Sharon Owens is the author of The Tea House on Mulberry Street and The Ballroom on Magnolia Street. She lives in Belfast.
About Sharon Owens
An Interview with Sharon Owens
More About Sharon Owens
Sharon Owens, debut author of the heart-warming The Tea House on Mulberry Street, delights us with a funny and frank interview covering everything from alien abductions to her deep love of Morrissey.
Who or what always puts a smile on your face?
Peter Kay, the comedian! Peter’s mother is from county Tyrone, like me; and all his jokes about her are so exactly spot-on! Irish mothers really did remind my generation, at every meal, that children in Africa were starving, as if that made boiled cabbage any more palatable to small children! It also gave me an enormous guilt-complex, that no army of therapists could ever hope to remove. Anything nice I’ve ever bought for myself, I’ve wondered how many bags of rice it is worth. And as for the terrible Phoenix Club: the binge-drinking, the fights, the dreadful wallpaper… it’s hilarious! Peter could make me laugh, if I was in agony. He’s a national treasure.
What are you reading at the moment?
If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things by Jon McGregor
The Falling Angels by John Walsh
Breakfast on Pluto by Patrick McCabe
I love books with mysterious, intriguing titles. There’s always a sense of turbulent emotion, just below the surface.
Which author do you most admire?
The late, Irish-born author, Brian Moore. I adore his work, it’s so emotional and brave, he wasn’t afraid to write about religion, sex, guilt, hate, alienation, jealousy, love and death. His book, An Answer From Limbo, is always on my bedside table, I read it constantly. In the book, an Irish-born, American writer sacrifices everything he has, for a book-deal. Even when his own mother dies of neglect, he feels no emotion or regret. He is simply ashamed of her, and her small-town Catholic personality. It’s a searing portrait of ambition and selfishness.
What's your earliest memory?
Helping my beloved grandparents, Rose and James Sherry, to pick vegetables and flowers in their beautiful garden, in the tiny village of Garvaghey, County Tyrone. Grandad grew everything organically, way back in the 1970’s. His potatoes, tomatoes, garden peas and onions could have won international awards. The onions were so strongly flavoured, I could smell them from 100 yards away, as they hung from the rafters of the barn. I used to gather lettuces and spring onions from the salad patch, and huge bunches of white daffodils and red dahlias from the flower -beds. Rose and James were lovely people, gentle and content, even though they had nothing of any material value. They were almost like leftover Victorians; Gran always served jam and butter in glass dishes, and cut toast into triangles; and Grandad touched his cloth cap and said 'good morning' to passers-by. They were married for over fifty years and are buried together in their home town of Caledon.
What is your greatest fear?
I worry about the amount of traffic on the roads, especially near school-crossings. Children look so tiny beside those massive 4X4’s.
How would you like to be remembered?
With love, by my husband Dermot, and daughter Alice. I don’t mind if everyone else forgets me. I’m not vain. I told Dermot to give me a green funeral if I died before him; cardboard coffin, no headstone. But he refused, point blank! So it’s a big fancy marble plot for me, complete with stone angel. Sorry, environmentalists everywhere…
Have you ever done something you've really regretted?
Yes. Too often to mention. I’m such an impulsive person, I never look before I leap. I’ve left several jobs because I had bad PMT and couldn’t be bothered with office politics that day. I’ve been too honest (or critical) with friends about various things, and they’ve stopped speaking to me! I once put the house up for sale, without telling Dermot first, because I fancied a change! He thought it was funny, when he came home from work and saw the sign. Next day, I changed my mind. The one good thing I did do on the spur of the moment, was to get my best friend to phone Dermot at his house, in 1984, and tell him I fancied him! He was shy and I knew he’d never ask me out, if he was interested. So, I took the chance. Thankfully, he said yes!
How do you spoil yourself?
I like to read novels in the bath, with loads of scented bubbles! I’ve just had a new bathroom installed, and it’s heavenly. In fact it’s going to be featured in House Beautiful magazine in April! Dermot and I used to be goth-type rock fans, and we still love rock although we don’t go to gigs anymore. We’re listening to Iinterpol at the moment. Their new single Evil is brilliant. It makes me wish I was eighteen again for just one night, so I could see them live. Good luck, Interpol! Luckily, I can take nice food or leave it, so I’ve no trouble maintaining my weight, a healthy size 14. If I do fancy a treat, it’ll be an onion bagel from M&S with egg mayonnaise and a handful of salad leaves and baby tomatoes. I don’t like sweet things of any kind!
