Saturday, April 7, 2018

Interview with Deborah Sheldon, author of 300 Degree Days & Other Stories

Today on the Speculative Fiction Showcase, we're delighted to interview Deborah Sheldon, whose collection of short fiction, 300 Degree Days & Other Stories, was recently published by Oscillate Wildly Press.

1. On your web-site, you say that your writing covers the darker spectrum of Horror, Crime and Noir. Do you think of yourself as someone who writes Dark Fantasy or Horror – or are these distinctions meaningless?

Writers debate where to draw the line between dark fantasy and horror. I think one way to differentiate them is this: does the story take place in a realistic world? If so, it’s horror. If not, it’s fantasy. That said, I sometimes blend the genres. I have a background as a medical writer, so my scientific/rational mind often prompts me to write stories that work on two levels. Is the character actually turning into an animal or is she delusional? Is the character a magical changeling or a child with an undiagnosed medical condition? Mostly, I write my stories with a foot in each camp and leave the interpretation up to the reader.

2. Horror as a genre seems to be undergoing a huge revival. Do you see it that way and if so, what has driven the revival?

Broadly speaking, in the late 20th century, “literary” and “horror” were at opposite ends of the spectrum. Any self-respecting lover of fine literature would not have been caught dead reading a horror novel. The digital revolution, the rise of the ebook and the willingness of independent publishing houses to take risks broke down many genre conventions. Writers – and readers – enthusiastically embraced the genre mash-up. Today, the horror category is extremely varied, containing many subgenres, and yes, the stories can be literary too. A couple of excellent examples of literary horror include Gutted: Beautiful Horror Stories (Crystal Lake Publishing), and Dead of Night: the best of Midnight Echo Magazine (Australian Horror Writers Association).

3. Short stories too have become very popular, and not just in genre fiction. Why do you think this is?

Whether short stories are becoming more popular or not is open to debate, I think, and depends largely on where you live. In Australia, literary agents and the larger publishers shy away from anthologies and single-author collections because they apparently don’t sell in high enough volumes to make it commercially worthwhile. However, smaller publishing houses snap them up. If short stories are increasing in popularity, I would guess it’s because a short story can be enjoyed in one sitting. It’s the perfect medium for time-poor people who still crave their reading fix.

4. Tell us about 300 Degree Days & Other Stories. How does it relate to your other writing and where does it come on the Darker Spectrum?

The stories in 300 Degree Days and Other Stories predate my work in crime and horror but share similar preoccupations. It is a collection of eleven stories that explore the darker side of family relationships. There are no happy ever afters. Some of the stories include elements of psychological horror such as a choking toddler, the death of a friend, the aftermath of a cancer diagnosis. These stories spring from the same well as my monster- and body-horror stories: the vulnerability of being human, and the ever-present, underlying anxiety of knowing that you and everyone you love is doomed to die.

5. What is the significance of the title story, “300 Degree Days”, and why did you choose that name for the anthology?

It’s special to me because it was the first short story I ever wrote. And the first market I submitted to accepted it, which I call a hole-in-one! That experience gave me the confidence to keep writing prose fiction. Without “300 Degree Days”, I might still be writing feature articles, medical information for the layperson, TV scripts, and non-fiction books.

6. How does your writing change between genres, and is it different for Crime and Noir?

A central tenet of noir is that the seeds to your destruction are found within your own psyche; all that is required to set your downfall in motion is the right external catalyst. (I believe this to be true in the real world too.) This philosophy underpins everything I write including crime, noir and horror. I don’t tend to write stories that end well for my characters. Perhaps I’m wired as a “glass half-empty” kind of person.

7. Who would you say has influenced your writing, generally or within the Horror genre?

Every story I’ve ever admired and every film I’ve ever enjoyed has influenced me in one way or another. Perhaps the greatest influence within the horror genre is the classic Hollywood films of the 1940s such as Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie, and The Body Snatcher. Censorship at the time forced the writers to rely on suspense, mood and dialogue rather than violence and gore. Watching these films with a “writer’s eye” reminds me that horror can be achieved with a subtle touch.

