Friday, July 29, 2011

Author Interview with Sheila Norton

I’m delighted to welcome Sheila Norton to the author interview hot seat today. Sheila lives near Chelmsford in Essex with her husband and elderly Burmese cat. She writes contemporary women’s fiction under her own name and her pen name, Olivia Ryan.

How did you get started?

Writing was always my hobby, but I got started as a ‘proper’ writer by entering a short story competition in the ‘Writer’s News’ magazine, back in 1993, and to my complete amazement won first prize! I thought it was a fluke but two years later, I won another one and went on to be their ‘Winner of Winners’ for that year. It didn’t go to my head but it did give me the confidence I’d been lacking, to submit a story to ‘Woman’s Weekly’. Again it must have been beginner’s luck because that very first one was accepted and I went on to have over a hundred short stories accepted by the various magazines, along with the inevitable hundreds of rejections, of course! I wasn’t that lucky!
The novels came later. Having a novel published was my ultimate dream but I still didn’t think I’d ever be able to achieve it, what with working full-time and having three teenagers at home. I made several attempts – some were rubbish and others just didn’t get finished. But when I had the idea for ‘The Trouble With Ally’ – a story about a woman who was just turning 50, who had loads of problems in her life but was funny and feisty and down to earth, the book almost wrote itself and I had a feeling it could be ‘the one’. It took 18 months of submissions and rejections before Piatkus accepted it in 2002 – whereupon I sat and cried!

Where is your favourite place to work?

I’ve always dreamed of working at a desk placed in the bay window of a house that sits high on a cliff overlooking the sea. No: it’s still just a dream! But when we moved to our present home, a small 1930s bungalow with two bay windows at the front, we made the second bedroom our study and yes, the desk does sit in the bay window although it overlooks nothing more exciting than the street outside! I share this desk, and computer, with my husband though – so if I want a long stretch of peaceful writing my favourite place is the little conservatory we had built on to the lounge at the back, where I sit in comfort working on my laptop, with the cat snoozing quietly beside me and a mug of tea (or glass of wine) close to hand. We have a lovely un-overlooked, south-west facing garden (all work done by hubby, thank God!) so the conservatory is a great little suntrap. In fact in midsummer it can get too hot – so there are times when I retreat even further, out onto the patio where I work under the shade of a big sun umbrella. Lovely!

Do you write every day? What is your work schedule?

The short answer is No. Although writing is, and always has been, my favourite thing, I also have other things in my life, and I want to retain a ‘rounded’ life where I can devote time to my family (we look after our little grandson one day every week, and as we’re expecting three more grand-babies this year, that could well be increased!), to my friends, and just to going out and doing other things when the mood takes me. I’m fortunate that I’m now retired from my day-job so there are some days when I write (or work on writing-related things) all day, other days when I do none at all, and probably the majority are those when I write for part of the day, fitting in other things too.
When I was at work, my writing had to be squeezed into evenings and weekends as well as all the other things life demanded. When I retired, I was sick of working to someone else’s schedule, having to start and finish when I was told, do certain tasks on Mondays and others on Tuesdays and so on. So I have no desire whatsoever to work to any self-imposed schedule. I write when I want to – which is pretty much whenever I’m not doing anything else!
Of course, I realise this might all change if I get a new contract and it demands more of my time. But as I wrote the first six of my novels while I was still at work, I don’t believe it could ever be harder than that!

Do you find time to have interests other than writing?

Yes. I like swimming, and try to go to the pool twice a week. Other days I make sure I have a walk. They’re the only two concessions I make to keeping fit, as I’m not interested in sport in the slightest and not at all competitive, so I exercise on my own.
I play the piano – in fact I used to teach it at one time, although nowadays I’m quite rusty and when I do play, it’s usually something very easy, as I want it to be relaxing rather than a challenge. I can manage a pretty mean nursery rhyme for the grandson, but it’s the most fun when he joins in (with fists and sometimes feet!).
I also like photography – I’m no good at it, I just use the ‘aim and fire’ technique, but I enjoy fiddling around with the pictures on the computer afterwards, and my latest interest is digital photo-books. I make one of every holiday or weekend away we have, and I’ve got a feeling there will be a few baby photo-books coming up soon!
And as far as finances allow, I do of course enjoy travel. With the husband on our own, or with friends – we love seeing different places while we’re still reasonably capable of movement!

What advice would you give a new writer?

I give this advice whenever I give a talk about writing: Write first and foremost because you enjoy it. There’s no point doing it for any other reason. You may or may not get published. You may or may not earn anything much from it. You may, but probably won’t, become ‘a celebrity’! Be yourself, write what comes naturally, don’t try too hard to be clever, and for God’s sake cultivate patience and never be rude or up-yourself when dealing with editors.

What draws you to your particular genre?

My overriding interest is people – how they think, why they do the things they do, how they cope when things go wrong. I like writing about flawed characters – my heroine Maddy in ‘The Travel Bug’ for instance, is a self-confessed ‘bad girl’ whose lifestyle might provoke disapproval until the layers of her personality are unfolded as the story progresses. Best of all, I love people’s conversations, and enjoy writing snappy and realistic dialogue between my characters. So – light contemporary fiction was my natural choice; and as I’ve personally never liked reading stories about impossibly beautiful heroines with high-flying careers spending all their time shopping in exclusive shops and bonking millionaires on film sets in extravagant locations, my books are about the kind of people I know, doing the kind of jobs I did and my friends do, with the kind of families and the kind of love lives most of us really have!

