Sheena Wilkinson Still Falling
Eclectic author leaves gritty realism behind for a teenage love story. She's no fan of Fifty Shades: 'If you're going to write something romantic, the reader has to be in love with the hero'
Sheena Wilkinson's latest teen fiction title, Still Falling, is undeniably a love story. It is other things, too, including a case study on how epilepsy can affect a young man's life and an exploration of the modern foster care experience, but it is, first and foremost, a love story.
All of the sweaty details of first passion are there. Our heroine, Esther, who has the good fortune to sit next to blonde, attractive Luke at the start of a new term in a Northern Irish grammar school, muses on her burgeoning crush:
'As Luke stands by the teacher's desk, waiting, I try not to stare at him, but I can't help it. A shaft of sunlight slants through the window and finds gold lights in his hair. It's too warm in the classroom, and Luke pushes his shirtsleeves up to his elbows.'
Then Esther remembers stroking Luke's arm during the boy's epileptic fit, which forms most of chapter one, and her neck burns with embarrassment.
Astonishingly, given this pitch perfect account of a girl's introduction to romance, Wilkinson reveals that Still Falling is, in fact, her first real love story. 'I haven't written one before, although I suppose Grounded had elements of love, but in a different way.'
Grounded – a social realist novel aimed at young adults, which followed teenager Declan along a path littered with drug use, drinking, pregnancy and suicide – won the Children's Books Ireland Awards Book of the Year Award and the Children’s Choice Award in 2013. Wilkinson is only the second author to win both of these prestigious prizes in the same year.
To say that Still Falling is a bit of a departure for Wilkinson, then, would be an understatement. Not that Wilkinson could have predicted what would come next. She begins her novels with characters that handily take up residence in her head, then embarks on an interesting process of discovery. 'I get a pulse or idea,' Wilkinson explains, 'then I spend a lot of time teasing it out, not building layers but uncovering them.'
Wilkinson – who studied English literature with European languages at Durham University before completing a doctorate on 'Girls' school and college friendships in 20th century British fiction' – plans her books meticulously. She writes chronologically and admits that it would be counter-intuitive to do otherwise.
With Luke's epilepsy acting as a kind of metaphor as well as a plot device, then, Wilkinson did some research on the illness which is, shockingly, still not completely understood. She adds that in about 50% of cases, epilepsy comes on suddently (as in Luke's case) but that doctors still do not know why.
Wilkinson smiles with amusement at the cruelty of the god-like author, visiting her characters with affliction. As Still Falling progresses, it becomes clear that Luke also suffers with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. He attempts to control his environment and his epilepsy, which ultimately he can't. As Wilkinson observes: 'When people don't have control, they seek to gain it any way they can.'
Still Falling reaches the market as another story billed as romantic, EL James's hymn to sado-masochism, Fifty Shades of Grey, enjoys an upturn in fortunes on the back of the Jamie Dornan-fronted film adaptation. As it happens, when Wilkinson taught English at Methodist College in Belfast, Dornan – who plays James' whip wielding anti-hero, Christian Grey – was one of her students.
She reveals, over her cup of Darjeeling in a south Belfast cafe, that Dornan 'was very nice and we got on very well. He did GCSE and A levels with me, and seems to have grown up into a decent man.'
What of Wilkinson's heroine, then, the smitten Esther? Unlike her creator, Esther is the product of a rather repressed, Christian background. 'That is not my background,' Wilkinson declares. 'I come from a mixed family that was not particularly religious, but I wanted to write about faith in a sympathetic way, as it's easy to make fun of the happy clappy brigade. The most important thing here is authenticity.'
Interestingly, Wilkinson finds boys and men easier to characterize as an author. 'Most women writers say girls are easier to write, but I don't find that, although I am female and a feminist. There is an excitement in writing the other.'
In her teenage years, Wilkinson read voraciously and although she didn't enjoy the fantasy and sci fi genres, then as now, she loved work by KM Peyton – author of the famous Flambards series of pony tales – Jean Muir and Lynne Reid Banks.
Asked which section of Still Falling was easiest to write, Wilkinson immediately nominates the opening scene, where Luke's seizure in class triggers his friendship with Esther and immediately defines his role as outsider. 'I always like the dramatic scenes. This book took three years overall to write, which is a long time for me, but I had another commission to finish in the middle. It's a powerful scene, I think.'
Wilkinson is right to describe it as such – the physical vortex of the epileptic seizure is powerfully drawn, as is the psychologically fraught aftermath.
The misunderstandings in Still Falling are as excruciating as any of the crossed wires in, say, Thomas Hardy's work, although no missing letters are involved. Instead, there is the most basic confusion as poor Esther senses Luke's lack of desire for her, but, of course, there is significant back story to explain his seeming indifference, which can't be revealed here without spoiling Wilkinson's cleverly woven dark denouement.
The scene describing a party given by spoilt and attractive brat Jasmine, which eventually helps reveal the truth about Luke, is as pivotal in the novel as any of Jane Austen's grand balls, and the fall-out just as horrifying. In terms of Austen, Wilkinson – who is a Janeite – says that she admires Emma although if she were ever invited on to Desert Island Discs, she would connive to get all the Austen novels in a collected anthology.
There is no doubt that an adult could spend an enjoyable afternoon or two on a deserted island consuming Still Falling. 'Teen fiction is having a moment,' Wilkinson observes. 'People, grown-ups, aren't embarrassed to be reading it. I like the cover of Still Falling, which is very grown up.'
Wilkinson makes a point of thanking of the Arts Council of Northern Ireland for awarding her one of its major bursaries and enabling her to take a long sabbatical, something that has allowed Wilkinson to reassess her career. The former English teacher is now delivering creative writing workshops, doing long distance mentoring, and enjoying being part of the international community of writers.
However, she makes the point that it is still tough making a living as a writer, especially in the Irish publishing world. 'The Society of Authors has a fixed set of fees but if I charged that rate here, who would employ me?' she asks.
Most writers dream of the television or film contract, the piece of paper that will provide enough money to plan a stress-free future. Wilkinson reveals that her novel Taking Flight has been optioned for a feature film. 'It helps that I do write visually and in scenes. A lot of our understanding of stories comes from the cinema and its three act structure. You can flirt with that structure.'
In the meantime, Wilkinson continues with her various day jobs, writing and doing quite a bit of adult education. Still Falling, I suggest, would make a superb film. The author's parting shot, about her hero, indicates her keen understanding of the romantic genre: 'If you're going to write something romantic, the reader has to be in love with the hero.'
No problem there. By the end of the novel, I not only like Luke, but find the troubled epileptic with the blond hair and sensitive fingers fit in both senses of the word.
Still Falling is out now, published by Little Island.