage plays, and award-winning medical writing.

Deborah Sheldon

Something to Say: Welcome, Deb! That’s quite a list of achievements. What project are you talking about today?

Deborah: Award-winning press, IFWG Publishing Australia, is releasing my noir-horror novel, Contrition, today – September 3rd. The back-cover blurb reads:

In her late teens, Meredith Berg-Olsen had all the makings of a runway model. Now in her late forties, after everything she had been through – including horrors that John could only guess at – she looked bloodless instead of pale, skeletal instead of slender, more dead than alive…

John Penrose has two secrets. One is the flatmate he keeps hidden from the world: his high-school sweetheart, Meredith. His other secret is the reason he feels compelled to look after her.

Contrition is a horror story with noir undertones and an atmosphere of mounting dread.

STS: Is there one aspect of Contrition that you relate to the most – a favourite character, scene, effect? Can you tell us more about that?

My novel has two timelines: the present day and the 1980s. For the latter, I drew upon my own memories of high school for inspiration. If some of my old chums were to read Contrition, the basis of a few events might seem vaguely familiar. Since I hadn’t thought about my teenage years in a long, long time, it was interesting to sift through the memories, both good and bad. I think doing so gave the novel’s earlier timeline its rawness and pathos.

STS: What do you think drives you to pursue your creativity?

My brain is hard-wired to write. I started writing when I was a kid, and I’ve been a professional for 32 years. I’ll write until my dying day. There are two of me: the subjective self who lives this life; and the “observer” who squirrels away occurrences, feelings and thoughts to use in fiction. Every experience is potential fodder. I often reassure myself while going through a rough time, “Deb, elements of this will make good stories.” And it helps!

STS: That’s an interesting way to approach hard times. I like it! Now, many writers have described their processes using analogies – the famous Hemingway one, for example, in which he says that writing is simply a matter of sitting in front of the typewriter and staring at a blank page until you start to sweat blood. Others speak of stitching scenes together, following characters on a journey, immersing themselves in a storyline. What can you say about your process?

I see each writing project – whether it be a short story, novella or novel – as a kind of jigsaw puzzle. I know what “picture” I’m trying to create. I just need to find some way to put all the pieces in the correct order. I’m technique-driven. To use another analogy, I build a story like an engineer builds a bridge.

STS: Jigsaw-like, that’s excellent. Finally, what five words would you use to describe yourself as a writer?

Technical, productive, committed, pedantic, curious.

STS: Wonderful! Thank you so much for talking to us today, and all the best for Contrition!

 

Pictures

Author photo

Contrition cover

Links

Website: https://deborahsheldon.wordpress.com/

Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/3312459.Deborah_Sheldon

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/Deborah-Sheldon-936388749723500/

Amazon Author Page: https://www.amazon.com/default/e/B0035MWQ98/ref=ntt_dp_epwbk_1?redirectedFromKindleDbs=true

Birthday memories

Today my dad would have turned 95, if he had survived this long.

Instead, the ghastly, grotesque illness called Motor Neurone Disease (that’s MND in Australia, and ALS or Lou Gehrig’s Disease in the US) diminished him to death at the age of 67, twenty-eight years ago. Even back then, in 1990, we were hoping for a cure ‘soon’. While some people live for a long (and extremely difficult) time with MND (notably the brilliant Professor Stephen Hawking), many die much sooner. For my dad, the progress of the disease from diagnosis to death was four short years.

While there has been some progress in the treatment and management of MND, we are all still waiting. This was brought home deeply by the recent Australian Story program, ‘The Enemy Within’, detailing the work and illness of the amazing Justin Yerbury.

I still miss my dad. And although I know that he would have completely supported my writing career, and that he always encouraged me, I really, really regret the fact that he doesn’t know about it, and that I haven’t been able to share this stage of my life with him.

Knuppels_1933

There are so many untold stories. I think one day they will appear. What I’m thinking about now is the last time I saw him, in the hospice, on the day he died. Dad explained that a male nurse, all in white, had visited his room in the night and said that it was time to leave. Dad said, ‘I told him I couldn’t walk, but he said it was time to go.’

I checked with the staff – no male nurse had been on duty the night before. Strange.

But a few hours later, after all his visitors had gone, my dad up and left.

Diagnosis blues

This week has been quite a difficult one. We discovered that our mother has a brain tumour. While this explains all of the bizarre and inconsistent and unreliable behaviour that we’ve been noticing recently, it’s a bit of a shock.

