Sheila O’Flanagan: ‘I’m sure Sally Rooney will be a super writer when she’s a bit older’

The best-selling Irish author talks about female novelists and a silver cheetah called Bliss

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.

“I have a body of work that I know is good and when I hit my 50s I started becoming less worried about it,” she says. Sometimes, when she goes to literary festivals she hears people – men, mostly – talking about their work in a way that makes her wonder “what matters more to you more, putting out good work or winning a prize?”

She says popular TV programmes are allowed to be cultural, but popular books don’t have that same cachet, because the “gatekeepers of literature always want it to be a work of art . . . but sometimes it’s about telling a story, delving into people’s characters, being entertaining”.

She thinks Normal People author Sally Rooney straddles the two aspirations “very well” and is interested to see how the author develops in the future. O’Flanagan, now 62, was in her 30s when she began writing, and though she wishes she’d started earlier she believes her life experience stood to her. Of Rooney, a writer still in her 20s, she says: “I think it’s young writing . . .  very beautifully written but not a lot of experience. I’m sure she will be a super writer when she’s a bit older . . .  but you write with the experience you have.”

O’Flanagan’s work ethic, that book a year discipline, comes from her parents. They ran a shop together in the Liberties. At just 19, she was devastated when her father died after having cancer.

A book lover with writing aspirations, she had tried several times to secure a job in the library but a business course led to a banking career, first in the Central Bank and then – realising that “infuriatingly” women were not occupying senior positions and this was unlikely to change – she moved to the private sector, where she flourished.

Her first book came about after she was asked by a friend to write a distance learning manual. “I’d always wanted to write. I knew if I could write that manual, which I wasn’t interested in, then I could sit down and write the novel I’d been wanting to write for years,” she says.

Her latest book has a title many of her readers might relate to after months of Lockdown with partners, families, Zoom calls and stress: The Women Who Ran Away. It follows two women, Deira and Grace, as they leave Ireland by ferry for two very different reasons. The women’s paths cross and their complex motivations – messy relationships, bereavement, heartache – for the trip spill out.

The novel is being published at a time when many of us are longing for the escape of travel, so a virtual road trip like the one in the book – through France and Spain on a sort of a literary treasure hunt set by Grace’s dead husband – will no doubt appeal to readers and win her more new fans.

As with all of her books (What Happened That Night, Her Husband’s Mistake, The Missing Wife), the characters are faced with life-altering catalysts. Deire, for example, is desperate for a baby after being left by her partner, who is now living with his pregnant girlfriend. O’Flanagan has never felt that way but writes movingly about the toll that kind of unfulfilled longing can take on women.

“I’m childless by choice,” she says. “It’s tricky for women … especially if relationships don’t work out. It’s a very real dilemma, it’s another thing women have to struggle with. Having children, trying to have children, not having children are very female struggles and it’s important to explore it.

'...would it not be more selfish for me to have a child and not want it?'

“I am not a maternal person. I am a caring person. I just thought 24/7, looking after a child, I don’t have enough in me for that . . . a couple of times I have thought maybe I should, maybe the maternal thing will kick in. It’s part of your conditioning as a woman, but as you grow into yourself, you say this is not going to work for me. I have a number of friends who are child free, none of them are unhappy. People have said to me, who is going to look after you? and that’s just a horrific reason to have children. Hopefully I can make arrangements to look after myself.”

What other things do people say?

“I’ve been told I’ll regret it. Are you doing it for your career because you won’t have your career when you’re 60? And it’s a chipping away at women all the time, telling them ‘you need to be this sort of person’ but women are diverse in the same way men are. We are not all dying to have children. Women get judged on every life choice they make; there’s an assumption that you don’t put much thought into it.”

O’Flanagan talks about the abortion referendum and “the assumption some people made that women would be trotting off to England … how dare you?”. A character in the The Women Who Ran Away has an abortion. She found it difficult to write about the subject before repeal, she says. “Because abortion was legal, I felt it was good to write about it and show that’s it’s part of our lives, not some horrific storyline but just part of a woman’s life.”

She remembers a man once saying to her: “You are the most selfish person I’ve ever met.” O’Flanagan asked why and he said: “Because you’re not having children.” “I said, would it not be more selfish for me to have a child and not want it?”

The photographer arrives to take her picture and O’Flanagan, who is a keen badminton player, offers me coffee but then, because the coffee is too much of a faff, brings glasses of chilled white wine. The badminton suits her, she says, because she’s asthmatic and can’t run far. Her diamond engagement ring glints in the afternoon sun – she has been with her husband Colm for decades but only married seven years ago – and around her neck, a tiny jewel-encrusted flip-flop hints at her other life, another home, in Alicante.

Given her economic background, I’m interested to hear her thoughts on the “pandession” and the country’s eventual recovery. She is curious, for one thing, about what will happen “to all that rental space and office buildings when many more people are going to be working from home in the future … will they be used for something else instead? Without sounding happy clappy, will they be used for community hubs or cultural spaces where people can interact in a different way?”

“It will be difficult for years, absolutely, and growth will be hard,” she says, looking back to her Central Bank days in 1980s recessionary times and the more recent crash. She talks about the obvious necessity of long-term loans for the country but she’s also interested in whether a different economic model will emerge, “one not weighted so much in favour of big corporations or big business.

“If you look at Trump, he just wants to default back to what it was before, I hope we are more progressive in terms of changing the business model. I always thought, even back in my finance days, it’s a choice you make, do people work for the economy or does the economy work for the people?”.

At the end of our socially distant encounter, O’Flanagan leads me back through the house. The front window is a stained glass artwork of books on a shelf and I can’t help noticing an incongruous piece of home decor, a silver cheetah that sits sparkling, poised to leap, in the front porch. She acquired it five years ago, around the time of the marriage equality referendum.

“Myself and my husband call it Bliss, after Panti Bliss,” she says in that soft voice before waving me off.

As I walk away I think that the young Sheila O’Flanagan would have been thrilled to know that the following sentence would eventually be written about her in a newspaper: Irish author Sheila O’Flanagan divides her time between Alicante and Clontarf and has a silver cheetah called Bliss in her front porch.

The Women Who Ran Away by Sheila O’Flanagan is out now

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