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'A war-time love story of a Belfast woman and a German soldier inspired my new book'

Belfast author Sophia Hillan has released her second novel, The Way We Danced, set in post-ceasefire Northern Ireland. Here she talks to Karen Ireland about how her passion for writing now means she's busier than ever

By Karen Ireland

Not letting your children draw bunny rabbits or scribbles on your work is the best piece of advice Belfast author Sophia Hillan was given when she was a working mum balancing her career and family of two children, Judith and John King.

Sophia (66), whose second novel The Way We Danced is out now, explains: "I was advised by a good friend when I was working to do it at the kitchen table beside them as they did their homework. That way everyone was included."

Now, though, her children are grown up with careers of their own, and the Belfast writer is showing no signs of slacking off - in fact, she has just signed a three-book deal and has many speaking assignments lined up at various book and literary festivals.

The latest offering from Sophia promises to be one of her best and has been well-received by critics. The story revolves around a bored female historian, Ruth Deacon, who inadvertently taps into an old woman's memories to unlock a wonderful love story.

As the tale traverses both pre-war Germany and post-ceasefire Northern Ireland, an elderly woman tells of a romance which has dominated her life.

While anyone reading Sophia's books will feel she is a natural writer, it has never been her main career.

It was, though, a famous home-grown literary figure who proved an inspiration to her writing aspirations.

When she studied at Queen's University she was taught by Seamus Heaney and the famous poet encouraged her to write and read widely in a bid to hone her craft.

"I was so fortunate to have been taught by him," she adds.

"After university I worked as an academic at Queen's University writing papers and lecturing, but I was always writing short stories in my spare time."

And success soon followed for Sophia.

"I was delighted when I was nominated for a Hennessy Award in 1980 and a prize in Sam Bell's BBC short stories and I was also published in David Marcus's New Irish Writing."

As an academic Sophia wrote her PhD on famous short story writer and novelist Michael McLaverty, who was born in Carrickmacross but spent the last years of his life in the fishing village of Ardglass, and she published widely on Irish literature in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Sophia's short stories attracted considerable attention, as she adds: "One of my short stories was read on BBC 4 by Laura Carmichael, who plays Lady Edith in Downton Abbey which was a huge compliment.

"The story was The Portrait of Elizabeth, written from the perspective of Jane Austen's sister-in-law Elizabeth Austen.

"I was honoured when the BBC commissioned me to write this piece and even more delighted when Laura Carmichael agreed to read it. She was the perfect choice."

A former associate director of Irish Studies at Queen's University, Sophia has been concentrating more on her writing since leaving the post in 2003.

In 2011, Sophia's research lead her to writing a book about Jane Austen's three nieces who lived in Ireland. May, Lou and Cass was published by Blackstaff.

"I always knew I wanted to write a novel and in 2014 the Friday Tree, my first novel, was published."

And like all good writers the inspiration for her latest book is based on a real love story which was just waiting to be written.

"A student of mine told me a true story about a Belfast lady falling in love with a German soldier and no one ever knew until later when some of their letters were found," she says.

"I carried that story around in my head for 14 years and couldn't stop thinking about it so eventually I asked her if I could turn it into a novel and she gave me her blessing which was wonderful.

"That became The Way We Danced which is about the war in Belfast and also the 1994 ceasefire here."

Because of the historical significance of the novel which touches on the Second World War and the more recent Troubles - or rather the post-ceasefire years, Sophia went to painstaking lengths to ensure all the dates and details were accurate.

"It took me three years to write as I wanted to get the research and all the history as the backdrop correct," she explains.

And a fortunate twist of fate meant she could combine some all-important fact-checking while seeing her son.

"During this time John was studying in Berlin and when he was there I went over to visit him and he took me to a beautiful old ballroom, which became an important place in my novel. It was bombed twice but it survived and people go there to dance by candlelight. It is truly magical and it is central to my story.

"My ideas and inspiration come from all sorts of places and I can carry things around with me for years and then turn into a piece of writing. It is like the pearl in the oyster."

Nowadays, her daughter Judith is a playwright and TV producer and John is a software engineer. Sophia says her children are both proud of her and all her work.

"I am equally proud of them and their chosen career paths," she says. "We are a very close family and spend as much time together as possible. In the summer we all went on holiday together to Venice.

"On the plane going out, Judith's iPad died so I gave her a proof of The Way We Danced and she never lifted her head to speak to me until she had it finished which was a true compliment. She loved it.

"I admire her talents and completely trust her so it means a lot that she gave it her seal of approval."

Sophia says putting pen to paper is not an effort but a labour of love.

"I love writing and when I am working on something it consumes me," she adds.

"I spend a lot of my time in libraries making notes and then I write for three or four hours a day when I am working on something.

"Sometimes when it gets near the end and we are on the third or fourth draft of a piece and working with the publisher I can find myself working into the night.

"I always carry a notebook with me in case an idea comes to me or I see something or read something of interest.

"I make a point of writing it down and you never know what it might become later."

And the good news is for Sophia Hillan fans is there is more to come.

"I have a three-book deal with the publishers so I am already working on my third novel.

"A lot of it is still in my head and hasn't made it onto paper yet but that is the way I work."

Between writing and continuing to lecture, Sophia has little spare time on her hands.

"I like to walk every day to keep myself fit and active, I do pilates every week and I have recently gone back to tai chi which I love," she says.

"I also love to travel and have friends in England who I visit a lot. I used to travel further afield a lot more when I was younger."

But at a time of life when most of us would think about slowing down there is no stopping this enthusiastic writer.

"In June next year the Jane Austen Society from Australia will be touring Ireland and I will be part of the group taking them to see where the nieces lived.

"I am also speaking at the Book Festival on World Book Day and my novel is being launched in November. It's fair to say I am pretty busy and there is never a dull moment.

The Way We Danced, Amazon, £12.99, is published by Ward River Press

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