Author Sheena Wilkinson's Winning Ways

The County Down author on writing dialogue whilst mucking out the horses and being indebted to the Arts Council of Northern Ireland

Although her career as a writer may only be in its infancy, it should come as no surprise that Sheena Wilkinson has been named one of this year’s four recipients of the Art Council of Northern Ireland’s Major Individual Artist awards. After all, Wilkinson has been winning awards since she first put pen to paper.

Her first short story, 'Amputees', took home the Brian Moore Award in 2006 and, since then, Wilkinson has continued to publish short stories to much acclaim. But it’s her novels – 2010’s Taking Flight and last year’s Grounded – that take up most of her energy.

Both novels revolve around troubled teenager, Declan, and detail his ultimate redemption through his love of horses. Writing for young adults was not necessarily her intention, but Wilkinson, who teaches English at Methodist College in Belfast, found herself drawn to the age group.

'I never consciously said that my novels are going to be for young adults, but the characters that came to me tended to be characters in their late teens. I love writing for this age group because you're writing about people that are experiencing everything for the first time, who are having to make adult decisions but without any experience to back that up. There's an intensity about it that I really like.'

Similarly, her decision to write about horses came in a roundabout way: neither Taking Flight nor Grounded are typical 'pony books'. Far from being teenage fantasies in pale pastel covers, they’re filled with gritty details of Declan’s urban life in west Belfast, where he faces the spectres of drugs, alcohol abuse and violence. Horses are, however, a subject dear to Wilkinson's heart.

Though she wouldn’t count herself as a 'traditional horsey person', Wilkinson owns a pony, which she keeps on her farm in County Down. Riding horses, she says, not only allows her to escape the pressures of teaching and the sometimes mundane work of writing, it can also help to focus her stories.

'It's a good bond, a good responsibility, good exercise and a good way to be a part of the whole world of the countryside,' Wilkinson observes. 'I work in Belfast in a school and I spend a lot of time sitting at a computer writing and it's just about as different from that as you can get, which is good.

'As I'm mucking out or I'm riding, I'm very often working on story problems. I'm usually on my own in the stables in the evening and I'm very often going over a bit of dialogue in my head as I'm doing that monotonous job of mucking out.' She stops, suddenly perturbed. 'Can you write about this without making me sound like a mental case?'

The Major Individual Artist award will give Wilkinson plenty of time to work on story problems while she mucks out her stables. Coming with a £15,000 grant, the prize will allow her to take a one-year career break from teaching to focus on writing and speaking to schools and reading groups.

When she applied for the award, Wilkinson viewed the process as a learning experience, without considering that she could actually ultimately win the award. 'I thought perhaps in a few years I could aim for that,' she admits.

'You learn a lot applying for funding, so I put in an application this year thinking I’m not likely to get it, but I’ve got nothing to lose going through the process. Then, when I got it, I was absolutely – it was – I mean... You can hear I’m a bit lost for words. I was absolutely thrilled!'

'For somebody who doesn’t know you to be prepared to give you thousands of pounds of public money,' Wilkinson continues, 'it makes you feel very honoured and very humble and very determined to prove yourself worthy of it.'

And determined she is. Wilkinson has plenty more that she wants to accomplish. Wilkinson recalls that, at the age of 12 she defined her career goals as 'write lots of books and have a pony'. Nowadays she’s a bit more specific. 'I suppose what I would really like is to be bringing out a well-received book every year,' she adds. 'That would be my ambition.'

Visit the Arts Council of Northern Ireland website for further information on arts funding applications.