I am a tender writer, shall I say; my characters are very real to me and I laugh and cry with them at life’s twists and turns.
I have been a story teller since the age of 3 and apparently I was telling stories to myself in my cot before that.
How do I write? I have the main characters in my mind, and a name for my heroine, a time and place, but I don’t plot; as I begin the new story, it just unfolds, a magical process I always think... The characters speak for themselves it seems. I do become aware when the story is about to end and often surprise myself with the outcome. Hopefully it is a happy ending but perhaps not the one I envisaged.
I am often asked which character is “me.” There are always children in my books (animals too) and it is not a conscious thing, but they often do and say things which I did when I was growing up. If it is an era I was involved in, they may share my experiences at work, and further back, at school; they are likely to be involved with the acting and arts world, and often they wear my favourite clothes of that time! They also live in or visit the places I love most.
I’m told readers can tell that when I write about a birth, I am drawing on my own experience of having nine children myself! And I do like a hero who is “the leader of the family gang!” like my late husband. Also, my great grandmother was a midwife for over sixty years! The forthcoming book The Forget-me-not Girl is a tribute to Emma.
I did have a moment of Glory at school. I was always embarrassed when our English teacher read selected essays to the class and then asked, “Who do you think wrote that?” There was a united chorus when mine were read, of “Sheila!” I would rather have been anonymous. Well, various girls were selected to go in for a competition open to all the schools in the area, and the subject was “Waste Paper.” one of my favourite occupations at the end of the war. I read all the comics before I passed them on, of course. I dashed the essay off in my usual terrible scrawl, in pencil. Handed it in, and thought no more of it. The day before the deadline, I was told by my headmistress that I was to stay after school and rewrite it in ink – no blots! My form teacher sat at her desk until I finished and then I was allowed to go home, and she went to the Newspaper who sponsored the competition to hand my essay in. One day I came to school and was congratulated by all my classmates. I was puzzled by this as being no good at sport I was usually ignored by them. Later the Head Mistress came into our class and called for me to stand up. What had I done? I wondered. She informed me that I had won first place with my essay, and there had been 3,000 entrants... However, she always found “a sting in the tail”: she said: “It just shows what you can do when you put your mind to it” and I felt more ashamed than jubilant. My parents only found out, when they read the newspaper!
I had a wonderful time for many years writing and appearing in pantomime in the village where we lived in Kent. Someone cycling past me one day as I walked my two youngest home from school, called out “Hello Mother Goose!” So I knew I was recognisable even without the stage makeup! I wrote my first pantomime aged 9, and played Puss in Boots, wearing a costume made from a blackout curtain.
I set some of my stories in WW2. As a small girl, I don’t recall being frightened, not even when we were bombed out. I loved living for years at a time with a favourite Aunt (Mum was there too with my brother – Dad was in Bath with the Admiralty. He was older than my mother, and served in The Great War.) So Suffolk (where I live now since my husband retired is a place very dear to my heart.
I am somewhat bemused by sudden fame at an advanced age, but am so happy with my new enthusiastic publishers. I love the covers for all the new paperbacks. I was told by a gypsy friend of my Knee Deep in Plums days, (a memoir) that “You will be famous, but not until you are old, my dear,” and it amazes me that her prediction has actually come true!
A good agent is a wonderful asset. I would like to pay tribute to mine, Judith Murdoch, I have been with her for 25 years now. I will always remember the words she said at our first meeting: “Sheila, you will be the English Maeve Binchy.” That has inspired me ever since.