I chat with best-selling author, Sheila O’ Flanagan, about her problem with the word “Chick-Lit”, career women and being published in China
Like most authors, Liberties native, Sheila O’ Flanagan didn’t set out to become a writer, in fact one of her first jobs was in the Irish Central bank located on her Dublin doorstep. While many would say an occupation like this would do very little to perfect one’s writing, Sheila believes that her time spent immersed in the world of commerce influenced her writing hugely, preferring to write about career women.
“It was one of the first jobs I got offered and I needed a job. It shaped my writing in one sense because I like writing about women with particular types of jobs for whom their career is not necessarily the most important thing, but is still an important part of their lives. I don’t like writing about people whose jobs is just a side issue, I like to write about women with careers”, affirms Flanagan in her distinct Dublin accent.
Throughout this period of employment at the Central Bank, Sheila dabbled in journalism for the Irish Times, writing articles that “made business accessible for people who didn’t know anything about business. All throughout this period though Sheila never forgot about fiction writing, finally getting her first book published in her mid-thirties. As Sheila went down the traditional print publishing route she is wary at the hype there is to self and online publishing formats.
“It’s harder now. There’s a lot of noise in terms of self-publishing and the problem I have with this is that a lot of the time writers are bringing their stuff out for free so they can get their stuff noticed, but it’s quite difficult to sort out the good stuff from the bad. So even if you are brilliant, it’s very difficult”
O’ Flanagan’s debut novel, Dreaming of Stranger, was the first in a string of her works which have had literary and commercial success. In 2011, she won an Irish Book Award for her popular novel, All for you, while by 2013 she had sold almost 4 million books worldwide. One thing that Sheila struggles to come to terms with is the popularity of her books in far off lands such as China.
“I’m surprised, but it is nice when I know they are being published in places like China because it’s such a different culture. I would never have imagined that somebody from China would be reading my books”, says Sheila modestly
With Ireland famous for it’s female literary exports from Marian Keyes, to Cathy Kelly, Sheila is quick to point out the misconceptions people have about the word “chick-lit”, a word over-used in modern circles.
“I have a bit of a thing about the word “chick-lit”, begins Sheila “A lot of people talk about it as these books being all the same and having an over-reaching theme in them all, but the only over-reaching theme in them is that they are written by women and that women are the main protagonists. I don’t try to make my books stand out to a particular genre. I just try to write the best book that I can”
One female author that inspired Sheila and so many other Irish women, was the late nation’s sweetheart, Maeve Binchy. For Sheila, Maeve gave Irish writers “confidence in Ireland”.
“Maeve was an inspiration to a lot of people because she was an Irish women writing novels about Ireland and was successful outside of Ireland. Back then Ireland didn’t have the confidence and thought that if you were to write a book about Ireland it would just be popular within Ireland. She made us realise that people will read good writing no matter who has written it”
This empowerment that Binchy’s legacy provides, is something that Sheila tries to encourage in other female writers and working women. “If you see somebody succeed at something, you think that there’s no reason why you can’t do it either. I also feel pleased when I get mail from the readers when my books help them through a similar problem that a character is faced with in one of my novels. It makes them feel yes there are other people going through these things and that you’re not the only people thinking this”
As Sheila’s novels are largely focused on people and situations, especially in the workplace, I ask Sheila does she feel the world of work has improved for women in the last twenty years?
“It’s improved in so far as there is a greater variety of jobs available. I’m not so sure if conditions within the corporations have improved as much as I’d like. There are more opportunities, but there are still issues of sexism, wage imbalance and the glass ceiling, though we don’t like to talk about it like that there are still a lot of obstacles that women only realise are there when they enter the workplace”
Sheila’s latest novel due out this summer, My Mother’s Secret is different from her previous novels in the fact that it deals with the generational divide between children and their parents and is essentially a “family book” “People think they know everything about their parents and suddenly they realise maybe they are not as straight-forward or as boring as they thought. So it’s about looking at that generational thing and realising that an older generation isn’t as stupid as we think”
For information on Sheila’s book and writing tips, visit sheilaoflanagan.com