A group of published UK-based authors and illustrators of picture books, children's and YA.
Today Sheena Wilkinson’s new book, Star by Star, is published by Little Island Books. I really enjoyed reading it and admire the way it balances wide-ranging political and social issues with personal stories of individual courage.
The blurb: ‘It’s 1918 and Stella has lost her suffragette mother to the terrible flu pandemic that is sweeping Europe. The Great War is finally coming to a close, and women are going to be able to vote for the first time. Stella wants to change the world – but she can’t do it all by herself. Just as stars come one by one to brighten the night sky, so history is made person by person, girl by girl, vote by vote.’
RW: Hi Sheena, Congratulations on the publication of Star by Star. The book is set in a very specific time and place. What sort of research did you have to do?
SW: It’s a period I’ve written about quite a lot. 2015’s Name Upon Name was set in 1916, and I’ve always been a bit obsessed with the First World War and even more so with its aftermath. I had studied a lot of women’s history and I loved having the chance to put it to good use. Generally I love research, but I always have to give myself a date to stop researching and start writing!
As for the place, in my mind it’s set very firmly on the County Down coast near where I live, but in fact the seaside town of Cuanbeg is deliberately fictionalised, as I wanted the story to be as universal as possible. I’m delighted if it came across as very real! I did do a lot of driving round the mountains and staring out to sea!
One of the most important aspects of the book is the flu pandemic which killed around 50 million worldwide so it really mattered to me that the story didn’t feel too local.
RW: Your main character, Stella, is wonderful! In the middle of quite traumatic events, you’ve captured the awkwardness of being a teenager. I love how she feels things so strongly and often speaks ‘out of turn.’ Was it easy to find her character and her voice?
SW: I love Stella and I’m thrilled you love her too! She is easily my favourite heroine. I set out to plan her story, as I always do, and I knew she’d been brought up in a very alternative, radical household, with a single mother who’d taken her on suffragette marches when she was a child, but her voice started speaking to me very quickly and she seemed to just appear. I was as outspoken and awkward as Stella when I was sixteen, but I don’t think I was as kind or as determined.
RW: To me the book is about how individuals can make a difference. Is that message important to you?
SW: Absolutely! I started writing last autumn, during the American election campaign, and I was horrified about the state of the world. So many of the book’s concerns, though specific to 1918, seemed horribly relevant to 2017. I found myself being more politically active than I had been since my own teens – going on marches, joining a party, etc. – and that was partly inspired by knowing that Stella would have done the same!
RW: The book also deals very sensitively with the theme of coping with loss, trauma and change – is that something you specifically set out to do or did it emerge through the writing process?
SW: It was fundamental to the story and setting – all the characters have to deal with some kind of loss because of the war and the flu. Stella and Sandy, the young officer she befriends, are both grieving, and Sandy is suffering from PTSD, though it wasn’t called that in 1918. I wanted it to be a powerful book, but not a heavy or depressing one, but there are no easy solutions for any of the characters.
However, 1918 was the start as well as the end of something – and I wanted the image of women voting for the first time to be something very hopeful and positive.
RW: What’s a typical writing day like for you?
SW: There is no typical day! Recently I have been really busy. I’ve got regular commitments for half the week – I’m a Royal Literary Fund Fellow and I teach creative writing at Trinity College Dublin, so it can be hard to get more than a couple of days in a row at my desk. But on a ‘writing’ day I tend to work all morning and half the afternoon, and then go for a long walk which is absolutely crucial. I’m hopeless at writing in the evenings, and much less good than I used to be at writing while travelling, but I have so much on right now that I might have to try to mend my ways!
RW: What’s next? Can you tell us if you are working on another book?
I am! I’m working on an adult novel set in 1919, focusing on a doctor and his family in the middle of the flu pandemic. I’d actually started it before I wrote Star By Star, and had to abandon it for nine months. I’m at a stage I’m calling The Big Rewrite right now…
RW: Food for thought in these answers, Sheena. Best of luck with Star by Star.
Since the publication of the multi-award-winning Taking Flight in 2010, Sheena Wilkinson has been established as one of Ireland’s most acclaimed writers for young people. Groundedwon the overall CBI Book of the Year award in 2013, and Still Falling was described (Inis Magazine) as ‘heartbreaking and heartwarming…an instant classic’. Sheena’s latest novel, Star by Star, is out in October 2017. Sheena lives in County Down.
Rachel Ward writes YA thrillers (Numbers and The Drowning) and now adult crime. Her latest book, The Cost of Living, is a cosy crime story set in and around a supermarket.