In Coversation With… Shelley Harris

Shelley Harris

Shelley Harris is a novelist (Jubilee and Vigilante), writing teacher and mentor. She lives in Buckinghamshire with her husband, two sons, two cats and a snake.

Shelley is on Twitter: @shelleywriter and her website is



How did you end up doing the job you do?
In the kind of messy way most authors end up doing it – through trying and failing, trying and learning, trying and succeeding. When I was just about to give up, I met my literary agent Jo Unwin over a cup of tea at a writing festival. After that, things moved quite fast, but the whole process had taken years; I started in my twenties when I was living in Paris and finally got published when I was settled with two kids.

What are you working on right now?
I’m sloshing about in the primeval soup of my next novel. It’s a slow, slow process watching it form (is it forming…? is that…? am I ready to…?). Part of me adores this bit because it’s so liberating, and part of me is terrified I’ll never get there.

Describe your first job
It was a bit grim, truth be told. I worked on a local weekly paper in the recession of the early 90s. Usually, local journalists get trained and ship out fairly fast, but there were no jobs to move to. So everyone stayed, stagnated, and set about being as toxic as possible. Seriously: the vegetable shows were light relief from what happened in the newsroom.

On the bright side, I learned to write tightly and to deadline and I managed to see films for free. Of these skills, only one seems to have stayed with me.

What would was your B plan if this career didn’t work out?
By the time I was published, I’d already completed Plans A (reporter) and B (teaching: a job I relished), plus a whole load of other letters. Mystery shopper, seller of wine, hawker of greetings cards, Oxfam shop volunteer, full-time parent – you name it.

Who would you most like to work with?
When you’re a writer, ‘work with’ can have a wide application. I’d like to work with Olivia Coleman (who is my perfect Jenny Pepper – the protagonist of Vigilante). And I’d really, really love to collaborate on a graphic novel version of Vigilante with artist Alison Bechdel.

What did you want to be when you were little?
I wanted to be two things: a writer (natch) and an actor. I still hanker to act, but comfort myself that writing is its own kind of method acting. I’ve definitely slipped into role a few times to get a sense of what the world feels like for my characters.


What are you most proud of?
Professionally speaking, I’m actually most proud of having written my novels. In the end, it’s not the publication – thrilling though that is – but the arse-breaking process of writing them that makes all the difference. I’m proud of doggedly getting up again multiple times after failure and rejection, and just keeping going (fun and character-forming!).

Which one thing would you like to change about your industry/working life?
I would love the industry to be properly diverse. My experience is that it’s filled with lovely and dedicated people drawn from quite a narrow social band, and that they unconsciously reproduce what’s most familiar to them.

It would be nice if authors got paid a living wage, too.

What’s the biggest challenge you face in your day to day?
Yawningly predictable I know, but having to keep quite so many balls in the air is pretty challenging. It’s hard to get that intensive, uninterrupted focus on my writing when I’m also a hands-on parent, teacher, mentor, friend, partner, housekeeper, family communicator and so on. I actually love the texture that diversity gives my life – not to mention the material it offers – but it can be frustrating, too. We tease men for being monotaskers, but when I’m in a certain mood it seems like the biggest gift patriarchy has given them.
Who is your favourite fictional female character?
Of course, that’s an impossible and unfair question – how could there just be one? But Mattie in Lissa Evans’s Crooked Heart might come close. She’s a former Suffragette living in wartime London, and I can’t imagine there’s a reader who hasn’t adored her.

Right Now I’m…

Watching: the entirety of The Good Wife. Most of the time I think it’s a standard law drama (set in a firm where all the women are preternaturally beautiful – yawn), but then there’s something really playful or clever in the writing, and I let Netflix roll me on to the next episode.

Reading; Kit de Waal’s ‘My Name Is Leon’, the story of two brothers in care who are separated because of their different ethnicity. There’s not a trace of mawkishness, but it absolutely grabs your heart.

Listening to: Belle and Sebastian’s The Boy With The Arab Strap on repeat. By rights I should have been doing so for years, but have only just discovered Belle and Sebastian through the good offices of novelist Stephanie Butland.
Pass it on:
Who would you most like to see featured on this blog?

Naomi Frisby (@frizbot), whose The Writes of Woman has become more than just a cracking book blog. She uses her platform creatively to lobby for equality in the (very un-equal – see above) literary world.

Sarah Franklin (@SarahEFranklin), one of the people responsible for the current short story renaissance. She founded Oxford’s Short Stories Aloud, a literary night bringing together actors, authors and cake. Her blend of warmth and incisiveness has attracted writers such as Margaret Drabble, Rachel Joyce, Jon McGregor and Tracy Chevalier. Sarah was a 2015 Costa short story judge.

Stephanie Butland (@under_blue_sky). Stephanie juggles two fascinating careers – as a novelist (Letters to My Husband, The Other Half of my Heart) and as a thinking expert (she’s one of only 40 De Bono master trainers worldwide). I’m especially fascinated in how these two skills cross-fertilise.