T.C. Shelley and The Monster Who Wasn’t

T.C. Shelley’s debut novel The Monster Who Wasn’t (Bloomsbury Children’s Books) is for children aged nine and older. As we read, we discover that it has a well-formed classical narrative structure, and how it unfolds for the reader is utterly original and keeps us guessing.

Thank you for speaking to Paperbark blog, Shelley.

What is your background and where are you based?

Hi, Joy, I was actually born in the UK, hence why the book is set there. Brighton is my second home, my birthplace, and where my uncle still lives (he’s a rock star!). I live in Perth, Western Australia, and most of the other books I’ve written are set in Australia.

How did Bloomsbury discover your story?

I did have a list of, what I considered, plausible options for agents, who I thought I had a chance with, but after a number of rejections, I set my sights higher, and thought ‘If I’m going to get rejected, I’m want to be rejected by people I really admire’, and my agent, Catherine Pellegrino was on my ‘Impossibles List’. She’d been one of the editors to sign off on ‘The Philosopher’s Stone’ and discovered Gordon & Williams who wrote the ‘Tunnels’ series and Katherine Rundell. When she first replied to me, I thought it was an email scam, I had to remind myself I’d emailed her, and she thought I was so cagey that I wasn’t all that interested. Ha! She sent it out and Bloomsbury was one of the publishers that showed interest. I was still stunned, but when it comes to children’s publishing, I’ve always loved Bloomsbury. Sarah Crossan, Katherine Rundell, Neil Gaiman, A.F. Harrold and many other authors I love write for them.

What genre is The Monster Who Wasn’t and how would you describe its niche in the world of books, as well as its atmosphere?

I would say it’s Middle-Grade Fantasy, but one editor who was interested said she liked the Magic Realism aspects the best, which is also a genre I love and can’t help mixing them, and mythology and anything else. I spent a good deal of my childhood in Cornwall, so there were still a lot of adults there who believed in ‘The Little People’ and the ideas that brownies and fairies were sweet was not a commonly held thought.

What can you tell us about your protagonist without giving too much away? My protagonist is very unsure of himself and his place in the world, he is a creature of wonder, seeing the world for the first time. He’d really like to know where he belongs.

You seem to have chosen your characters’ names carefully. Could you explain the significance of one of the names?

As gargoyles were created as part of the plumbing of cathedrals, to drain away the water from the roof, my characters have names that you would associate with plumbing and water and watery sounds.

Which type of creature in your novel are you most interested in and would like to write more about? e.g. ogres, pixies, brownies, trolls, angels …

I love angels, or the idea that there is someone there, just out of view who is watching you with kind eyes. Angels have sprung up in my other stories. I like magic realism, so they may not be as stereotypical as Daniel.

I am fascinated by how you brought gargoyles to life and gave them personalities. How did you develop their characteristics?

Unfortunately, Bladder is probably me at my worst when teaching. Snarky and grumpy, but mostly my students know I love them, so they are very forgiving. Both Bladder and Wheedle, for me, are like the creatures they resemble. A roaring lion and a mellow cow, although Bladder is just a big pussy cat underneath it all, and Wheedle can harness his inner bull, if he needs. Spigot is based on an eagle I met in Indonesia, noisy but very attentive.

Why have you set the story in England?

Because of the gargoyles. I wanted some really long lived characters, Bladder especially is a creature from the early gothic cathedrals, Wheedle is only a few hundred years old, and Spigot is quite modern.  Most cathedrals and churches in Australia, just don’t have the history that I needed. There’s a very long story around why Bladder is not so fond of humans generally.

Much of your setting is dark. How, where or why have you shown light?

Light to me is very important, exemplified by Daniel and the gargoyles’ pleasure when they are in it. Monsters are things of the darkness, and they can’t stand the light. For me, they are like our awful secrets. If we could just get them into the light, most of them would dissolves.

What style are the illustrations?

My illustrator is Claire Powell, who illustrated the book ‘The Night Before the Night Before Christmas’. The cover is beautiful, full of very sunset colours and shiny, sparkly bits. I love it. I would buy it just for the cover. As it is a middle-grade novel, the only other illustrations are those just above the Chapters. She has only done four, and they are so wonderful, I wish she’d done more.

What genres do you enjoy reading and what are you reading now?

I’m reading an adult crime novel by Peter James (also set in Brighton, I bought while I was there last week). Most of my reading is adult. I teach Literature, so I spend a lot of time with the classics and I love poetry. With children’s writing though, I love the Lemony Snicket series, I think he is brilliant. Cornelia Funke, Neil Gaiman, Katherine Rundell, A. F. Harrold, Sarah Crossan are also some of my favourites.

What are you writing next?

Well, I’m editing number 2 in this series, half way through number 3. I have a YA fantasy that I’d like to see published. Once they are sorted, I’m on to a couple of sci–fi stories that have been poking at the inside of my skull for a while. 

Thank you for answering these questions, Shelley, and all the very best with your rich, magical novel.

Thanks very much, Joy.

The Monster Who Wasn’t is published 8th August 2019.

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