Getting to Know Sheila Finch

For “Not This Tide” [in our Jan/Feb issue, on sale now], Sheila Finch drew on her childhood in war-torn London, and on research enabled by the magic of librarians. Below, she delves into her history with this story, as well as her history with the wider world of literature.


I grew up in London during World War Two, which means I was there throughout the almost nightly bombing raids on the city. I don’t know why I wasn’t evacuated to the safer countryside as so many children were; all I know is there were a lot of children still in the city, and schools were open until they were damaged by bombs. After a while, there were no neighborhood schools open where I lived, so that meant I spent a lot of time with no schooling at all. Right after the war ended, I would’ve told you that I had no lingering bad effects from growing up in a war zone, but the disruption of marriage and moving to Indiana to attend grad school brought some episodes of traumatic memories which I learned to cope with. Friends often asked why I didn’t write about my childhood experiences, but I couldn’t see how to use them.

Then one morning after my oldest daughter and I had spent the previous evening looking at my father’s war record in the Royal Artillery, I found the beginnings of this story in my mind. The first thing I did was give myself a sister I never had, to make sure the story wouldn’t be entirely tied to the narrow plot of my own history (I’ll leave it to the reader to guess which events are from my experience and which belong to Rosemary Forrest). Then I settled in to research the history of the Maunsell Forts, Star Wars-like structures that served as anti-aircraft gun platforms in the English Channel.

At one point I almost gave up in frustration, because every source I found pointed to the same book of first-person recollections of soldiers’ lives on the fort—and I couldn’t locate the book. Just in time, a wonderful friend who happens to be a retired county librarian came to my rescue. There was one lonely copy of this book in the U.S., located in Harvard University’s Special Collection, and not allowed out. Never underestimate the magic of a librarian! The book came to a local county library, where I was allowed to study it for one whole day. It was a treasure trove of fascinating anecdotes and odd facts, many of which made their way into my pages. The title, “Not This Tide,” comes from a poem by Rudyard Kipling, one of the great poets of World War One, and a personal favorite of my father’s.

 


If you’re wondering how I broke in, I kept sending out my stories and getting rejected over and over, until one day I think an editor said, “Oh for heaven’s sake! Publish this woman’s story and be done with it!”


 

I always knew I was going to be a writer. I folded bits of paper and wrote “books” on them for my stuffed toys when I was quite young. And I read everything I could lay my hands on—still do. My parents had a good size collection of books which I made my way through, and family members gave me their old books along with their old clothes to be cut down to fit me (clothes were rationed too during the war, and for several years afterward). When the schools reopened, I was only a year away from the dreaded 11+ exam that sorted kids into college-prep schools or ones destined to deliver a workforce for business and industry. All that reading paid off, and I passed. When the library reopened, I devoured E. Nesbitt and Rudyard Kipling, H. Rider Haggard, and eventually John Buchan, Jules Verne, and H.G. Wells. And a few years later, there was a marvelous comic book called EAGLE, full of science fiction stories.

When I wasn’t reading, I was writing—stories, plays, poems. Things haven’t changed much over the years. I still am happiest when I’m writing, though I admit, not at the frenzied pace of my youth where I could complete the first draft of a five thousand word story in a day, finally falling off the chair exhausted after six to eight hours of hard work. My reading today is broad-based, though I must admit to a weakness for suspense as well as science fiction—James Lee Burke and Michael Connelly are favorites, along with Elizabeth George and Daniel Silva. If you’re wondering how I broke in, I kept sending out my stories and getting rejected over and over, until one day I think an editor said, “Oh for heaven’s sake! Publish this woman’s story and be done with it!” Or something like that.

Writing doesn’t pay the bills, especially at first, so I spent a good deal of time on my second career as a teacher. My first experience was a class of second-graders in the East End of London, a mile down the road from the docklands setting for Call the Midwife. Then when I came to California, I found my niche in community colleges and did that for over thirty years. There’s a problem with teaching literature for a writer—and especially teaching creative writing. You become too fixated on technique and method and it tends to get in the way. One day, a fiction writing class challenged me to write a story week by week in class, following my own methods. It was scary and exhilarating at the same time, but it got me over that particular hump. If you haven’t already seen this story, you’ll be able to find “Miles To Go” in a collection of my published stories that I’m currently putting together.

What science fictional prediction would I like to see come true? The establishment of Utopia with world peace. Literary critics complain Utopia is dull, but I’m ready for a little peaceful boredom about now.

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