Would you like the short version or the long version? The long version is more fun, but if you just want the basics you can find them here:
Described in The Irish Times as 'one of our foremost writers for young people', Sheena Wilkinson has published eight novels, both contemporary and historical, as well as short stories. She has won many awards, including the Children’s Books Ireland Book of the Year. In 2012 Sheena was granted a Major Award from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland. Sheena lives in rural Northern Ireland and when she’s not writing she’s usually dog-walking or singing, sometimes both at once. Her first novels for adults, Mrs Hart’s Marriage Bureau, is published by Harper Collins Ireland in March 2023.
This is all true, and it may be all you want to know, but I’m guessing that as you’ve found your way to my website you might be interested in finding out more. So read on!
I’m such a cliché really – I was the child with her nose always in a book, forever scribbling stories and saying I was going to be a writer. Fast forward thirty years and it all came true. But of course, like all good stories, there’s more to it than that, and lots of setbacks along the way. Or you could see them as interesting plot developments.
I grew up in Belfast in the seventies and eighties, in a fairly rough estate. It was pretty obvious that I didn’t fit in with the other kids. It’s not that we had any more money than other families, but our terraced house was full of books and art and a sense of aspiration. Mummy had left school at sixteen but by the time I was seven she had gone back to the local tech and eventually went on to university and became a teacher. This showed me a different way of being a woman than my friends’ mums – they mostly didn’t work, or worked in factories or shops, or as cleaners.
There was a more important way in which my family didn’t fit in: my parents had a mixed marriage which meant Mummy was one of very few Catholics in our area. During the Troubles, this wasn’t something to publicise, so we were told to keep it quiet, and if anyone asked me what I was, I was to say ‘I’m nothing.’ Not a very positive identity, but in a way it was good training for a writer. I always felt on the outside, and I never felt entirely safe, so I got into the habit of watching people very closely.
I wasn’t encouraged to play in the streets, but I had free access to the local library. That’s where I fell in love with the world of stories. Far more stories than we had at home. Libraries made me a reader, and being a reader made me a writer. The world of stories was wider and richer than the world of the street. I wandered the prairies with Laura Ingalls Wilder and shivered with her through the Long Winter; I longed to go to the Austrian Chalet School and be best friends with Jo Bettany, or to Malory Towers with Darrell; I fell into adventure with the Famous Five and solved clues with the Five Find Outers. I was a Borrower.
I used to stay in the library until closing time and walk home in the dusk, often snatching a read on the way home, scuttling from lamppost to lamppost. I couldn’t wait to get safely indoors to find out if Harriet the Spy would be unmasked, or if Laura’s Pa would make it home through the blizzard. (He always did.)
Mummy being a student also meant the house was full of paper and pens and it wasn’t long before I discovered that I could be part of the magical story world in a very special way by writing my own stories. I used to cut pages up and sew them with tiny stitches to make little books. My writing probably wasn’t very small so each story ran into several volumes. When I was older and found out that the Bronte sisters did something similar as children, I felt charmed to be in such company. None of these little stories has survived, though I do have a few others from when I was about nine, which I share with readers on school visits.
That nine-year-old writer was bursting with ideas, imagination and confidence – that her stories were good and that she would be a writer when she grew up. I didn’t know that it would take me until I was forty to have my first novel published. I didn’t know what a slow apprenticeship I would have to serve. What got in the way? Growing up, I suppose. In my teens, still a voracious reader, the critical part of my brain started to fight with the creative side: This is crap. This is derivative. Nobody will want to read this. It’s not as good as Maeve Binchy/Virginia Woolf/ K.M.Peyton/ whoever I was reading at the time. All of these criticisms were true; what I didn’t realise what that everyone feels this way, and that it was a matter of keeping going.
I stopped keeping going. At Durham University I studied literature right up to PhD level, which kept me connected to that wonderful world of stories, but didn’t do much for my confidence. I wrote a diary, and the obligatory embarrassing self-absorbed poetry, but I never wrote more than a few chapters of anything fictional without giving up. I became an English teacher and suddenly I was involved with helping other people to write. I enjoyed this, up to a point, but after a while I started to worry that that would always be my role – cheerleader rather than player. In my late thirties my father was diagnosed with terminal cancer, and died at 62. Again, this might sound clichéd but that was a wake-up call for me – life really was short, and I didn’t want to be facing my own death without finding out the answer to the question I had been asking all my life: was I good enough to be published?
There was only one way to find out and that was to finish something. I started with short stories and won a prize with the first one I wrote, which of course gave me a huge boost of confidence. I became obsessed with wanting a publishing deal by the time I was forty – and I just squeezed it in! My first novel, Taking Flight, was published in 2010, after several years of going on writing courses, rejection, trying harder, and all the time working on the craft of writing until I had produced a book I was really proud of. Taking Flight won a lot of awards in Ireland and abroad, and set me on the path to being a professional writer.
In 2013, after the follow-up Grounded won the Children’s Books Ireland Book of the Year, I left my teaching job for a career break, just to see if I could make a living. I never went back and now I describe myself as a fulltime writer. Does that mean my books bring in enough money to live on? Oh, I wish! Like most writers, I do about a hundred jobs to make ends meet – writing, of course, but also teaching, speaking at events, running workshops – all sorts of things. Luckily I enjoy them all, because I love meeting readers and I’m passionate about helping other people discover the world of story which has given me so much.
But I’m happiest when I’m writing! I write short stories and personal essays as well as novels and I’m especially keen on historical fiction, like my trilogy Name upon Name, Star by Star and Hope against Hope, which are all about young women coming of age in early-twentieth-century Ireland, and of course Mrs Hart’s Marriage Bureau, set in 1933. Not-so-young adults have always enjoyed my YA books, so I’m really excited to be publishing my first ‘official’ adult novel.
After years of living alone – which I sometimes think helped me to be so single-minded about writing, I’m now married, in my fifties, and live in rural Northern Ireland, where I’m often to be found wandering through forests, up hills and along beaches, with my two dogs by my side and, probably, a story going on in my head.