Wednesday, March 4, 2015

An Interview with Sheila Connolly

Sheila Connolly writes three series for Berkley Crime and publishes single titles on her own. How she accomplishes writing a minimum of three books per year is anyone’s guess. One series is set in rural Massachusetts, one in the Irish countryside, and another in downtown Philadelphia. Her main characters have diverse professions; apple orchard owner, Irish pub owner, and museum director. Because I’ve interviewed Sheila before, I know her professional experiences cover a wide range of occupations, and she has lived and traveled many places. Her newest book, An Early Wake, third in the Cork County series, was published in February. 

Please welcome Sheila Connolly back to WWK.              E. B. Davis 

Sheila, you were writing the Orchard and the Museum mystery series for Berkley. Did you propose the Cork County series to them? How did you conceive of the project?

Actually I wrote a book with the same setting way, way back when I first started writing, in 2001. My father’s father was born in West Cork, not far from the village of Leap (I use the real village in the series), so I went there to learn more about the family. I found the pub called Connolly’s the first time I visited, and the seed was planted. Clearly I got more than I expected!

As I recall it, my agent pitched it more than once, and it went through a few mutations along the way. An earlier version of the series had an older protagonist and a nice romance with the local police inspector. But the more I read and wrote cozies, the more I thought I wanted to try a younger, blue-collar protagonist who’s still finding herself, and who gets thrust into an entirely unfamiliar situation—in a foreign country, no less. But she learned that there are people looking out for her, more than she ever realized. So we kept pitching it, and Berkley Prime Crime finally decided it was ready for a cozy series with a foreign setting, and each of the three books has been a bestseller.

Old Billy is an interesting secondary character in the Cork County series. Except for hanging around the pub and drinking a pint or two, he doesn’t have much of a life, but he is retired and old. When he was younger, what did Billy do to earn a living?

Funny, nobody has ever asked me that. West Cork is still a rural area, so most people were and are farmers, mostly raising cattle (as did my Connolly family—I have a second cousin there who still does!). When Billy was young, people either stayed in the area where they were born and worked on the family farm, or they emigrated and never returned. Billy is one of the ones who stayed. He never married, and he’s never asked for much. Somewhere along the way, Old Mick Sullivan, the former owner of the pub, kind of took Billy in and gave him a place to live at the end of the building, and he’s been there ever since.

As a character in the book, Billy is the informal historian for the pub and the local area—he knows everybody, and everybody knows (and trusts) him. He’s also a kind of a father figure for Maura, something she never had back in Boston. Finally, he’s a reflection of the value that Irish people still place on family and community. He’s never going to be shuttled off to a retirement home (if there is such a thing). He’ll have a place at Sullivan’s as long as he’s able to manage, and his friends and neighbors will watch out for him.

Although Bridget is an old woman, she seems to have a flexible mind. Tell our readers about Bridget and her role in bringing Maura to Ireland.

Maura’s grandmother Nora Sullivan (yes, related to Old Mick—everyone in any region of Ireland seems to be related, and they share the same names) is kind of the shadow character in the series. When she was widowed and left Ireland with her son, the only way she could see to make a living, she left all things Irish behind, in order to give her son, and then his daughter Maura, a better life in America. But she never lost touch with friends and relatives back home. Bridget knew Nora as a young woman, and now can show Maura a side of her grandmother that Maura never knew. Bridget and Old Mick were neighbors (and when you say that in rural Ireland, it means you lived in one of only a handful of houses in a small townland, and you were probably related six different ways), so no doubt they put their heads together at some point to see what they could do to help Maura.

Bridget has the physical limitations of age, but her mind is sharp. Her memory is long, and she’s kind. She’s also surprisingly non-judgmental about other people and their flaws. She’s a good person, and she gives Maura someone to care about!

Even though Maura Donovan has relatives living nearby, she doesn’t know them having grown up in Boston. She seems alone in the world. Will you add a romantic interest for Maura?

I’m having fun with that. Maura knows herself well enough to recognize that she has a lot of figuring out to do before she even considers a relationship, and she’s in no hurry. I’ve given her two possibilities: one is an eager young policeman, Sean Murphy, who’s actually a year or two younger than Maura, and who seems very innocent to her (there’s not a lot of crime in that part of Ireland, so he’s not exactly a hardened cop!); the other, Mick Nolan, is ten years older than Maura and one of her employees—and very close-mouthed about himself and his past. But he’s looking out for Bridget, his grandmother, which is a point in his favor.

