Interview: Sheila O’Flanagan, Irish novelist
Sheila O’Flanagan, 62, is the author of nearly 30 bestselling novels — like Jeffrey Archer, she has made it a point to write a book every year. Her release this year was The Women Who Ran Away. Some of her other recent novels include Her Husband’s Mistake, The Hideaway, What Happened That Night and The Missing Wife. She lives in Dublin with her husband.
Your latest novel, The Women Who Ran Away, is the story of two women, Deira and Grace, who are brought together by unexpected circumstances, and how they come to terms with the shocking truths about the men they’ve loved by embarking on a life-altering adventure. Do your characters mirror the lives of contemporary Irish women?
I hope they do. Ireland has changed considerably as a country over the last 50 years and I think how we look at ourselves as a people and how we have embraced that change has been very positive.
Your characters often deal with love, loss, redemption and the difficulties of escaping one’s past. In a recent novel, The Hideaway, Juno Ryan does the same. What is the larger idea you want to explore through such characters?
Juno is a complex character because she has always felt somewhat apart from her family; both because she was an unexpected arrival late in their lives, and because her interests are very different to theirs. As a result, she often tries to find their approval in other ways. I wanted to look at how these feelings affected her life and choices, particularly regarding her relationships. I also wanted to explore how it is that people deal with having different hopes and aspirations to others in our family circle and how women, in particular, cope with the pressures of expectations from family members. It was interesting for me to explore how Juno gets in touch with her inner joy while she’s away from home, doing things she wouldn’t otherwise do, and embracing a different part of herself. Although her dreams are still her own, her outlook and character change during the course of the book, and that was important to me as a writer and important to her as a character.
As a bestselling author, how do you look at the divide between literary and commercial fiction? Do you write with an audience on mind?
I regard myself as a storyteller and for me the most important thing is to actually tell the story of my characters in as compelling a way as possible. I think the way the story is told is the biggest difference between literary and commercial fiction. Literary fiction sometimes concentrates on form over storytelling. Commercial fiction draws the reader in and immerses them in the situation, rather than leaving them on the sidelines, observing what is going on. Ireland has a reputation for producing great writers, but until recently the majority of our acclaimed writers have been male, literary writers. One of the reasons I wanted to write was so that I could give a voice to the women who, until then, had generally been represented in novels as a wife or a mother or a daughter, influenced by the choices of the men around her, but not as a person with hopes and dreams who can make her own choices.
Although I don’t have a specific audience in mind, most of my readers are women because I focus on telling their stories. However, I have had some lovely messages from male readers who like the insights my novels give them.
Women authors from Ireland have been winning major awards, including the Man Booker Prize. What has led to this flowering considering the literary scene has long been dominated by male writers?
In the last 20 years, women have found their voice. The changes in the country in the last 50 years have made women more confident that their own experiences are worth talking about and exploring. Irish people — men and women — are very open, great listeners as well as great talkers, and we enjoy hearing other people’s stories. It’s a source of immense pride to me that women from such a small country are doing so well on the world stage.
Who are the contemporary Irish women writers who must be read?
Young literary fiction writers like Sally Rooney and Anna Burns have very distinctive voices, while crime writers like Liz Nugent and Jo Spain are doing very well at home and abroad. Sarah Breen and Emer McLysaght are brilliant comedic writers and their novels, featuring a contemporary woman named Aisling, have been huge bestsellers in Ireland. Cecelia Ahern is another brilliant young female writer whose novels have been made into Hollywood movies.
Are publishers more willing now to publish experimental voices?
I think the success of Anna Burns’ Milkman shows that there are publishers who will take risks, but generally the industry has become more risk averse and it’s much harder as a novelist now to build a career slowly. Publishers are looking for instant bestsellers and that’s a hard thing for anyone to do. It usually takes a couple of books to really break through, but fewer publishers are allowing authors the time to do that. I think that’s why so many are going down the self-publishing route, but while that has advantages, it also means that the author has to take responsibility for every stage of the book, which takes your mind away from writing.
Has the emergence of independent publishers made it easier for new voices to get published?
I hope so, but independent publishers are competing against the big corporations, which makes it difficult for them both to publish exciting new voices and stay profitable. However, it’s important for writers to know their own voice and write from their hearts. Not everyone will be successful, but good editors in good publishing houses are always looking for exciting new writers.
What are the dominant themes in some of the major novels by contemporary Irish women writers?
Probably the majority of novels by women deal in many ways with relationships and how they are affected by events. My own books often deal with an event that puts a stress on the main characters and how they cope with it. Many of us have written about the struggle to meet all the different expectations of us as women. I think most contemporary women writers also try to reflect the world around them and that’s why the world that our characters inhabit has now changed from a very inward-looking society to a more outwardly focused one. While 50 years ago themes would have centred around a male, rural society, now we write about a more multicultural and urban one.
Nawaid Anjum is a freelance feature writer, translator and poet. He lives in Delhi.