8. What is your daily writing routine, if any?

I write three or four days a week, and I always write in my study. From sheer repetition over the years, every time I sit at my computer I’m primed to write. Usually, I start by reading over and editing my work from the day before. By the time I finish that, my brain is in gear and I’m ready to create. I find that writing takes tremendous concentration. After about four or five hours, I’m tapped out. I aim for about 2500 words of a publishable standard every week, give or take.

9. When writing short fiction, do you need different skills to those for writing novels?

Definitely. If the novel is a degustation menu, the short story is an amuse-bouche. You cannot afford a single extraneous word. You must work hard to impart character development, theme and emotional impact within a few pages. In my experience, a short story takes longer to write compared to a novel chapter of the same word count.

10. Is suburbia – including Australian suburbia – uniquely fertile ground for modern horror?

When I’m browsing the Internet, checking out memes and funny photo galleries, I notice that Australia is often represented as the “Land of Nope” – full of all kinds of wild creatures trying to kill you, like sharks, crocodiles, snakes, spiders! All true, of course… Many of my horror stories, however, take place in suburbia because I like to contrast normality with the unexpected. As a writer, it’s also more challenging to place a creepy or unsettling story within a mundane setting. Horror fiction helps us (as both writers and readers) to safely explore our phobias and fears – many of which had their origins in the family home. For these reasons, yes, I believe that suburbia is indeed a fertile ground for modern horror.

11. Is horror writing a kind of morality play (or story) for contemporary society?

Horror writing allows you to examine social ills. For example, the stories in 300 Degree Days and Other Stories are about dysfunctional families, and the awful things people can do to those they profess to love. In my horror novella Thylacines, I touch upon the topics of ethical scientific research and animal rights. In my horror novel Devil Dragon, I look at the consequences of blind ambition. From a technical perspective, having a theme or two helps me to tie various parts of a story together to make a cohesive whole. I wouldn’t say that a piece of horror writing should be a morality play because that smacks of lecturing or talking down to the reader. Like the movie mogul Samuel Goldwyn apparently told a scriptwriter, “If you want to send a message, try Western Union”! Yes, I broach topics and themes but as open-ended questions. Themes mustn’t leap out at the reader and hit them over the head.

12. How important is research to you?

It’s critical. For monster-horror titles such as Thylacines and Devil Dragon, and for the bulk of the stories in my horror and dark fantasy collection Perfect Little Stitches and Other Stories, I had to do considerable research to ensure verisimilitude. The science, mythology or history in these stories needed to be accurate to help suspend reader disbelief. In 300 Degree Days and Other Stories – and in my forthcoming horror novel Contrition – the research is more personal. I had to dig for memories, experiences, feelings. While writing each piece in 300 Degree Days and Other Stories, I would sit back in my office chair, close my eyes and summon old hurts in order to put them on the page – reimagined and repurposed, of course. Fictitious but still emotionally honest.

13. What do you read to relax?

Single-author collections, anthologies, novellas and novels across a wide range of genres, but mostly – you guessed it! – under the dark fiction umbrella. I have only one magazine subscription, and that’s to Writer’s Digest. Most nights after dinner, I get lost for an hour or two down the Internet rabbit hole. AskReddit threads are particularly fascinating.

14. What is your next project, and can you tell us about it?

I’m recovering from surgery, so my projects are still on hold, worse luck. First up will be a short story inspired by my operation, and then I’ll get started on an action-packed horror novel. Writing action scenes is tricky. If you’re not careful, you end up with a boring laundry-list of verbs. That’s the appeal: to push myself as a writer and keep experimenting with new techniques. The novel will also be a type of sub-genre I’ve never tried before, so that will give me a lot of fun, and no doubt a few headaches.

About Deborah Sheldon:

Deborah Sheldon is a professional writer from Melbourne, Australia. Some of her latest releases, through several publishing houses, include the collection 300 Degree Days and Other Stories, the novella Thylacines, the collection Perfect Little Stitches and Other Stories, and the novel Devil Dragon. Upcoming titles include the 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 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.

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