Author Talks: Lisa Ireland on The Women Who Paved My Way

For all the women who paved the way,
most especially my mother, Lorraine.

This is the dedication I wrote for my new novel, The Secret Life of Shirley Sullivan. The book centres on a strong and determined older protagonist and, in a way, I created her to pay homage to the many wonderful women who have helped shape my life, most especially my mother.

The book was partially inspired by my discovery of a secret stash of love letters that were written by my parents in the early 1960s. The letters, uncovered in the aftermath of a flood, documented my parents’ relationship from their first meeting in 1961 through to their engagement just over a year later.

The letters were fascinating to me for several reasons. There was the unfolding love story and also a myriad of fascinating cultural and historical references, but what really struck me, was that the young woman who initially penned those letters seemed very different from the mother I knew and loved.

My mother was just twenty when she met my father and yet she was already concerned about being ‘left on the shelf’. When they first met she had a steady boyfriend, who she very much hoped to marry – not because she loved him, but because she badly wanted to fulfil her parents’ and society’s expectation that she become a wife and mother. Fortunately she met and fell in love with my father. They were engaged by her 22nd birthday, saving her from a potentially loveless marriage, or worse – in her eyes at least – life as a spinster.

My mother was a creative person, who loved fashion. She expressed this mainly through making her own clothes. According to her letters, Saturday mornings would often be dedicated to whipping up a new dress for the dance she was attending that evening. She dreamed of a career in fashion and began her working life in a handbag and accessories shop. However, my grandfather thought an office job was more appropriate for his daughter and he secured a position for her in the office of the woollen mill where he worked. Ever the obedient daughter, my mother left the job she loved to become a typist.

In her early letters to my father, Mum’s gregarious personality shines through. Nevertheless, there is a tone of deference to my father that shocked me. In one letter she actually concedes that he “is the boss” and that he will be the one making decisions for them once they are married. This was at odds with the woman I knew. The woman who raised her daughter to be educated and opinionated, to have a career – not just a job – and to understand that marriage was lovely, but not a necessity for happiness.

Reading the letters, it occurred to me how far my mother had come from those early days of her relationship with my father. I realised how difficult it must have been for her to advocate for me the way she had so often. Like the time she took on the (male) school principal to insist that I should be allowed to take woodwork instead of clothing construction. (It must have killed her to have raised a daughter who was so inept with a needle and thread!) My mother was not confrontational by nature and had been raised not to question authority – especially male authority – so challenging the principal in this way must have made her very uncomfortable. Nevertheless, she did it for me.

She, and many women like her, helped changed society quietly. Not necessarily by marching in the streets, but by demanding more for the daughters they were raising. By teaching the next generation of women that they shouldn’t have to settle for less than their brothers.

My parents had a very happy marriage and my mother, who was a homemaker, managed to achieve a lot in her lifetime. She held many voluntary positions and made a huge difference to many people’s lives, but she never got to pursue a dream that was exclusively her own. Like many women of her generation, Mum sacrificed her own interests and passions for others. She would argue that serving others brought her much satisfaction, but I can’t help but be a little sad that she never got to achieve anything that was just for herself.

Shirley Sullivan is like my mother in many ways. She was born into a time where marriage and motherhood were valued above all else and the needs and wants of women were secondary to those of their fathers, husbands and brothers. Shirley has spent her life being a good daughter, a dutiful wife and a loving mother. But when we meet her at the beginning of the novel she’s had enough of doing what everyone else wants her to and she’s ready to please herself.

The Secret Life of Shirley Sullivan

The Secret Life of Shirley Sullivan is a charming, nostalgic and heart-warming story for women of any age – and it all begins when 79-year-old Shirley kidnaps her husband from his nursing home for one final adventure . . .

‘Elderly. Is that how the world sees me? A helpless little old lady? If only
they knew. I allow myself a small smirk.’

When Shirley Sullivan signs her 83-year-old husband, Frank, out of the Sunset Lodge Nursing Home, she has no intention of bringing him back. For fifty-seven years the couple has shared love, happiness and heartbreak. And while Frank may not know who his wife is these days, he knows he wants to go home. Back to the beach where they met in the early 1960s . . .

So Shirley enacts an elaborate plan to evade the authorities – and their furious daughter, Fiona – to give Frank the holiday he’d always dreamed of.

And, in doing so, perhaps Shirley can make amends for a lifelong guilty secret . . .

Published by Penguin Random House Australia
Released 28th April 2020

About the Author:

Lisa Ireland is a full-time writer of contemporary women’s fiction. In 2014 Lisa was a finalist in the Australian Romance Readers Awards in the category of Best New Author, and the following year was among the top ten debut fiction authors in Australia. Lisa’s sixth book, THE SECRET LIFE OF SHIRLEY SULLIVAN will be published by Penguin Random House in May 2020.

Lisa lives on Victoria’s beautiful Bellarine Peninsula with her family. She loves eating but not cooking, is an Olympic class procrastinator, and (most importantly) minion to a rather large dog.

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