Evie Brooks is Marooned in Manhattan!

Writing.ie | Magazine | Children & Young Adult | Interviews

By Vanessa Fox O'Loughlin

Sheila Agnew is the author of Evie Brooks is Marooned in Manhattan, the first in a series of  books for children (aged 10+), published by The O’Brien Press on March 3, 2014. Sheila also launched her website this week: sheila-agnew.com

Sheila now lives in New York, but is in Dublin for the launch of Evie Brooks is Marooned in Manhattan, I caught up with her to ask where the inspiration for the book had come from – she told me: “In my bedroom I had an old, art deco vanity desk that I bought at a fire sale from a Broadway theatre. Generations of actors had sat where I now sat, preparing themselves for the thrill and fear of the stage. One February night, as a blizzard raged, I sat at my desk, blow-drying my hair. Evie’s story kind of leaped out at me from the mirror. I started writing. I enjoy the idea that my desk is a humble relation to the wardrobe that opens into Narnia; maybe they were carved from trees in the same forest. But I think it’s much more likely that I was too lazy to finish drying my hair.”

Getting in touch with your inner child is vital for writing great books for kids. I wondered if Sheila could go back and visit herself at Evie’s age what advice would she give herself? She laughed, “You might want to rethink your blue eyeliner phase. I’m serious! But, try not to overthink too many things. To rehash advice from a much wiser woman, the author, Iris Murdoch, much of what seems important is less important than whether it is raining in Patagonia.”

I asked Sheila about the challenges she faced in writing the first Evie Brooks book. “Evie leaves Ireland to spend the summer with her uncle, a veterinary surgeon, in New York. She never had a pet more substantial than a goldfish before and now, she is encountering lots of different animals in her uncle’s clinic. There are more than thirty animal patients in the book so I kept mixing up their names. Hmm, is the yak called Zak or was that the monkey?”  Finally, I wrote up a dramatis animalia so I could keep track of all the names. Researching different animal illnesses was also a challenge. Thank God for the internet and a strong stomach.”

SheilaAgnewI wondered if Sheila had any tips for new writers. “I don’t believe in the artist’s way. I think that all writers have to find their own ways. I’m not sure that I even believe in the artist. Many of the most original and creative minds I know are in medicine and engineering and technology. The first novel I wrote was an attempt at literary fiction. It was very bleak and serious. Even though I have always loved children’s books, it hadn’t occurred to me to try to write one. When the Evie story came into my head, I went with it — in the form that it came to me. So I think that new writers should keep an open mind about trying different genres and forms to find the ones that best fit their unique voices.

‘A few years back I wrote a play called An Accidental Enrolment in Dental School. I still think that it is the funniest writing I’ve ever done. Although my little farce will never make it to the stage, I had so much fun writing it. It makes me laugh when I remember it. So I hope that new writers remember to have fun and to keep trying new ways to express their voices. Maybe tomorrow’s extraordinary screenwriter is living today as a struggling romance novelist.”

Currently eager to get moving on the third book in the Evie Brooks series – (“She’s got travel plans”) – Sheila told me a bit about her background, “I was born in New York in the same hour of the same day to the same parents as my best friend — my twin sister, Claire.  How convenient was that? When we were little, we tried all the time to trick people into mixing us up. We didn’t have a huge amount of success with that because we’re not identical twins.

When I was a kid, my Dad had a dream and he called it Ireland. One day, he moved the whole family to Dublin. We took everything with us: Christmas tree, bikes, books, Big Wheel, my two brothers and my Mom’s collection of over-sized earrings. The move had very little impact on me except I occasionally wondered where the sun had gone… and the pizza.

I read heaps of books when I was growing up. I still do. When I was seven, I fell in love with Danny, the Champion of the World and I guess that’s when I started making up my own stories. But they didn’t match the terrifying potential of my eight-year-old brother’s masterful debut novella, Love and Death in the Mental Home.

After graduating from U.C.D, I spent six months working in the British West Indies because I thought it seemed very far away and long ago and exotic. It was far away. After law school, I took an international job at a law firm in London. I loved heading off to interesting places, like Accra and Cairo and Bratislava. Okay, that last one wasn’t so great. It’s probably a really happening city now.

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In 2001, I chucked in my job to wander around Asia and write my first novel, set in a women’s prison in Northern Ireland in 1981. It was never published. Thank God. I learned a lot.

After a stint in Sydney, I wound up back in New York, regularly making the trip downtown to argue cases in the Supreme Court at 60 Centre Street. My life pretty much resembled a Law and Order episode, one of the more mediocre ones with a brave choice guest director. My writing dream never really went away though. Most of us have dreams about what we might have been. You can see it in our faces on the subway but it’s kinder to look away or maybe that’s just easier.

By July, 2011, I didn’t really notice the faces on the subway anymore. And I had stanzas from that Frank O’Hara poem, Mayakovsky, looping in my head. That was annoying but effective. I jumped ship and moved to Buenos Aires where I had an amazing time with unforgettable people. I spent most of 2013 writing in the West of Ireland, first in Dingle in Kerry and then in Galway. For now, I’m back in NYC.”

Phew! Life experience is an essential element in writing, and Sheila certainly has plenty of that – I wondered of all the places she’d visited so far, which of them was her favourite? “I loved living in Buenos Aires because it felt thrillingly foreign and as familiar as home at the same time. Strangers on the street often asked me where I came from. I’d reply, “Irlanda.” If they looked puzzled, I’d say, “From the same place as Che, Che Guevara, because his father said, “…in my son’s veins flowed the blood of the Irish rebels.”

That I claimed kinship with their beloved national icon, Che, always made them snort with laughter. The people of Buenos Aires are a lot like us. They love to laugh. I would choose them for our team.”

(c) Vanessa Fox O’Loughlin

Evie Brooks is Marooned in Manhattan (The O’Brien Press)  is in all good bookshops now and available online.

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