Friday, March 29, 2013

Interview with Sheila Riley

Today we welcome Sheila Riley to the RNA Blog. Sheila says she has always been interested in writing, and won a few prizes at school for her essays and short stories. Going on to win a distinction in English and History at college she joined a local writer's group and in 2004 the RNA - NWS. She had short stories published in Woman's Own and other weekly magazines, won the North West Libraries short story competition in 2010, wrote a couple of Mills and Boon type novels which weren't successful, and then went on to write sagas - her first love. 

Welcome to the blog, Sheila. I believe you have some exciting news to share with us about a new venture you are involved with. 

I certainly have Freda, and, excited as I am about it I was filled with trepidation when I was offered the chance to complete the ‘Article Row’ series of world war two sagas written by Annie Groves, or as many of us know and loved her, our very own Penny Halsall. You can imagine my shock, but I said yes - then put down the phone and began to worry - was I good enough to fill the shoes of such a wonderful writer? Let the readers decide.

Do tell us how this all came about.

I was asked by my agent if I would pick one of the characters and write a bit about her - so I chose two, to be on the safe side – I emailed it the following morning, after reading My Sweet Valentine the night before, not knowing that it was being shown to the publisher (Thank the Lord I didn't know!) Then I was asked if I could write ten thousand words... twenty thousand words... and then I was told Harper Collins liked it and when could I have it finished? It was an honour to be able to complete the series and right then I decided ONLY A MOTHER KNOWS would be finished for Penny's first anniversary, it was the least I could do for a wonderful writer who has left such a fabulous legacy - and I finished it late at night on the 30th of December only hours before Penny's anniversary.

Those of us who knew and loved Penny, will be delighted to hear that her series is to live on, in her memory. But do you find the prospect daunting?

I hope Annie Groves readers will enjoy my writing as much as they did Penny’s, although, for as much as I have found the whole experience very exciting I will probably be hiding behind the sofa when ONLY A MOTHER KNOWS, a London saga, hits the shops on the 14th of March. I have only written Liverpool sagas before this one, so I had to do quite a bit of research to get the places exactly right.

Tell us something of your own background in the Liverpool area. You must be as equally fascinated by the history of Merseyside as was Penny.

Bomb damage in Liverpool in WWII

I adore the history of Merseyside; its strong, romantic maritime connections has a heritage that evokes powerful emotions and nuggets of golden stories yet to be mined. I was born in Southport and brought up in Sefton, near Liverpool. I trained as a hairdresser, went to college, and married at nineteen (I know, scandalous, but we were in love – and my dad wouldn’t allow me ‘live in sin’ - back in 1977). I was lucky enough to have three children, (although not pregnant at the time of my marriage) and I used to spend the nights when my babies were asleep scribbling in old exercise books about the wonders of motherhood. Then I would promptly tear up the stories in case my husband thought I’d lost my marbles wanting to be a published writer. He didn’t think that though, and when I had my first short story published in Woman’s Own he was very proud of me.

I know you were in the NWS before getting published, in what way did you find it helpful?

I joined the RNA back in 2004 and Penny was one of the first people to welcome me into the fold and was always friendly, and even though she was a busy writer she always had time to chat. I used to love her posts on Romna, especially when she got her dander up about books being given away - and how hard the author has to work to make a bob or two. The world is a poorer place without her and I hope I can be as helpful to new writers.

I found the NWS and especially ROMNA, really helpful, as new writers are given instant access to the professionals who are so generous with their time and their valuable advice. This wonderful guidance cannot be obtained anywhere else in the world, and I have heard of people sitting up until after midnight on the opening of the new NWS year to gain a valuable place – I know I did - and not only are new writers welcomed with open arms they are also encouraged to take part in wonderful, sometimes passionate, but always friendly exchanges.

Research for Only a Mother Knows

What did you find the most pleasurable, and the most challenging aspect in writing ONLY A MOTHER KNOWS? 

The challenge was the most pleasurable aspect of the writing Only A Mother Knows – I love a challenge and I am grateful for it – but the most wonderfully thought-provoking part of it was not only getting into the Annie Groves mind-set but also the mind-set of her characters, I was – and still am - on tenterhooks hoping that I have got everything right.

On a more practical note, tell us something of your routine and where and when you like to write.