How do you promote your books?

I have websites for my own name and for my pseudonym (Olivia Ryan), I write a blog and I post any updates about my books or short stories on Facebook. For instance, my latest venture has been self-publishing my Sheila Norton novels on Amazon for Kindle so I’ve started letting everyone know that four of them are now available there. Each time I’ve had a new book published, I’ve contacted all the local papers, local radio stations, libraries and local bookshops (sadly there’s only one option remaining of those, now) and try to get a bit of publicity in the Essex area. I’ve found this usually works well; I’ve featured in local papers quite a bit and have been interviewed on local radio several times. When the last book was published I also sent out an e-mail newsletter to everyone who had ever contacted me to say they’d enjoyed any of the previous books, and I also sent that to all my friends, family, ex-colleagues and writing contacts (whether they wanted it or not!). I included a competition to win a copy of the new book by answering a question on the contact page of my website – that was very successful. Finally, I give talks at local libraries, to groups like U3A and WI and writing groups. Some of these pay fees, but the PR aspect of it is equally important and I’ve been surprised to find I quite enjoy doing it anyway!

Are you a specialist of one genre or do you have another identity?

Well, my novels are all contemporary women’s fiction, and all involve a heroine who’s sometimes middle-aged, sometimes young, but in every case facing the stuff life chucks at her – and with a bit of romance thrown in somewhere, usually at the end after the other bastards in her life have got their come-uppance! And they’re all written in the first person too. So I guess thus far I’ve been a specialist of one genre – although I do have two identities, Sheila Norton and Olivia Ryan. The pseudonym was suggested by my editor, to market the ‘Tales from’ series of books as a completely separate venture as she felt they were different from the previous books. Although they’re all quite light and humorous, most of my books do touch on some serious issues too, and this is particularly true in the ‘Tales from’ series.
I do wear another ‘hat’ for my short stories – which I still write as Sheila Norton – because that is in effect a different genre. Subject matter for ‘The People’s Friend’ stories, for instance, has to be completely different from the sort of things that happen in my books!

Tell us about your latest book, and how you got the idea for it.

My latest published book is ‘Tales from a Honeymoon Hotel’. It’s the final book of a series of three, so the idea was really conceived much earlier, at the time when the first book of the series, ‘Tales from a Hen Weekend’ was accepted for publication. The plan was for three books that are completely different stories, about completely different characters, but linked by the subject matter and the ‘confession’ element of the stories. They’re set around the themes of hen weekend, wedding, and honeymoon – three events that are fairly important in the liveswho of most women one way or another, whether it’s their own weddings, or those of their children, siblings, friends, etc.
For ‘Tales from a Honeymoon Hotel’, I decided to focus on three very different couples meet while honeymooning at the same hotel. I wanted a romantic setting where everything should have been perfect but needless to say, in the case of our three couples, for various reasons it turned out not to be! I hit on the island of Korcula in Croatia, where we’d had a holiday ourselves a couple of years earlier, so my own memories of the place made it easy to write about, leaving me free to concentrate most on what I enjoy best – the characters, their problems and interaction with each other. There are some difficulties and some sad past issues to be overcome by the newly-weds, which all come out in the course of their honeymoons. I find it really satisfying to work out how my characters will resolve the problems I give them!

Can you tell us something of your work in progress?

My work in progress is actually finished; that probably sounds a bit mad but it’s only finished up to the point where I’ve submitted it, and until or unless I’m lucky enough to be offered a contract for it, I’ll still be thinking of it as ‘in progress’. I’ve taken a huge gamble and stepped away from my usual genre, having had the last book I wrote rejected at every turn for much the same reason (overcrowded women’s fiction market). I’d had a suggestion from someone in publishing who I really respect, that I should try writing a historical saga – but I am absolutely not a historian (I have great admiration for those who are, but it’s horses for courses). And then I noticed all the current interest in the post-war years and 1950s, and thought – well, if the 1950s are now considered ‘history’, perhaps the 1960s are, too! After all, there’s ‘Mad Men’ on TV, and the ‘Made in Dagenham’ film, and lots of interest in the Beatles recently. I was a teenager in the mods & rockers and Beatlemania years of the 1960s so my own memories have made it reasonably easy for me to write a ‘sixties’ book – although it’s certainly taken more research than any of my contemporary novels did! I’m cautiously pleased with the result, which is a historical drama with an element of a mystery to it. But the jury’s still out, of course, as to whether it pleases an editor … Keep your fingers crossed for me!

Thank you Sheila for taking the time to talk to us. We’ll keep our fingers crossed for your 1960s book.

To find our more about Sheila and her writing go to her websites at and

Follow her blog at .


Anna Jacobs said...

Interesting interview, Sheila. I always like to hear how other writers work.

Me, I'm a work nearly every day type of novelist, but I stop at teatime because I enjoy my husband's company.

Good luck to your new book!

Sheila Norton said...

Thanks Anna. Yes, I find it interesting too, that we're all so different in how we work. But strongly believe we all have to do what's best for us as individuals. Forcing it can't bring out the best writing, for anyone!

Rosemary Gemmell said...

Really enjoyed your interesting interview, Sheila. I like your ideal place to work!

Sheila Norton said...

Thank you Rosemary! Yes I do like to make myself comfortable - after years of working in an office it's such a luxury to be able to choose where I sit to work!

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