‘There are so many untold stories that need a voice and a light to be shined on them, this keeps me going, I need to tell these stories.’ (Sheila Forsey)
Our first #tuesdayswriter interview of March is with Irish Times bestselling author, Sheila Forsey. Sheila is passionate about shining a light on Irelands forgotten past through historical fiction. (Kilbride House has been studied as part of a Get To Know Your History series.) Her novels have been lauded as evocative and deeply emotional.
‘These forgotten Irish still called Ireland home…’
Q. Welcome to the blog Sheila! You have mentioned in the past that your childhood was steeped in stories – ‘not from books, but from memory.’ Who passed on these stories to you, are there any that stand particular stand out, that you love over the others?
I’m the youngest of a large generation of relatives. Still known as Little Sheila to all my cousins. Our parents, uncles and aunts instilled in us a great knowledge about those who had gone before us. My mother was the youngest of a large family of siblings who had all left Ireland at some stage from the 1930s through to the 1960s. Most of them retuned to eventually settle in Ireland and our kitchen table was filled with their stories of Canada, America, Australia and of course England. I was especially intrigued by the stories about working in England during and after the war – stories from those who returned and stories about those who never returned to walk on Irish soil again. It was the stories of people that they had come across that never returned that seemed to stay with me.
This began a huge interest for me in the forgotten Irish. The Irish who had left during the last century. Especially those who had left to help rebuild Britain after the war. They had sent money back when Ireland was on its knees. Their money had helped Ireland survive yet they had somehow lost their way home. Some stayed because they found a new life, but some found themselves in a no man’s land not belonging in England and unable to find the path back to Ireland. But these forgotten Irish still called Ireland home, although home was perhaps now only a house embedded with briars, dog roses, thistles, and the ghosts of the past.
Both my parents and generations before them were reared close to the village of Boolavogue in Wexford. Because of this I was very aware of my heritage and the stories about the 1798 rebellion as I grew up. So much so that when I was a child, I thought the song Boolavogue was the national anthem because it was sung at every family gathering that I can recall.
Q. I love that you say – ‘not from books, but from memory’… I would love to hear more about what that means to you?
My father was known far and wide for reciting in a seanachai sort of style. My childhood was filled with listening to recitations by him. Often told around relative’s kitchen tables and often on a bar stool of our local pub. One was called, Moriarty. It was about an Irish emigrant who left Ireland a young man but planned to return to his widowed mother as soon as he could, but he got lost somewhere on the streets of London. When he eventually decides to return – unknown to him she has died. This recitation never failed to make me cry as a child and haunts my writing. Another was called the Papish and The Prod. It told the tragic love story of a protestant girl marrying a catholic. It’s a heart-breaking recitation and it certainly inspired my book Kilbride House.
‘A life in the arts seemed a life that was unreachable…’
Q. When did you decide to become a writer Sheila? Was it a pivotal moment or something you always wanted to be?’
My village had a rich tapestry of drama and theatre and I would have loved to pursue it as a career. But I left school in 1989 and a life in the arts seemed a life that was unreachable. Quite different than today. There was little guidance in my school except if I wanted to do a secretarial course or a trade or perhaps become a nurse. I was involved in theatre throughout my life but not as a career. It was not until I was married with children that I felt I had to finally do something about this desire to change my direction. My love of theatre was still there so I began to write as theatre is writing on a page in all its forms. At the time I ran my own business in Kilkenny City. I closed it and completed a course in creative writing in Saint Kieran’s College through Maynooth. One of the tutors Suzanne Power who thought the novel section was incredibly inspirational and gave me the confidence that I needed to pursue a career in writing.
Q. You have published three novels in the past few years Sheila, Mending Lace (2017) Kilbride House (2019) and The Secret of Eveline House (2020) – that’s an incredible output, and all are beautifully written novels. Can you tell us something about your writing routine? (in other words – how do you do it!)
