Interview: Shelley Chappell

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once upon a time closeToday 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!

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