What's your favourite word/book?
Favourite words are Victorian words like emporium, tea house, ballroom, tavern. They are so much nicer than shop, café, disco, pub, aren’t they?
Favourite book of all time is The Maiden Dinosaur by Janet McNeill, published in 1964. Janet was born in Belfast in 1907, was educated in England, worked in Ireland as a journalist, and finally retired to England. The Maiden Dinosaur is a wonderful, heartbreaking and moving story of a group of middle-class schoolfriends facing middle-age together. They still relate to one another through their schoolgirl personalities, and politely ignore the signs of ageing they witness as the years unfold. Janet has written other books with lovely titles like A Furnished Room, and The Other Side of the Wall, but sadly I haven’t been able to track them down.
Who do you turn to in a crisis?
No prizes for guessing this one! Dermot! He’s always calm in a crisis. I do get too involved sometimes, too emotional. And he reminds me that as long as we have our health and each other, nothing else really matters.
What makes you angry?
Northern Ireland politics. Maybe it’s our Celtic, fiercely-competitive, mentality, that makes it so hard for us to compromise. I don’t vote in elections because it’s tribal and therefore hopeless. Some people here would rather go down fighting than say 'I’m sorry for what your community suffered in the past. Let’s make friends and create a better future for our children.' It makes me ashamed to be from Northern Ireland when awful things are happening on the news, like the Omagh bombing. We ought to be more humble, NI only makes up 2% of the UK population and is totally dependant on UK taxpayers to make ends meet. What’s the answer? I haven’t a clue, I’m sorry to say. That we all get merged in The United States of Europe?
Have you ever had any other jobs apart from writing?
Oh yes! I’ve worked in a bridal boutique, ironing acres of satin every day. I’ve been a clerk in the unemployment office, a barmaid, an ice cream seller, a care-assistant in a home for the terminally ill, a shop-assistant, a chambermaid in the Isle of Man. Worst job: barmaid. I rarely got a lunch-break on twelve-hour shifts, and the cigarette smoke smells awful on your clothes. It’s much better working in a sitting-down job!
Are you in love?
Yes. I’ve been in love with Dermot for almost 21 years. He’s got big blue eyes, a really deep voice, and he brings me tea in bed every morning. I’ve never met anyone I fancy more than him, and he’s also very sensible, which I respect enormously. I often say he should write a self-help book for men because he’s such a great husband! He says women should be adored, not understood!
What's your worst vice?
Salt! I love pretzels and tortilla chips. Unfortunately, most salty snacks seem to be getting much harder to eat these days. Are they using different oils? I have reduced my consumption by about 90% as I am afraid my teeth might crumble under the strain. Now, I make my own salad dressing from mustard and vinegar, as a taste-consolation.
What are you proudest of?
My daughter, Alice. She’s a star. She’s funny, confident, polite, brave. She can get up onstage in drama class and improvise a conversation, no bother to her. (Every time I am facing a live radio interview, I get palpitations.) Alice is kind, helpful and utterly without prejudice. I tell her every single day that she is wonderful.
Where do you write?
In my spare room, which is painted a restful cream. The rest of the house is painted in very rich colours. I have an Indian wooden desk, and an office-style chair, lots of art postcards and clutter. I used to write in the living-room, and the bedroom, but I find this is the best room to work in. There are no distractions like CD players and TV’s!
Where's your favourite city?
I’m not a big traveller, but I would have to say Paris. For the museums, Pere Lachaise cemetery, the sweet shops, the arty cafes, the cheese baguettes, the Metro signs, Notre Dame, the French accent, the wrought-iron balconies, the smell of coffee in the mornings… Where’s my passport?
When was the last time you cried?
When Morrissey sang 'Irish Blood, English Heart' on the Jonathan Ross show. He was utterly fabulous, and his voice has grown much richer and deeper. He hasn’t tried to cling onto youth, and looks all the more dignified for it. I thought Morrissey was brilliant when I was growing up in the 1980’s. You knew he wasn’t just in showbiz for the money. He was, and is, a poet and a genius. Viva, Morrissey!
I don’t cry when things go wrong for me, by the way. I just sulk quietly for a few days, and then get over it.
One wish; what would it be?
That aliens would abduct any stubborn NI politicians, and replace them with clones who care about children living near the peace lines (20 foot high walls dividing some communities), working mothers, the unemployed, the environment etc. Failing that, I wish someone would invent small personal wind turbines so that everyone in the world could have free and clean electricity.
Did you enjoy school?
