Deborah Sheldon is an award-winning author from Melbourne, Australia. She writes short stories, novellas and novels across the darker spectrum of horror, crime and noir. She won an Australian Shadows award for “Best Collected Work 2017” for her collection, Perfect Little Stitches and Other Stories.
Her short fiction has appeared in many well-respected magazines such as Quadrant, Island, Aurealis, Midnight Echo, and Dimension6. Her fiction has been shortlisted for numerous Australian Shadows Awards and Aurealis Awards, long-listed for a Bram Stoker Award and included in various “best of” anthologies. She’s also guest editor of this year’s edition of Midnight Echo.
Her short story, “The Sand” was published in From Beside the Seaside: Tales From the Daytripper by Things In The Well in 2019.
Tabatha Wood invites her deep into the well to talk about the inspiration behind “The Sand,” published in Beside the Seaside – Tales From the Daytripper by Things In The Well in 2019. And what she believes is the best advice for new writers, and which fictional character she is in love with…
Hi Deb, it’s great to see you. I have fed the Creatures in the Well before you arrived, so they should stay asleep for a while. I’d like to begin with some quick-fire questions to get to know you a little better. I find that these are best answered in short, controlled bursts.
Describe your writing style in five words.
Spare. Direct. Fluent. Cinematic. Downbeat.
If you could go back in time to do so, what wisdom would you impart to your teenage self?
I would say to her, “Deb, writing turns out to be as important as you imagined. In fact, it will form the backbone of your entire adult life. And hey, don’t worry so much, it’ll be fun.”
If you could go for a coffee with any fictional character (including one of your own) who would you choose and why?
Raymond Chandler’s iconic detective, Philip Marlowe, because I’m in love with him. “Bad boys” don’t interest me; morally-upstanding men with a good work ethic are my weakness!
Consider these lines from a poem by Fran Landesman: If you ever find my house on fire, Leave the silver, save the photographs. Your house is burning, what three things do you save?
Assuming my husband and son are out of harm’s way, I would rescue our budgerigar, the USB stick with all my work copied onto it, and my handbag. (In a heartbeat, I’d forgo the handbag to save our tropical fish, but the tank weighs over 150kg.)
Those are great answers, Deb. So tell me, what inspired “The Sand,” your story for Beside the Seaside: Tales from the Daytripper?
When I heard about the anthology, I immediately wanted to submit a story. Now, I’m not a beachgoer by any stretch of the imagination. I hate sunbaking and I’m afraid of deep water. The only time I’ll go to the beach is to admire it from the safety of a seaside restaurant. So, I was casting about for an idea when two random things happened to inspire me. Firstly, my son’s watch needed a new battery. My husband took off the back and, while he fiddled with the battery swap, I found myself staring at the complex, intricate meshing of cogs and gears. All those sharp edges and teeth… And secondly, my husband needed to trim a few branches off the Japanese maple outside my study. Loppers are a giant pair of scissors that just look threatening. As I watched my husband amputate the tree limbs, one by one, I found myself thinking about the crunch sounds, the internal mechanisms of a watch, my dislike for sand and deep water… And the story idea coalesced.
And it is a truly brilliant and terrifying story. What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned as a writer?
There’s no such thing as a bad idea, only bad execution. I first realised this truth way back in the 1990s after I quit TV to work freelance. At the time, my main source of income was feature articles for magazines. Naturally, the more articles you sell, the more money you make, so I learned quick-smart that I couldn’t afford to wait for the muse to visit. A fresh angle with thorough research, pithy quotes from professionals and tight writing combined to create articles that magazine editors bought, and readers enjoyed. In 2007, I switched my focus to fiction and took a lot of my existing skill-sets with me. However, I figured that fiction required the muse: if you didn’t have a stupendous idea, wouldn’t the story fall flat? Then I joined a writers’ group. Those who sat around expecting divine inspiration to strike were also the ones who wrote nothing at all. So, once again, I decided that a “good enough” idea was a fine place to start. And I shifted my attention to technique, learning as much as I could about plot, character, dialogue, mood, and so on. I’m still learning. But proper execution is what matters. Refusing to wait on the muse is the best thing I could have done. It allows me to stop procrastinating and get writing.
Are there any topics which you wouldn’t feel comfortable writing about?
Myself. I could never be a memoirist. I’ll share about the processes of writing until the cows come home, but as a private person, I’m far too guarded about the details of my personal life to ever put them on paper. That said, I drill down into memories all the time to create characters, spark story ideas and so on, but I use myself as a springboard. Nothing more.
Flat-out erotica. I’ve written my share of sex scenes, but only as organic parts of a story. (See what I did there?) A sex scene is the absolute number-one most difficult scene to compose, so just the thought of writing a pornographic novel gives me a headache. (Lame joke intended.)
What piece of advice would you give to any new and upcoming writer right now?
Do it for love, not for money. Chances are, you won’t see much of the latter anyway. Therefore, write what you want, rather than what you think the market will buy. Remember Hemingway’s wise words and consider yourself an apprentice for life: never stop learning.
And what advice do you wish you’d been given?
I’m not sure about that one. I was always determined to be a writer, so I learned to ignore everybody’s advice, which was invariably to train in a more “realistic” and “female-centric” profession. If someone in my youth had given me great advice, I probably would have ignored them too, out of habit.
What do you say to those people who think writing is “easy”?
Go ahead and give it a try. See if you can get your work published. Traditionally published, not just uploaded onto your blog. Then get back to me.
Do you have any upcoming books/work which you’d like to mention? Or previous works which you’d like to draw attention to?
In August 2019, I successfully pitched my anthology idea to IFWG Publishing Australia. The anthology, due for release in 2021, is in the ballpark of body horror, with the title and theme to be revealed in March 2020 when we make the open callout for submissions. We have already signed four world-class authors: Kaaron Warren, Isobelle Carmody, Sean Williams and Jack Dann. I couldn’t be more excited about editing this project! As an author, 2019 has been a big year. In August, Severed Press released my horror novel Body Farm Z – an Aussie zombie-fest with more than a few tropes turned on their heads. In November, IFWG Publishing Australia released my retrospective collection Figments and Fragments: Dark Stories, which includes three new stories written especially for the collection. The Australasian Horror Writers Association invited me to be guest editor of Midnight Echo, and issue #14 is due for release in December. I’ve also placed stories in various magazines and anthologies, including another Things in the Well title, Guilty Pleasures and Other Dark Delights. And in February 2020, Twelfth Planet Press will release The Long Shot, my romance-suspense novella that includes guns…and a pretty hot sex scene, even if I do say so myself!
That’s amazing, Deb, and I look forwards to reading all of your new work.
The Creatures are stirring, and I don’t like the sound of those growls. Best leave now before they decide they want a midnight snack…