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SHEILA QUIGLEY:Grandmother of Crime?

Written by Ayo Onatade

Debut novelist Sheila Quigley is a grandmother of seven whose £3000,000 two-book deal was sold to Random House by literary agent Darley Anderson after a fiercely contested auction. The German translation rights for the book were sold even before the book was published. Run for Home is published by Century in April 2004 followed by an Arrow paperback in January 2005.



Darley Anderson said: "Eighteen months ago, I got a call from Sheila Quigley who wanted to send me a screenplay about cigarette smuggling. I agreed to read it. It was unpolished but gritty and although I didn't think I could sell it, I detected a real talent for storytelling and character. I asked her if she could write a gangster novel set in the North East. I worked with her editorially on a couple of drafts over a year until it was ready to submit at auction."



From the age of fifteen she worked as a presser in a tailoring factory. She has four children and seven grandchildren and as an avid football fan she can be found most weekends watching football. Sheila has lived on the Homelands Estate (at present with her son and two daughters) at Houghton-le Spring near Sunderland for 30 years and in that time has had numerous jobs including market trader, machinist and double glazing saleswoman. A BBC one hour special documentary about the writing of Run For Home has been made by Emmy Award winner Chris Terril was shown on BBC television.

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Ayo:

Not much is known about you as an author so would you like to start off by giving us a bit of background information about yourself?

Sheila:

Basically when I was about seven years old I couldn’t read a word. While I was at school Fridays were reading day and everyone in the class had to stand up and read so much out of this book. I had managed for a long time to escape but one day I got cornered and I couldn’t read a word; I used to spend my time day dreaming so I couldn’t have if I tried. The teacher embarrassed me so I went home and got the Sunderland Echo, picked a word out of there and asked my mother what that word was. I learnt five words a night by just staring at the word and repeating it and within three weeks I was top of the class and I never looked back. I soon had the reading ability five to six years above my other classmates. At ten or eleven I remember writing a little play that a couple of friends and I put on. I was also writing books and things and something would happen that would throw my mind off it. But I always came back; I always started scribbling other things. I then started sending stuff off when I got older and it was coming back with comments like “this is great but not for us”.

Ayo:

Where were you sending stuff off to?

Sheila:

All over the place, women’s magazines. I did a couple of other novels that weren’t getting anywhere and I just sent them out. They’re in the bottom drawer now and I know why. They were nowhere near good enough, but there are some good bits in them that I could pull out to be rewritten. I thought, these are not getting anywhere, I’m going to write a screen play - I was never ever going to give up. So I sent the screenplay to Darley Anderson: I thought I would try the agents. He phoned up and said this is really good, but it is practically impossible to sell a screenplay by an unknown but would I write a gangster novel set in the north east. If had said would I write a book about Martians set in the north east, would you write a cricket book, anything, I would have given it a go. As I was reading the letter I was going up the stairs to my word processor and I just started immediately. I did the first draft and I sent it off. He loved it but it was still rough so he pointed out what I had to do. I rewrote it and he said that there were seven publishers after it.

Ayo:

Was there a specific incident that inspired you to write Run For Home or the issues that you raise in the novel?

Sheila:

No. It is all fiction, although a lot of the stuff can happen, and does happen, on a lot of the estates. Really, that estate could be set anywhere in England. It’s pure coincidence that I come from the north east and it’s set in the north east.

Ayo:

Run For Home cannot be classed only as a crime novel but also like a saga because there are so many elements of things that happen to the different families, friends, etc. Was this intentional?

Sheila:

No. There was nothing actually intentional. I just set out to write this crime novel and that’s what came out of it.

Ayo:

Where did you get the ideas for your characters from?

Sheila:

I haven’t got a clue! I do know thousands of people. I think they are little bits of different people. I could go and sit on a park bench and within five minutes someone would be sitting beside me and I’d get their life story! Total strangers and I would get their life stories - both men and women.

Ayo:

Then you pick up things that they have told you and you use them?

Sheila:

Probably. I have also been very observant as well. I think that’s natural. You don’t know that you are doing it.

Ayo:

Explain to me about the character Lorraine? Do you know a policewoman like her?

Sheila:

No, I don’t know any policewoman. It’s what you pick up. It’s all pure fiction and what you pick up here, there, television etc.

Ayo:

That’s a different way of doing it because a lot of authors will go into police stations to talk to police officers to make sure they have got their facts right.

Sheila:

Maybe next year I would be able to go and say look, I need some information; but last year I don’t think I would have been able to do so. I would have looked stupid. Excuse me, I am writing this novel and I need some information? I am not easily embarrassed but I would have felt stupid knocking on a police station door. They would probably look at me as a weird woman and think, another one for the nut house.

Ayo:

Are you pleased by the way in which the novel has turned out?

Sheila:

I’m over the moon, I’m thrilled with it.

Ayo:

Run For Home deals with some rather harrowing issues such as drugs, the kidnapping of the girls, the prostitution…were these difficult for you to write about?

Sheila:

Well obviously the kidnapping, the prostitution. I don’t know anything about that. That’s just my imagination and again what you pick up. But the drugs I have seen it around the estates and its horrendous. It really is. I hear some of the words used and I know for a fact that they do use each others’ urine for drug testing.

