Owens, Sharon 1968–
Owens, Sharon 1968–
PERSONAL: Born 1968, in Omagh, Northern Ireland; married; husband's name Dermot; children: Alice. Education: Attended Belfast Art College.
ADDRESSES: Agent—c/o Author Mail, Poolbeg, 123 Baldoyle Industrial Estate, Baldoyle, Dublin 13, Ireland.
The Tea House on Mulberry Street, G.P. Putnam's Sons (New York, NY), 2003.
The Ballroom on Magnolia Street, Poolbeg (Dublin, Ireland), 2004, G.P. Putnam's Sons (New York, NY), 2005.
The Tavern on Maple Street, Poolbeg (Dublin, Ireland), 2005.
SIDELIGHTS: Irish novelist Sharon Owens writes "about a different Belfast," than the dangerous, politically unstable Northern Ireland often portrayed on television and news programs, as she noted in an essay on the Beatrice Web site. She originally came to Belfast to study art, "but I thought I'd be shot dead before I had the time to fill one sketchbook," she mused. "I was afraid someone would ask me about my religious background and then beat me up if I said the wrong one. Instead, my experience turned out to be wonderful." She lived in a rented room in a Victorian mansion, had dinners out with her husband-to-be Dermot, and visited art galleries, parks, and other cultural areas and public places, all without harm. Common-sense caution, not obsession, kept her safe. "There are still moments of violence in the city, but the Belfast I know is not the one you see on the news. It's a dignified place, full of kind and thoughtful people embarrassed by The Troubles and weary of conflict."
Owens's debut novel, The Tea House on Mulberry Street, explores the lives and interconnections of several customers of a Belfast café. Muldoon's Tea Rooms is a "crossroads for a vibrant cast of characters, each of whom is at a crossroads in his or her own life," observed Carol Haggas in Booklist. Proprietors Daniel and Penny Stanley run the tea house, even though that type of restaurant seems outdated, while mulling the rifts in their strained seventeen-year relationship. Though the tea house came from Penny's family, she wants more from life than an ongoing round of customers; having children is among her still-unrealized dreams. Daniel, however, is not interested in family, and the restaurant is more his "significant other" than Penny is. In the shadow of the Stanley's crumbling relationship, customers come and go, assuaging their sorrows with coffee and pastries. Struggling artist Brenda Brown laments that none of her art has ever sold. Bookstore owner Henry Blackstock has breakfast before opening his store, but when his wife destroys his beloved gardens to make room for her book club, he uses the tea room as a place to mourn what he has lost. Sadie Smith, overweight and miserable, cheats on her diet and speculates whether her husband is cheating on her. Clare Fitzgerald, a magazine editor from New York, occasionally returns to Muldoon's to search, unsuccessfully, for the man who was her childhood love. Finally, a near-tragedy at Muldoon's impels the Stanleys to make decisive changes, and sets several customers onto life-changing pathways that lead away from the nexus that once held them. "Well written in a soap opera way, the various subplots run throughout the novel linked by Muldoon's, enabling each of the prime players to seem real and unique," commented Harriet Klausner in MBR Bookwatch. Carol J. Bissett, writing in Library Journal, called the book "a wonderful Irish novel," while Haggas named it a "charming debut novel."
For twenty years, Johnny "Hollywood" Hogan has run Hogan's Ballroom, the titular establishment in The Ballroom on Magnolia Street. Weary after two decades without a vacation, Hogan ponders closing the family business, active since 1967, and spending some time in America. While customers such as Kate and Shirley Winters come to the ballroom seeking entertainment and potential mates, Johnny pines for former love Marion Greenwood, now married to another man and mother of adult son Declan. Marion, caretaker of two carefully hidden personal secrets, fears that Johnny will learn them while he tries to become part of her life once more. Meanwhile, Johnny's grandparents fear he will shut down the ballroom. Soon, the ballroom become more than a place of temporary pleasure and respite from ordinary lives; it becomes a place where patrons—and owners—can find what they truly want. Klausner, writing on the Best Reviews Web site, noted that "fans will appreciate this deep look with an intriguing twist" at the lives and desires of Belfast residents whose lives become extraordinary within the walls of a cheerful ballroom.
Owens told CA: "I have always loved reading books but it was only when my husband Dermot suggested I pen a novel myself that I began writing fiction. I was thirty-three then. Once I began, I found I enjoyed the process very much. My first effort, a short story called 'Sadie Sponge and the Bitter Lemons' led to a publishing contract with the Poolbeg group in Dublin.
"My influences are mostly other Irish authors like Brian Moore, Maeve Binchy and Marian Keyes because they just tell the story in a straightforward way and let the reader take from it what they will. I think a good book should work on two levels: as an interesting tale to pass the time, and also as a piece of social commentary.
"I don't really have a writing routine. I just write when I feel like it, which is usually for a three-hour period in the morning. After that I answer my mail, plan the following day's work, and spend some time reading novels by other authors. On a lazy day I'll watch Murder, She Wrote, read glossy magazines, and eat pretzels.
"The most surprising thing I have learned as a writer is the sheer amount of hard work that goes on behind the scenes. The author is only a part of the publishing team, which includes editors, designers, sales and marketing, booksellers and traveling reps, and the media. They all help to sell books to the public and they are all equally important in keeping the industry alive.
"I suppose I will always have a soft spot for my first book, The Tea House on Mulberry Street, because I loosely based the character of misfit Brenda Brown on myself, and the character of Peter Prendergast on my husband Dermot. Also, that little paperback was our financial salvation: it paid off the mortgage and our personal debts, and validated me as an artist. Up until then I was a penniless painter who barely earned 500 pounds a year, but Dermot always believed in me and supported my career! He wasn't surprised by my success but I was, and still am."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Booklist, January 1, 2005, Carol Haggas, review of The Tea House on Mulberry Street, p. 822.
Bookseller, January 2, 2004, p. 24.
Kirkus Reviews, January 1, 2005, review of The Tea House on Mulberry Street, p. 15.
Library Journal, February 1, 2005, Carol J. Bissett, review of The Tea House on Mulberry Street, p. 70.
MBR Bookwatch, March, 2005, Harriet Klausner, review of The Tea House on Mulberry Street.
Publishers Weekly, January 17, 2005, review of The Tea House on Mulberry Street, p. 34.
Beatrice, http://www.beatrice.com/ (February 9, 2005), Sharon Owens, "Why I Chose to Write about a Different Belfast."
Best Reviews, http://www.thebestreviews.com/ (July 7, 2005), Harriet Klausner, "A Deep Family Drama," review of The Ballroom on Magnolia Street.
Penguin U.K. Web site, http://www.penguin.co.uk/ (July 9, 2005), interview with Sharon Owens.