Yes, I loved it. I went to an all-girls convent in Omagh, which was so well-run it could have given posh private schools a good run for their money. We had parquet floors, fresh flowers on the windowsills, delicious dinners of roast chicken and mashed potatoes, fresh fruit salad and cream. The classrooms and bathrooms were always spotless. Fine art prints lined the corridors. The teachers wore their academic gowns and were suitably eccentric. There was a beautiful Christmas tree every year, and every child was treated as an individual with talents and gifts to be valued. Needless to say, there were no discipline problems of any kind. There was a uniform inspection every morning, no short skirts, no make-up allowed. We sang hymns in Latin all the time, and even had our own Victorian-gothic chapel in the school garden. (The garden was full of roses and flowers.) I was heartbroken to leave the ivory tower that was my school. With hindsight, it was an extremely narrow social background of middle-class, all-white, Catholic, female over-achievers. But still, I did enjoy my time there. I’m not so religious any more, but I am very neat and tidy to this day. And I couldn’t wear a short skirt in public for all the money in the world!
We have sent Alice to a non-denominational school with pupils from various racial and religious backgrounds. We believe children should not be segregated. But it’s still a grammar school for girls, I’m afraid! Alice loves it, and is doing well there. I think single-sex schools are a good thing, as there is no point in showing-off and playing the tough nut! I think I’d have spent all day fancying boys and not getting any work done, if I’d been to a co-ed school.
Sharon Owens is tipped to be a big star. Her first novel is The Teahouse on Mulberry Street.
My name is Sharon Owens, I'm 35, and I live in Belfast with my husband Dermot and daughter Alice. My first novel, The Teahouse on Mulberry Street, was written two years ago, purely as a hobby. When I sent a letter about my book to a publisher, I didn't even expect to get a reply. So I was completely amazed to find myself with a contract to write more books, and a whole new career into the bargain. Before this, I'd read hundreds of magazine articles about brave and resourceful women who'd managed to turn a talent of some kind into a livelihood, and whilst I admired them hugely, I never thought it would happen to me. So my experience just goes to show that fantastic things can still happen in today's uncertain world. I feel very lucky.
I was born at home in Omagh, in 1968. My mother had not planned a home-birth, but there wasn't time to go into hospital. My aunt Dympna, who is a nurse, just happened to call round for a visit, and literally saved my life, as I had breathing difficulties. She became my godmother and we are still very close. I had a relatively normal childhood, despite growing up in the 1970's during the height of the Troubles. There were some very frightening moments, and it became second-nature to keep a look out for anything that might be a bomb. Looking back, that's a tragic way for a child to grow up. It left me with a basic distrust of organised religion and sectarian politics. I have always been a firm pacifist, and I believe we should all work together for the general good. I vote for The Green party, and support several environmental charities.
My main hobby, throughout my life, has been reading stories. My favourite tv programme was Jackanory, I wish they would bring it back. I loved The Borrowers books by Mary Norton. How I wished I had a miniature family living behind the skirting boards in my house! I used to leave digestive biscuits under big pieces of furniture, just in case. However, all I attracted were grateful mice! I loved drawing too, and decided that when I grew up, I would become a commercial illustrator. I went to art college in Belfast, and graduated in 1992. That was an important year for me, because I also got married to my husband, Dermot. We met at the local disco when we realised we liked the same music: Joy Division, The Cure, The Banshees. We still love Gothic things: castles, gargoyles, candlesticks, costume jewellery, velvet coats and the colours red and black. Despite a textbook Irish upbringing filled with culture and sport, both of us were totally useless at Gaelic sports, Irish dancing, singing or playing musical instruments of any kind. Well, Dermot had a bass guitar for a while, but that was mainly for show... We just wanted to get married, and live in obscurity in a pretty suburban house. So that's what we did. Dermot works in IT, and I've been a full-time mum since 1993.
Dermot and I love pottering in the back garden, reading novels, watching comedy on TV, and walking in scenic places. Alice always groans when we say, ‘the sun has come out, let's go for a walk on the beach. We'll take a flask of tea and make a day of it...’ She thinks we are terribly boring and will probably become an airline pilot or something equally glamorous, when she grows up.
I'm still coming to terms with my new job, and I really enjoy writing. But I'm quite shy, and I get terribly nervous when I'm invited to a hold a book signing or to address an audience. For the moment, I'm staying at home, and keeping a low profile. I hope you enjoy The Teahouse on Mulberry Street.
I send you my very warmest wishes,
Lots of love,
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