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Writing a Novel About Women in Saudi Arabia: Sheila’s Story

Published on 04/11/2016

Sheila-FlahertyWhen Sheila counseled Saudi women during her one-year stint in the Kingdom, she knew she had to share what she’d learned. Talking to Martin Scorsese about her experience was the catalyst to writing what would become her first novel, East of Mecca.

I was born at Fort Benning, Georgia, and grew up an Army Brat, mostly in the South. My maternal grandmother lived in Macon, Georgia, and I’ve always considered her house as my emotional home since it was the only constant I had in childhood. Growing up, it was Mama, Daddy, me, and my brother Joe, who is 5 ½ years younger than I am.

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Our family portrait in El Paso, Texas

Like most of the acts in my life, my journey through education was choppy. By the time I graduated from high school in Mesquite, Texas, I had attended 23 schools. I was an average student, at best. I had no particular passion or talent and, if asked, I would not have even said I was smart. College had never been discussed.

It was the South, Vietnam was raging, and I was in love with a young soldier. I married at seventeen and, after two years in Huntsville, Alabama working as a telephone operator at Southern Bell and another year in Germany being a hausfrau, my soldier’s tour of duty was over and we settled in Dallas.

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A young army wife, 1968

There, I worked all day downtown at Southwestern Bell telephone company as a service representative and studied art and English at night at El Centro Junior College. The telephone company paid my tuition. When I eventually took my first class in psychology, I was hooked. I changed my major to psychology and never looked back.

Most of my undergraduate work was accomplished while working full or part-time and raising my two boys, Jason and Jeff. I finally finished my Bachelor’s in Psychology at the University of Houston and received a Master’s in Marriage and Family Therapy at the University of Houston, Clear Lake City. In 1982, we moved to Chicago so I could enter the doctoral program at Northwestern University Medical School. I earned my Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology in 1987, when I was 38.

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Graduating Northwestern with my PhD

Because I had a Master’s, I was able to open a private counseling practice before graduation and it is still thriving today, after thirty-three years. All those years have been in Evanston, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago—except for one year when my (now former) husband took a job with Aramco in Saudi Arabia.

 

What was it like to live in Saudi Arabia?

Living in Saudi Arabia was a shockingly eye-opening lesson in how it feels to be absolutely powerless. The very first day I was photographed, finger printed, and my passport was confiscated to be held by Aramco for the duration of my stay in Saudi. Only my husband could apply for exit visas, which had to be approved by the company before being issued. Only then could airline tickets be purchased to leave Saudi.

The very first afternoon in Saudi I had a panic attack when I realized how far I was from home and how powerless. I couldn’t change my mind, call a cab, go to the airport and board a plane. Women are not allowed to drive in Saudi, so I rode my bike to do grocery shopping. There are strict clothing regulations for women…arms, legs, necks always covered. Loose, baggy clothing. Off the compound, I always kept a scarf handy to cover up my hair if needed. Being tall and blonde, I attracted a lot of attention….not good in a Kingdom where one is always under scrutiny.

Aerial view of Ras Tanura, the compound where we lived in Saudi Arabia

Aerial view of Ras Tanura, the compound where we lived in Saudi Arabia

Our mail, ingoing and outgoing, was censored and subject to being opened. Our phones were tapped. Security cars patrolled the compound at all hours to make sure we weren’t doing anything they considered to be “immoral” which would have also been illegal (examples: playing games with cards or dice, having a Christmas tree, drinking alcohol).  I worked without a work permit in Saudi, because I couldn’t have gotten one. I’ve been advised by an attorney friend NOT to call that “illegal,” but it was.

And yet, when women came to me for help, as a psychologist, I never turned them down. I truly understood the depression and anxiety most women feel when living in an oppressive, fundamentalist, male-dominated Kingdom where they have no rights, whatsoever! Since I was also struggling with anxiety and depression myself while in Saudi Arabia, I taught these women the additional skills in stress management that I taught myself.

To cope with feeling powerless, I made a list of all the things I DID have control over that made me feel better. Examples in Saudi were these: Exercise…walk or run on the beach. Write…journal or write essays. Do some productive work…mine was counseling. Have some quality interpersonal interactions outside of immediate family…see a friend, go to a women’s club meeting or the library. Have some kind of spiritual practice…meditation, yoga, readings, prayer. Anytime I woke up depressed or anxious I knew I had a choice! I could do one or more of these things and feel better, or I could CHOOSE to remain depressed or anxious! It still works that way.

The view on horseback of the Saudi Arabian dunes

The view on horseback of the Saudi Arabian dunes

 

When did you start to think about making a change in midlife?

Mine was more an evolution than a conscious decision for change. I was inspired by my experiences (and those of the women I counseled) while living in Saudi Arabia and knew I had to write about them. I wanted to enlighten others about the realities and challenges facing women who are oppressed. I first wrote a proposal to present at the 1991 American Psychological Association conference on the topic of “Oppression of Western Women in Saudi Arabia.” My proposal was accepted and I presented to colleagues…but I still felt the need to reach a larger audience. I just didn’t know how.

