Today we travel to South London to chat with Sheila Rawlings about how graphic designing, being an avid reader, crime investigation, an overactive imagination, writing in the dining room, destroyed plans, James Bond, going for walks, Formula One, a choppy boat trip, Stieg Larsson, and breaking into a celebrity’s house come together as part of Sheila’s past and current life.
Tell us a bit about yourself.
My name is Sheila Rawlings, and I am a trained graphic designer and self-published author. Having spent 33 years working for a weekly magazine publisher, I now spend my well-earned retirement writing novels in South London, where I live with my husband Martin – to whom I have been married for nearly 46 years. Apparently, my long service medal is in the post.
Having been an avid reader since childhood, I must have read hundreds of books over the years, all of which not only contributed to my love of writing stories but also greatly helped to improve my writing style. Unfortunately, as I’m reluctant to part with my growing book collection, it means I’m now running out of space to house them. Fortunately, since the arrival of Kindle, I now mostly download e-books, as they’re easier to carry around – much to the relief of my husband, who was beginning to think he was living in a library.
In which genre do you write?
My preferred genre is psychological thrillers. As I watch a lot of TV dramas and have always enjoyed a good thriller, it’s a genre I feel most comfortable with. However, having attended a ‘crime investigation procedure for authors’ course just before the pandemic, I decided to introduce a crime element to both my latest thriller, and the one I’m currently writing.
How many published books do you have?
I’m still relatively new to writing, so I’ve only published two novels so far. However, I’ve just finished the first draft of my next novel, so hopefully it won’t be long before those two are joined by a third.
When did you first realise you wanted to be a writer and what ignited your author flame?
I suppose the seeds of becoming a writer started to take root when I was a child, as, due to an overactive imagination that needed an outlet, I was an avid book reader. With no electronic devices or computer games to distract me, I could always be found curled up somewhere with my nose in a book; partly as a way of escaping my annoying little brother’s tantrums – of which there were many – and partly to drown out the arguments that often occurred between my father and my maternal grandmother, who lived with us. Unfortunately, having been a prisoner of war during World War 2, my father had acquired a quick temper and little patience – which my grandmother regularly managed to put to the test. Therefore, immersing myself in a good book was the only way to escape the chaos of my everyday surroundings.
However, as my parents regarded writing stories as just a hobby, when I eventually left school, I was encouraged to train for a ‘proper’ job … as they termed it. So, I became a graphic designer instead.
I did start to write a novel several years prior to my retirement. However, as anyone in publishing knows, there is no such thing as regular hours. So, I only got as far as the first two chapters before constant work commitments rendered it impossible to finish. Added to this, my husband had unfortunately developed clinical depression, which meant I suddenly found myself trying to cope with a difficult home life, while at the same time doing a demanding and full-time job. Therefore, it wasn’t until 2013 that I eventually managed to finish the story and publish my first novel.
What does your ideal writing space look like?
In my mind, my ideal writing space would be a large, dedicated study where I could shut myself away with all my many books; a room that would also have enough wall space to hang up a large white board where I could plot out my novels. However, back in the real world, as I live in a small, two-bedroom terrace house with very little storage space – let alone a spare room to convert into a study – the reality of the situation is I’m restricted to using the dining room instead. Unfortunately, with no lock on the door, it’s difficult to avoid interruptions – or constant offers of a cup of tea. As it’s also the only room we have for entertaining, it means packing all my things into a large plastic box every time we have guests staying. Fortunately – and I never thought I’d hear myself saying this – thanks to Covid, visitors have been a rare occurance.
What are you currently reading?
As I write regular monthly book reviews on my website, it means I usually manage to read at least one book a month. Currently, I’m in between books, having just read the excellent novel ‘One Step Behind’ by Lauren North. It’s a gripping and tense psychological thriller, about a woman whose life is systematically being ruined by a stalker. If you’re looking for a good read, I can highly recommend it.
Where did the idea for your most recent book come from?
During my husband’s long struggle with depression, one unavoidable fact became abundantly clear. Nothing in life is guaranteed. No matter how well we plan our future – or how much control we think we have over it – at the end of the day we’re all at the mercy of fate. As I knew only too well how devastating it was to suddenly have all your carefully made plans destroyed in the blink of an eye, I decided to use that experience as the underlying theme for my latest novel.
I started by asking myself a question. What traumatic event would be guaranteed to not only tear a person’s life apart but also be impossible to recover from? My answer was simple: to suddenly lose someone you loved in tragic circumstances, with no warning or time to prepare for it. Realising the premise would make for an explosive start to my novel, I then placed my main protagonist in exactly that position, creating a scenario where her husband is fatally shot during an unexpected bank robbery, leaving her not only traumatised but also a prime witness to his murder.
They say novelists are either ‘plotters’ or ‘pantsers’. Well, I’m definitely a ‘plotter’. I had my beginning, and, because of my love of Cornwall, I was pretty sure the rugged Cornish coastline – with its secluded and atmospheric coves – would be the ideal setting for a dramatic end to the story. Together with a rough idea of how all the characters would come together to facilitate that ending, all that remained was to piece together the story like a jigsaw puzzle. As writing a novel is an organic process, it took several drafts before the story was finally completed to my satisfaction, by which time – with the help of an excellent editor – it had changed dramatically from its original conception.
What movie can you watch over and over without ever getting tired of it?
As I’m a great film lover and passionate cinema goer, there are several films I would gladly watch repeatedly … and quite often do. For sheer escapism, a James Bond film will always hit the spot – especially the ones with Daniel Craig, who brings a refreshingly gritty edge to the character. As I mentioned before, I’m also partial to a good thriller and can easily watch Stieg Larsson’s ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’ trilogy multiple times. Having read the books, I consider him a brilliant thriller writer, whose novels have made excellent movies – although I far prefer the Swedish versions to the American ones. Nobody does crime thrillers quite like the Scandinavians.