I used to write at the kitchen table because I liked to have the sounds of the household around me as I wrote; – my five year old German shepherd, Max pulling down the handle of the kitchen door to go out into the garden, and Missy our tiny, sixteen year old feline fury who often puts Max in his place before snaking her way around my ankles for attention. However, as I had to concentrate on Only A Mother Knows, I moved back to the spare bedroom/office where all my books and research material is stored and I closed the door - nobody dare enter – unless they brought coffee and a chocolate hob-nob.

Are you a plotter or a panster? How much of your journey do you plan before you drive off into the mist? 

I used to be a panster and let the story tumble out. I loved the surprise of writing without plans and was often amazed at the characters who took up residence in my tales. However, I now have to plan from the beginning - and I found that it does, ultimately, save me a lot of time.

Do you have a secret good luck charm? 

I have, Freda, although I never believed in such things at one time – however, I was in Southport one Wednesday, after an RNA lunch, when I came upon a flight of steps leading down to a cellar that sold lots of shells and crystals, etc. The shop was narrowly old, shadowy, smelled of timeworn books and the salty tang of the sea. I was fascinated and delved into the boxes of curios and trinkets, when I caught sight of some glossy pebbles that had dark marbled markings. Just running the silky stones through my fingers brought me a feeling of intense tranquillity, I had to have one! And although I never really thought of it as a ‘good luck charm’ I have had a wonderful amount of happy coincidences since I bought it for the princely sum of one pound twenty pence.

So what next? Can we hope for more of these sagas in the future? 

I have just finished the fifth and final saga in the Article Row series; A Christmas Promise, which will be published in October 2013. However, I’m still having talks about what will happen next year. But I’m pleased to say that at this moment in time, the future is looking delightfully busy.

Only A Mother Knows - the fourth in the Article Row series will be published on the 14th of March.

It has a fabulous three and a half page Forward by Kate Bradley, commissioning editor at Harper Collins, who so rightly says that the book is; In Memory of Penny Halsall 24th November 1946 - 31st December 2011. And if I may, I have included a small portion:

"The news of Penny Halsall's death came as a great shock. I had been her editor for a number of years at HarperCollins and she was one of my favourite authors. I'd worked with Penny on her Annie Groves books and also on some of the ones that she had written as Penny Jordan - she really was a joy and was much loved by everyone here…

At Penny's funeral, the church was completely packed, not just with family but also fellow writers, friends, fans and publishing colleagues. But despite the sadness there was laughter too. Penny loved a party and when her favourite song was played - The Maverick's, 'I Just Want to Dance the Night Away' - we were reminded of what a wonderfully happy and positive person she was.

Once back at my desk in London, my mind turned to the difficult issue of what would happen now. 'My Sweet Valentine' was in the middle of the series and Annie Groves’ fans would be desperate to know what was going to happen to those well-loved characters..."

Kate goes on to say that after many long talk with Penny's agent, Teresa Chris and Penny's sister, Pru, they all agreed that the series should be finished...

“The last piece to be put into place was to find somebody who would be able to marry all of the pieces together and to turn all of the info available into a narrative that was worthy of Penny… We were almost running out of ideas when Teresa discovered the writer Sheila Riley. Not only did Sheila have something of Penny's style, but she also hailed from Penny's beloved Merseyside - without her, this book would never have existed - thank you Sheila..."

Their biggest battle will be on the home front. 

Four young women in wartime London have already been witnesses to the heartache and pain that Hitler's bombs have inflicted. Tilly is desperate to wed her sweetheart, but he is called back to America. Her mother gets terrible news and incurs spiteful wrath. For Dulcie, the war brings an old flame, David, back into her life. But can she cope with his terrible injuries. Agnes discovers something that will change her life and Sally’s love is tested. In this seemingly endless war, the girls learn about love, loss and heartache on the home front.


Find out more:
Sheila's Blog
On Twitter @1sheilariley
Thank you for sparing time to talk to us today, Sheila. We wish you every success. 
Best wishes, Freda 

Interviews on the RNA Blog are for RNA members, although we do occasionally take guests. If you are interested in an interview, please contact me: 


Sandra Mackness said...

Thank you, Freda and Sheila for this poignant and very interesting insight. What a wonderful compliment to be asked to continue Penny's series.

Jane said...

That was fascinating, Sheila. I was very touched reading about how you took on the continuation of the series. Good luck with it! Victoria x

Sheila Riley said...

Sorry I didn't reply to your comments, Sandra and Victoria - I was beyond thrilled to be asked to conclude Penny's series. Thank you for your lovely comments.