Both men and women tend to marry late in Ireland, often in their thirties, so there’s no pressure on Maura to decide anything quickly, and nobody’s pushing her. We’ll learn a bit more about young Mick (to distinguish him from Old Mick, who he worked for) in the next book, but we’ll have to see where things go with either one of them.

Your main characters share the trait of an orientation in business. Is business an interest of yours or do their businesses ground them to the community in which your mysteries take place?

I have an unusual and non-linear career background: I’ve been an art historian and worked in a couple of museums, which is the basis for the Museum Mysteries; I’ve also got a business degree and worked for both the City of Philadelphia and a major investment banking firm. I’ve been a research genealogist as well. (I will admit that I have never managed an orchard or run a pub!)

I think all of those professions offer analytical and practical skills that an amateur sleuth needs. And the genealogy runs through all of my series. I started researching my own family tree decades ago and have never stopped (I don’t think anybody just walks away from family history, once you’re hooked). A family tree is a great structure to hang a story on, and I borrow from my own all the time.

The last Orchard series mystery, Picked To Die, is set during harvest time. Main character Meg Corey’s orchard manager, Bree, an American of Jamaican heritage, seems especially prickly working alongside the immigrants, who pick the apples. She has a chip on her shoulder. Meg has taken to asking Bree’s permission to leave the orchard so she can solve the mystery. I found myself feeling defensive on Meg’s behalf. Meg can’t say anything right because Bree takes Meg’s remarks as either racist, prejudicial to immigrants, or as upper management commands. Bree needs an attitude adjustment. Should Bree take a hike?

You’re not the only person who has mentioned that. Bree’s been prickly from the start, but that’s because she is young (early twenties), female and black, and she’s trying to prove herself and to manage a crew most of whom are men, older than she is, and more experienced. Meg defers to Bree because Meg recognizes that she knows nothing about orchard management and has a lot to learn. She lets Bree call the shots so there’s no confusion about who’s in charge.

But you’re right: Bree needs to soften up. She’s been working with Meg for two years now, and she’s proven herself in her job. She needs to take a look at her life and figure out what she wants to make of it, whether it’s in Meg’s orchard or somewhere else.     

Seth, Meg’s fiancé, runs from volunteer projects to business renovation projects. Between the two of them, they don’t have time to discuss their wedding. Does Meg have trepidations marrying a man who is as busy or busier than she is?

Actually they’re kind of on the same schedule, because both orchard maintenance and home renovation happen during the same time of year. But I deliberately made Seth overcommitted from the start, because he’s looking out for his family, he’s trying to do work that he loves, and he’s an elected official in the local community. He’s also the kind of guy who will help anyone who asks, and who finds it hard to say no. Meg is fairly independent herself, and she respects what he does (although she might try to trim back his activities just a bit if she ever wants to see him). Actually I’m surprised they don’t both fall asleep at the dinner table during most of the year. I’m thinking about sending them somewhere on a short honeymoon in the next book, where it would be just the two of them. They might surprise each other!

You wrote and published two books, Relatively Dead and Seeing The Dead, featuring the same main character, Abby Kimball. Are you toying with writing a fourth series?

Somehow I kind of backed into writing this series. Relatively Dead was one of those books that I wrote years ago and put on a shelf, with no plans to make it a series, and no assurance it would ever be published. In it I borrowed heavily from my own family history, and from places (including houses and cemeteries) that I knew personally. Once I finished the first book and self-published it, I found I wanted to know more about what happened to the characters, and where this unexpected ability to see the dead (or some of them, at least) was going. [Note: I’m still looking to meet one or another of my ancestors. I’m told the house I use in the Orchard series is haunted, and though I’ve stayed there more than once, I haven’t met the woman yet, although I think I know who she is.]

I’d characterize these books as supernatural, a departure for you. Is that part of the attraction?

