Monday 13 January 2020

My Three Sisters by Sheena Wilkinson

I’ve just seen the new film of Little Women and I loved it. Little Women has always been a special story to me, my granny and my mother. I was always sorry that my own sister never got into it (too soppy, not enough ponies) because it’s such a brilliant study of sisterhood. I think that this particular version really captured that – the fighting, the rivalry, the loyalty. 

It’s also a story of sisterhood in its wider sense, like my new book, Hope against Hope, set in a girls’ hostel in 1921 Belfast. 
the eldest sister 

I haven’t had a book out since 2017’s Star by Star. I adored writing Star, my most successful book overall. It’s sold well, won awards, been nominated for things and included on lists, and gained me invitations to lovely festivals and events. Set in Ireland in winter 1918, Star by Star shouldn't have been an easy book to write:  the end of the Great War, the Spanish Influenza pandemic, the first general election open to (some) women voters, and Home Rule all jostled for position in a story which had to be accessible to young readers. But though the issues were complex they all impacted on each other so much in real life that it was easy to fit them into a story. Best of all, though the novel was stand-alone, I was able to bring back some of my favourite characters from 2015’s Name upon Name, making the novels companions to each other, sisters.  Middle sisters are meant to the awkward ones, but Star by Star was always a joy to me. 

middle sister
I loved Star by Star so much that I really wanted to write a third historical novel, so when my publisher, Little Island, asked for one, I was thrilled. After writing about the Easter Rising of 1916, and the General Election of 1918, 1921 was the obvious choice. There was so much going on, in particular the partition of Ireland. Because of Brexit, the UK border in Ireland has once again come to the forefront of political discourse. I grew up with army and customs check points and closed roads, with so-called ‘bandit country’ and no-go areas, but in recent years I’ve enjoyed being able to cross the border freely, often hardly being aware of it. The threat of losing that freedom terrifies me, and I wanted to write a book which showed people, particularly young women, living with the very early days of that border. The hostel setting allowed me to explore a community of young women, something I've been fascinated by ever since my first time at Malory Towers. 

Hope against Hope is a stand-alone: you don’t need to have read its sisters Name upon Name or Star by Star. But I love it when writers create a world where you meet old friends in a new context and I was delighted to be able to explore the futures of some of my characters. Like its sisters, it’s very much a feminist novel, exploring the impact of political turmoil on young women trying to make better lives for themselves. 

youngest sister 

I can’t pretend Hope against Hope was a straightforward book to write. Some stories reveal themselves easily; others are shy and awkward and take their time. This particular sister fought with me the whole time – and she fought dirty. At times I hated her. Why couldn’t she just do what I wanted? Why couldn’t she be amenable like Star by Star? Why did she need so many drafts, so much cajoling? 

But by the time I had wrestled this naughty little sister into shape, I had grown to love and respect her. Sometimes it’s the awkward sister who turns out to be the most exciting. I love how Hope looks -- I have been so lucky in wonderful designer Niall McCormack who has made all three books so beautiful  -- and now I can’t wait for her to take her place in the world with her older sisters. 


Kaira said...
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Penny Dolan said...

They look a great sibling trio, Sheena!

Lynne Benton said...

Great post, Sheena. I loved "Star by Star", so must now read the other two. Congratulations on finishing the third!

Anne Booth said...

I loved Name upon Name and I hadn't realised you had written Star by Star, so I must get that, and I look forward to the youngest sister!