Interview with Night Publishing author Sheila Mary Taylor
It’s so good to do another Night Publishing interview again and with no one less than the eloquent Sheila. I’ve read both Pinpoint and Count to Ten, the two books published by NP in 2011 and am an absolute fan of Sheila’s writing. I like the transparency of her style; the way she holds a story in her hand, gently opening her fingers one by one and see… it develops as if of its own accord; I love her care for immaculate editing, the warm spirit that you feel behind her words; the ripe wisdom that speaks from the pages. I am not surprised to find out Sheila is a second-generation writer – her mother was an authoress as well – it is in her blood, cultivated and brought to bloom with devotion and care. Sheila’s South African roots – although not directly visible in Pinpoint, which is situated in England - permeate her writing with the colours of the earth, the heat of the sun and the European ties of history with Africa.
Pinpoint, Sheila’s best-selling thriller is about a lawyer, a murderer and a policeman caught in a tangled web of love, loss, terror and intrigue. It’s the kind of book you can’t put down, a truly thrilling read.
Count to Ten is a totally different book as it is Sheila’s personal account of the struggle her son had to go through when he was diagnosed with cancer at the age of eighteen. This must have been one of the most difficult stories for a mother to write but then turning a medical story into a pageturner shows us the stuff Sheila is truly made of: not only as a mother but definitely also as a writer!
I can’t wait to read a next book by Taylor. Hope we don’t have to wait too long.
Where do you live (town, country)? Were you born and bred there?
I was born in Cape Town, South Africa, of Aberdonian parents, so I suppose I’m really a Scot, but I feel more South African than Scottish. I went to Rustenburg School for Girls and then studied ballet at the University of Cape Town Ballet School, at the same time as gaining a diploma in commerce and business studies at the Cape Technical College. But at age twenty-two I went to the UK to further my dance career, and instead met Colin, and that was that. End of dance career, although the love of dance has stayed with me all my life.
I’m a bit of a nomad now. Colin and I move every year between three countries, which all feel like home to us: Cape Town; Wilmslow in Cheshire UK, near to where Colin was born; and Menorca, Spain, where we built our first house in a natural park on this idyllic Mediterranean island where we sometimes feel more at home than anywhere else, and where we have prime time visits from our three sons and their families because they love it too.
What kind of food do you like? Are you a good cook? How important is food to you?
I don’t think I should really answer this one. I used to be a reasonably good cook when I had to do a lot of entertaining in Zambia, even attended a Cordon Bleu course in London, but I no longer cook because I have a wonderful husband who since retiring does almost all the cooking. Lucky me! I have mouth-watering surprises every day.
Do you do any sports? How often? What does exercise mean to you?
From a very early age I was a dancer and only stopped when Colin and I got married, but my love of dance is still with me, and is even influencing my writing, which you will see when my two new books, Entangled and The Nightingale Will Sing, come out. I go twice-weekly to a wonderful exercise class run by the world-wide Fitness League, which includes dance routines designed to keep the brain active because you have to remember every step in the routine! I took part in the dance display at the Royal Albert Hall a few years ago, where women from Fitness League branches in all parts of the world get together in a once-every-five-year concert. An awesome experience which I will never forget.
Apart from that, I was an avid horse-rider and rode in gymkhanas and jackal hunts and as a jockey in race meetings. I also loved skiing, roller skating and ice skating. I played tennis. And until very recently I played golf at a competitive level. Now that I can no longer do all that, I swim, and I walk on the beach almost every day, both in Cape Town and Menorca, which is good for the soul as there is so much beauty to absorb, and it’s good thinking time for my writing.
Do you have kids/grandkids? If so, please tell us a little about them?
