Sunday, 1 January 2012

Author Interview: Shelley Harris

All who reply to this post before 15th January will have their name put in a hat. The name pulled out of that hat will win a copy of Shelley's debut novel, 'Jubilee.' [It's a fab book!]

Shelley Harris was born in South Africa, emigrating to Britain at the age of six because of her parents' opposition to Apartheid. She has been a local journalist, a teacher, a filler of envelopes, an assistant in a wine shop and a bouncer at teenage discos. She lived in Paris for a year, on the sixth floor of a skinny townhouse, in the smallest flat she's ever seen.

Her first novel, 'Jubilee', is about an iconic photograph taken at a Silver Jubilee street party in 1977, about the boy at the centre of that photograph, and about the secrets he has kept hidden for thirty years.

Hi Shelley, thanks so much for stopping by, please make yourself at home!

Thanks, Jen. Mind if I have a biscuit?

Please do! So, your debut, Jubilee, has just been published. Congratulations! How does it feel to be a published author?

Exciting and a bit baffling. It was something I never thought would really happen so even now, when I can find my own book in real bookshops, there’s something about it that seems surreal.

Tell us about Jubilee.

At the heart of the book is an iconic photograph taken at a Silver Jubilee street party in 1977. And at the centre of that is Satish, a British Asian boy living in a conservative English village. The picture is seen as celebrating a harmonious, multicultural Britain – but only Satish knows what really happened that day. When a reunion is planned years later, his secrets threaten to emerge – and to destroy the life he has built.

How long did it take you to write?

It took a long time – six years, to be precise. That was partly because I began it when my kids were very tiny, and I could only write in short bursts, and partly because I honed it through several redrafts.

What kind of things had you written before Jubilee? Can you tell us about your journey from writing to publication?

Well, I’d written all sorts of things before: appalling poems in my teens, journalism in my twenties (when I was a local reporter), and then a whole novel which I lacked the nerve to send out – no-one’s seen it to this day. Then I had a long gap during which I was a secondary English teacher and didn’t write a single creative word. But here’s the really weird thing: what I did do was read, read, read constantly, and when I first started writing Jubilee – bam! – there was this voice I didn’t know I had. Must’ve been the reading, mustn’t it? The words must have fermented inside me or something, and then – pop!

In terms of the journey from there, I’d say that the kernel of the story remained whole, right the way through the process, and the voice didn’t change very much. But what I really needed to find was the right structure to tell my story, and that’s what took the time. I got feedback from an editorial consultancy, and some useful advice on an Arvon course, and I put the manuscript through three major rewrites. I don’t know what it’s like for you, but for me writing is often about a kind of unromantic doggedness.  

And then, after all those years, the deal ended up happening really quickly; I read out a bit of the novel at York Writing Festival, and a few agents said they were interested in representing me. I signed up with Jo Unwin of Conville and Walsh, and three months later I had a contract with Weidenfeld and Nicolson.

Where were you when you found out that you had a book deal? How did you celebrate?

That was honestly one of the best moments of my life, right up there with my children’s births and Thatcher resigning. Jo and I had been to see publishers, and when I got home she was on the phone, saying that they’d started bidding for Jubilee. ‘You’ll definitely be published now,’ she said, and then my kids came home and hugged me: perfection. I celebrated the way I always do, by crying like a big old baby.

Tell us about your childhood, growing up in South Africa, and your move to England. What similarities do you and Satish [the main character of Jubilee] share?

I was six when we left South Africa, and so my memories of it are mainly familial. My mom’s South African, so it was all about us, and cousins, and my grandparents. Of course, I know now that we were living in this horrific police state, the beneficiaries of a racist tyranny – it was the reason my parents decided to move to England.

What’s hilarious, looking back, is that I can recall with great precision what I was expecting from Britain. At the time, the IRA were bombing English cities – that’s what I heard the adults discussing, that and the cold. I had this very clear image that our ship would arrive at Southampton, that there would be a crunch as it butted against the ice, and that I’d look down onto a snowy dockside to see my English grandparents ducking for cover as bombs exploded around them. Unbelievable that I would see myself as moving from a place of safety to one of danger!

