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Under the spotlight - award-winning author Sheena Wilkinson

Hello! Today I bring you the latest in my series of exclusive Q&As with my fellow pony book authors. This time I put award-winning author Sheena Wilkinson under the spotlight and quiz her mercilessly about her writing life.

Sheena, who lives in County Down, Northern Ireland, is best known for her Young Adult fiction and has been described by The Irish Times as 'one of our foremost writers for young people'.

Happily for us, three of her books feature horses: the gritty Taking Flight, its sequel Grounded and Too Many Ponies, for younger readers.

So without further ado let's find out when Sheena began writing, which are her favourite characters in her books and the things she loves about being an author.

So Sheena, when did you first realise you wanted to be a writer? I always wrote stories. I used to make them into tiny little books which I would sew together at the spines. The stories always ran on for several ‘volumes’ as the books were so small.

A lot of these were pony stories! I lived in a housing estate in Belfast and we didn’t have money for riding lessons, let alone a pony, so there was a lot of wish fulfilment in those early stories! In my teens I wrote about boys...

Why did you decide to write pony books? I’ve written about all sorts of things. Taking Flight, my first novel, is a gritty contemporary YA novel set in Belfast about a teenage boy, Declan, who unexpectedly falls in love with horses when he’s sent to stay with his snobby, horse-owning cousin Vicky.

I wanted to write about people who weren’t traditionally present in pony books. Taking Flight did very well and won awards, and people kept asking me what happened to Declan next. Luckily one of those people was my publisher, Siobhán Parkinson at Little Island, who commissioned the sequel Grounded. Grounded won the Children’s Books Ireland Book of the Year in 2013 and that led to Siobhán asking me for a third, younger book, which was Too Many Ponies. I would say that’s my only book in the classic pony book tradition, and I loved writing it. Grounded was quite dark, so it was fun to write a much sunnier story with a rather fairytale ending!

Do you ride or have horses yourself? If not now, perhaps when you were younger? We’d love to hear about your own horses and ponies! When I was young I used to go and visit some ponies in a field on the edge of the city. I would walk there, talk to the ponies, and walk home again. My sister was properly horsey and managed to find somewhere to ride regularly. She competed in shows and went on to qualify as a riding instructor, but I was more of a bookworm. My horsiness came and went! At one stage I saved up and bought a donkey and kept him in a field a few miles away, but that didn’t end well… I had the odd riding lesson, and we sometimes rode on holiday, but it was only as an adult with my own money that I was able to have regular lessons and get fairly competent.

In 2002 I moved to the country and bought my own pony, Scarlet, a beautiful chestnut Welsh cob (pictured below). It was a bit like a pony story, actually – Scarlet was my regular mount at the local trekking stables, but she was hit by a car. I bought her, not knowing if she would ever be sound again, but just to give her the chance. We had eight very happy years together, exploring the local forest. She was fast and spooky so we had some scary moments but she was a darling.

What’s your writing routine and where do you write? I wish I could say I had a strict routine but I don’t. I’m often travelling or doing school events. On the days when I am able to just stay at home and write I like to be at my desk for about 9.30am, get the admin out of the way and then write until late afternoon with a lunch break.

That happens in my study, in my house, at my desk. I don’t like writing anywhere else, though I can if I have to. After writing I walk in the forest, and that’s very much part of my routine. It’s the same forest where I used to ride Scarlet so it’s full of memories. A few times a year I try to go on a retreat when I just write (or edit) for the whole day, apart from eating and walking. Where do you get your ideas? I can never answer that! Who knows? I usually think of a subject I’d like to write about – for example, with my recent book Star By Star it was the 1918 election when women voted for the first time, and then I start to wonder what sort of person would be the main character, and I do a lot of wondering and exploring and talking to myself and making notes, and then, somehow, a story comes. I never have the whole thing planned before I start writing, but I do enough planning to have a sense of where it’s going.

Do you ever get writer’s block and, if so, how do you overcome it? I can’t really say I do. I’ve always had to fit writing in with a very busy life, first having a full-time teaching job and a pony to care for, and since 2013 doing various freelance things – workshops, school visits, events, etc. Because of this I know I have to turn up at my desk and write whether I feel like it or not. Of course some days are easier than others, but on the whole I don’t get blocked.

What was your favourite pony book growing up and why? So many! I’ll try to be brief. Jill for humour; Jinny for romance (I was always so happy that Scarlet was a chestnut mare like Shantih); but always queen of them all – K.M. Peyton. I love the variety of her books, and the intensity and realism. When Ruth sold Fly-By-Night to the horrible man with the two-tone shoes it was unbearable! I love the way she makes you care so much about her characters, human and four-legged.

How long, on average, does it take you to write a book? It depends. From six months (Too Many Ponies) to several years. I always say the average is a year but it has never taken exactly a year. I always write a rough and very quick first draft and then reckon I’m about halfway there. I do a lot of editing. What are you working on at the moment? I have an adult novel on submission, set in 1919, and have just finished the first draft of another one. I’m about to start writing another book for teens, set in 1921, but I can’t say any more than that just now. It’s at the tingling, note-taking, what-if? stage right now, which is exciting.

Which book are you most proud of and why?

I’m proud of them all, for different reasons, but I would have to say Star By Star, my most recent book.

I had to bring in a lot of history and politics while keeping a very small, human story at the centre, and that was a challenge.

Of my pony books I think I am most proud of Grounded. I wanted to write about the way horses had suffered in the recession, with so many being neglected, abused and even dumped.

This took me to some dark places and it wasn’t always an easy book to write because of that.

Which are your favourite horse and human characters in your own books? Stella in Star By Star is my all-round favourite but actually I fall a bit in love with all my characters while I’m writing about them. From the pony books I love Declan – he is so flawed. It was great to return to him in Too Many Ponies and see him as a man in his thirties, still not perfect but doing a good job running a sanctuary for abused and neglected horses. As for the horses, I love Declan’s horse Folly, who he finds in a barn with a dead mare and a dying foal. She is very damaged and he struggles to bond with her, and even by Too Many Ponies she is still a difficult horse.

I sneaked Scarlet into my historical novel Name Upon Name! She isn’t named: she belongs to a farmer who certainly wouldn’t have called her Scarlet, but she is in there as the ‘chestnut mare’ and I made her just as jaunty, greedy and pretty as she was in real life. And finally, if you were a horse, what breed/colour would you be?! Gosh! I have never been asked that before! I would definitely be a stocky native breed, a good doer, not the fastest but with good staying power (all those forest walks!). I have dark hair so I would imagine myself as dark brown or bay. Actually I think I’d maybe be an Exmoor pony.

A huge thank you to Sheena for taking the time to chat. If you'd like to find out more about her books click on this link. You can also find Sheena on Facebook or follow her on Twitter.

That's all from me today. I hope you enjoyed the interview. Happy reading! Amanda

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