'I never did any courses, I just started writing' - Sheila O'Flanagan talks a career spanning 24 books and 10 million copies
With 24 books to her name, and 10 million copies sold, author Sheila O'Flanagan says success is simply a nice aside - the real joy is in the writing itself, she tells Orla Neligan
'There's the planners and the pantsers and I'm definitely a pantser," laughs author Sheila O'Flanagan, somewhat sheepishly. A few minutes in her company and I'm beginning to see why the 'fly by the seat of your pants' approach to writing may suit her. Warm, relaxed and engaging, O'Flanagan is softly spoken and self-deprecating with a fresh-face glow that makes her look way younger than her 61 years.
It's the kind of healthy glow that exudes from someone who has sold a whopping 10 million books. Of course, the best-selling author and journalist is quick to shrug off the mention of sales; it's lovely, she admits, and of course any writer wants to be successful but the joy is in the writing, even if she is a 'pantser'.
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O'Flanagan writes good stories, the kind you devour in one gulp. She has always had 'the bug', despite 15 years working in the corporate world as a banker. "People often question whether it was weird for me to leave a high-paying corporate career but actually working in finance was weird," she says matter-of-factly. Her nose was "permanently in a book". As far back as primary school she was busy penning essays. She recalls a story about summer holidays where she wrote about a tennis match. "My teacher made me read it out to the whole school. I can't remember the essay but I remember one line that I wasn't happy with, it still bugs me," she laughs. It's a touch of the 'praise is fleeting' train of thought - that while you may get 10 good reviews you'll focus on the one bad one. "That's very true," she admits. The mere mention of Amazon reviews and her nose wrinkles theatrically. "I used to read all the reviews on Amazon and now I only go there once every six months. Constructive criticism is fine," she muses, "we all need a bit of that. But when people start giving you one star because their book arrived three days late or a page was torn, it can be soul destroying."
But no amount of criticism would stop her from writing another book, she tells me. She has 24 to show for her practiced methods of writing well-paced page-turners which began with an attempt to 'spice up' tediously boring banking manuals. "I figured if I could do that, I could sit down and write what I really wanted."
Her first novel Dreaming of a Stranger (1997), and the 23 that followed, riff on that kitchen sink drama she is revered for doing so well. Her sensibilities are domestic, her protagonists familiar everyday women, tackling issues such as betrayal, death, loneliness, love and jealousy. Her latest novel, Her Husband's Mistake, like many of her novels, is a story of one woman's journey to empowerment. After discovering her husband's betrayal Roxy is forced to consider her future. "There is so much pressure on women these days to be brilliant at everything," says O'Flanagan. "I wanted to write about someone who wasn't a high-flying career woman, who wasn't trying to be brilliant at everything but just coping and juggling with the everyday and who goes on a journey to find herself." Throughout the book, you are deliberately held in the balance of Roxy's indecision. "Roxy had to be comfortable with whatever decision she makes in the end, hence the deliberation," notes O'Flanagan. "I feel, as women, we can be quite judgmental but ultimately nobody really knows what's going on for someone else. Those decisions are very personal and people need the appropriate time to make them. The most important thing was that Roxy could do something for herself and not for everyone else."
The ability to track her heroine's grief or experience without it being depressing, while also bringing the reader on a journey of hope, is not lost on her. It's about light and shade, she says, and honest relatable narrative. Her books, with strong female characters often on the cusp of change, have struck resonance with a chorus of readers around the globe. Would she consider herself a feminist? "I hate that word," she sighs, "mainly because it tends to have negative connotations but I think all women should be feminists because it's about being the best you can be. My dad, who died when I was 19, was a feminist. If I said I wanted to be an astronaut, he'd say, 'Okay, work hard'. There was never any question of my sisters and I not being 'good enough' for something. I guess that's the message in my books."
As we're on the topic of females and fiction, I broach the subject of 'chick-lit', a somewhat reductive term that many would consider demeaning to women authors. It's a literary sport to sneer at commercial women's fiction or chick-lit, would she agree? "I didn't at first but I do now," she answers tersely. "Put it like this: if a man writes about relationships and love he would probably be praised for getting in touch with his emotions," she says, eyes rolling. "If Maeve Binchy had written Brooklyn I doubt she would have got the same literary praise." She's probably right. Female commercial fiction writers have been pigeonholed with a label that propagates a notion of a shallow nuanced reality. If Jane Austen were alive today, her book covers would probably be pink and fluffy.
