Author Q&A:
Fíona Scarlett

Boys Don’t Cry

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Joe, 17, and Finn, 12, are brothers living in a Dublin tower block. Their father, Frank, works for a notorious gang leader and life is tough but artistic Joe is different and works hard to make sure Finn sees beyond the concrete yard below their flat. When Frank is sent to prison and Finn falls ill, Joe is forced to navigate his new role in a world with a predetermined idea of what it should be. Boys Don’t Cry is a moving debut from a new voice in Irish literature.

Tell us about the title of the book.
The book was originally called Someone Like You (which I’ve now nabbed for book two, mini spoiler alert) but I changed it when Finn states in the story that “Da says boys don’t cry”. There is such an undercurrent in this statement, the expectation of what men should be, the expectation of what society says is or isn’t acceptable for a man, particularly from certain backgrounds, to do. Joe struggles with this throughout the book, the weight of all these expectations, all these preconceptions, of who he is, or should be, to Da, to gang leader Dessie, to his school friends, to himself. Also, despite all the efforts that Joe and Ma make to shield Finn from the life they are living, he still believes that showing emotion is something to be ashamed of, that crying should be done in private, where nobody sees.

Tell us about the challenges of writing a debut novel while working full time as a primary teacher and having two children of your own. 
I didn’t always want to be a writer – it wasn’t even on my radar. I did music in college, then after a few years went on to do primary school teaching, I married at 25, had my two children by the time I was 29, none of which I regret. It wasn’t until my mid-thirties that I discovered that I wanted to be a writer, and I’m 40 now. I suppose if I look hard enough, the writing bug was there. I always loved reading, I lived in our local library, I loved English in school, and although I can’t remember any of the written element of my leaving certificate curriculum, I remember the plays, and the poetry. I was, and still am, heavily drawn to characters. I adore story, in all its forms – books, plays, films, music, art, people – so trying to become a storyteller was probably a natural next step. I do not write every day – I can’t – but I do snatch the spaces when and where I can, in the evening when the kids are in bed, in the car as I’m waiting for some extra-curricular activity to end (longing for that life again), in the early hours of the weekend. Parts of this book were even written on the toilet seat of a Premier Inn in London while the rest of the family were sleeping. But I wouldn’t have it any other way. I once had someone comment that I shouldn’t have that I’m a mother in my bio as it diminishes my work. I held onto that for a long time, until I decided, feck that, I’m proud of what I’ve achieved, carving a space for myself as a working mother, showing my children what it means to just keep at it, and to go and follow those dreams.

The Dublin community Finn and Joe grow up in is captured with such authenticity. Does it reflect your own background? 
A lot of the setting is a mix of both my parents’ and my own background. My Da called inner-city Dublin his home, my Mam is from Ballymun, just outside the city, which housed Dublin’s only tower blocks, now since demolished. The community in which I grew up, Dublin 15, had a growing drug problem, in which a criminal gang, known as the Westies, who controlled the heroin trade during the late 1990s, early 2000s in West Dublin, were based. Drug use was just so normalised in our community, you knew who the heroin addicts were down the back of the bus, there was a drug rehabilitation centre (the first voluntary drug treatment service of its kind in Ireland) next door to the community school I went to, and it is only as an adult, looking back, that you see just how prevalent drugs were in the community at the time. Some of the scenes are lifted directly from my childhood – the food, the pub scenes, the graffiti that plasters the walls of the stairwell were plastered instead on the walls of our local newsagents, the names given to the tower blocks were names given to our year group classes at school. Although, I’ve found out since hearing the audiobook recording that Bojaxhiu [the tower block the boys live in] is not pronounced Bee-jacks-ooo like we were told, so now my joke about it being otherwise known as “the Jacks” falls completely flat. But, sure, what can you do, it gave me a laugh, and now there’s another story to tell.

What did employing child and teenage narrators in the form of Joe and Finn allow you to do creatively?
Finn in particular allowed me to explore some of the darker themes in the book in a more subtle way. A lot of Da’s violence towards Ma, for example, is seen through Finn’s eyes, where the reader can see the reality of it but which he has not quite grasped yet. He is also the most accepting character in the book, he takes everything at face value and lives in the now – again this comes hand in hand with childhood a lot of the time. Joe is at the other end of the scale, on that cusp of adulthood, trying to figure out where he fits into the world, thinking that if he just keeps his head down he can escape the flats and his Da. There is a myth out there that to be young and male is to have agency, but studies show that of males and females from very similar backgrounds, with very similar family networks, it’s young males who are far more likely to fall into educational disadvantage. Joe allowed me to explore this further – the idea of choice and if we ever really have free will or if our circumstances limit the choices made available to us. It also allowed me to explore how criminal gangs insert themselves into communities like this, and target young males in particular to infiltrate into their system.

What does the book tell us about cycles of abuse in families? 
I was very conscious when writing the character of Da in particular that he was not a cardboard cut-out of what male violence is. I did not want this book to speak for all families that experience domestic abuse – this is a snapshot of one particular family, at a particular time, in a particular situation. I did not want to patronise or condescend and wanted the approach to be very subtle. We get small details of Da’s background and how he came to be under Dessie’s control. This was not done to explain away Da’s actions but to show the reality of his situation – where the trauma of his youth now lies. I also wanted to show the possibility of Joe in the criminal world. He has the potential in him to become the next Dessie. I wanted to show that Godfather moment, where Michael Corleone is in the toilet of the restaurant with a gun, having to make a decision on whether to kill the men who attacked his father, that choice determining whether he was going to cement his life in the family business or not. Joe struggles with this throughout the book, not wanting the life of his Da, but also his intrinsic belief that somewhere deep down, he wants to be.

Ireland is sometimes called a classless society. Is this a blind spot in understanding how the country works? 
I do somewhat agree with this. In Ireland, particularly in the 1980s and early 1990s there was massive unemployment. For the majority of people money was tight and most could be deemed working class. I think a class system can also completely diminish or exclude rural poverty, of which there is plenty. There is definitely, in Dublin in particular, a postcode discrimination – certain assumptions and preconceptions are made based on where you are from. I get told “you don’t sound like you’re from Mulhuddart” but what is someone from Mulhuddart supposed to sound like? I also think there is a danger, if designating an area as disadvantaged based on postcode alone, of children falling through the cracks. What about those living in the right postcode but in direct provision, in a hotel room or homeless because of a lack of social housing, or those whose family have lost their jobs and can’t pay their bills but you’d never know it from the house or car in their driveway. It feeds into the assumption that everyone who lives in a designated disadvantaged area is disadvantaged, which then just continues the cycle of judgement and postcode prejudices. I think we need to be able to find a way of supporting all of those living in disadvantage, which a class system just doesn’t wholly address.

Are you inspired by Irish literary traditions and which writers do you credit as influences?
Yes, most definitely. I am so lucky to be surrounded by a wealth of incredible Irish literature. I am particularly drawn to writers who write in the language and colloquialisms of communities. The likes of Roddy Doyle, Kevin Barry, Maeve Binchy, Marian Keyes, Marina Carr, Martin McDonagh, Conor McPhearson. But my greatest influence would be Donal Ryan. I remember reading A Spinning Heart and it was like a lightbulb moment, realising that there is beauty in the language of the everyday, and learning to trust your gut and your own writing voice.

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