From Lawyer to Author in Lots of Forward, Backward and Side-Steps
by Sheila Agnew
I count myself very lucky to have grown up in Ireland where books are as much a part of the national heritage as pints of Guinness and Niall Horan of One Direction. I can see yet the classroom poster of the poet, William Butler Yeats, forever framed as an earnest, lovesick, young man squinting at us through round Harry Potter type glasses. Like all born writers, books were as much a part of me as my eyes and my limbs; reading and writing as necessary for life as breathing. But when it came time to go to college, I shoved my dream of being a writer deep down in a drawer and locked it away. I though that I had to join the grown-up world of reality. I thought that dreams were reserved for children, and childhood was over.
I became an international lawyer in London where I enjoyed having the opportunity to travel and work in such far-flung cities as Cairo and Accra and Mumbai. Back in London, I partied it up with friends and boyfriends in my flat in Notting Hill. (It’s not as glamorous as it might sound—my flat was over the Kentucky Fried Chicken on Notting Hill Gate). But I had a great life, a privileged, secure, interesting life. There was only one teeny problem—it never felt like my life. It never felt real. I felt like a shadow or an avatar in my own life. So, while still in my twenties, I quit my job to travel around Asia and Australia and write my first novel, a book about the struggles of a group of female political prisoners on hunger strike. My novel wasn’t published. But I learned so much. I still think that the best way to learn how to write a book is to write a book.
I moved to New York where I had been born. I struggled to find even a minimum-wage job in a book shop. The reality of being a struggling writer seemed too real for me. I didn’t truly believe that I could make it as a writer. I stuffed my dream back in the drawer and returned to a lawyer’s life. But I unexpectedly wound up practicing family law. Stores are all about human relationships . . . just like family law. Unknowingly, I had just embarked on an invaluable apprenticeship for a writer. By 2011, I was a junior partner at a prestigious law firm in midtown Manhattan. I could no longer keep the drawer shut no matter how much I wedged my back up against it. I quit my job and moved to Buenos Aires where I learned Spanish and started to write a new book.
I was inspired by very many wonderful Irish authors like Eoin Colfer and Derek Landy who were and are thrilling children and teenagers all over the world. In 2014 the first two books in my humorous Evie Brooks series for children, were published in Britain and Ireland by The O’Brien Press. More recently they have been published by Pajama Press in the U.S. and Canada. The books chronicle the adventures of an Irish teenager who moves to New York to live with her veterinary uncle. I was inspired to write them by my childhood love for James Herriot’s All Creatures Great and Small books and by my own experiences in moving to New York.
In 2013, I wrote The Exclusion Wars, a thriller for young adults (and not-so-young adults). It’s about a teenager Latino immigrant who goes into hiding in New York after an anti-immigrant President comes into power. It is strange how writers don’t just shape their books; their books also shape their lives. Last year I ended up working as an English teacher to Latino teenagers in The Dominican Republic, and this past summer, I worked as a creative writing teacher for the financially disadvantaged children of Hispanic immigrants in New York City.
Now I live in Brooklyn. My life isn’t comfortable or secure but I love it. At last, it feels like my life. I’m trying to live my life as hard as I can. That feels good. And it’s a lot of fun. W.B. Yeats wrote:
Children play at being great and wonderful people, ambitions they will put away for one reason or another before they grow into ordinary men and women.
I don’t believe that any book lover is an ordinary man or woman. Books take us with them on extraordinary journeys. They make us extraordinary.
Sheila Agnew is an Irish author living in New York. She is the author of The Exclusion Wars, which is available as an e-book on Amazon in India. “Dark and Dangerous, I loved it. Slick writing, a fascinating premise and a rollercoaster plot, Agnew’s The Exclusion Wars is a book that needed to be written and needs to be read.” Eoin Colfer (author of Artemis Fowl).