Ayo:

That was a new one on me when I read that.

Sheila:

When I heard that I was gobsmacked. I thought how awful, they should be tested in front of the doctors. But what they do is they take anybody’s urine in and when the doctors test it it is coming up clean and they are getting their methadone. I was a bit shocked when I heard this. Little bits like that really do happen.

Ayo:

How long did it take you to write Run For Home?

Sheila:

The first draft took three months but in total it took a year.

Ayo:

Did you intend Run For Home to be a standalone novel or are you planning to write a series with someone like Lorraine?

Sheila:

When it was finished and when they were bidding for it, Darley phoned and said we have one woman who would like to know if you are going to write some more Lorraine Hunt books. I said tell her I would write as many as she likes. It was not in my head to do any more with her in them but yes, I am going to write some more Lorraine Hunt books.

Ayo:

What are you working on at the moment?

Sheila:

I’m working on Bad Moon Rising.

Ayo:

Is this the second in the series? Are you able to tell us anything about it?

Sheila:

Yes, it’s nearly finished. This one has the same Detective Inspector, and the Lumsdon family, but this time Robbie is in the background and Mickey his sidekick is more to the fore. It is about another family who live on the estate - the grandmother, her son, and her eight year old granddaughter. Gang warfare breaks out between Sunderland and Newcastle, there is a serial killer on the loose and Melanie, the little girl, goes missing. So who’s got her? She may have been taken because the father, Jacko, owes a lot of money to both gangs, or the serial killer could have her.

Ayo:

No doubt your life has changed since Run For Home, and I understand that there is going to be a BBC documentary. When can we see it and how did it come about?

Sheila:

My life has changed dramatically. The documentary is coming out at the end of May/early June as part of the Alan Yentob “Imagine” series. When I signed the deal everything seemed to go crazy; the papers and everything. The BBC obviously read about it in the paper and thought we’ll go and see if she’ll agree. I’m leaving the country for a month when that comes out!

Ayo:

How have you managed to handle all this success?

Sheila:

On autopilot. I think I’m on autopilot a lot of the time. If I thought about it properly then I would scream.

Ayo:

What has been the reaction of your family to all of this?

Sheila:

Like me, they’ve been over the moon, thrilled to bits.

Ayo:

Do you read crime fiction yourself when you get the opportunity?

Sheila:

I like thrillers, psychological thrillers.

Ayo:

Have you got any favourite authors?

Sheila:

I like John Connolly at the moment a lot. My favourite author up until then had always been Stephen King. I love Stephen King. I like the way he writes. I think he is a brilliant writer. I’ve read John Connolly, a couple of Lee Childs and various odds and ends. I started off reading a lot of science fiction years ago, then I moved on to fantasy and then onto horror and now I’m moving on to crime with a little dip in between into different things. If I have nothing to read I’ll read a bus ticket. I am a compulsive reader. I’ll be sitting on the bus and I’ll read the posters as they go by.

Ayo:

Have there been any authors that have influenced your writing?

Sheila:

I don’t know. I think you just write the way you write.

Ayo:

Some authors would say that somebody like Enid Blyton, for example, may have encouraged them to write because they enjoyed their books.

Sheila:

I really can’t think of anybody. I mean I used to love The Famous Five and books like The Hardy Boys, and What Katy Did. But I don’t know about influence, I have read that many different kinds of books. I didn’t try to copy; I think I just write the way I like to read. I like to read quick stuff; I don’t like stuff that takes forever to describe a road, for example. A lot of people do.

Ayo:

Apart from Run For Home, is there a book you read years ago that you would have liked to have written?

Sheila:

Stephen King’s The Stand.

Ayo:

How do you relax when you are not writing? I hear you like football!

Sheila:

Sheila QuigleyI love England; I won’t miss an England game. I am very patriotic. I like Sunderland. If Sunderland’s not in anything I’ll root for Newcastle and then Middlesbrough. My fifteen year old grandson plays for the under sixteens. At the moment he is having trials for Hartlepool. The nine year old is doing superbly - he is playing for Sunderland’s 24/7 team. It’s brilliant watching him. He’s been taught by a brilliant school. He is not a big guy but he is round the bigger guys. They’re two totally different players but they are both brilliant. I also swim two or three times a week.

Ayo:

Are there any plans for Run For Home to be adapted for television?

Sheila:

Not yet, but it would be fantastic if it happened. It was brilliant to write it but to actually see somebody acting out words that you have done is incredible.

Ayo:

Have you been able to give up the daytime job?

Sheila:

Yes.

Ayo:

What have you liked so far about being published?

Sheila:

I was thrilled today because as I was signing books one of the booksellers turned round and said they had had lots of people who bought the book, read it and have come back in dying for other books that I have written; he has had to tell them that this is my first and that they will have to wait for my second book. I have done that myself and have been bitterly disappointed when the shop hasn’t got any of the other books yet. I was thrilled to think that people were asking if I had written other books.

Ayo Onatade & Sheila Quigley

Listen to Sheila Quigley on BBC Radio Woman's Hour.


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Sheila Quigley



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