In the seminal novel that launched a genre, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley wrote, “There is something at work in my soul, which I do not understand.” With this single sentence, Shelley cuts at the reason that so many of us embrace dark fiction. And it is with this notion in mind that I am showcasing some of the dark souls who contributed their twisted and chilling creations to the 2020 edition of the AHWA's annual magazine Midnight Echo. Today, my guest is Deborah Sheldon. Welcome Deb!
Who are you and where do you write from?
I’m an author, wife and mother living in Melbourne, with 34 years of professional writing experience. I always write in my study. The furniture and office equipment may have undergone changes, but the layout remains constant: the monitor and keyboard face the same wall, and I can see the Japanese maple through the window to my right. Keeping an identical layout means that, over the years, I’ve been able to Pavlov-dog myself into writing as soon as I sit at my desk. No writer’s block!
Please comment on your involvement in the AHWA and its importance to you.
The importance of community can’t be underestimated. It’s lovely to be part of a greater whole, where everyone shares a similar passion, outlook and understanding. I’ve been a mentor in the AHWA Mentorship Program for the last four years, which I’ve enjoyed immensely. I intend to keep participating for as long as they’ll have me.
Why does the short story format appeal to you?
The challenge of its brevity. Without the luxury of length, every sentence in a short story has to do serious heavy-lifting; ideally carrying plot, character, theme and mood. Trying to capture the macrocosm in a microcosm makes short-story writing an intense and highly focused creative experience. And wow, finding that mental ‘sweet spot’—when the words flow and the story threads start weaving together—is an endorphin rush that keeps me coming back for more.
Can you tell us what inspired your contribution to Midnight Echo #15?
I have to be coy here to avoid spoilers, so please forgive my use of brackets.
My son gave me the initial spark for “Carbon Copy Consumables”. One afternoon at home, he strolled up to me in the lounge room and said, “Hey, I’ve got a story idea for you. A scientist working in [industry redacted] stuffs up because he [spoiler removed].” I sat up, hair roots tingling, and said, “Damn, I love it, but that’s just the premise. What’s the plot?” He wandered off down the hallway, calling over his shoulder, “How the hell should I know? You’re the writer, not me.”
I started on my outline immediately. No kidding, I went straight to the study that very minute. Firstly, I decided against the main character being a scientist because that would require an inordinate amount of research to sound even halfway plausible. So, I thought—well, how about a blue-collar factory worker who runs the machines? Once that anchor-idea occurred to me, the rest of “Carbon Copy Consumables” couldn’t wait and I wrote the story in bursts over a few days.
I had tremendous fun. In fact, I was sad to finish the story and sorry to part ways with my narrator, Charlie Pomeroy. I really liked the dumb lug.
Why did you have to be so dark? 2020 has had its share of darkness. Do you think horror is more or less important in these very turbulent times?
Horror is the glue that holds us together in hard times. It’s the mirror through which we try to make sense of how unfair, random and cruel the world can be. Horror lets us know we’re not alone, that we’re sharing the experience of being human. Paradoxically, it’s a comforting genre. Lighter genres such as comedy and romance are important and have their place, naturally, but only in small doses—to be honest, they leave me feeling empty quite quickly, like a sugary treat. Darker genres are meaty and substantial. (Then again, comedy and romance authors would heartily disagree with me, and fair enough. I’m biased because I’m a dark-fiction writer and reader.)
The Marie Kondo challenge: in an effort to de-clutter, you’re only allowed to keep three books on your nightstand. Which three would you choose and why?
You mean three books for all time? Like the ‘desert island’ question? Oh, I can’t choose my three-favourites of anything. Not food, not films, not music—and I certainly can’t choose between books! So, I’m going to cheat and have as one of my choices a fully-laden Kindle. (Sorry.) Book #2 would be a collection of short stories by Raymond Chandler because he’s an exquisite writer and my inspiration for attempting fiction back in the late noughties after more than twenty years in non-fiction and scriptwriting. Book #3 would have to be a Self Help title; perhaps something on self-compassion which is a mode of thinking that could probably benefit most horror writers, since we tend to be a negative and anxious lot.