Yes, in a way. I’ve lived in Massachusetts for over ten years now. I went to college and graduate school here because I’d always wanted to live in New England—long before I started digging into my own family’s history. I discovered that I had hundreds of ancestors here, going back to the beginning (on one side only—the other side was pure Irish). Sometimes I feel I almost “see” all the ancestors I have in New England, particularly Massachusetts—there are so many of them! I can’t go to a cemetery anywhere in the state without tripping over a relative of some sort, and I’ve found connections with total strangers on the street. So I figure they’re calling to me. For Abby, I just took it one step further: what if she actually does see them? Why?

Ned Newhall is conflicted about many aspects of his life. He hasn’t been forthright with Abby concerning his business and shied away from his own supernatural experiences. Is the relationship doomed, or is he the answer to her prayers?

Well, now, I can’t make it too easy for them, can I? When they first met, Ned acted like Abby’s knight in shining armor. Then when he realized what was happening with her, he tried to stay neutral and let her find her own way. He’s apparently always been ambivalent about his own supernatural ability, and as a scientist he’s troubled by it—he’s still trying to find a logical explanation. But Ned and Abby are working things out together now, and the fact that he has money and a company, which might have the tools to help, makes it a lot easier for them both. She has embraced this unusual talent more quickly than he has, but he’s coming around.

Will there be a third book?

Already in progress. Abby is trying to understand her unexpected ability—is it limited to members of her family, or does it go beyond that? She thinks Salem, site of the infamous witchcraft trials, is the perfect test case: well-documented and rich with extreme emotions from the past that flared up quickly and died away just as quickly. Did she have ancestors there? Were they accused or even executed? She’s going to find out. (And, yes, I did have ancestors there, and some were accused.)

If you were offered Irish whiskey, Italian wine, or hard cider, which would you prefer?

Funny story about the whiskey. I grew up in a martini/scotch family, but never really cared for the hard stuff. I was happy with white wine, generally. Then in 2013 I was in Dublin, on my way to County Cork, and stopped in the bar at my hotel. I’d been there before and was working my way through their selection of Irish whiskeys (research, of course), so I asked the bartender what he would recommend. He told me I should talk to this other guy at the bar, who turned out to be a liquor distributor. We got together and I must have tried a dozen different ones under his expert guidance—different brands, or one brand but different ages. He showed me how to drink it (with just a dash of water added), and how to compare them. It was eye-opening, and I was converted.

It also turned out he was the musical entertainment for the evening—and he dedicated the old song Whiskey in the Jar to me.

Then last summer I was in Leap and paid a call on a very new local distillery nearby. There are surprisingly few distilleries in Ireland, so this was unusual. It’s a tiny place, started up five or six years ago by three friends, two of whom were fishermen. They gave me the grand tour, and I tasted some more whiskeys, including their own.

So now I know a lot about Irish whiskey and how it’s made—and both my Dublin
mentor and the three young men at the distillery will be in the next book (Maura is running a pub, after all, even if most people stick to a pint of Guinness, so she needs to know what she’s talking about).

Thank you so much for inviting me to visit. I love what I’m doing, and I love talking about it.


  1. I learned new things about Sheila and about her series! Great interview, E.B.!

  2. Since I work at a historic mill situated between two of the institutions in the museum series, I love these. I have foisted them off on the others who work there, too.
    All these series are really different. I've enjoyed reading them all.
    Thanks for writing them.

  3. I have no idea how Sheila manages and juggles! The Irish series is fun. But I have to admit to liking the Apple farm series the best, maybe because I identify with the main character. I remember when Sheila started out writing another series for Berkley. She's paid her dues. I'm very happy for her.

  4. Fun reads! I've read some of Sheila's books, and I look forward to reading more.

    I agree I don't see how she juggles all these series in such a short time! More power to her.

  5. It's funny--I never set a goal for how many books (Nora Roberts, maybe?) or how many series or even how many words a day. It all just kind of happened. I did one, and that worked, and I had time left over, so then I did two. And so on. I do like to keep busy! But it's not about keeping score, or even the money--I love doing it (that and all those voices in my head just won't shut up!).

  6. Sheila, I'm amazed about your writing series. It's all I can do to keep one series going. I especially like your one in Ireland, because I love all that's Irish including Celtic music. I was only there once, and would love to go back. There's nothing quite like an Irish brogue.

  7. I've traced my ancestry to Ireland and took an interest in all things Irish awhile back, so thanks E.B. for bringing Sheila to my attention.