I first met Sheila Belshaw at a Fish Hoek Library Literary tea, a brief encounter that led to a more substantial meeting with this vibrant, sparkling writer this morning. Sheila and her husband live in an almost perpetual summer – six months of the year in their home in Glencairn Heights, four months in Menorca, a Spanish island in the Mediterranean, and two in the UK – and I am quite sure this makes her the sunny person that she is.
I was already intrigued by the autobiographical material that she had sent me earlier. It read
“Sheila Mary Taylor (Sheila Belshaw) was born in Cape Town beneath the towering slopes of Table Mountain. Brought up in Claremont and educated at Rustenburg School for Girls, she was trained as a dancer at UCT Ballet School, but stopped dancing in her early twenties when she started moving around the world with her mining engineer husband, Colin.
Since then, her plethora of unusual activities – jockey in Amateur Ladies’ races at Kenilworth and Durbanville, formation roller skating in night-clubs and hotels, a spell of acting and directing, editor of a dramatic society magazine, secretary to a diplomat, dancing in the Royal Albert Hall, London, just to name a few – have all enriched and inspired her writing.”
Someone with these credentials was certainly worth meeting!
Sheila has always loved writing and as a young girl delighted in sending long, long letters to friends and family. At the age of ten, a poem she had written was published on the children’s page of the Saturday edition of the Cape Times. She confesses to being inhibited at first in terms of writing, partly because her mother, Dora Taylor, who had an MA degree in English Literature from Aberdeen University, was a poet, playwright, political essayist under several pseudonyms, and literary critic for the Cape Times and the Argus. Dora also wrote two novels and a host of short stories, which she never had published. An outspoken critic of apartheid, she eventually went into exile in the USA, later moving to Canada and the UK, broken-hearted at never being able to return to South Africa.
In recent years Sheila spent four years revising her mother’s unpublished fiction. She writes:
“As a result of Penguin publishing my edited versions of her books, (Kathie, Don’t Tread on My Dreams, and Rage of Life) she won the South African Literary Posthumous Award in December 2008. They flew Colin and me up to Jo’burg to attend the glittering awards ceremony and I cried when I collected the beautiful trophy from Pallo Jordan because it was such a wonderful honour they bestowed on her. The framed certificate that came with it says: For lifelong dedication to African and world literary arts. No literary success has ever given me greater satisfaction, nor brought me closer to my mother. I got to know her far better through this work of love than I ever knew her when she was alive.”
As for her own writing, Sheila’s “pen was triggered” when she sat at the bedside of her youngest son Andrew suffering from life-threatening teenage bone cancer. The revised and updated edition of Fly With a Miracle, the book she wrote then, is about to be re-published in paperback and e-Book as Count to Ten. See http://scenicsouth.co.za//2011/11/count-to-ten-by-sheila-mary-taylor-sheila-belshaw-of-glencairn-heights/
After writing the book about Andrew, she joined a writers’ circle in England, a group focused on getting their novels published by Mills and Boon as the payment was too good to resist. The eight manuscripts Sheila sent the publishers were all rejected, her characters and plots deemed too complicated for the M&B strict guidelines. Desperate to get her fiction published, she sent them to a different publisher. Four of these romances – a genre Sheila never reads! – were accepted, copies of which were to be found in our Fish Hoek Library. A fifth, set in Menorca against a background of ballet and fine art, is due for publication next year. Her work in progress, working title Entangled, also features a dancer whose life becomes inextricably entwined with that of an orthopaedic surgeon and a physiotherapist – with heart-breaking results. Asked why she writes under her maiden name, Sheila replied that there could not be two Belshaws from the same family writing thrillers – her middle son Peter is following in the footsteps of his mother and grandmother and writing novels too!
A writers’ workshop at a Bournemouth hotel over a weekend led to the writing of Pinpoint, the synopsis of which may be read under our Fish Hoek Library page http://scenicsouth.co.za//2011/11/pinpoint-by-sheila-mary-taylor-sheila-belshaw-of-glencairn-heights/. Darley Anderson, a top London literary agent who was the guest of honour, set the delegates a competition which involved the writing of a first chapter “about a woman in jeopardy.” He was most impressed with what Sheila wrote and asked her to write the next 10 000 words. These he did not like so the project went “into the bottom drawer for several years only to be picked up again and became something quite different.” It was during these intervening years that Sheila revised her mom’s books.
At the age of twenty-two Sheila left South Africa to pursue her passion for dancing in the UK where she met her husband Colin, whose engineering career took them to Zambia, Tanzania and Ghana. After a second three year stint in Zambia from 1995 to 1998, the couple decided to return to England via a more adventurous route than by air: train from Lusaka to Cape Town and then a Safmarine container ship – the Winterberg – to the UK. The ship was delayed for a month because of strikes in Durban and during this time Colin fell in love with Cape Town. While on a day trip around the scenic South peninsula they impulsively popped in at a showhouse in Glencairn Heights, which when Sheila had left Cape Town as a young woman had been nothing more than a wind-swept sand dune. Not realising that making an offer on a house was binding – in the UK things work differently – they made an offer on the house and were contacted the next morning to be told the house was theirs! They have not looked back and are considering retiring here in the near future.
In answer to my questions about inspiration and the writing process, Sheila says that her ideas come from everywhere – from people she meets, places she visits, controversial issues reported in papers. She never knows what is going to happen in her head. A sentence will start a book – and then words just pour forth. If she awakes with a phrase or an idea in her head, she immediately writes it down in a notebook kept next to her bed without even turning the light on, otherwise the thought vanishes. She also enjoys writing short stories on long-haul flights. Her writing routine includes a stint for three hours in the early morning followed by another mid-afternoon. When doing the first draft of a book, she finds it essential to write every day. Eight to ten drafts will follow, each as enjoyable as the first as the characters become more rounded and the wording is perfected.
Her advice to aspirant writers: write every day, write from the heart, write early in the morning and never give up!
Sheila’s list of favourite reads include:
Han Suyin: The Mountain is Young (most favourite and most re-read)
J M Coetzee: Almost all his books
William Boyd: A Good Man in Africa, Brazzaville Beach and Any Human Heart are the best.
Ian McEwan: Atonement and On Chesil Beach
Vikram Seth: An Equal Music (a wonderful book)
Sebastian Faulks: Birdsong is my favourite of his
Doris Lessing: The Grass is Singing (I like her early work, but not her later novels so much)
Charlotte Bronte: I never tire of Jane Eyre
Maggie O’Farrell: After You’d Gone
Authors and poets of the Scenic South Peninsula are showcased under