The Dublin author reveals how her devastating debut was inspired by a tweet from a palliative care doctor and her late father’s inspirational attitude to helping children from disadvantaged backgrounds
As a primary school teacher, Fíona Scarlett has long known that 12 can be a magical age.
She wanted to capture some of that spirit in Finn, one of the two brothers who narrates her stunning and emotionally devastating debut novel Boys Don’t Cry.
“I’ve worked with that age group for years, and that just fed right into the writing,” she says. “You have 12-year-olds who would buy and sell you, but I wanted Finn to have an innocence about him.”
Finn’s innocence is under pressure from an early age. He and his 17-year-old brother, Joe — the novel’s other narrator — live in a Dublin tower block, known locally as ‘The Jax’ (or Bojaxhiu, named after “someone who inspired change”). Joe, a gifted artist and scholarship student at a prestigious private school, does a good job of protecting his brother — from grinding poverty, from domestic violence, from the criminal underworld happening right outside, and, ultimately, inside their home. But when Finn is diagnosed with leukaemia, Joe and his family are no match for the might of the disease.
“Writing a child’s voice is really hard, and I wanted to make sure that my character didn’t want him to sound babyish,” Scarlett says. “Yet I’ve known characters just like him, kids that were happy-go-lucky and slightly innocent. He’s not taking in what’s happening to him at all.”
All Finn wants to do is get better, grow his hair back, ring the bell at the hospital (which signals the end of cancer treatment) and get back to his school and his friends. It is not a spoiler to reveal that he eventually dies. What we know from the beginning of the story gives his hopeful and innocent perspective a cold, devastating dash of bitterness.
“It’s funny — revealing [Finn’s death] at the very beginning of the book was something I really debated with at the very first draft,” Scarlett says. “It was a gut reaction to let the reader know about Finn right from the beginning. I think had it not happened that way, it would have been a very different book.”
The idea for Finn’s story came, of all places, from a tweet. “I remember a palliative care doctor in South Africa had asked his patients what they would miss the most when they died,” she says. “That’s where the spark came from, and the first chapter hasn’t changed much at all since I wrote it.”
At the time, Scarlett had been writing humorous middle-grade books for children, and started a master’s in creative writing at the University of Glasgow — one of the few universities that offers a creative writing master’s online — with a view to writing a novel.
“It was only when I got a couple of drafts in that I became emotional about Finn’s arc,” Scarlett says. “Up to that point, I was just really conscious about not being patronising or overly sentimental for families who had been through this experience.”
A five-hanky novel Boys Don’t Cry may be, but Scarlett offers an empathetic, compassionate snapshot of tower block life; something that was important to her.
“My main priority was to be honest and real about [that life], but I was really conscious of making stereotypes,” she admits.
Scarlett grew up in Huntstown in the Dublin suburb of Blanchardstown and her mother came from Ballymun. From her current home in Clane, Co Kildare, she researched her novel by watching hour upon hour of documentaries about the inner city, gangland crime, Mountjoy Prison and the Ballymun Towers. She also read numerous blogs about parents and siblings who had lost a child to cancer.
“Grief is universal, and it doesn’t matter where you come from. It’s something that transcends class,” she says. “Yet where you’re from and your level of family support does influence the choices you get to make.”
She recalls the time her father, Paddy, a much-loved music teacher at Riversdale school in Corduff, Blanchardstown, had a student due to sit an important practical exam. When the student didn’t show, Paddy went to his home to investigate.
“It turned out there was no dad on the scene, the boy’s mum was in hospital and he had the choice to either sit the exam or make sure his siblings were OK,” Scarlett says. “When your choices are very limited, you do things very differently than you otherwise might.”
Scarlett didn’t realise it at the time, but her father’s experiences of working in a disadvantaged area would feed into her debut novel. Paddy Scarlett was hailed for his beyond-the-call-of-duty approach to teaching. Several of his pupils at Riversdale gained places to the DIT College of Music. Paddy died unexpectedly in December. and the unanimous praise being heaped on her book makes his absence all the more acute.
There is more of her father in the book than Scarlett even realised at the time of writing.
“He grew up off Dorset Street, which is the place he called home more than anywhere else,” she says. “When my dad was 11, my granddad learned that there was a man doing music lessons in Parnell Square, and he signed his kids up to get them off the street. Music changed my dad’s life. He went to college in his mid-30s, while we kids were at home at the time.”
She recalls her father talking about the Westies, a criminal gang who controlled the heroin trade in west Dublin in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
“We were surrounded by those stories when my dad was working in Corduff, but in many ways we also oblivious to it as well,” she admits. “Even though I grew up there, you don’t associate [the criminal activity] with your life.”
In Boys Don’t Cry, Joe is lured inexorably into the world of a gangland figure called the Badger. The teenager plans to pay off a debt for his friend Sabine by doing a simple drug run, but finds himself in over his head despite the anguished pleas of his mother, and the protestations of his father from inside prison. Soon, his scholarship is in jeopardy.
“He’s straddling two worlds,” Scarlett says. “He’s gotten the scholarship and he’s on the outside of his set of friends that he knows from primary school but he’s not in the private school’s world, either.”
Eschewing clichés about private schools, Scarlett says: “It was important for me to have a school principal who genuinely cares for Joe, and goes to his house and offers him grinds. As a teacher, you have to be so aware of the impact your words and actions can have on a kid, especially in a disadvantaged area. They will hold on to the idea that someone believes in you, and carry it with them.”
Ultimately, Boys Don’t Cry explores what it means to be male against the gritty backdrop of working-class Dublin, and what it means to be free.
“It’s really the brothers’ story, and I wanted everything else — the domestic violence, the drugs in the community, to be as subtle as possible,” Scarlett says. “The story is about Joe finding his way, and his struggles to not become his dad. The reality for him is that after death, life goes on. You’re just trying so hard to scramble and fit into the world when the person you love is gone.”
Boys Don’t Cry by Fíona Scarlett is published by Faber