Sharon Owens, debut author of the heart-warming The Tea House on Mulberry Street, delights us with a funny and frank interview covering everything from alien abductions to her deep love of Morrissey.Who or what always puts a smile on your face?Peter Kay, the comedian! Peter’s mother is from county Tyrone, like me; and all his jokes about her are so exactly spot-on! Irish mothers really did remind my generation, at every meal, that children in Africa were starving, as if that made boiled cabbage any more palatable to small children! It also gave me an enormous guilt-complex, that no army of therapists could ever hope to remove. Anything nice I’ve ever bought for myself, I’ve wondered how many bags of rice it is worth. And as for the terrible Phoenix Club: the binge-drinking, the fights, the dreadful wallpaper… it’s hilarious! Peter could make me laugh, if I was in agony. He’s a national treasure.
What are you reading at the moment?If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things by Jon McGregorThe Falling Angels by John WalshBreakfast on Pluto by Patrick McCabe
I love books with mysterious, intriguing titles. There’s always a sense of turbulent emotion, just below the surface.
Which author do you most admire?The late, Irish-born author, Brian Moore. I adore his work, it’s so emotional and brave, he wasn’t afraid to write about religion, sex, guilt, hate, alienation, jealousy, love and death. His book, An Answer From Limbo, is always on my bedside table, I read it constantly. In the book, an Irish-born, American writer sacrifices everything he has, for a book-deal. Even when his own mother dies of neglect, he feels no emotion or regret. He is simply ashamed of her, and her small-town Catholic personality. It’s a searing portrait of ambition and selfishness.
What’s your earliest memory?Helping my beloved grandparents, Rose and James Sherry, to pick vegetables and flowers in their beautiful garden, in the tiny village of Garvaghey, County Tyrone. Grandad grew everything organically, way back in the 1970’s. His potatoes, tomatoes, garden peas and onions could have won international awards. The onions were so strongly flavoured, I could smell them from 100 yards away, as they hung from the rafters of the barn. I used to gather lettuces and spring onions from the salad patch, and huge bunches of white daffodils and red dahlias from the flower -beds. Rose and James were lovely people, gentle and content, even though they had nothing of any material value. They were almost like leftover Victorians; Gran always served jam and butter in glass dishes, and cut toast into triangles; and Grandad touched his cloth cap and said ‘good morning’ to passers-by. They were married for over fifty years and are buried together in their home town of Caledon.
What is your greatest fear?I worry about the amount of traffic on the roads, especially near school-crossings. Children look so tiny beside those massive 4X4’s.
How would you like to be remembered?With love, by my husband Dermot, and daughter Alice. I don’t mind if everyone else forgets me. I’m not vain. I told Dermot to give me a green funeral if I died before him; cardboard coffin, no headstone. But he refused, point blank! So it’s a big fancy marble plot for me, complete with stone angel. Sorry, environmentalists everywhere…
Have you ever done something you’ve really regretted?Yes. Too often to mention. I’m such an impulsive person, I never look before I leap. I’ve left several jobs because I had bad PMT and couldn’t be bothered with office politics that day. I’ve been too honest (or critical) with friends about various things, and they’ve stopped speaking to me! I once put the house up for sale, without telling Dermot first, because I fancied a change! He thought it was funny, when he came home from work and saw the sign. Next day, I changed my mind. The one good thing I did do on the spur of the moment, was to get my best friend to phone Dermot at his house, in 1984, and tell him I fancied him! He was shy and I knew he’d never ask me out, if he was interested. So, I took the chance. Thankfully, he said yes!
How do you spoil yourself?I like to read novels in the bath, with loads of scented bubbles! I’ve just had a new bathroom installed, and it’s heavenly. In fact it’s going to be featured in House Beautiful magazine in April! Dermot and I used to be goth-type rock fans, and we still love rock although we don’t go to gigs anymore. We’re listening to Iinterpol at the moment. Their new single Evil is brilliant. It makes me wish I was eighteen again for just one night, so I could see them live. Good luck, Interpol! Luckily, I can take nice food or leave it, so I’ve no trouble maintaining my weight, a healthy size 14. If I do fancy a treat, it’ll be an onion bagel from M&S with egg mayonnaise and a handful of salad leaves and baby tomatoes. I don’t like sweet things of any kind!
What’s your favourite word/book?Favourite words are Victorian words like emporium, tea house, ballroom, tavern. They are so much nicer than shop, café, disco, pub, aren’t they?
Favourite book of all time is The Maiden Dinosaur by Janet McNeill, published in 1964. Janet was born in Belfast in 1907, was educated in England, worked in Ireland as a journalist, and finally retired to England. The Maiden Dinosaur is a wonderful, heartbreaking and moving story of a group of middle-class schoolfriends facing middle-age together. They still relate to one another through their schoolgirl personalities, and politely ignore the signs of ageing they witness as the years unfold. Janet has written other books with lovely titles like A Furnished Room, and The Other Side of the Wall, but sadly I haven’t been able to track them down.
Who do you turn to in a crisis?No prizes for guessing this one! Dermot! He’s always calm in a crisis. I do get too involved sometimes, too emotional. And he reminds me that as long as we have our health and each other, nothing else really matters.
What makes you angry?Northern Ireland politics. Maybe it’s our Celtic, fiercely-competitive, mentality, that makes it so hard for us to compromise. I don’t vote in elections because it’s tribal and therefore hopeless. Some people here would rather go down fighting than say ‘I’m sorry for what your community suffered in the past. Let’s make friends and create a better future for our children.’ It makes me ashamed to be from Northern Ireland when awful things are happening on the news, like the Omagh bombing. We ought to be more humble, NI only makes up 2% of the UK population and is totally dependant on UK taxpayers to make ends meet. What’s the answer? I haven’t a clue, I’m sorry to say. That we all get merged in The United States of Europe?
Have you ever had any other jobs apart from writing?Oh yes! I’ve worked in a bridal boutique, ironing acres of satin every day. I’ve been a clerk in the unemployment office, a barmaid, an ice cream seller, a care-assistant in a home for the terminally ill, a shop-assistant, a chambermaid in the Isle of Man. Worst job: barmaid. I rarely got a lunch-break on twelve-hour shifts, and the cigarette smoke smells awful on your clothes. It’s much better working i