The Penguin Q&A: Sheila Norton

The author shares how she wrote her book, The Vets at Hope Green, and her writing inspirations: 'I have a lifelong love of Shakespeare'.

The Vets at Hope Green by Sheila Norton

When did you know you wanted to write? 

 Pretty much as soon as I was old enough to write in sentences. I was a strange child, spending more of my time scribbling on bits of paper than I spent playing with other kids, and I often won stars and prizes for ‘composition’ (as it was called back then). Writing was always my hobby, then short stories in magazines earned me a little extra cash, and eventually my first novel was published but not until after my children were grown up.

What kind of books do you write?

My most recent books are gentle, heartwarming stories with animal themes, two of them actually narrated by cats. My new book ‘The Vets at Hope Green’ is more of a romance, but with a definite animal background! In the past I’ve written chick-lit, and stories set in the 1960s, so I’m reasonably adaptable, but I’d say that human relationships are always the mainstay of my books. Even in the animal stories, their interaction with their humans is essential to the stories.

What inspires you?

Going on from the previous question – without a doubt, real people’s  relationships with each other are always my main inspiration. I’m fascinated by how people interact with their families, friends, work colleagues and neighbours – I’ve always been very attuned to conversations, witty banter, arguments, upsets, and people falling in and out of love.  But of course, I don’t base characters directly on real people!   

Books and authors I’ve loved include:

I have a lifelong love of Shakespeare, particularly the tragedies. But although I mostly read current contemporary fiction these days, some novels set in war time have moved me tremendously. For instance All the Light we Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, My Dear I Wanted to Tell You by Louisa Young, The Book Thief by Markus Zusak and Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein. All fabulous stories with wonderfully inspiring characters.

Which fictional character would you like to go out drinking with and why?

Probably one of Shakespeare’s characters. Falstaff would be great fun to have a few drinks with, obviously – but I think I’d most like to sit Othello down, buy him a drink and try to persuade him to ignore his so-called friend Iago and believe in his Desdemona! I love the language of this play, but it always frustrated me how easily he was persuaded to believe his wife was unfaithful.  

How do you prefer to write?

Straight onto my PC or laptop. I’m a fast touch-typist, for which skill I’m grateful to my mum (who persuaded me, as a typing teacher herself, that it would always be useful to me, whatever course I took in life). In my day-job, before I retired, I worked as a medical secretary, and I also still use my shorthand – in a notebook I keep beside me as I work, for scribbling down ideas and reminders. I also keep a separate Word document for a running list of what’s happening in the book, chapter by chapter, and a list of characters with their descriptions, which helps to keep me on track and prevent me getting muddled!

Do you have any writing rituals?

No, apart from needing a constant supply of strong tea! And although on my laptop I can work anywhere, I do prefer a fairly clear work space around me. Husband’s clutter gets shoved to one side!

How do you celebrate finishing a book?

A glass of red wine and a bar of plain chocolate. Not too different from any average evening really! A sigh of relief and then on with the editing ... and the next book.

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