It has very much evolved over the years. At first it was at the kitchen table when I could snatch a few hours. Now I am extremely glad to have my own writing room and it really does help to have a dedicated space that I can close the door on and delve into my writing. Because I write historical fiction I do quite an amount of research. But I love this part. It might be old documentaries, old newspapers, movies, music. Because I have deadlines it does help me to keep focus. I know I must begin somewhere. I may not always start at the beginning. But the important thing is that I must begin and continue. I tend to write when the kids are in school and use the evening to continue my research. With lockdown my kids who are now teenagers are all at home but we all just get on with it. As they are in secondary school, they don’t need home-schooling as such. The kitchen is a busy spot though. My routine is broken up by constant cups of tea. Far too many to count.
Q. Any tips for emerging writers on completing their novels?
My advice about completing a first novel is to keep it a secret, as in refrain from telling friends and family for now. If you can avoid telling people just yet except perhaps a mentor that you are writing a novel. You need this time alone without judgement. Wait until you have written it. The first draft is the raw material for your novel. But without the raw material you don’t have anything to work with. You must get that first draft down then you can begin redrafting and redrafting. Also always write in your own authentic voice. Read to improve your craft but allow your words to be your own.
‘I find the Irish landscape so very haunting and mystical and the perfect background to words…’
Q. You write with such lyrical passion about the Irish landscape, and houses – is place hugely important for you when deciding to write a novel?
I was brought up on a farm about two miles away from the coast in Wexford. From a young age I was very aware of the power, beauty, and importance of nature. It instilled a love of the Irish landscape for me and it now forms an integral part of my writing. I find the Irish landscape so very haunting and mystical and the perfect background to words. It can also be wild and lonely and seems to almost carry the ghosts of the past. I also have a huge passion for crumbling old and abandoned houses and have the belief that they almost retain a memory of those who lived there. All my books are based around old houses. The house itself almost becoming a character. I love the sense of place that an old house can give to the setting. I very much visualise my novels and see the characters, so the sense of place is what grounds the novel for me. It may be my background in drama and theatre. I can see it, sense it, get the aromas, the colours, the textures, and the sounds of it.
‘If you really want to write you must find the time…’
Q. You are a creative writing teacher Sheila, what is the most common obstacle that comes between a writer and their work or project?
Time. I hear it very often. Writers would love to write a book, finish their book, or short story etc but they don’t have time. I do understand this, and I can only say that if you really want to write you must find the time. It might be getting up an extra half hour earlier in the morning. Sacrificing an hour of TV in the evening, getting up early at the weekends, staying up for an hour when the house is quiet sometimes works for me. I wrote my first novel with scraps of time. At the table, in the car, in the bed before I went to sleep. It is possible. But you must give it the time and be consistent.
Q. It is a tough time for writers, your excellent third novel The Secret of Eveline House – a tale of tangled secrets and a search for the truth – set in Wicklow was published in April 2020, which must have been one of the most difficult times in history to publish a book! How have you found the last year as a writer? What inspires and nourishes your writing practise during the hard times?
My last book was published the first week of the first lockdown. All the book shops were closed. Any launch plans vanished. Like so many I just had to carry on. I have embraced online as much as I can, and I was lucky to have the support of other writers during the launch. People are still reading thank goodness which gives me hope for the future. At first the anxiety about what was happening in the world seemed to crush any creative spark in me but slowly I began to write again.
I can be quite a recluse so that part of the pandemic has not caused me much anxiety. I also live close to the sea, so walking has been my saviour. Even at this uncertain time I feel there is a need for historical fiction. A need to tell the stories that are forgotten and untold, I write fiction but based in the past and I feel that there are so many untold stories that need a voice and a light to be shined on them, this keeps me going, I need to tell these stories.
I was also lucky to be part of a new initiative in Wexford -The Wexford Playwrights Studio run in connection with The Wexford Arts Centre and during the past year with the help of some amazing mentors I wrote my first full length play as part of this.
Q. Can you tell us anything about what you’re working on at the moment?
I have just finished my third historical novel. The Lake House at Lenashee. A story set in Ireland in the 1960s. It tells the story of an abandoned house in the west of Ireland and the haunting secrets within its walls! The people who once gathered in this house in 1967 are still haunted by what happened there but they have promised to never speak of it. But like all secrets they bide their time… I am also researching a new novel partly set in the golden age of Hollywood and partly set in Ireland and England. So, lots of research to keep me busy!
Thanks Sheila for such an inspirational interview – we look forward to The Lake House at Lenashee!