Interview with local writer Sheena Wilkinson

Sheena and Star by Star
Local writer Sheena Wilkinson and her latest novel Star By Star. Photo Credit: Sheena Wilkinson.

Victoria Brown, Editor. 

Sheena Wilkinson has won many awards for her fiction including five Children’s Books Ireland Awards,  most recently the Honour Award for Fiction for 2017’s historical novel Star By Star, which was also shortlisted for the Irish Book Awards. Described in The Irish Times as ‘one of our foremost writers for young people’, Sheena received an Major Award  from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland in 2013. She also writes for adults, with ‘Let Me be Part Of All This Joy’ included in 2017’s Female Lines anthology. She teaches creative writing in settings ranging from universities to prisons and runs a young writers’ group in Belfast. She is an Advisory Fellow for the Royal Literary Fund, having just completed a three-year Fellowship at QUB. Sheena lives in County Down where, when she’s not writing or reading, she’s either singing or walking in the forest — sometimes at the same time.

Our editor Victoria had the chance to sit down and have a chat with her.

VICTORIA: You’re listed on Little Island (an Irish publishing company) as a contemporary realistic fiction author for children and young adults: was that always something you intended, or did that just develop as you began to write?

SHEENA: Funnily enough, Little Island need to update that as my last two novels for them have been historical fiction, and only one of my novels, really, could be described as being for children; the others are all young adult, and really quite the older end of young adult. I don’t object to being called a children’s writer but it’s certainly not the whole picture. And the book I’m working on at the minute, and the book that I’ve just finished, are both for adults.

VICTORIA: How would you brainstorm your ideas; are you more of a plotter or a panser? Or does it depend on the book?

SHEENA: It really depends on the book. I do think of myself as being a planner and a plotter, which involves a lot of preliminary thinking, which is very important, and mind-maps and that kind of thing. But to be honest, if I waited until I felt ready to start the book then I would never feel ready. Especially with my last two books as they’ve involved a lot of historical research. So I do plan to a certain extent, but then I start writing and once I hear the voice of the character things can really change. For example, my sixth novel Street Song is about a young man who has won a talent show and he basically makes a mess of things, and it’s about him rediscovering music and friendship from the ground up. I had planned quite extensively, and then I began to write in his voice and on the first page I realised he was a recovering addict, which really changed and enriched the story, and now I can’t imagine how I didn’t know that. It genuinely wasn’t part of the planning at all until I heard his voice, and I knew. I think you always have to be ready to be surprised by your characters and be open to them. I don’t so much plan a story as I do dig it out and find it. It does take a lot drafting and a lot of editing to get it right.

VICTORIA: Do you enjoy the research stage, or do you prefer to jump in and go for it?

SHEENA: I love research, and I love it so much that I have to set a date when I stop researching and start writing. As I’ve said, my last two novels were historical and if I’d waited until I thought I knew everything I’d never start, because you can never know everything. Like most historical novelists, I pride myself on getting things right but I wouldn’t not start writing if there was some small detail that I didn’t know because I will find it out later. Sometimes you can obsess about things you don’t really need to know. Some historical novelists say that the thing to do is do a lot of research and then close the book and almost forget it, because I think you need to have really absorbed it all and taken it into yourself so it’s not just a fact that you’re trotting out but something which you’re really steeped in. For example, if I’m writing a book set in 1918 I will read books written in 1918, I will read lots of newspaper reports. It’s not just a matter of getting facts, it’s about capturing the tone of the period. Looking at pictures is something I also do, and I find places like the Ulster Folk Museum really helpful. So, the answer is yes, I love research but there comes a time when you have to stop and start writing.

VICTORIA: Do you have any advice for budding YA/Adult authors in Northern Ireland? Particularly for people who are just getting started.

SHEENA: It wouldn’t be much different to any advice I’d give to people in any kind of genre – of course, YA is not a genre, it’s an arbitrary marketing age category – I would say, for any writer, don’t be in too much of a rush. I meet a lot of young writers who are desperate to be published and maybe they’re still in their teens, and I wasn’t published until I was forty, and that’s because for a long time I was doing other things and I hadn’t written anything worth publishing before then. So I think it’s a shame when people are in such a rush to be published that they forget the importance of actually learning their craft, and having something to write about. The advice I would have is don’t be in a hurry; be prepared to learn your craft, perhaps for a long time.

VICTORIA: What was your journey to your first publication like?

SHEENA: It’s a very conventional story. I had written a lot as a teenager, and most of it was not very good, not worth publishing, and sometimes so bad it was funny. I’ve written all my adult life but a few years ago I was able to go on a weekend course, very intensive, and it really made a massive difference to me, and that’s where I worked on Taking Flight which was my first published novel. I did do a Masters at Queen’s in 2008-2009 but I’d already written Taking Flight by then, and it was during that year that I approached agents and had the usual rejections. I then got a yes from an agent in Dublin called Faith O’Grady; she’d actually come to Queen’s to speak to the students and I followed up that meeting by sending her the manuscript. She sold it, quite quickly, and it was published in 2010. So, it’s a fairly conventional story of rejections and false starts, and I suppose, a bit of luck along the way. For example, Little Island, who are an excellent Dublin publisher, were just starting as I had a manuscript ready and I was writing the kind of thing they were looking for.

