How Do You Know You’re Getting it Right? Susan Stairs on The Boy Between
There were times while I was writing The Boy Between when I questioned what I was doing. There I was, day after day, secreted in my writing room, immersed in an imaginary world, almost oblivious to the real one that existed somewhere beyond the four walls that surrounded me. Was what I was writing any good? Should I continue? Could I? Would the novel be publishable? Would the characters I had created come to live and breathe in readers’ minds or would they stay locked in my own head for ever?
The level of uncertainty in this game can be crippling. There’s no pay packet at the end of each week that is at least some proof that what you’re doing is actually worth something. There is no boss to whom you must report, no review of performance or productivity, no colleague who might cover for you if you screw up. There is probably nothing about writing that is tangible, that is certain, that is guaranteed. Nothing except the fact that the writer is in control.
I guess that’s one of the reasons that make it attractive.
There was a lot going on in my own life while I wrote The Boy Between. My writing provided the escape that I needed, a break from the things I didn’t want to be thinking of. In fact, it was the writing that kept me sane. Retreating into a world where I was in total control helped me to cope with the times when I felt I had none. The little village of Lissenmore and its environs was a place I understood, a small oasis where things happened only if I wanted them to. And although its inhabitants had their own trials and difficulties, I, being their master so to speak, could see more or less how events were going to pan out in the end. I wasn’t worried about them. I had their backs. And yes, characters do have a tendency to go their own way at times, to do things you hadn’t expected them to. But the writer has the choice to agree or disagree with their actions. We can gratefully follow their lead, but we can also rein them in and call halt.
I think often about the reader while I write. I like to keep them guessing, to keep them engaged at all times – at least, that’s the intention and I hope I have managed to succeed. I live in terror of the thought that they might get bored and stop reading. I want them to continue turning the pages, to always be wondering ‘what happens next’. I want them to be entertained, to be immersed in the world I have dreamed up and to care about the people who inhabit it. This requires deep and sometimes exasperating thought. I am fired by the need to get things right.
And what, actually is ‘right’? We writers have no one who can tell us. We have to call it ourselves. How many times did I lie in bed pondering plot lines that would be believable? That would, ultimately, work? How often did I wonder about the names of my characters? Their physical appearance, their idiosyncrasies? Their failings, their strengths? Their surroundings, their past lives, what, even, they ate for their breakfast? But having these choices to make was a soothing relief, a distraction from the drama of the real world over which, it seemed, I had no sway.
There was a time, especially while I was writing my first novel The Story Of Before, when any anxiety would stall my creativity. I simply couldn’t write unless I was worry-free. An elderly artist friend once told me that while her husband was in hospital suffering from terminal cancer, she would return to her house alone in the evenings after visiting him and the only thing that took her mind off her troubles was painting. I found that so difficult to understand. How could her creativity flow while she had so much turmoil in her life? But now I get it. Her world was crumbling, everything she had known and loved was disappearing before her eyes and there was nothing she could do to halt it. But her paintings…they were mini-worlds whose outcomes she could command. In the production of her work she found relief and relaxation. They remained a constant into which destiny could not intrude.
When I look at The Boy Between now I find it difficult to believe that it’s here, an entity in itself, on the bookshelves, in readers’ hands. Of course, there have been others involved – my agent Lucy Luck, my editor Ciara Considine, my publisher Hachette Ireland – the writing of it is only one part of the journey. My hope is that readers will embrace it, that they will care for Mags and PJ, for Tim and Orla and that they will want to keep reading to discover ‘what happens next’. And that they will find in it an escape to another world.
(c) Susan Stairs
About The Boy Between
Mags keeps everything safe in the box. Letters. Postcards. Photographs. Each memento plays a role in the secret story that’s always in her thoughts. A story that can’t remain hidden forever.
When Orla is handed an envelope by her father, she is perplexed by what she finds – a photograph of her parents, taken the summer she was born. Her heavily expectant mother, unusually, is smiling. Between her parents stands a teenage boy, her mother’s arm lovingly around him.
Orla later asks her father about the boy’s identity, but he refuses to be drawn. Her mother’s mood is low again and he doesn’t want her upset. So begins the daughter’s investigation, back to the summer of 1983, and the story of a young English boy on holidays in rural Ireland. As the circle closes on a web of tragedy and deceit, the truth that emerges will impact on all their lives.
The Boy Between is an expertly crafted, suspenseful and ultimately hopeful story of family secrets, a fateful summer, and the long-buried events of a distant past.
The Boy Between is in bookshops now or pick up your copy online here!