Romantic fuel

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 14 October, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 14 October, 2007, 12:00am

Sheila O'Flanagan earned her celebrity as Ireland's first female stock trader, then became Ireland's chief dealer and the only woman ever to be put in charge of a trading room. Now she enjoys fame as Ireland's best-selling author, shifting millions of copies of her books.

O'Flanagan, 49, traded in her career as Ireland's top female trader for the life of a chick-lit novelist 12 years ago when she wrote her first novel, Dreaming Of A Stranger, but she still writes a weekly column on financial matters for The Irish Times.

With 13 novels to her credit, including her latest, Bad Behaviour, which went straight to the top of Irish best-seller lists, O'Flanagan is a big hitter. But you could never accuse the Dublin-born author of switching careers for the money. That first novel, which chronicled the dilemmas of a woman married to a macho stock trader, wasn't published for two years and, when it was, she explains, 'the money was so pitiable I realised it wouldn't be enough to let me give up my job'.

It wasn't until her third novel, Suddenly Single, won her a two-book deal with Headline that she was able to turn to writing full time. 'The money they offered for a two-book contract was a fraction of my wages at the bank, but it was enough to live on,' recalls O'Flanagan, who admits that she now easily makes as much money as she did as a high-flying financial whiz.

Each of her titles sells more than a quarter of a million copies in Ireland and Britain alone, and upwards of another quarter of a million in translation. Demand for her books increases with each novel, every work now being translated into 23 languages. 'My books are generally in the top five,' she says. 'It's pretty satisfying.'

From the moment she started writing novels, O'Flanagan has been on a mission to make romantic fiction relevant to women. 'All the romantic novels I had read were either historical or rurally based and were never relevant to modern women, who like to juggle careers, children and still find time for romance. And all the women in them were downtrodden. I thought, 'I'm not downtrodden', and the kind of things that interested me were the problems about our careers and our families, and trying to mix the two and make them work,' she says.

Family relationships are also central to almost all her novels and integral to Bad Behaviour, an absorbing tale of friendship and family, duplicity and betrayal. 'I didn't realise how interested I was in family themes until I started writing, and it recurred in all my books,' says O'Flanagan.

'I'm also really interested in friendship and how people become friends, because sometimes you become friends with someone just because they live next door or because they sit next to you in class at school. When we're small we make friendships for very easy reasons, and often you stay friends for a long time even if you become quite different people.'

In Bad Behaviour O'Flanagan wanted to explore how those changes might come about and how friends could betray each other. The novel revolves around two young women, placid Darcey and go-getting Nieve, who have been friends since primary school. Darcey is successful almost by accident. She has a high-flying career, a flat in central Dublin and a wardrobe full of designer labels, but when she receives an unexpected wedding invitation from Nieve she goes into an emotional tailspin: Nieve's groom is Darcey's former fiance.

These two characters set the stage for O'Flanagan's exploration not only of the nature of betrayal and friendship, but of the old Ireland and the new; of the nature of success and the financial crises with which she is so familiar.

'There have been a couple of financial crises I've observed along the way, but Enron is the one that made me think about that whole thing of just going for money, going for broke and wanting everything and not caring what you did, whether at the personal level or at the business level,' says O'Flanagan.

'In the kind of world we're living in now, people are orientated towards themselves and wanting things for themselves; I felt that the Nieve character was that kind of person who thinks it her right to have everything she wants.'

O'Flanagan began writing stories at 10 and 'got into finance by mistake'; a bank job was the only job on offer when she left school in a still impoverished Ireland. She never stopped writing stories but was astonished by her own aptitude for finance. 'But they do say that trading is for younger people, and eventually I reached the point where I had to make a choice about where I wanted to go next. I had never stopped writing and I really wanted to try to write a book.'

