Interview with M. Sheelagh Whittaker author of The Slaidburn Angel

Interview with M. Sheelagh Whittaker author of The Slaidburn Angel

Posted on August 24 by admin
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This Friday we’re talking to M. Sheelagh Whittaker who is the author of the new release The Slaidburn Angel. Sheelagh talks about the writing process, and the inspiring people and connections that she made while researching and writing this book.

Caitlyn: How did you come up with the title?

Sheelagh: The title of my book was going to be Mothers and Stepmothers until I gradually realized that, while mothers and stepmothers do figure centrally, in many ways the focus is more on sisters. But thinking about ‘sisters’ just didn’t suggest a name to me.

Most of the time as I wrote I drank coffee out of my Slaidburn Heritage Centre mug with a drawing of the Slaidburn angel on it.  Then one day I realized that the most important character in the book is actually the unwanted two-year-old in petticoats found dead in a pool of water.  And he, of course, is the Slaidburn Angel.

Caitlyn: Did you have a specific readership in mind when you wrote your book?

Sheelagh: My goal in writing the book was to produce something that I, myself, would like to read.  I am a voracious, inveterate reader and have quite a clear idea of what interests me, so I never need to look far for a critic.

While writing the book I reread some of my old favorites to try and understand why they had been so memorable to me.  The Internet helped me to find a bookseller in Canterbury who had a first edition copy of a book that I had read as a child and loved ever since.  That book was The Lass of Richmond Hill by Augusta H. Seaman, published in 1932 by Cassell and Company in London, Toronto, Melbourne and Sydney, all places that have come to mean a lot to me.  No sooner had I paid for the first edition, of course, than my daughter Meghan found my battered childhood copy which had survived a flood in Edmonton, rather a rare occurrence, amongst her own treasures.

The Lass of Richmond Hill is the tale of how four girls discover and decipher a “century-old diary of surpassing interest and historical importance; and the unexpected result of their efforts to trace the diarist’s descendants”.

Reading that description now that my own book is finished, I can see clearly the ways in which it seems to echo the book which has remained so powerfully with me since the late 1950’s.

Caitlyn: What was the creative process like for you?

Sheelagh: Given my experience as a business executive, it would be entirely reasonable to expect me to be organized and structured, with plans and time lines and critical paths and other ‘aids to execution’.  Instead, I have learned simply to trust my subconscious – I just sit down and write.  Later, when I read the outcome, I am often surprised and occasionally even pleased by my own imagination.

To me the most important thing to know while I am writing is how the story is going to end.  If I feel confident about the ending, then I feel confident that I can get there.

Caitlyn: What was your first publication?

Sheelagh: My first publication was a poem called Oil! in the 31st annual Alberta Poetry Year Book of 1960.  There were three gradations of listing in the Juvenile poetry category: First, Second and Third Prize; Honorable Mention with 10 designated recipients; and some undesignated ‘others’.

My poem was an undesignated other, but the juvenile poems were at the back of the book, and my mother was close friends with the editor, so my poem had the last page of the book all to itself.

As I write this I have the actual publication here beside me on the desk and I can still feel the encouragement and pride I felt during the ceremony to present the awards, even though I did not actually receive one.

Caitlyn: Describe the most memorable response you’ve received from a reader.

Sheelagh: Researching genealogy and writing the The Slaidburn Angel brought me into contact with an amazing array of people, many quite unlike those with whom I had dealt previously.  One such person is Grace Ibbetson who lives in a stone farm house.  A lintel over the door has the year 1658 carved into it.  The farm is called Higher Salter and it was home to my great, great grandparents when they married in 1839.

Higher Salter is at the end of an ancient Roman salt road and it is truly remote.  Few people come looking there.  But, after my husband and I did, Grace and I became friends. Because she expressed such interest in what I was working on, I sent her an early draft of the book to see what she thought.

As Grace read through the book, she encountered, living at a place called Medlar with Wesham, the family headed by Leonard Mason.  They employed fourteen year old Isabella Gardner who went on four years later to be accused of murder.  As Grace wrote to me excitedly, she is descended from Masons through both parents and wondered if the Masons in the book could be related.

A quick look at the 1881 UK census revealed that those Masons were emphatically related to Grace.  In fact, they were uncle and aunt to her father’s paternal grandmother AND her mother’s maternal grandmother!

As she then wrote:

I just cannot put this down. I am sat up here in Roeburndale looking at a photo taken on the 18th of September 1878 of Leonard, Dorothy, Ann, Thomas, Mary Ellen, Dorothy Alice, Elizabeth and Margaret Edith. …
The thing that I find so so strange now is that it is most likely that all of my ancestors  on my mother’s mother’s side and my father’s father’s side knew about and were following this case.
It’s just so incredible.

M. Sheelagh Whittaker has been featured in the prestigious Women of Influence lecture series and is a member of Maclean’s Honour Roll. She was named “The Pioneer” in the Globe and Mail’s Women in Power series. A quintessential Canadian who was born in Ottawa, she was raised on the Prairies and has worked in most parts of the country.