We have three absolutely wonderful, caring sons: Colin, Peter and Andrew, who are in constant touch with us and visit us frequently. Colin is a mining engineer, married to Alison – a micro-biologist – and they live in Cornwall, UK, though Colin works in Burkina Faso, running a gold mine in a remote part of West Africa. Peter and Andrea live in Cheshire and are both lawyers with their own law practice. They have two children: 24-year-old Katie, who is Assistant Curator of the Manchester United Football Club’s Museum, and 21-year-old Matthew who is in his final year reading Philosophy at King’s College, London, and wants to be a barrister and a writer. Peter himself has recently started writing legal crime thrillers, though he has not yet submitted any of them to publishers, but has clearly inherited the writing gene from my mother – Dora Taylor. Andrew was our afterthought, coming ten years after Colin and Peter, and he is the hero of my latest book – Count to Ten. He and Sally are both air traffic controllers. Sally is SATCO at RAF Wyton, and Andrew is Senior Safety Expert for Global Aviation in Abu Dhabi. They have two daughters, Alex who has just gained her BSc in Forensic Science, and Rebecca who is a prize winning dressage rider and represents her county, Cambridgeshire.
Do you like travelling? Where do you go then?
I used to adore travelling. But because we live in three different countries now, to which we travel every year, we find that our wandering spirit is no longer as strong as it used to be, and we are quite content to stay put in each of our dwellings, with their diverse stimuli and never ending exciting changes. We also stop off in Abu Dhabi each time we fly south to north and north to south, to stay with Andrew, and we absolutely love it there too.
How do your family/friends react to you being a writer? Have their opinions changed since you became a published author?
I have a very supportive family. Colin makes life easy for me so that I can write, and my sons and their wives are equally supportive and are always thrilled when I publish a new book. What more could I wish for? However, being a pretty conservative lot, words of praise are few and far between. But I was thrilled the other day when Andrea said on Facebook: We are soooooooooooo proud of you!
Would you call yourself a social human being? Do you have time for going out and spending time away from the writing desk?
Oh, yes! I am a social human being! Always have been. I love going out and meeting new people. I love going for a coffee with my girl-friends and talking about all sorts of things not related to writing. We have to do this, don’t we? As writers how else would we keep up with the ever-changing world with its amazing nuances in the fields of social behaviour, speech and culture? I am lucky that I am exposed to these changes in three different countries. In Cape Town, Colin and I belong to a wonderful Naval club called the Seven Seas Club, very near to our house in Simon’s Town, where the South African Naval Base is located. So every Friday evening I get to talk to old friends, and to meet new people, all grist to the mill. In addition, I never miss a new ballet or a classical music concert, a book launch or a dinner out with friends.
Which character trait do you like best about yourself and why? Which trait would you rather do without?
Oh, Hannah! What a difficult question. How on earth do you answer that without seeming to be narcissistic? Well, as far as writing is concerned, the best character trait has to be my determination, coupled with a desire to do the best I possibly can. I have always been a keen competitor, so I think the trait I would rather do without could possibly be that I am a perfectionist. I can’t help that. It must be something I was born with, but I think that for a writer I should be more willing to let everything go and write more out of the box than I do now. I’m working on it. Relaxation is what I have to concentrate on, because only then can the thoughts that lie dormant in all of us have the freedom to be expressed.
Can you describe the place where you write + the view?
I have a study in each of our three homes and I love them all. I’m not a kitchen-table writer. I need to have a place which is a sanctuary for me. A place I walk into and immediately feel the muse nudging my senses and urging me to write. A place I can call my own; my inspiration; my citadel. The views? Dare I describe to you the views?
In Wilmslow in the UK, it is a magnificent sycamore tree at the end of the garden that umbrellas over the lawn and changes colour every time I look at it; changes with the time of the day, the angle of the sun, the season and the wind.
In Menorca it is … oh gosh! I have no words for it: hills, the lake and the sea.
On the right is the view of the sea, which you can’t see in this picture, but from which I have to avert my eyes when I’m writing.
And in Cape Town it is even more distractive, so much so that I have recently re-arranged my study so that I am looking at the wall. This is what I used to see:
What genre(s) do you write in? How did that develop?