She now sees no dissonance between writing novels and her financial column, in which she expounds passionately on everything from the Enron debacle to copper markets, trade deficits and tax. She says, 'People think business is one thing and personality is something else. But when it comes down to it, big businesses are run by people, and I think it is really interesting to know what they're like. I am just endlessly curious about people and people's choices. I just love to know why two people faced with the same problem might react in two completely different ways.'

O'Flanagan is no stranger to controversy, either. She caused a sensation in Ireland by writing, not about the fallout from Enron or any other financial scandal, but about a woman who took up with a younger man, in her 2004 novel Anyone But Him. It caused shockwaves, recalls O'Flanagan, 'because we're still not comfortable in our culture with an older woman and a younger man - despite Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher,' she says with a laugh. 'While they understand older men with younger women they still find the reverse situation difficult. Until recently in Ireland, once you hit 40, that was it. It's only now that women have money of their own that they can look well and enjoy themselves. I was interested in exploring that.'

Already at work on a new novel, O'Flanagan says she is deluged by fan mail from places as distant and disparate as Dubai, Tokyo and Russia. 'Where my books are doing particularly well are places where women are just beginning to take a grip on their own careers, and I think they find my books a little bit affirming.'

She identifies powerful parallels between Russia's recent development and that of Ireland, 'where it's really only in the last 15 years that we've made a big leap forward in wealth. There is this rush towards money and for about five years people are just hell bent on getting as much as they can. Then they stand back from it and say, hold on, there's more to life than this. And this seems to happen everywhere.'

That is why O'Flanagan believes that even when she is writing stories and novels about people in Dublin, 'the themes are still equally relevant in Japan, China or Dubai. All around the world people are going through the same process and it doesn't matter where they are,' she says. 'People, and particularly women, still want a certain level of happiness and they want to achieve something in their careers.'

Writer's notes

Name Sheila O'Flanagan

Genre Romantic fiction

Latest book Bad Behaviour (Headline, HK$214)

Age 49

Born Dublin

Lives Clontarf, Dublin

Family partner Colm and cat Djinn

Other works Dreaming of a Stranger, Isobel's Wedding, He's Got To Go, Far from Over, Too Good to be True, Suddenly Single, How Will I Know?, Anyone But Him, Yours Faithfully, Connections (short stories), Caroline's Sister, Destinations.

Other jobs Bond trader, Ireland's Chief Dealer, business columnist for The Irish Times.

Next project A romance novel

What the papers say

Of Bad Behaviour: 'The depth of characters, snappy dialogue and emotive storyline could, and should, make Bad Behaviour O'Flanagan's first UK No1 best-seller.' - The Sunday Independent (Ireland).

Of Yours Faithfully: 'A big, comfortable, absorbing book, perfect to curl up with as the evenings draw in, bound to delight fans and guaranteed to put O'Flanagan on the best-sellers list yet again.' - Irish Independent

In general: 'Well written and very readable. A refreshing change from the usual stable of women's contemporary fiction.' - The Irish Times

Author's bookshelf

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

'This is an amazing book about a young girl during the second world war. Zusak is ambitious in the construction of the novel but his use of language is accessible and moving.'

The Boleyn Inheritance by Philippa Gregory

'Philippa Gregory has been writing about the court of Henry VIII for a number of years and I've enjoyed all her books set in that era. This is no exception, concentrating on the least-known of the king's wives [Anne of Cleves and Catherine Howard], giving us a vibrant insight into court life.'

The Woods by Harlan Coben

'I like suspense-thriller novels and although some of Coben's leave me feeling that he hasn't entirely thought the plot through, this one is immensely satisfying and a real page turner.'

The Smartest Guys in the Room by Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind

'Fact truly is stranger than fiction and the story of the rise and fall of Enron is fascinating and shocking.'

Diamonds are Forever by Ian Fleming

'I re-read this on holiday and was struck again by how good and spare Fleming's writing is. The books are so much better than the movies, which really have done Fleming a disservice as a writer. And this book has one of the best titles in the world.'