I was recently interviewed by the Christchurch Writers' Guild on my thoughts and experiences as a writer.
Check out the interview on the Guild website, or read it (reposted) here:
Interview: Shelley Chappell
Posted on May 27, 2016 Updated on May 27, 2016
Today we are interviewing Shelley Chappell, a Christchurch writer who has been a member of the Guild since 2013. Shelley wrote her PhD on the motif of fantastic metamorphosis in children’s and young adult fantasy literature and has taught literary analysis at a variety of institutions. In her spare time, Shelley writes fairy tales and other fantasy fiction for all ages. She is the author of BEYOND THE BRIAR: A COLLECTION OF ROMANTIC FAIRY TALES (2014) and a number of short stories.
Shelley, can you please tell us a little more about yourself (and your creative endeavours)?
Sure! I am Christchurch born and bred and I love living here in New Zealand. I find nature very inspiring and the openness of the Canterbury Plains and the forested, hilly seascapes of Banks Peninsula have influenced my writing, as well as that feeling you get as a Kiwi of being at the very edges of the earth. I grew up curious, loving to learn new things, dreaming vividly, reading avidly, and longing to travel to all the wonderful places in the world I could only experience imaginatively. Once I did a little of that and settled back in Christchurch, it was a pleasure to go places again on paper and get back to my writing roots. I’ve been writing stories ever since I could pick up a pen and I’m currently working to complete several novels and short stories.
I am very curious about your PhD topic, can you please explain to us a little about what it means?
My PhD was on the topic of fantastic metamorphosis – shape-changing and magical transformations. I analysed this motif (recurring story element) in children’s and young adult literature to try to understand what messages the idea of metamorphosis conveys. For example, I looked at stories in which only children can change shape and explored how these stories imply that children are closer to animals and nature than adults and civilisation and that they have fluid bodies and identities. I looked at how many werewolf stories were representing lycanthropy as an inherited gene and how lycanthropy was therefore becoming a metaphor for race, and I explored how many selkie stories were using selkies (seals) and the sea as a way to symbolise a desire to transcend the limitations and constraints of adult consciousness. My PhD is available to read for free online at the Macquarie University library website.
Has your knowledge of literary analysis affected your writing style?
Yes, absolutely. I consider my undergraduate and postgraduate literary degrees as an apprenticeship in the craft of literature. For me, as much as writing is about simply loving stories, it is also about loving the craftsmanship of creating them. Being trained in literary analysis taught me a lot about how stories are crafted, and this has helped me to be intentional as well as instinctive in my writing.
Has your knowledge of literary analysis influenced your reading habits?
Not really. I have always loved genre fiction more than literary fiction. There are many brilliantly written works of genre fiction and understanding how the texts have been crafted can definitely enhance my reading pleasure, but mostly when I read I tend to get lost in the tale and not pay so much attention to the trappings. I can also be be a fairly forgiving and tolerant reader. If something about the story rings true, it will hold my attention, even if there are flaws in the telling. So long as I can find a character I like and something I want to find out, I’m going to enjoy the story, regardless of whether it has aspects that could use some refinement.
What are some of your favourite books? And why?
I love books with characters that I can relate to – especially girls and women who are psychologically real, with interests and perceptions that adhere to my own, taking on life’s challenges. I particularly enjoy stories about relationships, stories where characters face physical and social challenges, and stories where characters are trying to understand themselves and find a way to live well in the world.
You have published a number of retold fairy tales, but with a distinctly unique twist. What draws you to rewriting fairy tales?
I wrote a recent blog post on this so ideas about this are fresh in my mind! To sum up, I like having a loose story structure to work within, I enjoy the fun of changing and disguising the familiar story elements of the original tales, I love the shared language of fairy tales and the way fairy tales connect us to other readers and writers, and I enjoy plumbing new depths in the tales and finding fresh meanings.
You took the independent approach to publishing your novellas. How did you find the process and would you recommend it?
It took a little bit to get my head around the process at first, but once I figured things out it became straightforward and easy to reproduce. I wouldn’t recommend independent publishing to authors who are looking for a large (especially mainstream) audience, unless they are willing to invest in their own marketing campaign. But if you have a niche market or a story (or collection) that is unlikely to get picked up by a traditional publisher, then I think it’s a great way forward.
What advice do you have for other writers?
As a young writer and a fantasist, I always hated hearing the advice that you should write what you know. If we only wrote what we know and have personally experienced then most of us would be writing very limited stories. My advice is to write what you would love to read. Write the story that would excite you if you saw it at the bookstore, the sort of story you couldn’t wait to get home and read. Write about characters you would like to spend time with and take them on adventures you’d like to know all about to places you’d like to visit. Most of all, have fun!