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What is your next act

I am the author of East of Mecca, a novel published in 2013, when I was 65. East of Mecca tells the story of a financially desperate American family seduced by promises of a glamorous expat lifestyle in Saudi Arabia. Sarah Hayes gives up her social work career when her husband Max accepts a prestigious engineering job with Ocmara Oil Company. With their children, Kate and Sam, they relocate to the shores of the Persian Gulf. Once locked inside the heavily guarded Ocmara compound, Sarah becomes invisible in the fundamentalist Islamic Kingdom. Gradually she is drawn into a clandestine and illicit friendship with a Saudi woman named Yasmeen. Together, Sarah and Yasmeen find freedom beneath the veils and behind the walls of the Saudi women’s quarters until inconceivable events force Sarah to make life-or-death decisions. East of Mecca is about the power of a mother’s love, the everlasting ties of sisterhood, and the ultimate price of oppression.

To my absolute delight, East of Mecca has been very well received. The book has just received the 2015 Silver Nautilus Book Award! It currently has a 5-star rating on Amazon with more than 40 reviews, and it is in the top ten best sellers for the Kindle version in Middle Eastern Literature. In addition, East of Mecca has received a 5-star rating from IndieReader. Since publication, I have been invited to over twenty book clubs and women’s events to discuss it. Attending book clubs where everyone has read East of Mecca and are gathered to talk about it is one of my greatest pleasures. I am still filled with awe and gratitude when people tell me how much they loved my book and how it touched their lives.

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Signing at my book launch, Women and Children First Bookstore, Chicago, 2014

Writing is cathartic and such an intimate way to process emotions and life events — whether joyous, tragic, or somewhere in between. I keep a journal filled with daily minutia, dreams, inspirations, and the details and feelings associated with profound events that I want to remember forever. Writing memoir is a fabulous way to record and gain perspective on current and past life events, while also discovering familial, interpersonal, and my own emotional/psychological dynamics. The best part of writing is when I hit that place called “flow” when the piece begins to write itself—when I find myself going deeper and deeper and get so lost in the process that I completely lose track of time. Writing fiction is fun because you can make things up! And I have discovered what I’ve always heard to be true—when writing is going well, the story begins to tell itself. Characters sometimes appear out of nowhere and present with their own agenda! For fiction or memoir, I never know exactly where the storyline is going. But I know it is taking me somewhere profound. For me, writing is a healing process.

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Buying a hookah in Saudi Arabia

How did you come to write a novel about women in Saudi Arabia?

In 1991, I had the opportunity to meet Martin Scorsese. When he learned I’d lived in Saudi Arabia, he asked about my experiences. As I told my story, he kept saying, “That should be a movie.” A light went off! How better to reach a greater audience than through a movie?

I took screenwriting classes at Northwestern University, read all I could about writing screenplays, and started writing. After completing my screenplay, which took about two years, I attended a number of writer’s conferences. The feedback I kept receiving was that although East of Mecca was a fully developed screenplay, no one in Hollywood would take a chance on financing a film putting Saudi Arabia in a bad light. I was repeatedly advised to rewrite it as a novel. Women in the industry suggested it be a romance. Men suggested an adventure novel. I was frozen, discouraged. Unable to write it as a novel, I shelved the script.

When the war with Iraq broke out in 2003 and the Western world started paying attention to the brutal treatment of women in the Middle East, a good friend, Mary Scruggs, who had been a television writer, remembered my script. Mary encouraged me to submit East of Mecca to the prestigious Nicholl Fellowship screenwriting competition. To my profound shock and delight, it made the 2004 semifinals. In 2005, it made the finals in another competition, CineStory, where I met Meg LeFauve, a screenwriter (Inside Out and The Good Dinosaur) and Hollywood producer. Meg gave me notes and helped me rework and develop the script. She also tried to get it sold for three years—with no luck.

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With children in Saudi Arabia

In 2008, I finally decided to rewrite East of Mecca as a novel. It made so much sense. There was so much more I could include in a novel than in a movie. My goal was to create characters Western readers could empathize with. To take readers beneath the veils of Saudi women, behind the walls of the Saudi women’s quarters. I still wanted to reach a greater audience and the fact is people read more fiction than non-fiction. What better way to educate the Western world on the abhorrent treatment of women in the Middle East than through a compelling novel?

I began taking memoir-writing classes, then used my writing group for support and feedback. Inspired by my own experiences in Saudi Arabia, the women I worked with, and the horrors facing Arab women all over the world, I wrote for five years. When my book was finished, I sent out over 200 queries, but was unable to get an agent. I self-published in October 2013.

 

How supportive were your family and friends?

They were amazingly supportive. My friends were able to tolerate long absences and incessant talk about East of Mecca whenever we were together. They still do. My current husband, who I met after my divorce in 1996, learned to accommodate my unique writing process—working late into the night, even into the wee hours, Middle Eastern music playing in the background. Writing until I couldn’t see any more before stumbling to bed.

Both my sons have always been supportive of my writing, and interested in how I have told what we call our “Saudi stories.” They are proud of me and of what I’ve accomplished.

