4 months ago

Writer’s Block with Sheila O’Flanagan

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Sheila O’Flanagan had a busy career as a bond trader and financial journalist with The Irish Times before finding her true calling as an author. Her debut novel, Suddenly Single,was published in 1999 and she has since become a national treasure. O’Flanagan’s books, once described “as necessary to women as chocolate, and just as addictive” have sold over eight million copies internationally. Her 24 novels include The Hideaway (2018), What Happened That Night (2017), The Missing Wife (2016) and All For You (2011). She has also written three collections of short stories and two titles for children. O’Flanagan has won the Irish Tatler Literary Woman of the Year award 2003 and the highly coveted Popular Fiction Book of the Year accolade at the Irish Book Awards 2011. The essence of her work’s universal appeal is her empowered female protagonists, and her expertly crafted narratives which draw you into lives that you recognise – maybe even your own.

In true Sheila O’Flanagan style, her new novel, Her Husband’s Mistake, grabs you from the very first line. When Roxy McMenamin catches her husband Dave in bed with the next-door neighbour the day after her father’s funeral, she is naturally devastated. She quickly seeks refuge in her mother’s house, where she has been staying with her two children, and throws herself into work. She is an executive chauffeur who drives the car she inherited from her father, a role that provides the control she craves. On her road to recovery, Roxy must figure out whether to forgive and forget, or cut her losses – on which side of the pendulum will she swing?

O’Flanagan is a passionate advocate for increasing literacy and helping those who have struggled with reading and writing, participating in a number of projects. She has contributed to both the Quick Reads and Open Doors series of novellas for new readers. She is also a board member of Fighting Words, the creative writing centre founded by Roddy Doyle, helping teenagers write their own published stories as well as retired people working on their memoirs.

Sheila O’Flanagan lives with her husband in Dublin. She is currently writing her next book.

Her Husband’s Mistake (€15.99) is published by Hachette Ireland and available nationwide.

On home

I live just off the Howth Road in Clontarf and what I like most about it is being near the sea yet also being really close to the city. I regularly walk along the promenade in Clontarf while I’m thinking about my characters and developing the plot. There’s something about looking over the bay that’s inspiring, but I’m a city girl at heart and the best thing about living where I do is combining Clontarf’s laid-back vibe with fast city access. I use public transport a lot and I’m lucky to be able to choose from a variety of buses as well as the Dart. Locally there are some lovely coffee shops, as well as the excellent Bay Restaurant which is a favourite of mine. The iconic Harry Byrne’s pub is in walking distance, while Kavanagh’s in Marino is an old-style local pub that serves also good food – their tapas on Thursdays has been a life-saver for me on more than one occasion!

On roots

My family home was in Greenhills which was a very new estate when my parents moved there in the late 1950s. Many of our neighbours, like my dad, worked for themselves as electricians, plumbers or other tradesmen. My mother worked with my dad in our family shop. She still lives quite close by so I drive past our original family home from time to time, but I don’t feel any nostalgia about it. The area has changed beyond recognition over the years and sometimes I have to stop and check exactly where I am. However, walking into a hardware store always brings back memories of my dad doing DIY around the house – it’s the smell of timber that transports me.

On early reading

My mum regularly read to me, but dad did too. Both of them believed very strongly that reading was important. I started out with Enid Blyton – Noddy and Big Ears are the characters I remember most from my earliest days – but then I moved on to the girls boarding school stories that were so popular back then. Even though the pupils all came from privileged backgrounds (I couldn’t believe they had cooks and gardeners!) I still identified with the problems they had. I also loved the Ballet Shoes series by Noel Streatfield whose characterisation of the three very different sisters is masterful.

On formative years

Very few of the books I read when I was young reflected the type of life I was living. I loved being transported to new places and different situations by the books I read, but I also felt that the lives of people living in housing estates, particularly the women and girls, weren’t being reflected anywhere. There were many interesting stories not being told and I wanted to tell them. All of the women I knew when I was young were strong and ambitious but they weren’t given credit for their intelligence and their capabilities. And the issues that I could see that concerned them weren’t treated as important. All this made me want to write about women, and particularly women who juggled careers and families and the judgement of others.

