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.
Her award-nominated titles include the novels Body Farm Z, Contrition and Devil Dragon; the novella Thylacines; and the collection Figments and Fragments: Dark Stories. Her collection Perfect Little Stitches and Other Stories won the Australian Shadows “Best Collected Work” Award, was shortlisted for an Aurealis Award and longlisted for a Bram Stoker.
Deb’s short fiction has appeared in many well-respected magazines such as Aurealis, Midnight Echo, Andromeda Spaceways, and Dimension6. Her fiction has also been shortlisted for numerous Australian Shadows Awards and Aurealis Awards, and included in various “best of” anthologies such as Year’s Best Hardcore Horror.
As editor of the 2019 edition of Midnight Echo, Deb won the Australian Shadows “Best Edited Work” Award. Other credits include TV scripts such as Neighbours, feature articles for national magazines, non-fiction books published by Reed Books and Random House, stage plays and award-winning medical writing. Visit Deb at http://deborahsheldon.wordpress.com
Q: Welcome! First off, if you could tell a little bit about yourself and what types of stories you enjoy writing as well as which genre(s) you write in?
A: I’m married and we have a son at university. We live in Melbourne, Australia. I’ve been a professional writer for 35 years, and currently write across the darker spectrum of horror, crime and noir.
Lately, I’ve been experimenting with horror subgenres such as phantasmagoria and magic realism. I particularly enjoy writing action-adventure horror because these stories pose interesting technical challenges. For example, dynamic scenes often require ‘storyboard’ drawings to help keep track of characters and various moving parts. Nothing fancy – just stick figures and a quickly-scribbled compass for orientation. Further, an action scene can easily become melodramatic, devolve into a laundry list of verbs, or suffer from hyperbole. It’s a lot to micromanage and I happily obsess over the details.
Q: I’d love to share a bit about your most recent work, if you could let our readers know about it?
A: My zombie novel, Body Farm Z (Severed Press, 2019), was shortlisted for an Aurealis Award. It’s a horror story with non-stop action populated by disparate characters who meant a lot to me. Body Farm Z gripped my imagination to such an extent that I wrote it in five months, which is a personal speed record!
My collection, Figments and Fragments: Dark Stories (IFWG Publishing, 2019), was shortlisted for an Australian Shadows Award. I wrote these stories over a number of years and there’s plenty of crime, psychological horror, and noir.
My novella, The Long Shot (Twelfth Planet Press, 2020), is a gritty crime story with a romantic subplot to help counterbalance the themes of family and domestic violence.
And finally, my anthology Spawn: Weird Horror Tales About Pregnancy, Birth and Babies (IFWG Publishing Australia, 2021) features commissioned stories by best-selling Australian authors Jack Dann, Kaaron Warren and Sean Williams, plus work I selected by open call-out. Your worst fears about birthing come true in this book.
Four very different projects. They illustrate my desire to constantly challenge myself and mix things up. I’ve always believed that getting stuck in a rut is the primary cause of writer’s block.
Q: You have written quite a few novels and novellas. Do you have a preference in writing one length over the other?
A: I’ve been published across most formats including the drabble, flash, short story, novelette, novella and novel. Each format has different requirements and challenges.
The novel requires the greatest amount of patience, focus and stamina. I have to be prepared to knuckle down for at least nine months, but for me, that period of immersion is intensely gratifying. The novella is similarly immersive, although I only have to maintain focus for about four months. I get so absorbed that I feel lost and bereft after finishing a novel or novella because I’ve grown attached to the characters and I’ll never see them again! Sounds crazy, I know…
My preference? I would say it depends on my mood. I go through stages. Sometimes, all I want to do is write one short story after another, joyfully whisking through them like a debutante with a full dance card. Other times, I need to cloister myself inside a project and dig deep and long. I trust my gut. Or my heart. If a project demands to be written, I’ll write it. I often halt a novel or novella to write a shorter piece. You must write an idea while it’s hot.
Q: There is also a great mix of different subgenres of horror that you’ve handled, do you have a favorite subgenre?
A: What I love about horror is that, quite literally, anything goes. The subgenres are varied, you can push any boundary, mash subgenres together, try something wild. Other genres – such as the western, for example – are more prescriptive. Horror offers scope.
My short fiction has always been dark and contained horrific elements. The first ‘pure’ horror story I wrote, “Perfect Little Stitches”, was published in Midnight Echo #11 in 2015. Since then, I’ve experimented with many subgenres including psychological, creature-feature, nature, monster, mythological, paranormal, sci-fi and more.
