Sue McDonagh – The Sea Sisters Swimming Club

Today I am joined on my blog by the lovely Sue McDonagh. Sue has dropped in to talk about her new book The Sea Sisters Swimming Club, which is out today.

Arty, biking, swimming and writing granny, that’s Sue! Living on the Welsh coast, right at the bottom before it plops into the sea, she was a policewoman in Essex before being diagnosed with ovarian cancer at a very early age. 

I’ll let Sue tell you the rest of her story. 

Thanks to my amazing family and friends, I made a full recovery, left the police, met the man I then married and went to live in a small Welsh coastal town that thought it was a village.

I fell in love with it, along with the two adorable little boys I inherited. They inspired my passion for painting children, and they and their children inform the young characters in my books.

The beach formed a huge part of my life, and I trained as a beach lifeguard until I needed both hips replaced.’

But the op was successful, wasn’t it? Didn’t you and three pals go on a 45-mile charity walk? 

We raised over £10,000 for Cancer Research.

That sounds positive Sue. I’m just under three weeks into my recovery from my first hip op, so delighted to hear such success stories. 

Should I mention that afterwards I learned to ride a motorbike too?

Motorbikes might be a step too far, although I am dying to get back to riding horses again. However, if I remember correctly, wasn’t that what inspired your debut novel, Summer at the Art Café?

Yes, my heroine Lucy wins a purple motorbike, so has to learn how to ride it. I found learning to ride a huge but entertaining learning curve.

Can you tell us about The Sea Sisters Swimming Club.

Fifty-year-old police officer Fran Doherty thought she had a good few years left. But if a heart attack while dancing the night away at a disco in a sequin dress isn’t a sign to slow down, then she doesn’t know what is . . .

Fran’s waved goodbye to the force and hello to her pension. But who is she without her job? 

She decides to get away from it all in Llanbryn, an idyllic seaside village in Wales. It beats feeling sorry for herself and watching Homes Under the Hammer all day.

Fran’s soon taken under the wing of the Sea Sisters, a group of inspirational women of all ages and sizes who swim in the ocean. They challenge her to move on from the past and face her life-long fear of the sea.

And the strapping Wyn catches her eye. He appears to be the local troublemaker, but perhaps Fran’s got the wrong end of the stick . . .

The closer she gets to Wyn, the more she’s unable to deny the feelings he brings out in her. And Llanbryn feels more like home with every passing day.

Fran feels more alive than she has in years, but Wyn has his own emotional scars. Maybe they can help each other?

Well Sue, I can honestly say that the Sea Sisters Swimming Club is a lovely book, I enjoyed it from the word go. But thank you for popping over to my blog today to talk about it. I know your books always include nearly as much cake as mine, so while we’re chatting, what sort of drink and cake would you like?

Bara brith or Welsh cakes which would you go for first?

Thank you so much for hosting me, Anne! I do love a bit of Bara Brith, or as someone once called it, Barbara’s Breath. It made me laugh so much I included it in this book. 

Bacon/Sausage rolls – to butter or not to butter?

Depends whether I’m ‘on a diet’! I like mine with brown sauce, and really, if you use good quality smoked bacon, you can’t taste the butter so I generally go without. 

So now we’re sorted food wise, the first thing I have to say about this book is your lovely cover. You paint all your covers, haven’t you? Have you always had an artistic streak? Do you work from ideas or photos/pictures? Was this inspired by the book or the other way round?

I feel incredibly privileged that I’m allowed to use my own paintings on the covers of my books. I don’t know any other published authors who do this! 

The cover that’s shown on the Sea Sisters Swimming Club is my original idea, but had more bums showing. Emma, my lovely new publisher, loved it, but we both agreed that it might be censored and so I re-painted it in a slightly more decorous fashion. I think it’s turned out really well. I used several photos as reference, from an actual moonlight swim that I was at (with my swimsuit on!) and I think it really reflects the camaraderie and fun of the swimmers that night. 

I can’t remember a time when I didn’t paint or draw. My Mum, a talented artist, used to paint on the kitchen table while I was doing my homework. I grew up with the smell of turps in my nostrils! 

I began to paint in earnest when I moved to Wales. I’ve since exhibited widely in London and some top galleries, and appeared on television on the Sky Art Portrait Artist of the Year. I’m delighted to discover that art and writing inspire each other – I usually add something creative into my novels, and you’ll probably notice the arty descriptions about sunsets and the like, peppered across my pages!

This really felt like a personal book. Everything about your characters, especially Fran and Wyn felt so real and at times almost autobiographical. I guess we must mention the elephant in the room – the heart attack. Fran wasn’t the only one who suffered, was she?  I know that you went through the same, was this what gave you the inspiration for this book? 

I’d originally intended for my heroine, Fran, to be stabbed whilst on duty. When I had two heart attacks, three days apart  – and was filmed for 6 hours in the sea for a Visit Wales advert in the intervening days – I thought the subsequent six weeks in hospital (no visitors due to Covid) was such a useful research period that it would be a shame not to use it! And yes, I do know exactly how lucky I was. I was convinced it was a really nasty case of heartburn. I was still in denial when I was wheelchaired into the Cardiac Ward…

You had a rough time there for quite a while, but it’s lovely you’re out the other side and looking so well these days. Did you follow a similar exercise regime afterwards to Fran?