On creating

A number of years ago I converted the garage of our house into a two storey writing space. I write upstairs and my desk is beside a large window overlooking the back garden. On the wall opposite me are three Japanese prints – one is of a woman reading, another is of a cat looking at a spider, and the third is the famous Tsunami print. They all reflect thoughts of life back to me while I’m writing. I have bookshelves here (with other people’s books – some that I’ve had since I was a child) but I can’t see them from my desk. Downstairs are shelves with my own books in English and translation. Every so often I pick one up and look inside, just to be sure it really is a book I wrote.

On independent bookshops

Sadly there are no independent bookshops near me any more. I used to buy lots of books in Parsons at Baggot Street Bridge and every time I go past the building I still think of it as a bookshop. Although I don’t get to visit very often, I love The Gutter Bookshop in Temple Bar where Bob is a font of knowledge about everything to do with the written word. Dubray is always a pit-stop of mine in town, especially because their café is a little oasis of calm. People scoff at “airport books” but I love that there are still bookshops in airports, and most of the bigger ones carry a great range. Any time I’m getting a flight I spend at least half of my available time in the airport bookshop.

On her “To Be Read” pile

Rules of the Road by Ciara Geraghty is next on my list. Ciara is a wonderfully empathetic writer and her books are always a joy to read. Cape May by Chip Cheek has been described as a modern Gatsby but (more importantly) smoking hot, so I’m already hooked. The Labyrinth of the Spirits by Carlos Ruiz Zafón continues his complex series set in Barcelona. But it’s not the Barcelona of tourists and having a good time. It’s a much darker, more Gothic world. Zafón’s use of language is lyrical.

The Seven or Eight Deaths of Stella Fortuna by Juliet Grames is described as a “sweeping family saga” and, as I’m taking a few weeks R&R shortly, a sweeping family saga sounds like exactly the right thing for me.

On escape

Over the years, my home in Spain has become more and more of a refuge for me. I become a different, more relaxed person there, and the Mediterranean light always soothes my spirit. It’s important to disconnect from the world from time to time, and although my Spanish home is as digitally connected as its counterpart in Clontarf, it’s me who disconnects as soon as I step inside. I move at a different pace and prioritise things in a different way while I’m there. I also travel around Spain a lot and find that a change of place and culture adds to my creativity. I do a lot of my editing in Spain where I’m interrupted less, and being in a different place physically also shifts my mental perspective.

On Her Husband’s Mistake

The original reason I started to write over twenty years ago was to tell the stories of the women I knew. I know and have known so many women like Roxy – always ready to drop everything to help out, always available as a shoulder to cry on, always doing her best for everyone else and doing those things quite willingly because she believes in the closeness of family and the importance of friendships. I wanted to explore that again, and I wanted to explore what it means when the foundations of a life that has been based around making other people happy are shaken. I really got inside Roxy’s skin, and for me the most satisfying aspects was feeling her change as a person and realise that she wanted to take control of her own life. The creative part of the process is always a joy, but getting 120,000 words on a page is physically hard work, no matter how much you love your characters. Nevertheless writing Roxy’s story was important to me because it’s the story of every woman who wants to take control of her life.

On female fiction

I believe that women writers are bringing some fantastic novels to readers and the opportunities for women to have their work published are wider than ever. But I also feel that as long as we talk about “female fiction” when we talk about commercially successful books written by women, we are categorising those as somehow less worthy than either literary fiction or any book written by a man. The reality is that there have always been brilliant women writers – from Austen to Atwood – but there always seems to be a need to tag them as a “female writer” rather than just “writer.” I find it astonishing that when men write books about relationships they are lauded as being in touch with emotions, but when women do, the books are often given that “female fiction” label.

On what’s next

I’m working on another novel (my 25th) that deals with an unexpected friendship between two women, as well as helping to organise the inaugural Donaghmede Literary Festival which takes place in September this year. The festival, with its hub in Donaghmede Shopping Centre, aims to celebrate reading for pleasure and it’s looking like we’re going to have some really exciting events. It’s really important to me that everyone finds the right books and right authors for them, and that nobody is intimidated by feeling that they “should” be reading a particular type of book. The more we read, the more empathetic we become, and I think the world needs empathy right now.

@SophieGrenham

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