Florence Gillan always loved books. As a child she smuggled books into school and read them during class. She wrote her first novel ‘Trageties in France’ when she was nine even though she didn’t speak French and her spelling left something to be desired.
Fast forward to her retirement and Florence is now enjoying success with her debut novel ‘Let Them Lie’ which is already shaping up to be a best-seller.
The Sligo-native, who spent her entire teaching career in Co Louth, admits that she is enjoying finally realising her dream of being a writer.
"It’s so exciting to be of my age and to be in the middle of a new career,” she says.
"I was a bookworm in school. I used to smuggle in books with my text books and read them during class. I spent all my time in secondary school reading and it was only when the Leaving Cert was approaching that I began to study.”
Her love of reading inspired a love of writing and she loved the creativity which primary school essays afforded her.
‘When I was a wee girl I wrote novels and got a lot of encouragement in primary school to write creatively and use our imaginations. In secondary school, I struggled as we were asked to write things like what we did on our summer holidays, and mine were just spent at home, helping on the farm. I lost my enthusiasm for writing.”
After school, having abandoned all thoughts of being a writer, she went to The Mater Dei Institute of Education, studying religion and history.
On qualifying Florence took up a post in Dunleer Vocational School, and later Dundalk Vocational School, now O’Fiaich College, before moving to Bush Post-Primary School where she spent the rest of her teacher career.
“My whole teaching career has been in Co Louth, and I spent the last five years as home school liaison officer.”
After meeting her husband Eugene, who is originally from Newcastle, Co Down, the couple got married and moved to Newry. They have four children; Rachel, David, Mark and Sarah.
While Florence enjoyed her time working on the Cooley peninsula, it was to her native Sligo that she turned for inspiration when she began writing her book.
She had tried writing a novel previously, in her forties, and had sent it to Poolbeg Press.
"They showed initial interest in it and while they ultimately they rejected it, the fact that they had read it gave me confidence to get in touch with them again.”
This time, she had “a gem of an idea” inspired by an old biscuit box that had belonged to her parents.
"After my Mum died, I got hold of the box and had an idea for a story. I wrote a little bit of it but I was still working at the time. Then when I retired, I picked it up again and the words poured out of me.”
She says that she didn’t plan the story, but once she had the characters in her head, the plot just evolved.
"I would go to sleep at night and wake up with an idea. I loved every single minute of writing it, but no so much the redrafting”, which she admits she found excruciating.
The result is ‘Let Them Lie’ ,a totally gripping novel telling the story of a long-buried yellow biscuit tin and how its disturbing contents set in motion a terrifying journey through a family’s hidden past.
The book is set in the Sligo countryside where she grew up, and is told through the eyes of Aoife, a school teacher who returns home from Dublin for her father’s anniversary Mass.
She discovers an old tin box, containing a diary with and trinkets, and embarks on a journey that unearths a dark secret that threatens to destroy the family.
“You end up writing about what you know best,” she says. ”When I was writing about places and scenery, all I could think about in my mind was where I grew up. It’s a snapshot of things I've seen and noticed.”
She hastens to add that the story “is totally based on my imagination” and none of the characters are based on real people.
‘Let Them Lie’ is not just a tense thriller but also touches on key issues in contemporary Irish society. The financial burden facing many young couples sees Aoife and her fiance Conor break-up just months before their wedding, her niece and nephew struggle with their father's depressing and the Polish worker on the family farm has left his wife and family behind to find work in Ireland.
Florence says that while she wrote the first draft in about four months , it was then the real hard work started as she began the arduous task of editing the text.
She called in her husband and children to read her work, and says she is indebted to her children for making sure that she used the right language for her young characters.
"They’d tell me that a young person would never say whatever I had written.”
A big breakthrough came when she attended a writers’ retreat at the River Mill in Downpatrick where she met a number of published authors.
"Talk about having imposter syndrome but they were so helpful and encouraged me."
She is particularly grateful for the support of writers Fiona Scarlett, Olivia Fitzsimons and Tracy Weller.
She sent the first 10,000 words of the book to Poolbeg Press, and three months later she got an email saying they wanted to see the rest of the book.
"A week later they said they were interested in publishing it and the third email offered me a three book deal!”
Florence is also grateful to friend and former teaching colleague Fiona O'Murchu for her advice and support.
On the day she got the email offering her the book deal, she had just met Fiona coffee and was heading home when she got the email.
"I was so excited and I was afraid that if I had an accident on the way home no-one would ever know that I was about to have a book published!” she says.
She is thrilled to be getting recognition as an author at this stage in her life.
"It’s just amazing that what you always wanted finally happens.”
Florence is already working on the first draft of her second novel, which she says is completely different from ‘Let Them Lie’. And she hasn’t ruled out the Cooley peninsula forming a backdrop to a future story.