What do you do when not writing or marketing your books?
I sometimes wish there were more hours in a day, as writing a novel can be an all-consuming activity. You get so involved that time seems to evaporate into the ether. However, although it’s hard to tear myself away from the computer, I do have other interests in my life. For instance, as well as reading books, I love going to the cinema or the theatre. I’m also a great fan of motor racing – especially Formula One. As a lover of good coffee, I often start the day in one of our excellent, local independent cafés. We have several nearby, so I’m spoilt for choice. Since the pandemic struck, it’s been tough for small businesses, especially in the hospitality sector, so I’ve tried to support as many local ones as possible. Truth is, I would miss the coffee shops if they disappeared. Lockdown was bad enough.
I know it’s trendy to spend time in a gym these days but, as far as I’m concerned, pumping iron is best left to the young. However, I do enjoy walking. I find spending time in the fresh air – and I use the term loosely, as I live in London – clears my head and gives me time to think through any ideas I might have for my current projects. Fortunately, we have several parks and gardens within walking distance, so at least I can pretend to be in the country. Walking also helps keep my poor aging joints moving, so I endeavour to walk every day – although on cold days it can be hard to leave the warmth of the house.
What is the most enjoyable aspect you’ve found through writing?
That’s an easy question to answer. For me, there’s no better way to escape all the difficulties of life than to immerse myself in a fictional world of my own imagination. There’s something really satisfying about creating characters, giving them different personalities, then placing them in a challenging situation to see how they each deal with it. It’s amazing how they can surprise you. It’s also a good way of releasing the hidden adventurer that lies within, as you can use your characters to act out scenarios you would never have the courage to do yourself in real life.
What’s the strangest thing you’ve done or experienced to help create a scene.
In my second novel, my main protagonist is taken on a boat trip off the Cornish coast. I had little experience of motorboats when I planned the scene, nor had I ever been out on a rough sea. Therefore, while I was on a location trip to Cornwall, my husband and I decided to join one of the local boat trips to Seal Island, which lay just off the coast of St Ives. It was mid-September, so the holiday season was virtually over. As the weather had also started to deteriorate, when we arrived at the quay, we discovered we were the only passengers for that day. However, instead of cancelling the trip – which we fully expected him to do – to our surprise the owner said he was quite happy to take just the two of us. As a result, not only was the sea as choppy as I had envisaged for my character, but I also got to enact the scene for future reference. The finished description in the book is therefore exactly how I experienced it.
Share a funny story from your childhood.
My father was a milkman, and as a child I used to help him deliver the milk at weekends and during the school holidays. Although she wasn’t one of his customers, Bernard Braden’s daughter lived in one of the streets on my dad’s milk round. At the time, Bernard Braden was a well-known TV presenter and chat show host, and we often saw him and his wife, Barbara Kelly – an actress and TV panellist – visiting her.
One Saturday, having accidentally locked herself out of her house, his daughter stopped my dad and asked if I could climb in through her kitchen window and open the front door for her. Not expecting to be locked out, she had fortunately left the window slightly open. However, it was too small for an adult to climb through. As I was only 12 years old at the time and slim, I was therefore the obvious candidate. It was a bit precarious, as the window was above the kitchen counter. So, I not only had to negotiate my way over the counter, but I also had to avoid breaking any of the crockery she had left on it. Finally succeeding and dropping to the floor, I then made my way down the hallway to open the front door. When I returned to school the following Monday, I took great pride in telling all my friends that I had spent the weekend breaking into a celebrity’s house.
Tell us about your most recent book.
My most recent book is ‘Beneath the Fear’. It’s a psychological crime thriller which centres around Samantha Copeland, a young woman who, having planned her life down to the finest detail, suddenly has it cruelly torn apart when she witnesses her husband’s murder during an unexpected bank robbery.
Although the police believe she has vital information to help them catch her husband’s killer, Sam is so traumatised by the experience that her mind refuses to recall the details of that day, having buried them deep within her subconscious. Desperate to get justice for her husband, she eventually decides to retreat to an isolated village on the Cornish coast, where she hopes the peace and quiet will heal her fragile state of mind and help her to finally face her fears.
Unfortunately, fate isn’t finished with her yet, and she soon discovers that the police are not the only ones keen to find out what she knows. However, unlike the police, they are determined to stop her sharing it.
It was wonderful to have you on MTA, Sheila. I very much enjoyed learning more about you and your books. Wishing you all the best, with much success! – Camilla
Where can we purchase the book?
‘Beneath the Fear’ can be purchased in paperback and e-book formats through Amazon or ordered as a paperback through any local bookshop. It can also be ordered online through Waterstones. The ISBN number is: 978-1-9196103-0-6 and the link is: https://www.waterstones.com/book/beneath-the-fear/sheila-rawlings/9781919610306
Book Blurb for ‘Beneath the Fear’:
Spoilt and indulged since childhood, Samantha Copeland believes bad things only happen to other people. However, after witnessing her husband’s murder during a bank robbery in Oxford, that illusion is cruelly shattered.
Traumatised by the experience, Sam eventually retreats to the Cornish coast, where she hopes to heal her fragile state of mind. Unfortunately, instead of the peace she so desperately craves, she soon finds her vulnerability tested to breaking point by a series of unnerving and unexplained incidents. However, after meeting her enigmatic neighbour, Tony Walker, and local handyman, Nathan Scott, Sam soon discovers these are the least of her problems. The worst is yet to come.
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