In The Lounge

Shelley Harris talks motherhood and Vigilante

To celebrate the publication of Vigilante in paperback, author Shelley Harris sat down with her literary agent Jo to talk superheros and parenting teenagers.

Jo Unwin: Can you remember the moment you had the idea for Vigilante?

Shelley Harris: Yes, very clearly. I was going through a sort of midlife crisis, I think, and had this idea that if I could do something interesting or different at least, I might be able to rise above it a bit. So – and I know how odd this sounds, but this is what I did – I started photocopying poems I loved and leaving them anonymously around my town for people to discover. What amazed me was how incredibly empowering it felt, doing a secret, small, good thing. I think it was the secrecy, most of all. I’d walk back into my normal life and no-one would ever know I’d done it.
Then I started to think: what if a woman was having a midlife crisis and, like me, she started doing secret things to prop up her sense of herself? But what if those things were more extreme – what if she pretended to be a superhero? And what would happen if, after a while, she could only function properly as herself if she was also spending her nights being someone else?

JU: And YOU Shelley, if you could spend your nights being someone else, and for now, not a superhero, who would you be? And what would you be doing instead of what you are doing?

SH: I would love, love, love to have been an actor. I don’t mean ‘famous’ or ‘on telly’ or ‘a movie star’ – I’m not talking about glamour. I’m talking about the joy of acting, something I did in a very amateur way when I was younger and not at all since. I confided this to an actor friend once and she was surprisingly encouraging: I reckon you’d get work, she said. I glowed. Then she went on: They’re always looking for older unknowns for bit parts on Holby.
Yep, in my secret life, I’d like to be an Older Unknown.
Or maybe: Older Unknown 2.

JU: Ah but you are speaking to someone who HAS been an actress and can tell you, at tedious length, about just how boring it is to be an Older Unknown. Especially if you’re something of a control freak – your time is not your own. Whereas when you’re a writer, you can decide exactly what you’re going to do, when, amirite? So how do you organise your day? I mean, if you don’t have to go into make-up to have wounds created (I’m imagining Older Unknown 2 has been in a horrible hovermow accident)

SH: Older Unknown barges into the younger, more attractive snogging couple on the station platform and mutters: ‘It’s a disgrace!’ while they laugh and shake their heads at her. I’ll have to be in makeup by 4am to get the warts put on.
How do I organise my day? Well, I’ve just moved into a new garden office that has everything I could possibly want from a writing space: books, biscuits, and an all-day 80s station on the radio. The idea is this: meditate first thing, then write 500 words, then do anything else I need to do (read, research, prepare Creative Writing teaching, etc). And sometimes I take an hour out of that to do a fitness dance class that our teacher optimistically describes as ‘Latin Fusion’.

JU: My sons love to mock me about meditation as I am really quite technophobic, but have an app for it. I used it for a while, but ultimately decided I’d rather be stressed out than MOCKED BY TEENAGERS. Speaking of which, what do your teenagers mock you for?

SH: I’m constantly mocked by my teenagers, and I’ll tell you why: they believe (erroneously) that I’m neither COOL nor GROOVY and even cite my idiomatic language as proof. These are the same people (FYI both white blokes from Buckinghamshire) who text me things like: Yo, homie – where you at? I try to talk to them about Grandmaster Flash, but they won’t listen.

JU: Well I suggest you send those teenagers to me. Do you remember when you first said I could represent you in 2010? You told those little homies that you were going to be busy for a while, and you told them that you might have to get some childcare. They said that was fine, but if they had to have someone look after them, could it be Agent Jo? Childcare is not a job I have the talent for, so sadly I declined.
I hope now they see their mother as a busy author, with two fabulous books under her (utility) belt already, and that just occasionally they acknowledge that their own mother doesn’t have to be don a mask to be recognised as a TRUE SUPERHERO.

SH: Hmm… I think they still yearn for the tender mercies of Agent Jo. Right – you up for a gin?

Vigilante is out now in paperback, eBook and audio

Shelley Harris

Shelley Harris was born in Cape Town, South Africa in 1967, to a South African mother and a British father. She has worked, among other things, as a teacher, a reporter, a mystery shopper and a bouncer at a teen disco. When she is not writing, she volunteers at her local Oxfam bookshop, helping customers find just the right book. Her first novel, Jubilee, was a Richard & Judy Book Club choice, a Top 10 bestseller and was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize.