Irish Times 15th May 2020
‘I am deeply interested in Ireland’s complex past’
Tell us about your new work and how it came about – the story behind the story.
My new book is a work of historical fiction and is called The Secret of Eveline House. I am deeply interested in Ireland’s complex past and how Ireland of the 1940s and 1950s lived by such a strict religious moral code. I have done much research on how the State and the church punished those who broke this code and how they were also ostracised by Irish society. Some left and lived in exile.
Many writers were banned by the strict censorship laws. Anything that did not reflect the rules of the church was banned from entering Ireland’s pure shores. This is where my narrative begins. It opens with the return of an Irish playwright whose plays are critically acclaimed in London but banned in Ireland.
I am fascinated by old crumbling houses especially houses that are locked up and forgotten. I love to interweave the past with the present through untold secrets and a mystery that is left unsolved. Eveline House is locked and forgotten for almost 70 years. The narrative revolves around this house and the secrets that have slipped through the cracks of time.
What was the first book to make an impression on you?
The Diary of Anne Frank. Up until I read this, I thought I knew what the world was capable of. But reading this allowed me to understand the Holocaust like no history book ever could. I was a similar age reading it as Anne Frank was when she wrote it. It brought home to me how dark the world could be but also that even through such adversity there was hope.
What was your favourite book as a child?
The Famous Five Go off on an Adventure. I was sick in bed with tonsillitis and could not believe how much escapism it offered. I still have the book and have reread it several times. It began a love of anything written by Enid Blyton and introduced me to mystery writing. I especially adored the descriptions of food in the book and they still stay with me. Even though I did not know what a radish was it sounded divine when described by Enid Blyton.
And what is your favourite book or books now?
One of my favourites now is still Dubliners by James Joyce. One of the short stories is of course Eveline and it inspired the name of my new book. But one of my most recent reads was Her Kind by Niamh Boyce. I lived in Kilkenny for many years and was fascinated by the story of Alice Kyteler. This is a fictionalised version of the story and is beautifully written. I love memoir too and have just finished Iris by John Bayley. A stunning memoir about his wife who is of course Iris Murdoch. I found it tender and exquisite. A very beautiful love story.
Who is your favourite fictional character?
Miss Marple. I adore her. I love that she is this lovely little old lady who lives in her idyllic cottage who takes her tea always in proper china in her picture postcard village of St Mary Mead. Yet she is quite capable of knitting while solving a crime that the pathologist and chief of police seem to be unable to solve. I love her calm and her wit. She is the ultimate detective. Thank goodness for Agatha Christie for giving us Miss Marple.
Which Irish author should everyone read?
Edna O’Brien. Her writing is so lyrical. I so admire her fearlessness in her writing. She was ground-breaking in her time and still is. Tackling issues that were not spoken of. From The Country Girls to her latest Girl. She has covered so many genres so expertly from memoir to fiction and to fiction inspired by true events. She wrote so eloquently about Ireland through the decades and indeed lived in exile herself after her books were banned. I am so thankful to Edna O’Brien for being so brave and for her beautiful words.
Where and how do you write?
I have a writing room looking out on to a weeping willow tree. I love watching it through the seasons. My room is a mish-mash of old things and precious things. Memories of the past. Notebooks, books and a beautiful painting that was gifted to me by the artist Andrew Small. I write from early morning until lunchtime. Then other things begin to take over.
But over the past few years I have had to spend full days writing to meet deadlines. But I think that when I do that something very creative happens. It is as if I almost become part of the book and the outside world is forgotten.
It’s of course difficult to do this with a family but there is certainly something special about having a few days completely cut off and immersed in writing. I have a ritual of making the tea, lighting a candle and then I am gone into my fictional world. As I write historical fiction, I do lots of research and I adore this, I might trawl the internet, watch old documentaries, old newspapers or visit a museum. As I write about the 1950s, I like to talk to people who remember them. Who lived them.
Who influenced you the most?
I went to an author interview by John Banville in Kilkenny many years ago. At the time I had dreams of writing a book. He spoke about how his writing was inspired by the town that he grew up in and how he wrote about life as he saw it. Somehow the penny dropped with me. I could write about life as I saw it. I did not need to wait for the perfect time or the perfect subject to write about. I did not need to take a year off and travel the world to write a book. I could write about what moved me now. After that author interview, I began to write my first book. It was a turning point in my life
What advice would you give to an aspiring author?
Write what you are passionate about. No matter what that is. Fall in love with your story. Leave fear in its place and write the book that you dream of writing. Forget trends or what is popular. Don’t wait for a good time to begin. Just begin. Read for inspiration and read the greats as they were masters of the craft. Don’t compare your writing to any other writer, only ever compare it to writing that you did before. Write in your own true authentic voice. You will know when you find it.
Which writers, living or dead, would you invite to your dream dinner party?
It would have to be Brendan Behan, Patrick Kavanagh, Nuala O’Faolain and Edna O’Brien. If I could get Luke Kelly too to sing Raglan Road which of course is written by Patrick Kavanagh I think it would be the best dinner party with lots of banter and songs. I adored listening to Nuala O’Faolain and would have loved to have met her.
Do you have a favourite poem?
Oh Stony Grey Soil of Monaghan. It was the first poem that really spoke to me and allowed me to fall in love with poetry. Patrick Kavanagh was of course part of our school curriculum and for once I was glad to be in school.
What is your favourite word?
Cornucopia. I love how it sounds when I say it. I love any lyrical words.
If you were to write a historical novel, which event or figure would you choose?
For generations my family have lived with the stories of 1798. My parents were born near Boolavogue and attended school there. I heard the song Boolavogue so much that when I was a child I thought it was the national anthem. I think if I was to write about a historical event or figure it would have to be The Battle of Oulart Hill. The main character would be Fr Murphy, the young curate who led the people of Oulart and Boolavogue and surrounding areas to battle on Oulart Hill.
Which sentence or passage or book are you proudest of?
This was the first paragraph of Mending Lace. My only contemporary novel. It was the first paragraph that I wrote that made it to publication.
“Shame. A man could be ruled by it. It may not be of his making but passed on to him to carry. Or it could be something he has hidden and one day it becomes too much, he cannot hide or carry it any longer.”
Where is your favourite place in Ireland, and in the world?
My favourite place in Ireland is the Blasket Islands and I set my book Kilbride House there. I love how mystical and untouched it is. The world may change but The Blaskets remain the same. It is as if it carries the ghosts of the past. The rugged beauty of this place was the perfect backdrop when I was looking for a haunting place of beauty.
My other love is Rome. I adore the streets, the air, the food and the history. As a writer of historical fiction Rome has everything to inspire me. I so look forward to visiting it again.
Sheila Forsey is an honours graduate from Maynooth in creative writing. The Secret of Eveline House is published by Poolbeg Press.