Satish and I are very different in many ways, but our main similarity is our desire, as immigrant children, to fit in. When I came here I’d watch other kids the way Satish does, just trying to learn the codes. We were both at the margins as children, and I wanted to explore the double-edge of that; Satish’s very exclusion allows him to perceive things more clearly. He’s privy to secrets precisely because he is so disregarded. Our other similarity (I’m wincing a little here), is that we’re both a teensy bit OCD, I think.

You mentioned in another interview that the idea for Jubilee stemmed from an old photograph of your father's. What ideas came first to you, for the novel – characters or storyline?

The idea for the storyline came first, when I looked again at a photograph I was very familiar with – my dad at a VE Day street party when he was a kid. I started to really think about the odd conjunction of public and private which comes in a street party photograph. There’s a tendency for the viewer to believe she understands everything about it because, of course, it’s a public event which we all ‘own’ in a sense. But when you throw together a small community like that, you’re also going to get all sorts of private things going on, which the viewer can’t begin to guess at: tensions, feuds, unforeseen alliances.

So I thought: what if there was all that going on, and it took place at my own generation’s great street party in 1977, when Britain was on the cusp of huge social change? What if the village was a very traditional English one, and right in the centre of the picture there was a newcomer, an exile from Idi Amin’s Uganda? And then along came Satish.

Did you get any books for Christmas, and what are you reading at the moment?

Ooh yum, yum. Yes I did – loads. At the moment I’m engrossed in Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre’s The Ruins of Detroit. I’m a voracious reader of novels, but this is photography – incredible pictures of the centre of Detroit, where economic collapse has caused a mass exodus. It’s an astonishing thing: classrooms which look as if they’ve been abandoned mid-lesson; a theatre which became a car park which is now deserted anyway; a police station, the floor thick with discarded mug shots. I keep thinking…there’s a story here. I’m waiting for it to announce itself.  

And of course I’ve just realised, telling you this, that as with Jubilee, it’s a visual image which is suggesting stories to me. How interesting!

Are you able to tell us what you're working on at the moment?

Well, I’m in the first draft of my next novel, which is about a very ordinary woman who does something absolutely extraordinary, and tips her life on its head in the process. It’s at a fairly early stage, so I’m fighting shy of saying much more than that.

Where do you see yourself in ten years time?

It’s very simple: I’d like to still be writing for publication, and I want to constantly raise the bar on the quality of my writing. I’d also like to be making really good salted caramels – but you can’t have everything.

Thanks, Shelley!


You can find Jubilee at your local independent bookshop, or online


  1. Storyline sounds good/interesting, and the author seems lovely which is always a bonus! Thanks for the interview to let us know about this new book :)

  2. Great interview, Jen - and congrats, Shelley. The book sounds great.

  3. Sounds like a very interesting book, and it's reassuring to know that it takes other people so long to write until they're happy with it! I've been promising myself for years that 'this year' I'll get organized & go on an Arvon course. Fingers crossed I can make it happen this year! ;-)
    Best of luck Shelley.

  4. This is Shelley! (I am a constant reader). Thank you so much for your lovely comments, everyone. And Sarah - seize the day!

  5. happy new year Jen! Sounds like a wonderful book. Loved the interview, will be sending it to several friends and thus recommending the book, too. Cheers from Oregon USA. (Wondering what an Arvon course might be...)

  6. Hi Lucy, this is Arvon: x

  7. I will be adding this to my wishlist of books to get in 2012. Thanks for the information!!

  8. Looking forward to reading it, very timely with another Jubilee coming up later in the year. It's always great to learn more about the author from themselves.

  9. Ive heard great things about this book. Hoping it will make the Waterstones 11. Its definitely on my to read list! If only i had a copy....