She might be a best-selling historical fiction novelist today; but for Sheila Forsey, her story really started around the kitchen table on the family farm.
“There were always people at the table,” she reflects.
“Whether it was the milkman that collected the milk for us, if it was the neighbour after pulling the calf, everybody came in for tea; and they were just great storytellers.
“I suppose being the youngest, I listened all the time; so I think it had a huge influence on me.”
And now Sheila is hoping to share her skills with a series of creative writing workshops in historical locations; including the 18th-century Butler House on 12 August as part of the Alternative Kilkenny Arts fringe festival.
What might be equally inspiring for would-be scribes, however, is the fact that Sheila only began writing at 39; and believes that it’s never too late to pick up the pen.
Farm to fiction
The youngest of three born on a dairy farm in Kilmuckridge, Co Wexford run by her parents, Tommy and Kathleen Devereux, Sheila explains that while not a “book house”, her father in particular was well known for his recitations, while she was drawn to the local drama group.
“That gave me a love of words, but I didn’t really know what to do with it,” she says. “I didn’t know any writers. I didn’t know how you became a writer.”
After school, Sheila got a job in a local chemist and went on to study beauty and make-up. This led to running her own spa in Kilkenny for almost a decade, while raising her three children with her husband Shane. She also continued her interest in drama with the city’s Watergate Theatre company.
The longing to write, however, was reignited during a talk by Booker Prize-winning author John Banville at the Kilkenny Arts Festival.
“Someone asked, ‘Where did you get your inspiration?’” Sheila recalls.
“He said, ‘Well where I grew up, all around me’ and he grew up in Wexford town. I remember it was like a lightbulb moment saying, ‘Oh gosh, so maybe I could just write about that so?’”
Sheila decided to return to college to do a part-time course in creative writing through NUI Maynooth, and shortly afterwards began her first novel, Mending Lace.
“I wrote it on the kitchen table with the children running around the place. People say to me, ‘Do you need to go on a retreat?’ I wrote it in the car when I was waiting for them!” she laughs.
Having done some research, she found an agent in the US who represented other Irish authors. She wrote to her, not expecting a reply.
“I wrote it on the kitchen table with the children running around the place.
“And she was coming to Ireland,” continues Sheila, who got a deal with a London publisher as a result. “It was a little bit of luck as well.”
Sheila describes Mending Lace as a contemporary novel that she “wrote for the market” rather than for herself.
While discussing her follow-up with her agent, however, she mentioned an old poem that her father used to recite about a Protestant who falls in love with a Catholic. “She [the agent] said, ‘Write what you really want to write’ and that kind of kicked off my career then because that was my first historical fiction book,” says Sheila of her second novel, Kilbride House, published by Poolbeg Press, which was inspired by the recitation.
Since then, Sheila has published two further historical fiction novels – The Secret Of Eveline House and The Lakehouse At Lenashee – and is currently working on a bio-fiction.
She is particularly drawn to the 1950s and all of her work involves research, be it studying books or newspapers from that era, the RTÉ archives, working with historians or simply talking to people who were alive at that time.
“They’ll really give you those little bits that you won’t read in a history book,” says Sheila.
When it comes to writing, setting is the key to unlocking the story for Sheila. The Lakehouse At Lenashee, for instance, was greatly inspired by Johnstown Castle in Co Wexford.
“Once I feel I have the setting, it’s kind of a grounding that ‘I’m here now’ and I can start creating,” says Sheila.
Which – in a way – brings us to Sheila’s latest initiative.
As well as writing, Sheila is also a tutor; for instance, she is involved in the Writers in Schools scheme with Poetry Ireland, supported by the Arts Council.
During a recent postgrad in creative and cultural entrepreneurship that she undertook through Trinity College, however, she came up with the idea of holding workshops in historic houses, including one this Saturday at Butler House in Kilkenny, with further to follow.
While titled “Unleashing your authentic voice”, Sheila stresses that the day-long event is for anyone “with a love of words.”
“It could be for a seasoned writer or it could be for somebody who is beginning,” she says. “It’s very much about opening the door and creating new work.”
The workshops include a tour of the property, with Sheila then introducing participants to various tools and techniques to find their creative voices.
For instance, one of the rooms might be used as a prompt to inspire an exercise, or a prop like an old gramophone or newspaper.
“You may go away and you may only write down some words,” she says, emphasising that there is no pressure on the day. “It’s just all about getting inspiration.”
She hopes it might be of interest to people who have always had the itch to write, but have struggled to find the time or space to do so.
Because – at the end of the day – Sheila Forsey believes that every body has their own story to tell.
“It shouldn’t be something that you feel it’s nearly like a glass box that you can’t get into, that you have to shatter to get into. It’s there,” she stresses.
“It’s like a well.
“You just need to know the path to get in; and then off you go.”