So much of this is subjective. The rejection doesn’t stop when you start getting published, and a lot of is to do with writing the right book at the right time. In a way, you shouldn’t consider the industry at the time you’re writing because if you started thinking “Oh, lots of domestic noir is being published therefore I should write domestic noir”, your heart isn’t going to be in it unless that’s what you like anyway. And by the time you’re sending round your domestic noir manuscript, there’s going to be another new big thing. I’ve never chased the market, I’ve always written things I like to write about.

VICTORIA: Do you have any current favourite YA novels?  

SHEENA: I have a few. Keren David’s novels would be a favourite at the moment. Keren, like me, her first few books would’ve been called gritty, contemporary realism. Her most recent book is more historical, it’s called Stranger, and it’s set partly in Canada in the early 20th century and then partly in the 1990s so she’s a writer I really like. Sally Nicholls, Things A Bright Girl Can Do, is a fantastic book about suffragettes. Sally and I have done some events together as Star By Star, my most recent book, is also about women’s suffrage. So those are two that spring to mind. I have to say, until a few years ago I read a lot of YA and kept up with what was going but given that I’m not really writing it at the moment and anything I that have written has been historical, I deliberately haven’t kept up with it because I’m nearly 50 and I didn’t set out to only write YA. I wrote Taking Flight, where the main characters were in their teens so that was going to be published and marketed in a certain way.

VICTORIA: Out of all your books so far, which one would you consider the most personal?

SHEENA: That’s a really good question, and it’s a strange question because in many ways the people that I write about are very different than me and their experiences are very different to mine because writing is imaginative. But having said that, they’re written by me so there are aspects of all of them that are quite personal. Star By Star, which has just won the CBI Honour Award for Fiction, is my favourite book that I’ve written, partly because I love writing historical fiction and partly because I love that particular period (the winter of 1918) and it focuses on a lot of the things I’m really interested in, like war, feminism, and politics. It’s also set during the great Flu epidemic, which killed 50 million people worldwide. It’s also personal to me because I grew up very politically engaged, I grew up as a feminist, I went to International Women’s Day marches in the 80s when there were three women and a dog at them. And, it wasn’t trendy to be a feminist but it was just what I was because I couldn’t imagine any other way of being. And when I did my PHD it was very much focused on women’s literature.

So, I suppose Star By Star, although it’s set one hundred years ago, and the character is very different from me – she is very feisty and very kind – but yeah, that is probably my most personal. The other one which is very personal is Name Upon Name, which is set in the Easter Rising of 1916, and it’s protagonist Helen comes from a very similar background to me in that her mother’s family are Catholic Nationalists and her father’s family are Protestant Unionists, and she feels very much that she doesn’t have a viable identity which is very much the way I felt growing up in Belfast in the 70s and 80s. So I think those two would be my most personal.

VICTORIA: Your most recent publication, Star By Star is a historical novel about a young woman in 1918 who’s determined to fulfil her dead suffragette mother’s legacy. What inspired this idea, and how did you develop it?

SHEENA: I’ve always been really interested in this period and in feminism. I was already writing an adult book about the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918-19 which killed 50 million people, so a lot of the research was already done. When I got the email asking me to write a book about the 1918 election I didn’t even hesitate for a second. It was like someone asking me to put all my favourite obsessions into a book. Star By Star is not a sequel to Name Upon Name, but it does revisit some of the characters, which is something I always wanted to do. So all in all, it was a dream commission. I developed it by thinking about what sort of character would really care about the election and why and that’s how I came up with Stella, who’s been brought up by a suffragette and understands the significance of the election.

VICTORIA: You’re from rural Northern Ireland, like myself: is our landscape and culture important to your work? And if so, how? 

SHEENA: I’m actually from Belfast but I now live in rural County Down. I love the Northern Irish landscape, and most of my books are set in  Belfast either past or present, so it was refreshing  to use a rugged sea and mountain setting for Star By Star. Growing up here in the Troubles, I thought that was the only narrative about NI that was ‘allowed’ — or at least that to ignore it would be disingenuous. I’m so glad that nowadays that’s much less the case and that there’s more freedom to explore the contradictory realities of the place and its cultures and peoples.

VICTORIA: What are your favourite places in Northern Ireland?

SHEENA: I live near Castlewellan and I do think the Mourne landscape is hard to beat! I am ten minutes from Castlewellan Forest, 15 minutes from Murlough, 20 minutes from the mountains. I honestly can’t think of anywhere better!

VICTORIA: If you could have tea with any famous author, living or dead, who would it be?

SHEENA: I love thinking about this! The people whose work you admire are not necessarily the same people you would invite to tea, are they? I mean, I love Wuthering Heights, but I don’t think Emily Bronte would be much craic. Jane Austen would be better. I was listening to Judith Kerr on the radio the other day: she is 95 and always sounds so wise and generous, as well as having had an interesting life. And having written The Tiger Who Came To Tea, she has very original ideas about ideal tea companions. So yes, Judith would be very welcome.

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