This spurs a memory of her first literary festival and most embarrassing moment. Following her book making it to the number one spot on the bestsellers list, she was invited to speak at a literary festival in the company of an Irish poet and author Roddy Doyle. "It was excruciating," she groans. "Thankfully I was in the company of Roddy Doyle who is so lovely and kind because it was simply awful. After telling me she'd never heard of me, the host then introduced me to the audience as 'someone you've never heard of and her 'little book'', followed by this revered poet who 'needed no introduction'." She squirms at the memory before giving a hoot of laughter. "While my book may have been wrapped up in a different way, I felt it was saying the same important things as anyone else's. Whether you're writing literary or commercial fiction, one isn't necessarily better than the other," she says, a little irked. "A book can be bad because of the writing, but not the theme."
Themes are not something she finds difficult when it comes to the writing process; she skewers the complexities of relationships and difficult territory with a deftness born of someone who has lived through experience. Surprisingly, her life isn't peppered with melodrama but, like any good writer, she is a keen observer. And it is not those difficult scenes she finds challenging either. "They're actually the easiest to write because they are so emotive and you're so invested in them. The difficult bit is linking all those scenes together with interesting narrative. The story can't be highly charged all the time, it has to ebb and flow and managing that can be challenging," she admits.
The creative element of developing characters and telling the story has always come naturally for O'Flanagan. It's the technical side and the mechanics of a book that took time to learn. "I often hear people talk about story arcs and seven phases. I haven't a clue what they're on about. I never did any courses, I just started writing. Lots of people think writing a book is about reading and researching but writing 80-100,000 words is a very physical thing and, at the end of the day, you just have to sit down and start."
I remind her of something she once said: "A professional writer is just an amateur who wouldn't quit".
"Unfortunately it's not my own quote, it's one I read somewhere but it rings true. Some people have asked me whether I'd consider writing under a pseudonym now that I am well known. What they don't realise is that I was an amateur once; I did that under my own name when nobody knew me. I'm only a professional because I kept going." Is that the advice she'd offer an aspiring writer? "Don't make excuses, just sit down and write and write the story you want, not something you think will be popular. It won't be authentic and people won't believe it. I never really considered genres, I had read too many books where women were the adjunct in someone else's story - a wife or mother or daughter - I wanted to write about women telling their own stories and making their own choices so I just went for it."
Even after 24 books, of which 22 have been No.1 on the bestsellers list, O'Flanagan retains the earnestness and humility that has endeared her to readers across the globe, some of them most unexpected. "I got a letter once from a prison inmate in Russia," she says. "After reading one of my books he wrote this wonderful letter about how he wanted a better life for his children and for himself." She pauses and looks into the distance. "I still think about him and wonder if he made it." Her books strike different chords with different readers. She recalls another letter from a man who had read Suddenly Single and wrote to tell her that he now knew why his girlfriend had left him.
Shaking off the tailspin of the last book while trying to find the voice for the next one must take time. It does, she admits and yet she is summoning a book a year - no mean feat. The geography and protagonists may be different and characters don't come out of her head fully formed but she is mindful of the message and what propels her to write. It starts with a nugget of an idea and she never has the ending before she begins. "Some author once said it's like driving in fog with dipped headlights, you know just enough to get ahead a few miles." In the beginning you're pushing the characters along, she explains, and at some point you realise you're following the characters along. Her husband, Colm, whom she met while working at the bank, is a solid sounding board and active proofreader. "He's the one who asks why the red car on page 77 is blue on page 96," she chuckles.
When she's not writing she's playing badminton, although, since breaking her wrist on a badminton court in January she's "not up to much". Has this interrupted her 25th tome? "No I'm back at it, albeit slowly," she says, rolling her wrist subconsciously. She's not giving much away but can tell me it's about an unexpected female friendship.
Tomorrow she's off to Estonia on a book tour for Her Husband's Mistake. She'll probably spend the journey reading since she gets little time to do so. When I ask what she'll be reading I'm surprised to learn it's science fiction (her favourite movie is Apollo 13) or firm favourite Rachel's Holiday by Marian Keyes. On the subject of her contemporaries she's quick to dismiss any competitiveness. "Maeve Binchy, whom I loved, once said that it's not like a cake: when you take a slice out, there's less left; there's room for everyone and we're very supportive of one another." Much like the subjects of her novels, female solidarity and empowerment is key to having your slice and eating it too.
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