Sheila Connolly. HILARY WOOD PHOTOGRAPHY
Page Turner / Edited by Peter McDermott
Sheila Connolly writes a mystery series set in West Cork that has won her comparisons to Agatha Christie. She also has a few things in common with Maura Donovan, the protagonist of her latest, “The Lost Traveller.”
Twenty years ago, for example, the author first visited West Cork and the Bostonian Maura has followed in her footsteps. But while Connolly lives with her husband and three cats in Massachusetts and gets to Ireland when she can, her heroine has made the commitment to Cork, honoring her dying grandmother’s wish, and along the way inherits a house and a pub named Sullivan’s in the tiny village of Leap. After a struggle to make it a success, the place is making a profit.
But things take a dark turn: Maura discovers a body in the ravine behind Sullivan’s. The gardaí reveal that the victim’s face has been beaten beyond recognition.
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In attempting to solve the mystery, the young American gets to find out about the seamier sides of modern Irish life, like drug-smuggling and urban gangs. “But Maura is strong enough and smart enough to handle it all,” Connolly said, “and she’s found friends and a place for herself in Ireland.”
Publishers Weekly said of the series, “Connolly vividly evokes rural Ireland, and her characters seem like real human beings trying their best to navigate their lives.”
And Suspense Magazine said, “Connolly sticks to what she knows best: How to write a drop-dead awesome book that keeps readers entertained from beginning to end!”
The author, as it happens, has another interest that involves Ireland and solving mysteries. “I’ve been a genealogist for many years, so I know most of my rather mixed family history,” she said. “On my mother’s side, the family goes back to the ‘Mayflower.’ On my father’s, both his parents arrived from Ireland in 1911, where they were children of farmers.
“They worked in Manhattan for eight years – he drove a horse-drawn milk wagon, she was an upstairs maid – before they married, and they had three children — one son was a mechanical engineer with a master’s degree, my father, born when his mother was 39,” Connolly added, “the other son was a nuclear scientist with a PhD who taught at Stanford, and their daughter worked in television in New York when it was very new.
Place of birth: Rochester, N.Y.
Residence: Middleboro, Mass.
Published works: 37 in six different series, plus a few standalones.
What is your writing routine? Are there ideal conditions?
I write at my father’s old desk, in a small landing at the top of the stairs, with a window looking out over the street. My brain works best in the mornings, so I save the “business” aspects (email, blogs, etc.) for afternoons. When I’m facing a deadline I write about a chapter a day, in chronological order. I love both the research and the writing parts, because I enjoying learning new things, so sometimes I get sidetracked by odd pieces of information. The next book includes ring-forts, mainly because I’ve run across so many in Cork.
What advice do you have for aspiring writers?
Keep writing. It’s a learning experience, and you get better with practice. Have faith in yourself—your first efforts may seem terrible to you, but you can and will improve. And talk with other writers, join writers’ groups, attend conferences. The writers’ community is strong and supportive, and you need that when you receive your eighty-seventh rejection and wonder if you’re crazy to even try writing.
What book are you currently reading?
Tana French’s “The Witch Elm” (I’ve read all her books). I have Ann Cleeves’s and Louise Penny’s latest books on the top of my to-be-read pile waiting for me, or maybe they’re taunting me.
Name a book that you were pleasantly surprised by.
I seldom have the time to read non-fiction, and this one is outside my usual comfort zone: Graham Robb’s “The Discovery of Middle Earth.” I bought it based on a review, and once I started reading I couldn’t stop, even though I don’t know nearly enough about his subject. I read it on the plane on my last trip to Ireland, and I kept reading while it was there. I found it fascinating.
If you could meet one author, living or dead, who would it be?
Dorothy L. Sayers. I first read her Lord Peter series when I was in college, but it was only later (after many re-readings) that I realized how much her characters grow in complexity and subtlety over the course of the series. It has shaped how I create my characters.
What is your favorite spot in Ireland?
Apart from the cottage in Drinagh that I bought three years ago? Without question, the Drombeg Stone Circle. I visit it every time I’m in Cork. I been there when it was jammed with tourists, and when I was the only person there—it’s still timeless.
You’re Irish if…
You seem to be related to everyone you meet in Ireland, or share the same friends, even if they’re a few thousand miles away. For example, I have a retired garda friend who is also a genealogist and historian and he’s been corresponding with a woman I worked with at a historical society in Boston a few years ago.