Read Sheila's full Writers' Rooms interview here...
Where are you?
At the Belfast desk, in the attic, facing the window, near the top of the trees, next stop the sky … I also have a desk in North Antrim where curious cows peer at me over the hedge.
What are you working on?
Stories, short and long. Novel No. 2 is screaming at me. And I’ll be returning imminently to a couple of drafted research articles on novelist Janet McNeill.
What’s that over there?
Out the window is the city of Belfast, resplendently laid out between her rolling Antrim and Down hills. I can see Harland & Wolff’s two yellow cranes and Stormont in the distance. Over there on the desk is my favourite childhood teddy bear, a precious possession since babyhood gifted to me by my favourite uncle. Ted makes me very happy. Years ago he had to have reconstructive surgery in the Dublin Dolls’ Hospital when our zealous (or jealous?) Alsation pup decided to rearrange his face. The surgeons did a great restoration job. Now every time I look up from the screen Ted’s face cheers me on and I’m a playful, happy kid again. It’s a great feeling, a good place for a writer to be. Then there’s the plate of beautiful polished stones brought from Brazil by close friends – I love them and always keep them beside me.
What’s that sound?
Rain thumping off the roof, my little dog Dusty snoring on the sofa behind me, and Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue. It’s usually either Miles or Mozart when it comes to music. Or a track I’ve just discovered, obsess about and play on a loop. The 2020 lockdown will forever be associated with Badly Drawn Boy’s All Possibilities from 2002. Like Ted’s benign presence, it’s a timeless, optimistic rallying cry for writers, artists everywhere.
How does isolation help or hinder you?
On balance, it helps. When writing, isolation is definitely preferable. I write slowly. I need space, peace, a gently guided focus to allow the imagination to fly. When editing, in contrast, isolation can be a drawback because I often break away from the desk, head in a flurry, desperate for a wee chat with somebody, anybody. It’s often one of the dogs. Or I text some friends working at home to distract them. Pure selfish. When I’ve had my social fix, isolation is welcome again. I’m a sociable introvert.
Time for a break…?
Coffee. Coffee. Then more coffee and later perhaps something that’s been waiting on ice if it’s the weekend or, alleluia, I sense there’s a breakthrough on the page and I can’t wait to get back to the desk next day and this calls for a mini-celebration ... I’m also a great believer in short changes of scene, maybe a walk or another wee chat with someone. If the weather is kind I hit the garden for a while and do a few jobs. I grab my battered pair of gardening gloves and weed until the cardboard box I keep especially for this purpose is full. I’ll also check the bird feeders. And make more coffee. And go back to the desk ...
What are you reading/watching these days?
I’m reading Rachel Cusk, the first of her trilogy Outline. She’s a writer I’ve wanted to read for a long time and I’m delighted to get to her at last. Me being me, I will read the entire trilogy so Transit and Kudos are next. Before Cusk I read several stunning Jon McGregor novels. Highly recommended.
I like to read short stories in the morning, when I’ve more energy for the attention the form demands, and save the novel-reading for the stretch of evening. I have scores of short story collections and dip in and out, often discovering something that I’d love to share with students so I make notes – I get through a lot of post-its... I adore quality TV drama and bless the day TV-on-demand was born. I’ve just finished Killing Eve Series 3: great parts for female character actors – there aren’t enough of them. I’m now re-watching The Bridge. Another great female protagonist. After watching it the first time I ended up in tears and I’m looking forward to it again.
I scour BBC Sounds for 1940s-1950s-1960s radio dramas and sitcoms. I listen to the writing and social values of those periods. Radio was a big deal back in the day and I’m fascinated by that. I also love podcasts. As well as the usual books and literary shows – The Stinging Fly podcast, Backlisted, BBC Bookclub – I avidly follow a range of American political podcasts as well as the BBC’s Americast – essential for any Emily Maitlis fan. Finally, one very special favourite is The Golden Ratio Podcast featuring Professor Jen Golbeck, her husband Ingo Burghardt and their five golden retrievers. Golbeck is a computer scientist researching online wellbeing and the effect dogs can have on human experience. I’m a great believer in canine therapy. At my home desk, there’s always a dog or two nearby. I’d recommend The Golden Ratio dogs in all their online forms to anyone feeling the stress of lockdown and/or Covid.
What might you revisit in times of crisis or uncertainty?
I revisit pieces that made me happy back in the day when I first met them. My professional debut as an actor was playing the protagonist Ann Elizabeth McGlone from No Mate for the Magpie by the late, great Frances Molloy. I had the happiest of times playing that part and spending time with Frances. The book is such a thing of wonder and beauty and sadness and laughter that every time I read it I collapse with joy and give thanks that I’m alive to re-read it.
I grew up reciting a lot of poetry, Heaney and Yeats especially, and Heaney first editions were a feature of my childhood brought home by my parents who passed them on to us. Heaney steadies the ship, always. Specifically, one poem for tough times is Derek Mahon’s Everything is going to be All Right: I too look out from a dormer window here and derive great comfort and renewed resolve from “The poems flow from the hand unbidden/and the hidden source is the watchful heart.”
I love cinema as much as books: Brief Encounter, Singin’ in the Rain, Some Like It Hot, post-war French cinema like Louis Malle’s L’Ascenseur with its glorious Miles Davis soundtrack and the output of courageous Italian neo-Realists who started a cinematic movement with practically nothing but huge energy and imagination. All life affirming stuff!
Best advice for writers?
Be brave. You’re doing okay. Write every day. Read every day. Shut out the naysayers. And endurance: keep on keeping on. (I stole that last bit from Bob Dylan. So yeah, steal good stuff and make it work for you.)