Suzanne Strempek Shea

Photo © Helen Peppe Photography.

Press Room

An Interview with Suzanne

Who or what inspired you to write This Is Paradise?

I met Mags Riordan in 2004, when I was helping my friend Fran Ryan sell her knitwear at the Eastern States Exposition. Fran and her Dingle Linens goods are from Dingle, where Mags lives, and for several years at that point Fran had organized a group of vendors to sell their wares at “the Big E,” one of the ten largest fairs in the U.S. Our booth was adjacent to the one in the Irish goods area, where Mags was selling jewelry and art from Cape Maclear, the proceeds going to the then-new clinic. People would walk up to her booth, look at the photos of the village and the kids playing outside the clinic, and they’d ask what the display was about. Mags would start to say something like, “I built a clinic in the village where my son died,” and many of the people would just walk away. Others would approach, she’d repeat the same stark information.

I wanted to know who this person was, what had happened to her son, and how does someone go about doing something like starting a clinic — how does one single person do something that? Apart from that, how does someone repeat a horrible truth like that, over and over, very often to disinterested ears? I got to know Mags well by asking a lot of questions over the years since, and feel everyone else needs to get to know her well, too. The first time he heard me talk about Mags, my husband, Tommy Shea, who always has the great idea, said, “That’s a book.” Thanks again, Tommy Shea.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

I followed Mags on three continents, starting in November of 2009, and I thank her for being willing to do this project in the first place. I wrote as I went along, and finished the last page on December 18, 2012, at the kitchen table of an apartment in Abu Dhabi, where Tommy was working at the time. I’m delighted the story is seeing the light of day, and am hoping that it will do some good for the Billy Riordan Memorial Trust, and might inspire others to see what they can do in this world.            It’s not corny to say Mags’ story is very inspiring. After the losses she’s endured, how does this woman get up every day, never mind get up and does what she does for others? It’s a story of how you don’t have to be a millionaire or a specialist of some sort to start a charitable effort. Along the way I’ve been shown that by my dear friend since childhood, Mary (Koss) Grimanis, her husband, Mike, and daughters Julia and Lauren, of Wayland, Massachusetts who had no special training when they started The Akaa Project (www.theakaaproject.org). They had only the urging of Lauren, who, in 2007, newly turned seventeen, volunteered at an orphanage in Ghana and returned to tell her family of the great need she’d seen. The project since has created a school in a rural village and has grown to include healthcare and financial projects. The family had no background in anything like this. The four of them just wanted to help, sat down at their kitchen table, and started planning.

Did you read any comparable stories while writing this book?

I have a stack of books acquired for this experience, but those that accompanied me toMalawi included Dambisa Moyo’s Dead Aid: Why Aid is Not Working and Why There is a Better Way for Africa (provocative and eye-opening), Tracy Kidder’s Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer (I’m a Tracy Kidder fan and wanted to see how he lassoed so many issues and one large personality) and Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortensen, (I read that for many of the same reasons).

Tracy Kidder did a fabulous job wrapping up his man and the experience, in so many different places and facing so many varied challenges. Mortensen and the late David Oliver Relin kept me spellbound, so I was very disappointed to then learn of the inaccuracies in the book that, for me, then put it in the fiction category. Good fiction, but still not a nonfiction book, not the real story of how this one man brought education to so many in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

What else about your book might pique the readers' interest?

Like Mags, the story doesn’t sit still. She works in her office and visits family in Ireland, she spends eight months of her year living in a one-room flat in the volunteer complex at the Cape, she attends fundraisers in the states. The story follows her, and to and through some fascinating places, from the lush green of her Kerry backyard to the rugged rock approach to Cape Maclear, in ways so similar to entering Dingle. As Billy Riordan told her, “It’s like Dingle. Dingle in the sunshine.” The last thing Billy Riordan e-mailed to his mother was the line “This is paradise.” He wanted Mags to visit Cape Maclear, to see the stark beauty. She eventually went there, but to set in place a stone in his memory. She has ended up doing so much more. Readers might find all that of interest, and might start pondering what they themselves might do about a need they see in their immediate or larger world.

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