Welcome to the two hundred and thirty-second of my blog interviews with novelists, poets, short story authors, biographers, agents, publishers and more. Today’s is with novelist Shelley Harris. A list of interviewees (blogged and scheduled) can be found here. If you like what you read, please do go and investigate further.
Morgen: Hello Shelley. Please tell us something about yourself.
Shelley: I was born in South Africa (my mom’s South African, my dad’s British – they met on a Spanish campsite!). In the early seventies we came here because my parents couldn’t stand to live under Apartheid any more. I’ve done many jobs in my time: teaching, journalism, envelope-stuffing. I lived in Paris briefly, but have spent most of my life in the quiet of South Bucks, where Jubilee takes place. I set it in the village – and the street – where I grew up.
Morgen: South Bucks? I’m from South Bucks originally, how funny. I’ve not travelled as far as you though, 55 miles in my entire life… so far, anyway. 🙂 After the thrills of envelope-stuffing, how did you come to be a writer?
Shelley: I think I came to it through reading. I have always read voraciously. I think many aspects of writing can be taught, except that ‘ear’ for language, which you only get from reading. Like a lot of writers, I wrote through much of my childhood (write early, write often), though it took many years before I was brave enough to plan, complete and submit a novel. Maybe I should be more honest here. In the end I did it, not so much through bravery, as through a fear that I might go through life never having really tried to achieve my ambition.
The idea for the story came after I studied a photo of my dad at a V.E Day street party, and started to wonder about the tension between such a public event and the private lives of the people in the picture. But I wanted it to be about my generation’s great street party, the Silver Jubilee of 1977. That year was such a crucial one, so much cultural change, so many tensions. I put a boy right in the centre of that picture: Satish Patel, newly-arrived here from Uganda, and learning what it means to become British. In the book, he is the keeper of all the secrets.
Morgen: I’m surprised (not sure I should be) how many authors I’ve spoken to have written pretty much all their lives (which I think is great!). This is your debut novel, how much of the marketing do you do for your published works or indeed for yourself as a ‘brand’?
Shelley: Aaargh! Brand! Let’s deal with that one first. I live with a marketer, so these are conversations I have had before. I don’t really think of myself in those terms. If I did, it would stress me out massively – always trying to stay on-message! But I am happy thinking about marketing the book, because I know we now live in a world where you can’t just write and be done with it. So, I tweet and have a website and blog and those things are now a natural part of my working day. Writing can be extremely isolating, and I’m actually quite sociable, so I like being in contact with people that way. I also enjoy meeting people at events, and just have to make sure that I protect my writing time too.
Morgen: That’s the trick. I find ‘everything else’ so time consuming (although thoroughly enjoyable) – it’s all too easy to leave the actual writing ’til last. Do you have an agent? Do you think they’re vital to an author’s success?
Shelley: Yes, I do have an agent, the brilliant Jo Unwin of Conville and Walsh, and seeing her work has shown me how vital they are to an author’s success. She does things I just can’t do: she knows the industry, she’s a great negotiator, and she’s got a particular talent for casting an editorial eye over my work, long after I’ve stopped seeing the wood for the trees. She looks after me, rather than just the particular book I’m working on – no-one else will do that.
Morgen: That’s great. A lot of authors get the impression that they are a ‘brand’ (sorry to bring that up again) 🙂 rather than a human. It sounds like you’re a great match. Did you have any say in the title of your book? How important do you think titles are?
Shelley: I think the title is key, and I wouldn’t say I was particularly skilled at choosing them. One of the last things Jo did before we submitted Jubilee was to insist on a title change. Its working title was something quite different, but I love it now, and can’t imagine it being called anything else. I’m just pondering now about brilliant titles: I’ve always loved Sarah Hall’s The Electric Michelangelo. There’s also a book called Memoirs of a Gnostic Dwarf by David Madsen, which is every bit as good as its wonderful title.
Morgen: I’m a big title fan and love those too. Do any of your books have dedications? If so, to whom and why?
Shelley: Jubilee is dedicated to my husband, and quite right, too. He was pretty self-sacrificial during the writing of my book, absolutely dedicated to my success. That’s true love. When I got the advance, I bought him a dinghy (he’s a sailor) and he called it Jubilee.
Morgen: Yes, I’d say that’s love. 🙂 Do you manage to write every day? What’s the most you’ve written in a day?
Shelley: I try to write every weekday. Occasionally it’s not possible, because I’m doing something else for the book (and, let’s be completely truthful, occasionally it’s not possible because I take a day off), but by and large I need to write every day to feel satisfied and happy. It has taken me a very, very long time to work this out. I aim to write a thousand words a day; sometimes it comes like a gift, sometimes I wrench out 300 and am grumpy and self-pitying all evening. Not sure what the most I’ve ever written is, but it normally happens when I’m on retreat. Come to think of it, that’s quite worrying.
