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The author who was groomed by an elderly man at the age of 13, but kept the memory buried for 35 years

NI writer Sheena Wilkinson's latest book sees one of her characters groomed by a sex predator, and revived her memories of being targeted as a child

By Stephanie Bell

Northern Ireland author Sheena Wilkinson is known for dealing with some tough subjects in her novels, but it wasn't until she penned her latest offering in which one of her characters is groomed by a sex predator that memories emerged of her own personal experience of being targeted as child.

Sheena was just 13 when an elderly man tried to grope her after spending weeks trying to gain her trust, first by giving her gifts and sweets, and then her young heart's desire - her very own pony.

Writing about it for the first time today, Sheena recalls how the man whom she refers to only as F cornered her in his caravan and tried to grope her while she fended him off.

She never told anyone about the experience and it is only now as she prepares to publish her new book, Street Song, which goes on sale next week, that memories of her own experience of being groomed resurfaced.

Sheena (48), who lives in Castlewellan and grew up in Belfast, taught English at Methodist College in Belfast for 19 years before leaving to focus full-time on her writing in 2012.

She is one of the most acclaimed writers of contemporary fiction for young people in the country and has won four Children's Book Ireland awards for her work, a White Raven Award from the International Youth Library, an IBBY Honour Listing, and has been shortlisted for the Reading Association of Ireland Awards twice.

Her new novel tells the story of a teenager who wins a talent contest and how the fame that follows is short-lived.

One of her characters is groomed by an older man and it was only after she had written her story that Sheena remembered her own ordeal.

She says: "It sounds ridiculous but it wasn't until talking to my publicist about my new book that I remembered about it.

"The word grooming wouldn't have been used in the Eighties when it happened to me, but that is exactly what it was.

"I don't know that it had any lasting impact on me. How do you quantify something like that? I feel embarrassed about it. I feel as if I should have known better, but it hasn't made me frightened of men."

Sheena recalls that in the Eighties attitudes were very different and even though she doesn't think her experience had a detrimental impact on her life, she thinks it may have made her more aware of feminism of which she became a supporter in her teens.

She also believes that due to the culture at the time when it was more acceptable for men to make rude passes at women, that many more women had similar experiences.

She says: "TV shows at the time often showed girls surrounded by men groping them which seemed to be acceptable back then. It is very sad but show me a girl that it hasn't happened to?"

As a child of 13, she was unaware of any threat but looking back now she can see how the man had ulterior motives for what she initially thought was his kindness.

She says: "He was never nasty and I think instinctively he would have given me a bit of a grope, but I genuinely think he wouldn't have done anything worse. I'm not saying it was justifiable but I don't think he would have raped me. He was a lonely, sad, old man and yes he was grooming me. I don't know what happened to him or if he is even still alive today."

Sheena started to write when she was just nine years old. Growing up in 1970s Belfast, she was encouraged to go to the library on the Cregagh Road as a "safe place" to spend her time.

She says: "I didn't need to be encouraged as I instantly fell in love with books and stories, and from then on I just wanted to be part of that world."

She studied English at Durham University and started teaching while writing in her spare time. Since the publication of her multi-award winning debut book, Taking Flight, in 2010, she has published several acclaimed novels.

Grounded won the overall CBI Book of the Year in 2013. Her first historical novel, Name Upon Name, set in 1916 Belfast, was chosen as Waterford's 'One Community, One Book' title.

In 2012, Sheena was granted a Major Award from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, its highest award, given 'to artists of national and international importance'.

It was this which prompted her to leave teaching and focus full-time on her writing.

Today, as well as publishing new work, she tutors for Arvon, set-up and runs the Belfast Inter-Schools Creative Writing Network, and is Royal Literary Fund Fellow at Queen's University, Belfast.

Her new novel explores the hard-hitting subject of drug abuse as well as sexual grooming, but also how you can make your own fortune by pursuing your dreams with all you've got.

She says: "I've always loved music but never written about it until now. The story is about celebrity culture and how vacuous it is.

"It is about a boy of 17 who wins a reality TV talent show and life is fantastic for him for five minutes - and then it turns terrible.

"There is a girl in the book who is being groomed in quite a similar way that I was, but she is more vulnerable and is not from a stable background.

"Through helping her, the male character remembers that he too was groomed but in a different way.

"My books have always been fairly gritty. I have dealt with quite a lot of difficult topics in them including suicide, teenage pregnancy and sexual abuse.

"It is not that my books are a list of traumatic experiences, but I like to write stories about people dealing with issues that a lot of people in real life are also having to deal with."

  • Street Song, published by Ink Road, is available from April 20 in paperback, £7.99

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