Monday 10 April 2023

SPECIAL FEATURE: Q & A with guest Sheena Wilkinson on her first novel for adults, MRS HART'S MARRIAGE BUREAU


Well-established as one of Ireland’s most acclaimed writers for young people, Sheena Wilkinson has won many prizes for her work, including five Children’s Books Ireland awards. Her first novel for adults, Mrs Hart’s Marriage Bureau, is just out from HarperCollins Ireland. Sheena lives in County Derry, on the shores of Lough Neagh, and when she’s not writing she is usually walking her dogs or singing.

Mrs Hart’s Marriage Bureau:  April McVey hasn’t a romantic bone in her body. So what makes her believe she’ll be the perfect assistant for Mrs Hart’s Marriage Bureau? Matchmaker Martha hopes the lively Irish girl will be a breath of fresh air for the business which has been her passion since her husband died at Passchendaele, but which is struggling to keep up with the turbulence of the 1930s. When lonely widower Fabian falls for April, Martha’s matchmaking skills are put to their greatest test. Is April as immune to romance as she claims? Is Martha’s interest in Fabian purely professional? Will there be enough happy endings to go round? Mrs Hart’s Marriage Bureau is an uplifting romance about friendship, loneliness, and the unexpected places where we find fulfilment.

Celia: Having moved, as you have, from Young Adult to Adult fiction, I'd love to know - what precipitated the move?

Sheena: I’ve always intended to write for different audiences, and always wrote short historical fiction for adults alongside my children’s books. My most recent children’s books, a historical trilogy, seemed to be appreciated more by adults so I suppose it was a logical step. Some of my favourite writers, like K.M. Peyton and Noel Streatfeild – and indeed all three of you! – write for children and adults, so it never seemed odd.

Linda:   How and why did you decide to set the novel in a fictitious Yorkshire town rather than in your native Northern Ireland?

Sheena:  I always wanted an Irish main character, and much of the book’s heart and humour lies in the culture shock experienced by both April, my Northern Irish heroine, and the English people she works with. After three novels based on Irish history, I was keen to escape from religion, cultural identity and politics, and that just wouldn’t have been possible in an Irish or Northern Irish marriage bureau! So it was a very pragmatic decision. I love inventing towns, and Easterbridge, a small Yorkshire town, feels very real to me. I hope it convinces the reader! I did live in the north of England for six years and of course much of my cultural background is English. I wouldn’t set a book in a country I didn’t know well.

Adele: You have a gift of bringing the physical details of both place and people to life in a way which reminded me sometimes of one of my favourite writers, Dorothy Whipple. Were you influenced at all by the women writers of the 30s. Or by any other writers?

Sheena: That’s really observant of you, Adele, because not only is Dorothy Whipple one of my favourite writers, but I discovered her during the first lockdown, which is when I started to write Mrs Hart. In both cases, I wanted something essentially positive and escapist, but not too light. I was amazed that I hadn’t read Whipple before. I love how she brings you straight into the middle of a household and, with just a few details, makes you feel you know these people intimately. It’s honestly the greatest compliment that you found even a tiny spark of comparison! When I’m writing, I like to read novels written at the time I’m writing about, so yes, Whipple, E.M. Delafield, Noel Streatfield, Dorothy L. Sayers, as well as slightly later writers such as Barbara Pym are all favourites.

Adele:  I was surprised by the turn of events, (no spoilers) and thought the use of the double point of view worked so well. Did you ever consider a first person narrative? Do you have strong views about the First Person/Third Person debate?

Sheena:  I’ve written in both first and third, but on the whole I prefer third – I tend to write very close third, and I find it can do everything that first does, in terms of intimacy but without the self-consciousness of first. There are three POV characters, April, Martha and Fabian, with the women taking on most of the story, but I did want to include a male point of view too. It was really interesting to present the same characters from both inside and outside.

And I’m glad that you were surprised by the turn of events! I’ll say more about that below!

Linda:  In an interview you said that you see the book as 'feelgood feminism' (great term). Were there any points at which the political background threatened to darken the novel more than you intended?

Sheena: Yes! That was probably the biggest issue I had – I really wanted to maintain an uplifting tone, with warmth and a sense of community and, above all, hope, but I also wanted to explore some of the darker realities of the 1930s, in particular the rise of fascism, refugees and gender politics. Two things helped me. One was my experience of writing more overtly political novels – Name upon Name, Star by Star and Hope against Hope – but trying not to let the politics take over because the books were for a younger audience. The other was exploring how Call the Midwife, of which I am a big fan, negotiates that juxtaposition of serious social realism with sweetness and fun, without awkward tonal shifts. Because life actually is bittersweet.

Linda:  Basing the story around a marriage bureau is a clever idea, and April is a delightful character! Did you plan from the beginning how the story would end for her, or did that grow out of the writing? (I know ... difficult to answer that without spoilers ... )

Sheena:  It’s a hard question to answer, possibly because of spoilers, but essentially, yes, I always knew precisely the form of fulfilment that April would find for herself. It was also important for me to write about a variety of characters, main and secondary, for whom marriage was not the best outcome. After decades of singleness, I was married myself last year, aged 53, to a widower I’d known as a friend for almost thirty years. I don’t think I would have been attracted to this subject otherwise. I was the – I won’t say victim, but certainly object – of some very ham-fisted matchmaking efforts over the years, and I must admit I had great fun matching characters and futures!

Sheena with her husband Seamus

Celia:  I noticed that, through Felicity, you had some observations to make about people's perception of Children's writers. Did you find any significant differences in writing for different audiences?

Sheena:  I’ve definitely found it easier to write for adults – for the first time in a long time I’m writing for the reader I am now, rather than the reader I used to be. I feel there’s more space to explore the characters’ inner lives, and I suppose more freedom. But I always tried to write with depth and precision, and care for language, so in that sense it’s not very different. I had quite a lot of fun making one of my characters a 1930s children’s author. She complains about not being taken seriously as a ‘proper’ writer, and I have to say some of that did come from the heart!

Celia: Do you think you will return to Children's / YA fiction any time soon?

Sheena:  At the moment, my heart is definitely with writing for adults. I have so many ideas I’d like to explore. If I do write for children again, it would definitely be historical – that’s my favourite genre. I’ve never written a girls’ school story, which was the subject of my PhD thesis, so that’s something I might consider – but I’m 54, and to be honest I’m not really reading children’s books these days, so I think other people are better suited to writing them.

Adele:  Will there be a sequel? I would love one….

Sheena:  So would I! The publishers, HarperCollins Ireland, mentioned a sequel quite early in our relationship, though I don’t yet have a contract for one. I had planned not to write one without a contract, but like you – and I’m very happy to say, many readers – I was very keen to find out what happened next, and couldn’t resist starting …  It’s set in 1936, with old and new characters.

Thanks so much, Sheena, for answering our questions - we hope a great many readers will enjoy your novel as much as we did!

Lough Neagh

Mrs Hart's Marriage Bureau is published by Harper Collins Ireland.


Rosemary Hayes said...

Lovely interview Sheena, and great questions from Adele, Linda and Sue. Haven't started Mrs Hart yet but can't wait to dive into it for a dose of feel good feminism xx

Anonymous said...

What a great interview! My local Yorkshire bookshop will have MRS HART'S MARRIAGE BUREAU ready to collect tomorrow. Not just in Ireland!

Penny Dolan said...

Great interviews. I'd noticed the book is published by HarperCollins Ireland.
However Sheena Wilkinson's novel IS also available in the UK.

I will be collecting a copy of MRS HART (etc) from my local bookshop - Imagined Things - here in Harrogate, Yorkshire, sometime tomorrow.

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