Siobhan Dowd styled herself as a writer from the age of seven, when she began embroidering biblical stories as a Catholic school student in London. After university she went into publishing, and then to work for PEN, along the way writing columns, articles, and short stories, and editing two anthologies.
But a suitable subject for a novel eluded her until she hit upon the snag: she hadn't found the right audience.
“Only when I turned my attention to writing for younger readers did it all fall into place,” she says.
In fact, Dowd hit a wellspring. Her first novel, A Swift Pure Cry (Random House/David Fickling) has already been shortlisted for a number of prizes, and won Ireland's Eilís Dillon Award for a first novel.
Between acceptance speeches, she has completed and sold three more manuscripts. “It does seem like a lot but I spent so many years preparing for this,” Dowd says. “It's payback time.”
Dowd studied Latin and Greek at Oxford, but she says her formative period as a writer came in Manhattan in the 1990s, where she spent seven years directing PEN's Freedom-to-Write Center and—most significantly for her own work—getting feedback in a workshop led by Nancy Lemmon (Lives of the Saints).
The novel that sprang from that experience had its roots in her mother's childhood in County Waterford, and drew on two events involving young pregnant women in 1980s Ireland. Both women hid their pregnancies with tragic results, igniting furious debate. “It's something that has haunted Ireland ever since, and haunted me,” Dowd said.
In Dowd's fictional version, teenaged Michelle (“Shell”) Talent has been left to care for her much-younger siblings following the death of their beloved Mam. She takes up with her small town's notorious playboy, who leaves for America without knowing he has left Shell pregnant. In a starred review, PW called it a “beautifully realized account of one girl's loss of innocence, and her resilient recovery.”
Dowd's father grew up on a farm in County Kerry, and Dowd, though born in England, spent much of her childhood in the Irish countryside. “Even now, by the end of a visit, I'm speaking with an Irish brogue,” she said. "It's not hard for me to slip into that voice."
Her second novel, The London Eye Mystery, will be released in the U.K. this month, and her third book, a YA novel called Bog Child, is due out next February in the U.K. As an editor, Dowd says, Fickling “doesn't get into the nitty-gritty. He just gives me the big picture. He expects his authors to be intelligent, although sometimes I think he thinks we are more intelligent that we really are.”
Dowd writes 1000 words a day in the attic of the Oxford home she shares with her husband, Geoff Morgan, a librarian. She reads everything aloud to him before sending it to her agent—a winning formula thus far. “I wrote about 35 pages of Swift Pure Cry in first person and read it to Geoff. 'Turn it to third,' he said and I did and he was right,” she said. “I'm lucky to have him as a first critic. He gives very, very good advice.”