Did I tell you how Mum was acting more and more strangely and refusing help? Well, one day a couple of weeks ago she took herself off to the doctor in a taxi (at a time when she should have been home for the cleaner – resulting in multiple phone calls with the next step being the police! – because she didn’t tell anyone she was going – but that’s another story). Mum went to ask if she had dementia, so the doctor ordered a CT scan that afternoon. The first I knew about it was a call from Mum saying I had to take her to the hospital for a brain scan. All the way there, she criticised her children as being too managing, too interfering, too nosy, and for sending too many helpers, and making too many phone calls, and ordering the wrong food to be delivered. She was certain that the brain scan would show no dementia and that after the diagnosis we could all just leave her alone, thank us very much. Very Greta Garbo.

The upshot is, after a lengthy scan and a trip back to the GP, that she has a meningioma which is not malignant in itself, but steadily growing and impacting on her brain function. Off we went to the neurosurgeon next day, who ruled out surgery (her bad health and a long recovery time) and any other treatment (tumour too large for radio). And a palliative care team has been allocated to us.

So it’s been  an interesting time, negotiating all of us siblings and our diverse opinions. Mum, on the other hand, is very stoic and quite serene, and says she’s much happier now that she knows. She is calling everyone in her address book to tell them she has a brain tumour!

Greta Garbo ‘Wild Orchids’ film still from Wikimedia Commons at https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Garbo_wild_orchids.jpg?uselang=en-gb

A creation fable

 

‘Are you sure?’ asked the god.

‘Yes. I can’t face another day of ordinary conversation. I want everyone to know how much I am suffering!’

‘I can’t reverse this process,’ he warned.

‘And I can’t turn back the clock. Just get on with it!’ Marta yelled.

A short while later, she left the god’s garden, looking much the same as usual. Her long hair, pulled back from her face, was the same dull, unwashed brown. Her comely mouth turned down at the corners in the usual way. There was something fierce in her dark eyes, but that was usual too.

Marta tested the god’s work. Deliberately, she walked into the village market place. Her gaze fell upon a young mother, squatting on the cobbles while she helped her toddler with his slice of apple.

Immediately, the god’s will kicked into action. Across every inch of Marta’s skin, multiple fonts burst into words. Blue as veins, stark as cemetery epitaphs, the moving letters came together. Across her forehead, I am crying inside. On one cheek, I will never see her again. On the other, I hate my life. On her neck, Let me die too. Over her shoulders, I hurt too much. Pulsing from her forearm, Don’t talk to me. Down one thigh, Don’t pretend everything will be fine. Down the other, My heart is broken. Across her feet, My tears will never end. From the ends of her hair, No-no-no-no-no…

The words kept rising to the surface, spilling from Marta’s skin onto the cobbles, into the drains, down to the creeks, the rivers, the seas, and up again through the mists and fogs into the weeping clouds.

Grief is what they called this new creation.

Lost arts of the twentieth century: the rendezvous

Back in the day, there were meeting places where you waited for your family or friends to come find you. Under the clock at the railway station, in front of the department store window (yes, ‘window’ singular), at the corner of the school. Eventually, Dad would come to drive you home from the station, or your friends would show up for your shopping expedition, or your little brothers would mooch up to be walked home.

File:Grenfell, NSW - Railway Station 1.jpg

No mobile phones, so no texts or emails or either, to let you know someone was late, or that they weren’t coming. I guess waiting is a bit of a lost art too. No phone to look at while you stood at the meeting place. (Of course, I always had a book at hand. Always.)

Meetings could be the highlight of your day, or your biggest disappointment. Being stood up by that cute guy I met at school dancing class, who promised to meet me at the bus stop the next week. Such an embarrassing and gauche moment!

On the plus side, at least he didn’t text me saying it was him, not me…

Notions like this complicate the writing process. It can be quite difficult to get into that space, that space where your characters don’t know what’s happening elsewhere, and can’t easily find out. Mind you, writing about the twentieth century is Historical Fiction after all. As a writer, having inhabited a previous era is no guarantee of being able to write it convincingly.

Ah well, back to the typewriter I guess…

Photo: Grenfell Station by Geez-oz from Wikimedia Commons https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Grenfell,_NSW_-_Railway_Station_1.jpg