International Author with an Irish Heart

Emma Heatherington explores the winning formula of Belfast's Sharon Owens

Her novels have been described as ‘fairy tales for adults’, but writer Sharon Owens, born in Omagh and now living in Belfast, originally intended to concentrate on a career as an artist after graduating in 1992 with a degree in illustration.

Owens grew up with creativity pumping through her veins. Her father is a well known Irish folk singer, Brian Coll. With music always in her early life, she attended a convent school in Omagh, of which she has many fond memories, before setting off to Belfast to attend Art College.

A strong working relationship was established with the Irish Art Group and Owens' creations were showcased to coincide with the St Patrick’s Day celebrations at the Hughes Gallery.

The Tea House On Mulberry StreetAt the age of 33, she sent a collection of short stories to Paula Campbell of Poolbeg Publishing in Dublin – the company who spring boarded the literary careers of Marian Keyes, Patricia Scanlan and many more Irish bestsellers.

Campbell wrote back, suggesting the short stories should be compiled into a novel. The end result, The Teahouse on Mulberry Street, was an instant success.

Soon the Penguin group bought the translation rights to the novel and it was made available in the UK, Holland, France, Lithuania, Italy, the USA and Australia.

Her books sell all over the world, but Owens' tone and style of writing comes from the heart of her Irish upbringing - something she is very proud of. In an interview with Penguin, she recalled some of her fondest childhood memories.

‘Helping my beloved grandparents, Rose and James Sherry, to pick vegetables and flowers in their beautiful garden, in the tiny village of Garvaghy, Co Tyrone. Grandad grew everything organically, way back in the 1970s.

'His potatoes, tomatoes, garden peas and onions could have won international awards. The onions were so strong 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 flowerbeds.’

Such descriptive recollections immediately give a flavour of Sharon’s colourful writing style. Her debut novel, The Teahouse on Mulberry Street, is a warm, enchanting selection of character-led stories that centre around a crumbling café in Belfast at the turn of the millennium.

Owens paints a splendid picture of the hopes and dreams of the teahouse regulars, including the owners(whose 17-year marriage has seen better days) and how the secrets of all involved emerge from within its cosy atmosphere.

Australian version of The Tavern On Maple StreetSharon struck gold with this unique style of writing and has since penned The Ballroom on Magnolia Street, a tale that explores the love life of a mother and son and how history threatens to repeat itself through an unplanned pregnancy.

Once again, Owens' stories and characters are based in Northern Ireland, this time beginning in the swinging sixties before skipping forward to the nightlife of 1980s Portrush.

Her most recent novel, set in the present day, is based in a fictional pub on a cobbled street in Belfast. The Tavern on Maple Street holds a similar tone to her debut, and the characters are as lively as always as they struggle against the demands of property developers to keep their local tavern in the same style they know and love.

Despite her success as a writer to date, Owens remains a very private person, shunning the celebrity lifestyle as far as she can. She still lives in the same house she bought with her husband Dermot when they wed in 1992.

Her love of art has remained intact and she continues to commission several pieces of artwork each year which are on sale at the Hughes Gallery, while balancing her creative outputs with her responsibilities as a mother to her 8-year-old daughter.

Owens describes her own personal characteristics as ‘impulsive and honest’. Aged just seventeen, she boldly asked Dermot out on a date, and they haven’t looked back since. With the gentle tone of her stories it is hard to believe she and her husband spent their teenage years as Goth rockers.

She also demonstrates a fantastic sense of humour and lists Peter Kay as one of her all time favourite comedians, describing him as a national treasure. Like Owens, Kay has roots in Tyrone – his mother is from Coalisland and he still has many relatives who live there.

The name ‘Sharon Owens’ may not yet be as distinctly recognisable as her fellow Poolbeg colleagues Keyes and Scanlan, but she has certainly carved a niche in the growing market of women’s commercial fiction.

More homely than the usual ‘chick-lit’ tag that has labelled many of Ireland’s other up-and-coming novelists, her stories are as colourful as her artistic abilities on canvas. Owens' outlook is refreshing and her vibrant characters are memorable, ensuring that as long as she sticks to her winning formula, Owens has a long future in creative arts – whatever path she chooses to follow.