On Saturday 14th May I will be talking fairy tales with the Children’s Literature Hub at South Library. As I’ve been preparing some discussion points and materials, I’ve been inspired to re-examine a question I am often asked – why fairy tales? why do I like to read and write them?
I’ve said before that retelling fairy tales appeals to me because fairy tales give me a loose structure to work with when I’m shaping a story. Whether I choose to replicate the key elements of a fairy tale or adapt them, those key elements of a story are signposts for both me and my readers along the story route, and this means that as an author I’m less likely to wander off the path to grandmother’s house and end up with my story being devoured by wolves.
This description might make it seem like rewriting a fairy tale is purely perfunctory, a predictable plodding along, but quite to the contrary, the rewriting of a fairy tale can be a rollicking adventure. It’s like playing a game of dress ups with old friends. You all know each other by sight but it’s amusing to see how cleverly you can disguise yourself. In reading fairy tales, we’re used to finding a wolf in sheep’s or grandma’s clothing, a girl whose rags become a chiffon gown, or a kind old woman who is really a beautiful but evil queen. We like masks and concealment and moments of radical transformation. We like both predictability and unpredictability. It is this harmonious opposition that inspires me. I like playing the ‘guess me’ game and winning.
The great thing is that every reader can be a winner. We all know the original stories (in one form or another) so we can all follow the bread crumbs to find the gingerbread cottage. We have a shared language, a shared memory, a shared expectation and understanding. We are connected as readers of fairy tales in ways we often aren’t as readers of other texts. Differences and alterations in what we are expecting from the story are simply window dressing (of the candy kind), regardless of whether the differences are conventional or radical.
A conventional fairy tale retelling gives us the chance to experience the familiar again but in new and sometimes more intense or detailed ways – to savour the taste of the apple in that moment before the choking betrayal of its poison, to shiver in the shadows of the huntsman’s great black boots, to bask in the buttercup warmth of the chandeliers at the prince’s ball.
A radical retelling gives us the opportunity to plumb the well for the golden ball that has been lost and wait breathless to see what else might be dredged out, to hear the little characters (dwarves or no) speak their piece and the villainess speak of peace, to hold the shiny surface of a glass slipper up to the light and see what rainbows form.
By observing the multiple kaleidoscopic shapes a familiar story's elements can produce, we get to experience the familiar made strange. We can be surprised and challenged in pleasant, unexpected and interesting ways. We can find meanings and messages we never anticipated. And we can ask ourselves how different a story can be and still remain the same story – and how many stories a single story can tell.
It seems that individual fairy tales are infinitely versatile and transformative, as if the fairy tale is the philosopher’s stone of Story. And perhaps part of our joy of fairy tales is that by exploring them we get to dip into a little immortality of our own – connecting with timeless tales and the other readers who have enjoyed them.
Numerous other people have explored why fairy tales matter to society and matter personally to them. In The Irresistible Fairy Tale: The Cultural and Social History of a Genre (2012), Jack Zipes explores why fairy tales evolved and why they remain important to us.
In support of Christchurch writing, the wonderful Helen Lowe and crew are holding a celebration event for the Christchurch winners and finalists of this year's Sir Julius Vogel Awards.
I was honoured to be a finalist for Best Novelette (Ranpasatusan), Best Collection (Beyond the Briar) and Best New Talent. Christchurch author A.J. Fitzwater was the well-deserved winner of Best New Talent while Rebecca Fisher won Best Fan Writer and Tim Stead was a fellow finalist in several categories.
The celebration event will be taking place on Saturday 13 June at 1.30pm at the Fendalton Library with a guest speech by Helen Lowe (winner of the Gemmell Morningstar Award) and readings by the local SJV winners.
If gathering to celebrate local speculative fiction authors sounds like fun to you, please join us! RSVP by June 5th to firstname.lastname@example.org.
It was a great day yesterday at the Write Right workshop. Lovely to spend time with other writers talking about ways to deal with all the minutiae involved in crafting good stories! I presented on plot and structure in story writing and thoroughly enjoyed the discussions about genre, US vs UK spelling, what makes a good cover, and other aspects of 'writing right'.
My anthologies are available in paperback and hardback forms at Amazon.com. If you've read one of my stories, please leave me a rating and/or a review.
Smashwords is where you can find my free-to-read stories. For more details on my stories, see Shelley's Stories above.
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Like looking at pretty pictures?
Follow me on Pinterest to see my boards of fairy tale illustrations and fantasy art.
You can email me at shelley.chappell