Arts

Writer Sheila spills the secrets on her success story

Bestselling Dublin author Sheila O'Flanagan published her 20th novel this year. Ahead of a reading at the Aspects Festival in Bangor, the former stockbroker talks to Brian Campbell

Sheila O'Flanagan appears at the Aspects Festival in Bangor on September 27

SHEILA O'Flanagan was always destined to have a career in literature. The Dubliner has loved books and telling stories since she was a child and when she applied for a job at a library she was sure that this would be her introduction to working in the world of books.

But she never heard back from the library and ended up working her way to the top in banking. She started out at the Central Bank of Ireland and was eventually made head of her trading department – the first woman to do so.

As a trader, she worked in foreign exchange, options, bonds and swaps – before deciding to swap careers completely to go into writing in her thirties.

With books such as Suddenly Single, Caroline's Sister, Anyone But Him and All For You, she has become a hugely popular and bestselling novelist and this year O'Flanagan published her 20th novel, My Mother's Secret.

Speaking over the phone from Spain as she edits her 21st title, she says she doesn't miss her life in banking.

“Not really. I suppose [the recent global banking crisis] would have been a very interesting time to be involved, but I don't miss that environment,” she says.

“I know that people talk about the high-profile people that were earning huge amounts of money, but not everybody was and that's been a tragedy. People who had nothing to do with anything ended up being vilified and losing their jobs.

“My last job was at a stockbrokers in the Financial Services Centre in Dublin. I enjoyed the work but I always felt that I wasn't creating anything; in financial services you're just moving stuff around. It wasn't personally fulfilling. Writing is what I always wanted to do, so it worked out well for me.”

O'Flanagan says her 2010 book Stand By Me, based around someone who lost everything at the height of the economic crisis, led to huge numbers of readers contacting her to say that the book meant a lot to them.

“Maybe now because of social media, you get a lot of feedback on all your books,” she says. “My book Caroline's Sister is still really popular. It's about two sisters who fall out and people still write to me about that one to tell me how much they enjoyed it.”

Yet she says she tends to steer clear of reviews on sites such as Amazon. “I find that people do write some awful stuff on there. And then you'll get a one-star review because the book didn't arrive on time,” she laughs.

“But I know nobody's going to like all of your books all the time; you have to accept that some people aren't going to like your stuff.”

My Mother's Secret is based around the three Sheehan children, who organise a surprise party for their parents' 40th wedding anniversary – only for this supposed celebration to unearth some long-repressed secrets.

“I wanted to write a big family story with a big cast of characters,” says the author. “It's about the secrets in families and the things that become secrets even though they were never intended to be at the start; things that get hidden away and never get talked about.

“So I brought this family together for a this surprise party – and I hate surprise parties. So under the stress of the party, all these things start to come out.”

O'Flanagan says she didn't feel any added pressure because she was writing her 20th novel.

“Well I thought writing one book was an achievement. Then when I got to five I thought 'I wonder how many more I can do?', so I never set out to write a certain amount. The stories were always there and I wanted to tell them and kept going.”

While O'Flanagan has also written short stories, she has also just finished her first children's book – due out next year. “It's called The Crystal Run. It's a fantasy/sci-fi book, set on a different planet. It was enjoyable to do. Everything about doing it was different, but then telling a story is the same.”

As someone who has sold millions of books, she certainly knows how to tell a story and connect with her readers. Her books have been published in at least 25 languages now.

This weekend she gives a reading in Bangor, Co Down. “I'm looking forward to Bangor. My sister's married to a Bangor man. I did Aspects a couple of years ago and it was so enjoyable that I was happy to get asked back again.”

She is based in Clontarf, Co Dublin, and says she's not the only prominent writer in the area.

“Patricia Scanlan lives just up the road from me, so we meet for coffee every now and then. Roddy Doyle doesn't live too far away either, so I do some work with Fighting Words, the organisation he set up to help young people write. Clontarf seems to be a bit of a hotbed,” she laughs.

:: Sheila O'Flanagan will read at the Aspects Festival (festival marquee) on Sunday at 4pm. Tickets £10 (AspectsFestival.com). My Mother's Secret is out now.

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