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With my sons, Jeff and Jason, at my 40th Birthday party — right before moving to Saudi Arabia

 

What challenges did you encounter?

Juggling real life obligations and life events with writing. Finding blocks of time to write. Trying to find a buyer for the script, then trying to find an agent for the book. Eventually trusting my gut to self-publish because of my goal of putting it out into the world. Finding ways to get reviews. I’m still learning the best ways to promote the book and get a wider audience.

 

Were there times when you thought about giving up? 

There were many times when it would have been easier to give up, but I never considered giving up an option. What keeps me going is my mission to help as many women as possible, within my lifetime and afterwards.

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My writing desk while I was in residency at Ragdale artist colony in Lake Forest, IL

 

What did you learn about yourself through this process?

I’m a good writer. Starting in adolescence and throughout my adult life, I have occasionally written poetry, or long, entertaining, detailed letters, but before East of Mecca, I had seldom written creatively. Most of my writing had been academic, in APA format, for graduate school. This included my dissertation, which certainly was not creative or entertaining!

I’m a glutton for punishment. Most writers agree that writing is painful and usually devoid of much immediate gratification. Ernest Hemingway said, “There’s nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein.” The hardest part is actually the physical act of sitting down and writing when almost any other activity would seem preferable at the time. And yet, I kept sitting down and writing.

I’m nothing if not persistent. Instead of hearing “no” for an answer, I’ve learned to always look for the “how” to make it happen.

I’ve learned to trust my instincts and divine timing.

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Books I’m reading

What advice do you have for women seeking reinvention in midlife?

If you feel passionate about something, go for it! We are meant to evolve. Learning new things and skills will keep you alive and engaged in life. Don’t be easily discouraged, remember reinvention is a process—not a destination. And, if you have a “day job” you can keep while easing into the next act, do so. For financial reasons and a sense of stability. Look for or create a support system.

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Still a cowgirl at 67!

 

What advice do you have for would be novelists? What resources do you recommend?

Writing is notoriously hard and requires tons of discipline and commitment, but if you’re a writer, you cannot imagine life without it. If you truly want to write a book, you have to want it more than anything else and be willing to sacrifice almost everything else in order to do it.

When it comes to resources, first, read Anne LaMott’s book, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. It is the writer’s Bible. And then read Natalie Goldberg’s book, Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within. It will get you out of your head and onto the page. Look for local classes on different genres of writing. Join a writing group that feels safe and supportive, or just have a good and trusted friend to meet with on a regular basis as a writing partner. Read the kind of books you would like to write. Write what you know…the story inside you that is burning to get out.

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At the “We Move Forward” International Women’s Conference with Diane Testa (middle) and Canadian rock star Bif Naked (right)

 

I knew that I needed people with skills I do not possess for web design, creating a media platform, and marketing, so I hired a team. My primary resource is Diane Testa, who is a business marketing coach. Working with Diane, I created a mission and vision statement and a marketing plan where we set clear goals and tactical plans on which to focus in order to meet those goals. We have used a variety of tactics, most importantly an author platform with a website and press kit. I have a strong social media presence on Facebook, LinkedIn, and, to a lesser extent, Twitter. We have done book promotions through various channels: book reviews, author package donations to charity events and fundraisers, author signings, and book clubs. It takes daily effort and focus to build and maintain awareness of East of Mecca, but it ultimately has been worth it.

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With my husband Barry, my son Jeff and his wife Brianne

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Celebrating my son Jason’s graduation from Le Cordon Bleu culinary school

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What’s next for you? 

While I continue my first passion, my work as a psychologist, I am also nurturing my “second act” writing career by posting personal essays on my blog. I have once again rewritten East of Mecca as a screenplay and I’m submitting it to competitions with the dream of someday seeing it on the big screen.

I am in the midst of writing my next novel, Orchard Road. It is a psychological thriller that has me digging deeply and far back into my personal experiences in Singapore (another interesting detour in my life) for authentic emotional and physical content. Orchard Road will also have significant psychological components that will enlighten, inspire, and hopefully empower readers in other unique ways.

In March, I also had a speaking gig at an international women’s conference, We Move Forward, where I spoke about the power of journaling and gave workshops on “how to.” If all goes well, I will add “speaker and teacher” to my next act!

 

Contact Dr. Sheila Flaherty at SheilaFlaherty2012@gmail.com

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I’m Hélène Stelian, the Midlife Mentor with a passion for facilitating personal development in women 40+. Through my THRIVE Courses, I help introspective, curious, action-oriented women 40+ deepen their journeys of self-discovery and growth—and create their next chapter with courage and intention.

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2 Comments

  1. Susan Gibson Overstreet

    Sheila, loved this article and cannot wait for the movie! I am also looking forward to “Orchard Road,” an area which we experienced in Singapore in 2007. I have recently read “The Nightengale” and “All the Light We Cannot See.” I thoroughly enjoyed both of them. Hope to see you in June.

    Reply
    • Sheila Flaherty

      Thank you so much for reading and commenting, Susan. Looks like we have much in common besides just MHS! I’m planning on being there in June and I’m so glad I’ll get to see you. Looking forward to it!

      Reply

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