Poe, Straub, King & Co aside, can you name any lesser known but deserving writers of horror fiction whose work has resonated for you recently?
I’ve put together two anthologies back-to-back. Midnight Echo 14 won the Australian Shadows ‘Best Edited Work’ Award 2019, and its novelette “The Netherwhere Line” by Matthew J. Morrison was also nominated for the Paul Haines Award in Long Fiction. My own anthology, Spawn: Weird Horror Tales About Pregnancy, Birth and Babies, will be released by IFWG Publishing Australia mid-2021. The Australasian writers of these two anthologies are penning world-class horror fiction, and deserve a wider market share and greater recognition. In our industry, however, recognition seems to be largely down to luck. Fingers crossed for all of them.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the many years of my career—the cream doesn’t always rise to the top because it’s often buried in crap.
Midnight Echo #15 is being offered in both print and ebook versions this year. Did the offer of print make a difference to you? Are you seduced by the waft of vanilla and printer’s ink?
I’m old and I’m old-school—paperbacks beat ebooks hands down. Whenever possible, I buy titles in paperback. For Midnight Echo 15, however, I was planning to submit anyway, so the fact that the issue would be available in both formats was neither here nor there to me.
What are you working on right now?
I’m doing a fair bit of promotional stuff at the moment. Twelfth Planet Press released my crime novella The Long Shot in August, and I’m working on blog posts in preparation for Spawn’s release next year. My recent award-nominated titles, the novel Body Farm Z (Severed Press) and the collection Figments and Fragments: Dark Stories (IFWG Australia), are still getting traction so I’m trying to spruik those as well.
The other day I blocked out a short story, which I’ll start writing next. After that, who knows? I’ve outlined a novel and maybe I’ll begin work on it later this year, or maybe I’ll write some more short stories instead—I’m pulling together another collection and I’m only a few stories shy of having a full manuscript.
At this stage, I don’t know which way I’ll jump. I’ll wait to see what grabs me.
Deborah Sheldon is an award-winning author of short stories, novellas and novels across the darker spectrum of horror, crime and noir. A few of her award-nominated titles are the novels Body Farm Z and Devil Dragon (Severed Press), the collection Figments and Fragments: Dark Stories (IFWG Australia), and the novella Thylacines (Severed Press). Deb won the Australian Shadows ‘Best Collected Work’ Award for her collection Perfect Little Stitches and Other Stories. Her short stories are published in many well-respected magazines including Aurealis, Midnight Echo, Andromeda Spaceways and Dimension6. Her fiction has also been long-listed for a Bram Stoker Award, shortlisted for numerous Aurealis and Australian Shadows Awards, and included in various ‘best of’ anthologies such as Year’s Best Hardcore Horror. As guest editor of Midnight Echo 14, she won the 2019 ‘Best Edited Work’ Australian Shadows Award. Her anthology, Spawn: Weird Horror Tales About Pregnancy, Birth and Babies, will be published mid-2021, featuring work by Jack Dann, Kaaron Warren and Sean Williams. Other credits include feature articles, non-fiction books for Reed Books and Random House Australia, TV scripts such as Neighbours, and award-winning medical writing.
Amazon author page: https://www.amazon.com/Ms-Deborah-Sheldon/e/B0035MWQ98
LINKS TO RECENT TITLES
Spawn: Weird Horror Tales About Pregnancy, Birth and Babies: https://ifwgaustralia.com/2020/09/26/toc-reveal-spawn-weird-horror-tales-about-pregnancy-birth-and-babies/
Figments and Fragments: Dark Stories: https://www.amazon.com.au/Figments-Fragments-Stories-Deborah-Sheldon-ebook/dp/B07WXC1LZF/