'I write about romance but I'm not a romantic person at all'
Lunch with Sheila Flanagan: The bestselling writer explains how she made the switch from high presssure finance to become a romance author.
'Maybe I was thinking that we should do it before my face falls completely. There might have been an element of that in it!" I'm having lunch with best-selling author and new bride Sheila O'Flanagan, 56, in Derry Clarke's gorgeous Michelin-starred L'Ecrivain, and I am having great fun teasing her about rushing into marriage. After all, it only took her a mere 34 years to get around to marrying Colm McCashin, 62, whom she met when she worked in banking in her early 20s.
Sheila was attracted to Colm's intelligence and they had a mutual love of badminton, but what made them finally take the plunge back in March?
"We couldn't do it initially as Colm was married before, and although we were very comfortable with where we were, we thought we had better get around to getting married as we weren't getting any younger," she says. "We had a date two days later and were married three months later. We were going to just pop in to the registry office at lunchtime and do it, but realised that a lot of people who have been with us from the start would have been really disappointed, particularly my lovely mum, Patty.
"When I told her, she said, 'I'll be glad to see you settled,' and I said, 'Ah Patty, how much more settled could I be'?"
Colm and Sheila were married in the registry office on Lower Grand Canal Street, with 13 of their family members present. In very non-traditional fashion, the bride wore a purple lace dress by Louise Kennedy and bright purple shoes. They had dinner in The Library at the Dylan Hotel afterwards, followed by a two-day honeymoon in Cork, which is obviously very Kim and Kanye. Then they had a party for friends a month later at the Harbourmaster restaurant at the IFSC, which means she got both books and banking into the celebrations, appropriately enough.
So has being married made the slightest difference to their relationship? "Ah no," laughs Sheila. "People were always calling Colm my husband when he wasn't, and now he is, I find it amusing when they say it.
"I write about romance, but am not a romantic person at all, and neither is he. We don't do Valentine's or anything like that, but I think it's better not to do those things and just be there for each other every night."
The eldest of three girls, Sheila grew up in Greenhills in west Dublin. Actually, her face was a familiar one through my teenage years, as she's a past pupil of my old school, St Paul's, and her picture graces its wall of fame next to Fiona Looney's photograph. Sheila's parents had a grocery shop in the Iveagh Market, but her dad, Joe, whom she physically resembles and was very close to, passed away from cancer aged 47, when the writer was only 19.
She also adores her mum Patty, who has a great fighting spirit. It was Patty who decided to accept an offer for a junior position at the Central Bank on Sheila's behalf, when it came up after her Leaving Cert and she was away on holidays. It wasn't Sheila's ideal career choice – she wanted to work in a library. Although she rolled her eyes, she took the job, as one did then.
She was very successful and was the first woman to become head of her trading department, dealing in foreign exchange, swaps, options and bonds. She was the boss in one dealership and responsible for everything, and by the time she left banking, aged 40, Sheila was trading in corporate bonds.
"Banking wasn't something I had chosen to do, but I liked the environment," she says, over our delicious salmon starter. "It was obviously very male-dominated, and at various times, I was the only female trader. But I quite liked working with the guys. It was a very competitive environment, but men are very straight and you know that they are out to get you from the get-go in that business, so I just said, 'Fair enough.'
"I actually liked the competitive dynamics and having to prove myself, but after a while I grew tired of it. You see all the highs, lows, disasters and great days over and over again, and eventually I just thought, 'What's the point'?"
The repressed creative itch needed to be scratched, and Sheila wrote three books for Poolbeg while still holding down her trading job. When she was offered a contract with Headline, this time with an advance, she felt she could give up the day job.
Sheila's a natural storyteller and very engaging company, so you can see why she would be successful at fiction.
"My mother probably thought I was mad leaving, as it was a well-paid job," she says. "My first book, Dreaming of a Stranger, was published when I was 36 and I didn't make much money out of it, but I always preferred writing. The two jobs are very different, but I suppose a lot of banking is fiction as well!"
Having a family was not in her plans, as Colm has three daughters from his previous relationship and Sheila wasn't interested in having children, although she adores her four nephews.
Nonetheless, she was surprised to have an early menopause when she was only 34, and found the physical and emotional side of the transition especially difficult at such a young age, particularly having hot flushes in the middle of an office full of men.
"My body was doing things over which I had no control, so I was forever checking to see if I had more grey hairs, or if my bum had dropped," she laughs.
"I don't regret not having children, and even though I sometimes think that it must be very satisfying watching your children growing up and doing well, I don't say that that in a longing way."
Colm has now retired from his job in badminton administration, so they have the freedom to travel. While she mainly writes at home in Clontarf, Sheila spends three months a year in her holiday home in Spain, near Alicante, which is where she edits what she has written.
She looks fabulous and is full of energy, particularly as she plays badminton competitively. She has played in the Dublin Leagues every year since she was 21, and has a few titles under her belt. She says that playing badminton as part of a team is the perfect antidote to the solitary life of a writer.
Her nineteenth book, If You Were Me, has just been published and, unusually for Sheila, it is written in the first person. It's about meeting your first love again when you're just about to get married to someone else, and the book explores the life that could have been led versus the one that the protagonist is now living.
Sheila's books are all worldwide bestsellers, regularly topping the charts both here and the UK, and are fabulous, funny reads. They cover a range of the usual personal issues of life including infidelity, broken romances, infertility, family feuds, bereavement and broken friendships.
When we meet, the paperback version of her last book, Things We Never Say, is number one in the charts, but is keeping them all doing well a pressure in itself?
"You just want the next one to be better than the last one," she says. "I approach each book in new ways to make it different for me as well as the reader, as no one wants to read, or write, the same book all over again.
"While I get lots of ideas, some don't work in a book or translate into a narrative that will keep people interested. It's always nerve-wracking, and sometimes I write stuff and think it's complete rubbish. In every book, at least 50,000 words end up getting chucked."
A LIFE IN BRIEF
Family: The eldest of Patty and Joe's three daughters. Sheila recently married her long-term partner Colm McCashin.
On the banking backlash: I feel sorry for some of my friends, who are genuinely good people. I know one girl who was working at the coalface and people spat at her, which is awful.
On giving advice to new writers: I explain the steps, but then I meet the person and they tell me they sent the manuscript somewhere else and I'm baffled. The thing is that if you write a fantastic thriller and send it to Mills & Boon, you're going to get nowhere.