During this crazy time of Covid-19, many authors have had their book launches and events, understandably, but disappointingly, cancelled. In lieu of this, I’ve opened my blog to authors affected by this situation to talk about their new release.
Lisa Ireland is an Australian author of contemporary fiction novels. In 2014, she was awarded the Best New Author award at the Australian Romance Readers Association. Beginning her career in the rural fiction space, Lisa has found further success in the contemporary fiction genre with her books The Shape of Us and The Art of Friendship. Her latest novel, The Secret Life of Shirley Sullivan, has just been released.
Title: The Secret Life of Shirley Sullivan
Author: Lisa Ireland
Published: May 2020
Genre: Contemporary women’s fiction
Elderly. Is that how the world sees me? A helpless little old lady?
If only they knew. I allow myself a little smirk.
When Shirley Sullivan signs her 83-year-old husband, Frank, out of the Sunset Lodge nursing home, she has no intention of bringing him back.
For fifty-seven years the couple have shared love, happiness and heartbreak. And while Frank might not know who his wife is these days, he knows he wants to go home. Back to the beach where they met in the early 1960s…
So Shirley enacts an elaborate plan to evade the authorities – and their furious daughter, Fiona – to give Frank the holiday he’d always dreamed of.
And, in doing so, perhaps Shirley can make amends for a lifelong guilty secret …
Intercutting between the runaways’ intrepid road trip and the five decades of their marriage, The Secret Life of Shirley Sullivan is a charming, nostalgic and heart-warming story for women of any age.
From The Author
What inspired you to write this book? Where did the idea come from?
Years ago, I was flicking through a newspaper when I came across an article about an elderly couple who had escaped from their nursing home and gone on the run. They evaded authorities for days – even slipping out of police custody at one point!
I was captivated by this story. I kept wondering where it was they were running to. I knew I wanted to write about these gutsy octogenarians one day and I kept the idea percolating away at the back of my mind for almost a decade.
Then, in 2018, I discovered a box filled with my parents’ old love letters. These were written in the early 1960s and filled with fascinating details of day to day life at that time. It occurred to me that I could use these letters as the inspiration for Frank and Shirley’s back story.
What sort of research did you need to undertake before/during writing this book?
I did an enormous amount of research for this book. At the beginning of the book Frank is in a nursing home and I needed to know why that was. After a little bit of research, I decided on dementia caused by Alzheimer’s Disease because I already knew a little bit about this condition.
I spent months reading about Alzheimer’s, both medical references and personal accounts. I did an online course to become a Dementia Friend (which I recommend to everyone – it’s very easy!) and attended a community conference on dementia to find out more about what it is like for those living with the condition, and for their carers. I was also fortunate to have access to several people working in aged care, who were more than happy to answer all my questions about procedures in nursing homes.
The past story had me delving into the women’s movement in Australia in the 1960s and 70s. I read lots about this, including reading Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch for the first time! I also watched documentaries and talked to women aged in their 70s about their recollections of this time.
In terms of the past chapters, I had lots of original source material as I had access to all my parents’ love letters from the 1960s and also photos from that time. My aunts helped to fill in the gaps for me. I also spent a lot of time in the Geelong Heritage Centre (part of the Geelong Library) looking at old maps and photos.
To make sure all the setting details were accurate for the present-day story, I did the exact road trip that Frank and Shirley embark on in the Kombi – except I did it in a Jeep! This was a huge amount of fun.
I was lucky to have the expert input of some Melbourne detectives, who answered all my questions regarding the legal aspects of the book.
I found the research for this book the most enjoyable aspect of writing it!
Do you have a favourite character, or a character who you enjoyed writing the most?
This is very much Shirley’s story, and I loved writing her – especially the present-day Shirley, who is gutsy and fierce. I also loved writing the present-day Frank, who, although challenging to write, turned out to be a sweet character. I think he lends a lot of warmth to the story. But Rita was probably the most fun to write. I loved creating her! She challenges Shirley in so many ways and ultimately gives Shirley the courage to be true to herself.
What was the most challenging thing you found writing this book?
There were a couple of things, actually! I guess the main one was accurately depicting Frank, who has dementia, without losing the essence of the man that he is. Older Frank is very loosely based on my grandfather, who developed Alzheimer’s Disease in later life. Even so, I did months of research on Alzheimer’s and other causes of dementia, because I wanted his character to resonate with those who have experience of the disease.
I also gave myself a bit of a technical challenge because the chapters alternate between the past and the present. The present-day chapters are written in first person point of view and in the present tense. The past chapters are in third person and past tense. I can’t tell you how many times I started a chapter in the wrong tense or wrong point of view! I had to go back and rewrite the beginning to a chapter on more than one occasion!
What was the key theme or issue that you wanted to get across in this book? And was that something you intended from the start, or something that came apparent during writing?
From the beginning, I wanted to highlight the invisibility of the older members of our society, especially older women. I think there’s a tendency in our society to stereotype people once they get older and not to see them as unique individuals with the same range of talents, emotions and personality quirks as everyone else.
Many other themes emerged during the writing of the book – ones that I hadn’t necessarily planned or expected – but I hope that key message of older people being valuable and individual still shines through.
How long did it take you to write the book?
This book has been almost two years in the making! Of course, not all of that time was spent writing. The research took up a significant amount of time too. I think the first draft took about six months to write, then I did self-edits and more research before sending it off to my agent almost a year after I typed the opening paragraph. There was a bit of a lull for a few months while my agent shopped the manuscript around, and then once Shirley found a home at Penguin, I started working on the publisher’s edits.
What was the highlight for you writing this book?
Doing the research! Especially the road trip. It was so much fun. I took it as a good omen that when I was parked outside the pub in Narooma, I saw a Kombi exactly like Frank and Shirley’s on the opposite side of the street!
If your book was made into a movie, what actors could you see in the main roles?
When I was writing the book, I pictured Robyn Nevin as the present day (older) Shirley and Margot Robbie as the young Shirley.
I pictured Rita in her younger days as looking like Ali McGraw, so perhaps Phoebe Tonkin would be a good choice for her in her younger years.
I think Sam Worthington would make a great younger Frank. I pictured Bud Tingwell (one of my favourite actors) as the older Frank, but sadly Bud is no longer with us…
Is there anything in particular you want potential readers to know when choosing your book as their ‘next read’?
This book truly is the book of my heart. It was written with care and love and in many ways is inspired by members of my own family. I hope readers will enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it.
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Lisa Ireland is a full-time writer of contemporary women’s fiction.
In 2014 Lisa was a finalist in the Australian Romance Readers Awards in the category of Best New Author, and the following year was among the top ten debut fiction authors in Australia. Lisa’s sixth book, THE SECRET LIFE OF SHIRLEY SULLIVAN will be published by Penguin Random House in May 2020.
Lisa lives on Victoria’s beautiful Bellarine Peninsula with her family. She loves eating but not cooking, is an Olympic class procrastinator, and (most importantly) minion to a rather large dog.