Subramanian:In both books you seem to have a preference for an ensemble cast of characters who gravitate toward a common place Ė a tearoom in the first book and a ballroom in the second. In contrast, some novels have one or two strong, well-etched central characters who hold the narrative together. What are your reasons for the ensemble approach?
Sharon Owens:I have to be honest here: it was not a conscious choice to make the buildings themselves the central characters. It was simply an instinctive way of structuring the story. I suppose, to me, the buildings symbolized permanence and solidity whereas the characters were often fleeting, restless personalities. I think I am simply attracted to certain buildings, especially Victorian ones with dainty spires on the roof. I like their age and beauty, and wonder what secrets they could tell if the walls could speak.
In your letter to readers in the Penguin U.K. website, you indicate that you grew up in the 1970s, during the height of the Troubles. In both books, though, you choose to keep the sectarian troubles in the background. Your characters are affected by it and are aware of it, but except for the incident in The Teahouse on Mulberry Street where Clare loses her purse in the bus, the Troubles are not central to your stories. Is that a conscious choice?
Yes, absolutely. Ireland has certainly had an ultra-violent history, but to use it as the central theme of a novel does not appeal to me. I canít ignore The Troubles completely, of course, which is why they are there in the background. In my third novel, the central characters Lily and Jack are devoted to one another, partly because of the fact that Jack was nearly killed in a no-warning bombing attack on Belfast in 1984. Iíve been pretty close to a few bombs myself, and itís not a pleasant experience, but you just have to put it out of your mind and keep going, donít you? Life is all about risk, in one way or another.
There are many, many good people here in Ireland: gentle and kind human beings. People with normal lives and everyday interests. Romantic entanglements, money worries, mid-life crises, unrequited love. These are the things I want to write about: the lives that are lived outside of the media spotlight.
The main male characters, Daniel Stanley (in The Teahouse on Mulberry Street) and Johnny Hogan (in The Ballroom on Magnolia Street), are reticent when it comes to talking about relationships and women. They also donít seem to ďget itĒ as far as maintaining a relationship goes. Stanley waits for a traumatic event (Penny throwing him out) before changing his ways; Johnny vainly believes he can convince Declan to take over the ballroom because of his relationship with Marion. Any background on this commonality in your central male characters?
Thatís a good question. There is definitely an Irish stereotype that demands men just get on with things, never showing any sign of weakness or vulnerability. Daniel and Johnny both subscribed to that idea and became quite lonely and isolated as a result. In the end, Daniel had to admit his desperate need of (and love for) Penny, while Johnny remained defiant and trapped in his ballroom-owner persona. If the two men had been better communicators, they would have saved themselves many difficult and stressful years.
Sadly, there is still much evidence in real life of Irish men not feeling able to open up to others and ask for help. Seven young men committed suicide in Belfast last month, and there is now a campaign under way to improve counseling services. There is also an ongoing problem with excess alcohol-consumption, and street violence, which has been well documented in the news recently. Luckily, there are lots of sensitive, calm and caring males around too, to give us hope for the future. (Luckily for me, Iím married to one!) My lovely husband Dermot was the inspiration for some of the sensible and stable characters in the books, such as Peter Pendergast, James Hogan and Declan Greenwood.
How much of you are in your characters? There is Brenda Brown the artist in the first book and there is Shirley in the second. Whom do you identify the most with?
Brenda Brown was loosely based on me when I was a teenager. I didnít write fan letters to Nicolas Cage but I did think he was very nice looking, which was why I made Nicolas the focus for Brendaís loneliness. I was a lot like Brenda: just wanting to belong, but not knowing where or how. Shirley Winters was a little bit like me, too. I wore a lot of second-hand clothes in the 1980ís as I was a devoted fan of The Smiths.
What got you into writing? Did you write for magazines before writing a novel?
It was Dermotís idea I write a novel. Before that, I had not written professionally. But Iíve been a bookworm since my childhood. I read all the time, buying two or three novels a week. In 2001 Dermot saw an article in a newspaper, saying that Irish publishers were on the lookout for new writing talent. He went straight out and bought me a computer, a huge desk and comfy chair, and advised me to get writing immediately. I told him Iíd never be able to do it, but then I wrote Teahouse in four months. Once I started writing, I just couldnít stop, I enjoyed it so much. I sent my book to The Poolbeg Press in Dublin and got a 6-book deal right away.
Who are your literary influences? You are often compared to Maeve Binchy. What is your reaction to that?
Of course, Iím very flattered to be compared to a lovely lady like Maeve Binchey who has sold millions of books around the world. If I had a fraction of Maeveís success, Iíd be very happy indeed. Maeveís novel Echoes is one of my favorite books. I also enjoy reading Brian Moore, Roddy Doyle, Patrick McCabe, Frank McCourt, Patrick Galvin, John Walsh and Janet McNeill. So far, the reviews of my books have been very kind and generous, which is wonderful.
How do you approach a novel?
I begin a book, the way I used to begin a painting. I collect pictures of pretty things, interesting anecdotes, various personal ideas, topical magazine clippings etc and stick them all in a good quality notebook. I write little poems, and make pen-and-ink sketches. I listen to pop music (currently Interpol) and to plays and debates on BBC Radio 4, and go for long walks. Then, the plot just emerges, and off I go. The books write themselves, really.
What are your writing habits?
I like a tidy desk, so itís got to be immaculate before I start. Then, Iíll make a pot of tea, put some oat biscuits on a plate, and begin writing at about 8am. My desk is right by the window so I can see the garden, which is nice. After lunch, Iíll revise what I have done that day. In the afternoons, I curl up in a big squashy armchair and read. Iíve just finished Beatrice by Noelle Harrison, a beautifully written story about a girl who disappeared. If I feel like a treat, Iíll watch Murder, She Wrote, which is on TV every day at 2.35pm. I just love that show, and of course the character of Jessica Fletcher is a writer too. So that makes me laugh when sheís trying to proof-read her latest book while people are getting murdered all over the place.
What is your next book about? Do you have plans beyond that?
Teahouse and Ballroom were the first two books in a Belfast trilogy. The third one is called The Tavern on Maple Street and is another ensemble piece set in a small pub in Belfast city-centre. After that, my Irish publisher, The Poolbeg Press, have signed me up for three more novels. I am currently working on book 4, The Castle on the Hill. Itís a slightly darker story about a warring couple. They own a castle-hotel by the lakes in county Fermanagh. Book 5 is a novel called Love is a White Gazebo. Itís about a pretentious society wedding that goes horribly, fatally wrong. I havenít planned book 6 yet!
I have also been asked to write short stories, stories for children and articles for magazines and newspapers, although I am finding it hard to make enough time. I just do my best, and take each day as it comes.
Contributing reviewer Ram
conducted his interview with Sharon Owens via email for curledup.com.
Click here to read his review of The Ballroom on Magnolia Street.