BOOKS: Best-selling author was dismissed for years for writing the kind of books that sell by the lorry load and are loved by women

By Róisín Ingle in The Irish Times

Author Sheila O’Flanagan, pictured at home in Clontarf, Dublin. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

The denizens of Clontarf are ambling in shorts along the seafront and power walking down leafy streets wearing headphones and three-quarter-length trousers. Author Sheila O’Flanagan lives on one of these streets, although she divides her time between here and her other home in Alicante, Spain. “When I was much younger,” she says. “I read an article about someone who said they ‘divided their time’ between homes and I always thought I’d like to be able to say that one day”. Now she does.

We are down at the bottom of her long, landscaped garden, the perfect place for a socially distant interview. An elaborate-looking water feature trickles from a stone wall as she sits at one end of a garden table and I take a seat at the other, a pile of her novels placed between us. The only issue with the distance is that O’Flanagan speaks so softly I sometimes have to ask her to repeat herself.

Looking back up at the rear of the house, I’m not surprised when O’Flanagan says her home in the North Dublin suburbs was, as Simon Harris might put it, considerably “dickied up” several years ago. The grand design was paid for by the proceeds of over nine million books sold all over the world. Fellow northsider Dermot Bannon would approve of the fact that the back of the house is mostly floor-to-ceiling windows.

“I like light,” she says, recalling the poorly lit, freezing garage she used to write in before the renovations were done. She has published 25 novels since she began writing in her late thirties – O’Flanagan writes a book a year – along with a collection of children’s stories. This then, is the home of one of the most successful novelists Ireland has ever produced.

Which is why it’s remarkable that two decades have passed since The Irish Times has run a significant interview with O’Flanagan. It was back in 1999, on the publication of her third book, when the late literary critic Eileen Battersby visited her at her office in the IFSC where she used to work as a bond trader. At that point O’Flanagan had a compelling column called View from the Third Floor in the business pages of this newspaper, where she made the complex economic issues she grappled with every day accessible to readers.

In the same period, this newspaper has interviewed Colm Tóibín at least five times, and that is not counting the many profile pieces and glowing mentions in dozens of other articles. This is relevant because O’Flanagan has lots to say on the subject of how literary fiction and popular novels, especially ones aimed at women, are treated. For example, she says that if Colm Tóibín was “Colleen Tóibín and had written Brooklyn, it wouldn’t have even been reviewed”.

O’Flanagan has observed this snobbishness for decades, noticing it from the first literary festival she was invited to back when her second book (Caroline’s Sister ) was No 1 in the Irish bestseller charts. The person hosting the event, herself a well-established female writer, said “I have to say I’ve never heard of you, so what’s your book called?” O’Flanagan told her the title and added “actually it’s number one in the charts.” The host said “yes, but we don’t count that”.

It clearly still stings. O’Flanagan felt worthless, “like why have you asked me here?” At the same event someone else told her “well now that you know what you are doing you can go and write a proper book,” she remembers.

‘It bothers me that if you’ve spent ten years writing a book it’s a greater work than if you haven’t’

She feels, looking back, that she should have been righteously angry, and stayed that way, but instead “I was devastated”. She has become used, over the years, to being dismissed for writing the kinds of books that sell by the lorry load and are popular with women. 

“My books are well written and I take a lot of time on them, and then someone says ‘she churns out a book a year’ and I think f**k you … that’s my anger coming out now” she says, smiling but not apologising.

“I’m a serious person, I want what I do to be taken seriously . . . it bothers me that if you’ve spent 10 years writing a book it’s a greater work than if you haven’t. I reckon if you’ve spent 10 years on a book you’ve actually been self-indulgent. So I just feel we give praise to the wrong thing sometimes. I would take myself as seriously as a writer as John Banville does”.

The writer’s life is anxiety-making and O’Flanagan can be as “neurotic” as the next novelist. Still, as she’s grown older she is less irritated by the notion that writing stories that people, mostly women, in their millions want to read is somehow less important than literary efforts that often sell far fewer copies.

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