Morgen: Oh dear, sorry about that. Days off are good, as long as it’s only one or two. I’m terribly slack most of the time (at writing anyway) but knuckle down for the likes of NaNoWriMo, it’s just a pity it’s only once a year not once a month. 🙂 What is your opinion of writer’s block? Do you ever suffer from it? If so, how do you ‘cure’ it?
Shelley: I would refer you here to the excellent The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron, which says more, and better, about this than I possibly could. I know it’s all a bit Californian. But it’s also spot-on.
Morgen: A highly recommended book. A question some authors dread: where do you get your inspiration from?
Shelley: Oh come on, Morgen – that’s the easy bit!
Morgen: True (for me too :)) but some do struggle (sadly).
Shelley: There are stories everywhere. We’re tripping over them all the time. I carry a notebook with me, and write down things people are saying (horrible, but true); I keep news articles, I filch stuff I hear in the queue at the Post Office. A while back, I met a woman who told me the most brilliant story about how she courted her second husband. I’ve used it in Jubilee, and am really hoping I see her before she reads it and is horrified.
Morgen: I have a great t-shirt which says ‘Careful or you’ll end up in my next novel’. Maybe she’d be flattered (I’m intrigued as to her method now). 🙂 Do you plot your stories or do you just get an idea and run with it?
Shelley: I’m a planner myself, and knowing what will happen doesn’t spoil anything for me. The pleasure is in making it come alive.
Morgen: It’s my favourite aspect. Do you have a method for creating your characters, their names and what do you think makes them believable?
Shelley: I’ve really tried all this writing workshop stuff: what’s in your character’s fridge, who was their best mate at school – all that. It just doesn’t work for me. I seem to understand them by understanding some underlying principles about them. Then everything else comes. I steal people I’ve met, sometimes. I usually steal bodies. I steal names all the time, because I pretty much loathe ‘meaningful’ names, ones which tell you something about the character. Our world is more arbitrary than that. So I steal names. In Jubilee, there are three friends, two students I used to teach, and an ex-colleague.
Morgen: Now that is flattering. How much research do you have to do for your writing?
Shelley: I do a fair amount of research. Because I’m a bit anal, I actually have to wean myself away from research sometimes, so the creative process can work. With Jubilee, I was writing as a 12-year-old, as a boy, as a British Asian. It was especially daunting to write outside my own heritage, and I interviewed several British Asian friends and acquaintances, some of whom were astonishingly generous with their stories. Then I sent the manuscript to a couple of them so they could spot the howlers.
Morgen: Hopefully they didn’t find many. What’s your favourite / least favourite aspect of your writing life?
Shelley: It’s all about the writing. The best thing is when it goes well. Just one hundred words – words I’m really proud of – can make my week.
Morgen: Me too. I’ve often sat clapping at a bit I like; just as well I only have a dog here to think I’m mad. 🙂
Shelley: Writing badly is unutterably miserable.
Morgen: I get frustrated too until I remember that it’s words on a page and you can’t edit a blank one, as a fellow Script Frenzyer said once. What advice would you give aspiring writers?
Shelley: The most important thing is to make your manuscript as good as you possibly can. When people tell you it’s all about contacts in the industry, give them a beatific smile – and then ignore them completely. You will be helped by being in an honest, supportive writing group. I’m also a real advocate for a good editorial service. It isn’t cheap, but you will gain hugely from having a professional eye cast over your work. If I’m allowed to, can I recommend two? The Literary Consultancy and The Writers’ Workshop are both really good.
Morgen: Of course, recommend away. 🙂 And I totally agree about writing groups – I run a great one (because of the people in it) and belong to two others, each having such valuable input. What do you like to read? Any authors you could recommend?
Shelley: My favourite subject! Here are three wonderful books: Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith (or anything by her, let’s be honest), and for a complete treat, there’s Alan Bennett’s The Uncommon Reader.
Morgen: I loved ‘The Uncommon Reader’. I’d had it for ages but not got around to reading it and it was the first on a book club list and I enjoyed it so much that I bought the audio CD (also read by Alan Bennett). I’d love to know if the Queen has read it. 🙂 Is there a word, phrase or quote you like?
Shelley: Yes. I have a particular affection for the word ‘theodolite’.
Morgen: <smiles> Where can we find out about you and your work?
Shelley: My website might be a good place to start: www.shelleyharris.co.uk. Thanks for having me, Morgen – it’s been a blast.
Morgen: You’re so welcome, Shelley, thank you for finding me / my blog, and all the best for you debut – feel free to come back for an author spotlight for book two. 🙂
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