In short, no, I don’t have an absolute favourite subgenre. I enjoy playing about with horror and seeing what I can come up with.
Q: Where were you born (and/or are you from) and how has that affected your work?
A: I was born in Melbourne, Australia, and this has influenced every single story that I’ve ever written. Americans meticulously document their culture via their arts; I believe Australians should duck the ‘cultural cringe’ and do the same. I use Australian settings, animals, history, language and slang. I feel it’s my duty as an Aussie. As a reader, a strong sense of the story’s location is important to me, so it makes sense that it’s important to me as a writer too. The location is a character in its own right.
Q: Which of the characters that you’ve written is your favorite and can you tell me more about them?
A: This sounds like a cop-out, but all of my characters are my favourite. At least, they were at the time of writing them. But that won’t do for an answer. So, let me see… The characters that I remember the most include:
- Meredith Berg-Olsen from my award-nominated novel, Contrition – the blurb reads: ‘In her late teens, [she] 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…’
- Walter Boyce from my award-nominated novel, Body Farm Z – the elderly professor of forensic entomology at Fraser University who works at the body farm and finds out, through a ghastly first-person perspective, what it feels like to become a zombie.
- Helen from the story “Basket Trap” included in my award-nominated collection Figments and Fragments: Dark Stories – as a lone female tourist in a dangerous location, she has the smarts and resolve to not only escape but take revenge.
- Pearl Bennett from my recently-written but as-yet unpublished novella – young, pint-sized, gutsy, optimistic, she’s doing her best in terrifying circumstances.
Q: What was the first story that you published (and if it was a short story, where was it featured?)
A: The first piece I published was a feature article on steroid abuse in bodybuilding, which was accepted in 1986 by Muscle & Fitness Australia magazine. I was eighteen years old and doing my first year of a writing-oriented BA at university. I’ll never forget the thrill of opening that envelope and seeing an acceptance letter and a cheque!
The first short story I wrote, “300 Degree Days”, was published by Quadrant magazine in 2005. At the time, my focus was still on health and medical writing; I had dabbled in short fiction as a kind of hobby or experiment to see if I could do it. I embraced fiction wholeheartedly in 2013. Now, I write non-fiction only occasionally, perhaps a couple of articles per year.
Q: Every writer I talk to seems to have ideas oozing out of their pores. How many stories are itching to distract you at any given time?
A: I had an epiphany a few years back: there’s no such thing as a bad idea, just bad execution. That took the pressure off. I didn’t have to sit around waiting for the ‘The Muse’ to strike. I only had to find an idea that made my scalp tingle and let plotting, character, technique, rewriting and editing do the rest.
I’ve always got a handful of ideas fermenting. In 2019, I blocked out a novel that I’ve been itching to write, but other ‘hotter’ ideas struck me before I could get started. Once I clear my current schedule, I might begin. Otherwise, it risks getting left behind forever. (I’ve got two other blocked-out novels that I never got around to writing, and probably never will.)
Q: When writing, what is your process like? Is it at set points in the day or fleeting moments that you capture?
A: Writing demands a great deal of concentration and mental energy. However, I have an autoimmune disease which progressively causes more pain and fatigue as the years pass. Bummer. Therefore, I need to be mindful of how I allocate my time to achieve maximum efficiency. I try to write every second day.
On my writing days, I start as soon as I can and write for as long as I can. Sometimes, if I’ve hit the sweet spot and the words are flowing, I skip lunch. My physical disability has made me develop an ‘all or nothing’ approach. How much this influences me as a writer, I’ve got no way of knowing, short of slipping into an alternate universe and seeing what ‘Healthy Deb’ writes about and how she organises her schedule. (Hopefully, she’s slacker with fewer credits than me. The alternative is too depressing.)
Q: Thanks again, do you have any teases of what you’re working on next that you could hint at?
A: There are quite a few! My current projects:
- I’m shopping around a vampire novella which, hopefully, will find a publisher soon.
- Demain Publishing is releasing my crime-noir novelette, Garland Cove, in July.
- Severed Press is releasing my creature-feature novella – featuring the aforementioned Pearl Bennett – in October or thereabouts.
- In February 2022, IFWG Publishing Australia will release my collection, Liminal Spaces: Horror Stories. It comprises original material as well as previously published content, including stories shortlisted for Aurealis and Australian Shadows Awards.
Q: Finally, if there is anything else you would love to share with everyone reading this, please do so here!
A: Authors and publishers need support. There are plenty of (free) ways you can do this, such as recommending a book to a friend, leaving a review on Goodreads and/or Amazon, and asking your local library or bookstore to stock a title. Thanks so much for your love of reading!