Sheena Wilkinson: Winner of the CBI Book of the Year

Published on: 23 June 2014 Author: Liz Canning

Liz Canning from our Belfast office talked to author Sheena Wilkinson, winner of the CBI (Children's Books Ireland) Book of the Year and Children's Choice awards for her book Grounded, about being a writer and the importance of Belfast in her writing.

Sheena Wilkinson

Congratulations on winning these awards which follow on from the two other CBI Awards for Taking Flight. When you started writing, did you ever expect your books to be as well-received as they have been?

Thanks! I don't really know what I expected. I mean, you always hope that your books will connect with people. I was thrilled when Taking Flight did so well, and even more so when Grounded followed. Both books won the CBI Children's Choice award as well which was brilliant – it's one thing for the critics to like your book, but at the end of the day I write for teenagers so it's important that they like them too.

Tell us about your latest book, Grounded.

Grounded is a very gritty book about two 18-year-olds, Declan and Seaneen, moving into adult life and making some pretty tough choices. I love writing what I'd call genuine young adult stories, where the characters have to grow up too quickly, and where their actions have far-reaching consequences. And because my characters are young, they don't always make the right decisions. That would make for a very dull book.

Your previous novel, Taking Flight, was highly acclaimed and won two CBI awards. Was it easier - or more difficult - to write Grounded after having such an incredible success?

A bit of both. I had all the time in the world to write Flight and believe me, I took it! But I had to keep myself motivated with hope. However, I had a contract to write Grounded, and only seven or eight months to do it in. I look back now and I don't know how I did that, especially as I was working full time as well! It was very intensive and I think that shows in the book – it's an intense book and the style is very spare. When I wrote it, it was the hardest thing I had ever written – in terms of the story structure and some of the issues. I am now in the middle of something much harder, but that's what you do as a writer – you keep pushing yourself to get better and better! And yes, I was hyper-aware of how well Taking Flight had done, and I was very nervous that Grounded wouldn't live up to it even though, in my opinion, it's a tighter, more ambitious book. I should say that with Grounded, I already knew most of the characters and of course that made it much easier.

Both these novels are set in Belfast. What role does the city play in your writing - and how important is place to you as a writer?

Taking Flight and Grounded could be set in Glasgow, or Newcastle, or Dublin, or pretty much any modern city, in terms of the story, but I think there is an energy and humour and resilience in Belfast which is very much there in the characters. I grew up in Belfast and though I live in County Down now, Belfast will always be where I'm from.

Place matters a lot to me as a writer– I love books with a strong sense of place, but I hate books which are peppered with street names and rely on that as setting. I tend to make up names to avoid that, but work hard on conveying the feeling of a place through a few details. I love writing about Northern Ireland and not having to write about the Troubles though, something which, as a teenager here in the eighties, I couldn't have imagined. I'm interested in exploring how people are shaped by their environments. In Taking Flight, Declan and Vicky are both very much the products of a particular place and social group.

Who or what inspired you to become a writer?

Everything! Just being alive, surrounded by people. But most especially reading. I've always been a devourer of books – the sort of person who, on rising, takes her book from under the pillow and starts to read it as she walks down the stairs – and I suppose, as a child, I just wanted to enter the world of books as fully as possible. I was always writing stories. I didn't finish them often, but I have kept quite a few and I show them to readers when I go to schools and libraries around the country. I had encouraging parents and teachers, but like a lot of young writers, I all but stopped writing once I started fulltime work. It's only since about 2006 that I have been doing it seriously.

Tell us about your writing routine - where and when do you write?

My termtime routine involves writing at weekends only, but in the holidays I get into much more of a regular routine and then I try to average about 2,000 words a day. I am not wedded to any one thing – sometimes it's a pen and notebook (fountain pen; posh notebook) in a café; often it's laptop in the study at home, or the kitchen, or the café again. I have a study at home and I am trying to use it more, to get into the mindset that it's my office. But sometimes the fireside beckons!

I also love going on writing retreats to places like the Tyrone Guthrie Centre, where you're free to do nothing but write all day long. That was an absolute godsend when I was so busy with Grounded. In fact I sent them a small donation from the prize money!

What advice would you give to an aspiring children's author?

Read. Go on an Arvon course if you can afford it. Read more. Then read more. And more.

Which other children's books and authors do you admire?

So many! I read voraciously and one of the nice things about being a children's writer is that you never need feel embarrassed by reading them. (Not that I ever did, actually). Of today's YA authors I really admire Keren David, Linda Newbery, Alan Gibbons, Sarah Dessen, Lee Weatherly... too many to mention really. I've just written a blog post (for the excellent YAContemporary) about K M Peyton, who was my favourite writer when I was a teenager and whom I still think is just amazing. And I'm thrilled that Malorie Blackman, who taught me on an Arvon course in 2007, is the new UK Children's Laureate; it's good to see a YA writer there.

What's next for Sheena Wilkinson?

Well, I have a new book out – Too Many Ponies, which is for a slightly younger age group – 8+. It was out last month but it's been a bit overshadowed by its big brother Grounded, which is getting all the attention at the minute.

Excitingly, I am just about to embark on at least a year away from fulltime teaching, thanks to a Major Award from the wonderful Arts Council of Northern Ireland. So, as well as working on a new book, which I have to deliver to my publishers in November, I'm going to be able to do lots of workshops and library and school visits, all over the country north and south, and some trips to England too. I'm excited about that – I love sitting writing, but I'm a pretty sociable person and I love working with young readers and writers. I'm taking a group of sixth formers from the Belfast Inter-Schools Creative Writing Network, which I set up in 2011, to a week's residential at the Arvon Foundation in Devon in July, which I am really looking forward to.

Thank you Sheena!

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