A job offer accepted on a whim lands American Sophie White at the till in an Irish village’s craft shop, and in the position once held by Finola O’Flynn, a woman who’d swiftly left town a few years before. Sophie takes on Finola’s job of creating beaded bracelets, then also takes over Finola’s abandoned home, then Finola’s left-behind wardrobe, and, after her own episode of lost love, Finola’s discarded man. But could Sophie – or anyone – ever take over the legendary place that her predecessor still holds in the hearts of Booley? Finola’s myth manages to re-energize Sophie, who passes along the gift through bracelets she tags with invented promises, and she ultimately experiences some true magic of her own.
© Copyright Booklist.
Shea forsakes her usual subject, Polish-Americans in Massachusetts (Around Again, 2001, etc.), to portray a single American woman taking on a new life in a small Irish village.
© Copyright Kirkus Reviews.
‘Becoming Finola’ quick on heels of Strempek Shea’s ‘Shelf Life’
© Copyright The Republican.
© Copyright Irish Voice.
Q&A on Becoming Finola
I was nearly finished with another novel, but had put it aside when I was diagnosed with breast cancer. While I was recovering, I went back to that novel and just couldn’t pick up the thread. My pal Tanya Barrientos, a novelist (Frontera Street, Family Resemblance) and also a columnist at the Philadelphia Inquirer, suggested I start something totally new, and set it somewhere different, with characters other than those I normally write about. Her suggestion got me thinking it would be great to set something in Ireland, a place I love to visit, so that opening the laptop each day would be like taking another trip there. And that turned out to be the experience.
What challenges were there to setting this book in a foreign country?
I’m not from there, I just love to hang around there. So I could write only from a visitor’s point of view, and with a visitor’s ear and eye. I didn’t travel there in the nine months I was writing this, but regularly listened to Irish radio on my computer to get some sense of being there – if only being there in a room listening to the radio. Several Irish friends read the manuscript to prevent me from making too many embarrassing mistakes regarding cultural references and such. If any slipped past them, well I guess that will make me look all the more the visitor.
Granted, there are only four or five businesses in Booley, but why did you give Sophie a job in the craft shop?
I once walked into a craft shop in a very small Irish town that happened to have only four or five businesses, and while talking with the owner I was absentmindedly rearranging the display on his table. I should note that I work in a bookstore, the first year of which I have chronicled in my newly released memoir “Shelf Life: Romance, Mystery, Drama and Other Page-Turning Adventures From a Year in a Bookstore.” So my bookstore job has me constantly creating order of merchandise. I was creating some order of this shop’s merchandise without realizing it, and the shop owner asked if I were looking for work, because an employee had just quit and he was in need of help. I was only visiting for a week, so I said no, but right then I had the little seed for a story about a woman who gets the offer of a job and ends up taking not only her predecessor’s position, but her home, wardrobe, town and man.
You have an art background. Did you (no pun) draw on that while writing Becoming Finola?
I guess the art background and interest is what draws me into those sort of shops in the first place. And and friend and i once owned a craft shop in a local tourist town, Sturbridge, Mass., so I could write with some authority about what might go on in such a place. The Irish shop in which I was offered the job sold some beaded jewelry, and beading is something I’ve been doing a bit of for the past few years, so, again, I knew a little about that. Seems to be a theme here: I know a little bit about something, and I can end up writing an entire book. Right now, half as a marketing idea and half because it’s just good therapy, I’m stringing together some bracelets not unlike the ones sold at Finola O’Flynn. A detail of one example is on the back cover of the book.
This story is about identity. How much did you know about each of the main characters as you were writing the story?
I knew what I always know about my characters early on, which is next to nothing. I start each story with what I call the “TV Guide synopsis:” one line that tells you what the story is about. A woman gets offered work in a craft shop, and ends up with much more than that. That’s all I knew. I knew Sophie would be unemployed, which would allow her that time in Booley. I knew that Liam was hiring because his ex-girlfriend had left town and that there would be plenty of fun baggage from that. I knew that the ex-girlfriend, Finola, would be mysterious and lengendy. I write at least two pages a day, and in that process, I learn/make up the additional details and story.
Did the characters turn out to be very different than you perceived them at the start?
Well they certainly had a lot of room to grow from those basic facts. I don’t want to ruin any surprises, but some of the romances I didn’t see ahead of time. But isn’t that like in real life? I also didn’t know how powerful Finola O’Flynn would be to the town. Those stories just sort of fed themselves and grew easily.
Is Booley a real place? If not, what was its inspiration.
I was looking for a name for this village, and ended up with Booley because it sounds cool, and it’s also the name for a verdant area to which Irish farmers of years back would bring their animals – and themselves – for some summer respite. I liked the idea of it being a place of refuge, as Sophie’s spirit-wounded friend Gina invites her along to Booley to get away from her sad reality.
In your acknowledgments you call Becoming Finola “a faraway fable.” What was it like to write something with a bit of magic in it?
Fiction is so fun because you can basically make everything up. But because of the setting of this book, a country in which there is a story or belief everywhere you turn, I felt that I could have some fun inventing additional ones and exploring the whole thing of believing in something just because it is labeled “power” or “wisdom.” If you wear the bracelet with that tag, will you attain some of that?
You also thank a reader for her request to write a love story. Didn’t your other novels deal with love relationships?
They did, but in this one, the ending is airtight in a way that the others were nebulous. This is the type of no-doubt ending that my friend Pauline was asking for, I believe. And in doing a different type of ending (different for me), I enjoyed writing something new in that way, too.
© Copyright Q&A on Becoming Finola.