I’m a bit of a jack-of-all-trades. I think I naturally lean more towards the romantic, but I’m also fascinated by the relationships between people, and this led me to write Pinpoint, which examines the dilemma faced by a criminal lawyer who has been damaged by the abuse she suffered as an abandoned baby, and was then separated at the age of ten from the only person who loved her and whom she loved – her twin brother. Only to be confronted by the horrific dread that her new murder client, who sent the hairs on the back of her neck into a frenzy of bristling when she first saw him, might just be – heaven forbid – that long lost beloved brother of hers. This novel also examined another theme that fascinates me – whether it is nurture or nature that determines the main characteristics of a person, and this is never more evident in the case of twins who are separated at a young age. Of course I have also written non-fiction – Count to Ten – which I consider my most serious work to date. I have also published four romances. And my work in progress, a novel called Entangled, considers the dilemma faced by a couple trying desperately for another child and what happens to them both, and the marriage, when they finally give up on IVF treatment. The triangle which ensues throws up more drama than would fill an encyclopedia of thrillers.
When was your first book released and how did that make you feel? Have you published more than one book?
It was in 1995, a romance called The Nightingale Will Sing, (which I am at present re-writing) set in Menorca against an art background. It was the most exciting moment of my life. But having said that, it was not very different when the others were released: Diamonds of The Sun in 1996, set in the Seychelles, where we lived for a few months, Savage Paradise in 1997 and Shadow of the Flame in 2004, both set in Zambia where Colin and I lived for many years and where our sons were born. After that I embarked on the four-year long project to resurrect and edit my mother’s three unpublished works of fiction, which Penguin published in 2008 and 2009, and earned her the South African Posthumous Literary Award. I consider this my greatest contribution to literature.
What are your writing habits? (every day, number of words, etc.?)
I try to write every day. But things connected with the actual writing seem to take up too much of my time these days. However, even if I’m not working on my current project, I will be thinking about it. I do this especially when I’m walking on the beach, sometimes with a little notebook in my pocket as thoughts have this nasty habit of vanishing if you don’t write them down immediately. The other day, a woman walking in the opposite direction to me stopped and asked me: “Are you writing your shopping list, love?” The number of words varies and I have been known to write 5,000 words one day, and 50 words the next. If I am transported into my make-believe world, when I actually become my own characters, I can go on and on all night. Having said that, my very best, most productive and inspired hours are from 5 a.m. in the morning, when the brain is at its sharpest.
Who’s been your biggest inspiration and why? Since when?
Undoubtedly my mother, Dora Taylor – a poet, playwright, novelist, essayist and literary critic. From a very early age she encouraged my two sisters and I to read, to write, to draw, to paint, to play music, to listen to music, to watch films and plays, and even to act! She and a friend regularly produced a little concert to which all the neighbours were invited. We all did something. I danced and acted in plays that my mother wrote. Having had a terrible childhood as an illegitimate orphan, when she was abused and denied all of these things, she seemed determined to expose her three daughters to as many of the arts as it was possible to do. She taught me my love of dancing, taught me to appreciate art and music, taught me oh so much that it would take a book to tell you – in fact that’s given me an idea. I think it’s time I wrote her biography . . .
Who is your agent and/or publishing company? What do they mean to you?
I once had a London agent who I sacked because she didn’t sell my memoir – Fly With a Miracle – which was the first edition of Count to Ten. She only sent it out to six publishers and then gave up. I was made of sterner stuff so I sent it to another six, and Denor Press published it. My four romances were published by FA Thorpe Publishing Ltd with whom I had little contact after the acceptance letters. But when the three books of my mother’s that I edited were published by Penguin, this association was extremely helpful to me. I learnt a great deal from working with my editor at Penguin, and they – and my mother, a teacher of English – are undoubtedly to blame for my insistence on grammatical and presentational perfection.
Both Pinpoint and Count to Ten have been published by Night Publishing and I’m very grateful to Tim for all his hard work and assistance.
Where do you see yourself in 5-years’ time?
Probably in a zimmer-frame, boring the pants off the other inmates of an old folks’ home with the stories of my exciting life. Well, no, joking aside, I can’t see any reason why I can’t keep on writing, and if I can manage to stay the distance and actually get the words out into a logical sequence to tell the plethora of stories that are banked up on the back burner of my mind, then who knows? If they’re good enough, then Night Publishing might still be churning out books by Sheila Mary Taylor.
Thank you so much for this interview, Sheila!
Links to Sheila’s books: