Fiona Scarlett: Boys Don't Cry

Fíona Scarlett’s powerful, astute debut novel Boys Don’t Cry explores the love between two brothers and the impact of tragedy upon them. Set in inner-city Dublin, where drugs and the threat of violence are never far away, it’s written with great empathy and sensitivity. Boys Don’t Cry was published in April, 2021.

Hi Fíona! Huge congratulations on the very recent publication of Boys Don’t Cry! How did you celebrate on the day, and what plans have you made to promote your novel in the coming months now that COVID-19 restrictions are easing?

Thank you so much, I had a beautiful online launch with the wonderful Louisa Joyner at Faber, but also had a day’s work to put in before that. My home was turned into a florist for the day and I also received some beautiful gifts from family and friends, and who knew how many surfaces your book cover could be printed on! I’m based in Ireland and we are still in full lockdown here – things are slowly beginning to open back up, so I’m very much looking forward to being able to connect with readers in person, whether that is through readings or events in the local libraries, festivals or bookshops. Being able to connect with readers is the most important part of promotion for me.

Where did the inspiration come from for Boys Don’t Cry?
On a February evening, just over three years ago, I was happily procrastinating on Twitter when I came across a post by a paediatric palliative care doctor. Here, he had listed what his young patients said they would miss the most when they died. It was an incredibly powerful and moving Tweet, and after reading, I immediately opened up the laptop and wrote the first chapter of Boys Don’t Cry, which has remained virtually unchanged from then till now. Although that Tweet sparked this story, the true inspiration lies in my Da, who called the inner city home, who attended, along with his brother, free music lessons in the heart of Dublin (set up by a man who believed that music should be accessible to all), who went to university in his thirties, with three young children at the time, to train as a secondary-school music teacher so that he could give the same opportunities to the young adults in his care that he himself was given, who believed without question that one person could make a difference, and that we should all at least try, who died on the 10th December, 2020 at the age of just 66. So even though all the excitement and joy surrounding this novel is extremely bittersweet, making my Da’s absence all that more visible, I cannot think of a better tribute to him and his life.
Let’s talk about the boys, Finn and Joe – bright, observant, and both at critical junctures in their lives. They narrate the story, Finn before the tragedy, and Joe after it – where did their voices come from, and how did you tackle writing the most difficult parts for both the boys?

The voice comes from my lovely Dublin. I think there is a very unique humour, and a way of saying things, that sets Dublin apart from anywhere else, the people, the quick wit, the charm, and I wanted to make sure that I did it justice, trying to get the rhythm of Dublin speech patterns exactly right on the page, so that you could hear their voices as you read. The biggest area of research for the book came around Finn and his diagnosis. It is really important to me as a writer to remove myself as much as possible from the character, to let the characters speak for themselves, and allow space for the reader. I wanted it to be an honest and authentic portrayal of a family going through this particular event. I read hundreds of blog posts from children, parents and siblings going through what this family did, and more than anything I wanted this to read and feel like a real experience.

Finn’s innocence and dawning awareness of what is going to happen to him is very moving. Why did you choose to reveal the end of Finn’s story early on, and did it enable you to write his character with a clearer eye?

This is a great question, and one that I debated over several times. As mentioned earlier, the spark of inspiration for this story came from a Tweet, the first chapter of Boys Don’t Cry came as a direct result, and the story was just there, already fully formed. It was always going to be that we knew what happened to Finn at the beginning. It was only deep into the editing process that I questioned should I leave it till nearer the end, but if I had done that, it would have been a completely different book. I always say that Finn’s sections just wrote themselves, I found them much easier to write than Joe’s, and part of that is because his story arc is so inevitable. It also allowed the heart of the story to come through more strongly, I think, as the tension does not lie in what happens to Finn, but in how it impacts on everyone else as a result.
We also loved Sabine, Joe’s stalwart friend and supporter who tries to keep him on the right track – why did you choose to include her?

I truly believe that one person can make a difference, that if you have even just one person in your corner, believing in you, no matter what, it brings a hope, even in the darkest of times. With Joe, we can see several people in his life who want to try to make a difference. We see it with his principal Mr Broderick, for example, who wants the very best for Joe, but it is Sabine who is his constant, who will never go anywhere, who understands him more than he even knows himself, who will be there for him no matter what. It was also important to me to show a powerful friendship, without it meaning more than what it was.

In addition to your writing, you are also a full-time primary-school teacher – did your experiences influence Boys Don’t Cry, and what does a typical writing day look like for you?
I am 17 years working in education, and I have a masters in early childhood education, and have two children of my own, so I am constantly surrounded by children, which definitely influenced me when trying to create an authentic child’s voice, particularly with Finn. I don’t think I have a typical writing day. I don’t write every day, as with work and family commitments I can’t, but I do try to carve the time to write when and if I can, in the early mornings before everyone else is up, in the late nights when the children are in bed, in the car waiting on an extracurricular activity to finish, and all those slivers of time add up.

Which novelists inspired you to write, and what debut novels have you enjoyed reading recently?

There are loads of debuts that I adored recently – Kololo Hill by Neema Shah, When They Find Her by Lia Middleton, Line by Niall Bourke, How Much of These Hills is Gold by C Pam Zhang – and many more to look forward to as well. I have so many writing inspirations, but my biggest has to be Donal Ryan. I remember reading The Spinning Heart, and it was like a lightbulb moment for me. Seeing the beauty in the language and the people of the everyday. Storytelling at its very finest.

What were the best – and worst! – pieces of advice you were given as you began writing your novel?

The very best piece of advice I was given when writing the novel is that you just have to sit down and write it, no one else is going to be able to do it for you. I know that sounds absolutely ridiculous, but it’s about getting that bum in the chair when you can, and adding to those words little by little.

And the worst is that you have to write every day. I know that both of these contradict each other, but when starting out, with a job and two children, sometimes there isn’t the headspace to write every day, and that is more than okay. There are enough things in life to feel guilty about without having to feel guilty about not having the time to write, too. And remember: thinking about your story is feeding the writing, reading a few lines of poetry or a short story or a novel before you go to bed is feeding the writing, having a chat about some gossip you saw down the shop is feeding the writing, listening in on the conversation at the back of the bus is feeding the writing, watching your favourite TV show and trying to predict what comes next, or connecting to the characters, is feeding the writing, as you are immersing yourself in story and craft without even consciously being aware of it. So give yourselves a break.

And looking forward, what can we expect from your next writing project?

Book two is set in a fictionalised suburb of working-class Dublin, based on where I grew up. It is set in a hairdressers and takes place over one day. Two childhood friends, who become much more, decide to emigrate to the States when they are 19, but in the end, he goes, she stays, and now 20 years later he’s back, and she has a decision to make.

I’ve a very rough draft completed and I’m hoping to have it polished enough to send to my agent very soon.

Finally, have you any tips for anyone thinking of entering the Caledonia Novel Award 2022?

Just go for it. You have absolutely nothing to lose, and everything to gain, and entering it is making a commitment to yourself as a writer, showing that you want to start putting yourself out there as a writer, being able to admit to yourself, that yes, this is what I want to be. That is everything, whether you win, lose or draw.
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