In March, I will have the pleasure of interviewing Sheila O’Flanagan in person at the inaugural Serenity Press Writers’ Retreat in Northern Ireland. Best-selling author of more than 20 books, Sheila worked in the commerce sector before deciding it was ‘now or never’ and putting pen to paper. Her aim is to tell a good story, make the reader feel like they know the characters, and make each book better than the last. To find out more about Sheila, visit her website.
Monique: Your latest novel for is The Missing Wife. Tell me a bit about it.
Sheila: The Missing Wife is about a woman who knows that the only way to leave her emotionally abusive husband is to disappear without telling anyone. She’s been planning how to do it for a number of years and when she finally gets her opportunity she grabs it. The novel is about her attempts to reconnect with the girl she used to be and to make peace with her past, as well as her attempts to start a new life. But she’s also aware that her husband isn’t the sort of man who will simply let her go, so she’s constantly worried about what will happen if and when he finds her.
Monique: A review on Independent.ie describes the book as ‘evocative’ and says you should be commended for the ‘vivid, flawless, authentic brush strokes’ in your portrayal of the male lead, Vince. How do you feel when you receive reviews like this?
Sheila: It’s always lovely to receive good reviews. I like to get into the heart of my characters, no matter what type of person they are, so I’m pleased that I seem to have managed it with Vince. It was interesting to explore the motivations and thought processes of someone like him.
Monique: With 21+ books to your name, you’re also described as one of Ireland’s ‘best-known, best-loved and most prolific women’s fiction authors’ in the same article. What’s your secret to writing so many books? How long does it to take you to write one?
Sheila: I don’t know if there’s a secret to the quantity of books that I write – it’s just a question of having the stories inside me and wanting to tell them. I suppose I’m more in touch with the process of how I go about it now and build my year around my writing schedule. It normally takes nine months for me to write a book and that allows for times during the writing when I leave it for a week or two. I do that both because real life gets in the way and because it’s sometimes good to step back for a short time and allow my thoughts to settle.
Monique: You’ve also written a book for young adults. What led to that?
Sheila: There was a particular story I wanted to tell but it was completely removed from the type of story I write for adults. And it seemed to me that I could write it the way I wanted to, as an adventure story, if it was for younger readers. It was ultimately a lot harder than a novel for adults would have been, mainly because I created an entire world and I had to be sure that everything followed the rules of that world.
Monique: Do you have a favourite character in your books? Which one are you most like?
Sheila: Each lead female character is my favourite when I’m writing her! They all have a bit of me in them but they also have their own distinct personalities and their own likes and dislikes.
Monique: Do you find writing ‘villains’ difficult or easy?
Sheila: I suppose Vince is probably the most ‘villainous’ character I’ve written and it was a challenge to write him. At the same time you need to write from different perspectives and points of view so it’s simply a matter of putting yourself in their shoes.
Monique: How do you start a new novel?
Sheila: I spend a few weeks thinking about it before I put anything down on paper. I’ve gone over a few opening lines and the first couple of chapters in my head. So when I start I just open a new folder on my desktop, give it the name of the lead character and then write what I’ve been thinking of!
Monique: What have you learned about writing over the years?
Sheila: That you are the only one responsible for what ends up on the page. It’s hard work and it doesn’t get any easier. But it’s the most satisfying thing in the world when you reach the end. Editing is probably the most important part of the process. You need to get something down on paper to progress the story, but the first thing you’ve written is never going to be what finally appears in the book.
Monique: What other writing-related projects are you working on at the moment?
Sheila: I’m working on a sequel to my children’s book and I’m also working on an adaptation of one of my novels for TV.
Monique: Where did your desire to write spring from?
Sheila: I always loved reading and I became very close to the characters in the books I read. I wanted to know more about them and used to make up stories for myself about them. Those stories eventually translated into new characters of my own.
Monique: What do you do when you’re having doubts about your writing? What happens when you get stuck?
Sheila: Everyone has doubts. I usually stand in front of my bookcase and look at the books I’ve already written and tell myself that if I could do it then I can do it now! Sometimes I read the nice messages that people have sent me. And then I usually go something very active so that I’m not thinking about the book for a while.
Monique: What’s your typical writing day like?
Sheila: I get into my office at around 10am and write until 12pm. Then I faff around on social media for a while (which is both good and bad). I usually write again from about 2.30pm to 4.30pm. Sometimes I’m working on new material; sometimes I’m editing previous work. It depends on what’s in my head on any given day.
Monique: What’s the biggest myth about being a writer?
Sheila: That it’s hard to come up with ideas. Ideas are the easy part. It’s turning them into stories that people want to read that’s difficult.
Monique: What has writing taught you about resilience?
Sheila: I think I’ve always been a resilient person. But as a writer you’ve got to finish the work so you absolutely have to stick with it. You can’t make excuses.
Monique: When you write, what is your biggest weakness?
Sheila: These days, getting distracted by social media. Also, not planning enough (it means more rewriting than is probably necessary!).
Monique: What do you think about the phrase ‘write what you know’?
Sheila: You can learn about anything so although it has to be authentic, you don’t need to know it before you start. If you only wrote what you knew, your writing would be very narrow.
Monique: Which authors/books do you admire the most?
Sheila: Truthfully, ever other author who has been published. Because it’s hard. And you learn from each one of them – even the ones you don’t particularly like.
Monique: Which book are you reading now?
Sheila: The Muse by Jessie Burton.
Monique: Which “must-read” book have you not yet read?
Sheila: Well I don’t know if Fifty Shades of Grey was a must read, but I didn’t read it!
Monique: Describe yourself as a writer in three words.
Sheila: Panicky. Optimistic. Critical.