I used my own experience for Fran, so it was easy to work out those pesky timelines during the editing phase. I’d walked 45 miles following my first hip replacement, about 15 years ago, and following my open heart surgery, I only just about managed to wobble from one end of the ward to the other. I couldn’t believe how feeble I was. It was a long haul, and I’ve had to re-learn how to keep my heart rate within a certain level, as I have a tendency to go off like a rocket at everything. Just like Fran with her smartwatch, I barely tell the time with mine now. I use it to check my pulse during sea swims! 

You’ve taken our heroine Fran recovering from her operation and now retired from London and moved her to Llanbryn, an idyllic seaside village in West Wales. That’s a big change, people say moving house is one of the most stressful things you can do in your life, so if you were an estate agent describing the place, how would you sell it to potential buyers?

I think it would sell itself! What’s not to like? I want to live there!

You moved to Wales, and now speak Welsh, how did you find learning the language?

Once again, I used my own experience of moving from Essex to a small Welsh seaside village, and enjoyed Fran’s consternation with the language and customs. I couldn’t get my head then around the Welsh names of people or places, the obsession with rugby, how much more friendly everyone was, and how pubs were such a big part of the community. I found the idioms hilarious – ‘whose coat is that jacket?’ and ‘I’ll be there now in a minute’ used to crack me up. I’ve forgotten most of what I learned, although weirdly, I can always find the Welsh word for something when I’m scrabbling for a word in my French lessons. The further west you go in Wales, the more Welsh is spoken, which I think is rather lovely. 

I loved Fran from the off, she had me at Saturday night fever dance, I could so picture the disco and the 70s vibe outfits. Tell me about your favourite dance outfit?

My favourite dance outfit is anything that allows me to dance all night long, and usually trouser-based! I’d have loved to wear a sequin mini like Fran but I don’t have the legs for it. I made sure she did though! I’m usually first up and last off the dance floor. I do love a boogie! I’m also renowned for getting down at the Oops Upside Your Head song – so I gave that to Fran too. Perhaps this is why it seems so autobiographical… 

At the pizza class, you mention Fran tucking into a delicious sausage pie – I don’t suppose you have the recipe for it? I have been searching for most of my life for the perfect sausage pie recipe.

My gran used to make an amazing sausage pie – it was herby and really high, with mouthwatering pastry. She also used to make something delicious that she called ‘nutty slack’, which I think was everything she had in the pantry, as a sort of cake/bread. I have no idea how to make either of those things, and I wish I did! 

Wyn teaches Fran to swim, I loved some of the methods he used. You’re a trained swimming coach, what would you say was one of the first things you should learn?

When I retired from the police, I re-trained as a swimming teacher, and was usually used for the really tiny kids, because I never minded making a twit of myself on the poolside. 

I absolutely loved taking them from non-swimmers to confident swimmers, and there was a lot of barking like a dog and being a frog involved! I have taught adults, and recently a couple of friends have asked me to help them. It’s so rewarding to just make a few tweaks and see them getting so much out of their swimming.  

Floating and being comfortable in the water’s buoyancy is a first, to me, and it’s what Wyn teaches Fran. After that, it’s all about posture and being streamlined. Swimming is all about technique. 

Sea swimming regularly – Fran seems to enjoy it, but you can tell the truth here, would you really recommend it?

Oh, I absolutely love it. I am, however, very tuned into the dangers of tides and currents. I trained as a lifeguard and was club captain of the local lifeguard club

My cardiologist asked me not to go into the sea in the coldest months as it was playing havoc with my heart rate. She told me, ‘You’re not a normal person now, you have a lot of mesh work in your heart,’ so for once, I did as I was told. 

I’m not altogether sure I’ve ever been ‘normal’ though. 

I have other health issues, so these days I’m picky about when I go in – but I feel like I’ve earned the right to do that, these days! 

It was nice to revisit the arts café, and I realised it’s been a while since your last book, how did you find coming back to writing? 

I was still writing, but not in such a sustained way, while I was recovering. I didn’t have the energy for it. I needed all my reserves for healing. Fran’s story was always lurking in the back of my head and became my therapy. When I wasn’t fit enough to do things, I wrote about them instead. Writing about my ugly scar from collarbone to almost navel, helped me to come to terms with it, just as Fran does. And mine, like hers, is barely visible now. Amazing how our bodies heal. 

And the story made me laugh – almost as if it was writing itself. Good thing its meant to be funny. 

I hope it’s not going to be as long before the next one. So what is happening in the Sue McDonagh writing stable, what have you got planned? 

Book six is almost halfway through and continues the story of the Sea Sisters in Llanbryn. This one is also entertaining me – those Sea Sisters are just the most outspoken and funniest bunch, despite, like The Sea Sisters Swimming Club, the subject matter not being what you’d generally think of as comedy material. 

And did you know we had a super Blue Moon in the early hours of the 31st August? This year, apparently, it is in Pisces, so look out for the very best kind of endings, which may also become amazing new beginnings. Sounds to me the ideal time to get started on your next project.

Thanks for having me, Anne! Great questions, I’ve enjoyed rambling on  – and I’ll be in the sea with my mates, under that Blue Moon! XX

Thank you, Sue, for popping into chat today, sharing your amazing pictures and good luck with your new book. Xx

Buying Link for Sue’s new book:

Sue’s FB author page, which is lovely and chatty and where she often does giveaways around the same time as book launches!



  1. Jan Baynham

    What a fantastic interview! I learned even more about you, Sue. Thank you , Sue and Anne.

  2. jessie Cahalin

    This interview captures lovely Sue perfectly and was a joy to read.

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