Susan Stairs on writing The Boy Between: ‘Following a debut is difficult’

Author’s second novel tells the story of 14-year-old Tim who arrives in 1980s Ireland for a fateful summer with his aunt and uncle

I’m new to this novel-writing game. I’m still learning how the whole thing works. As I tweeted recently to a forthcoming debut author who had referred to me as to a seasoned pro: “Come back to me when I’m on my tenth”. Now, I’m sure his tongue may have been embedded in his cheek when he described me thus (it was Twitter, after all) and there’s no doubt that having one novel under my belt means I’ve left the starting blocks, but I’m still feeling very much a newbie.

When I was writing my first, The Story Of Before, there was no pressure. At least, not from any external source. I pressured myself, of course, and never felt for even a second that I wouldn’t finish it, but there was an open-endedness to the whole endeavour. Looking back, I wonder how I kept going when there was no guarantee of me even getting an agent, never mind being published. Second time around, though I was on a road previously travelled, the destination wasn’t pre-ordained. Again, there was no surety surrounding publication but, now that I had an agent, I had someone to accompany me on my journey and provide valuable support whenever it was needed, which made a massive difference.

I began writing my second novel, The Boy Between, a few months prior to the publication of my first. The Story Of Before is told through the voice of an 11-year-old girl, Ruth – an observant and intelligent child trying to understand the world that surrounds her. I’ve always been interested in the ways in which adults and children interpret each other and how we can get things wrong as often as we can get them right and, having enjoyed exploring this theme first time around, I wanted to continue in the same vein.

I’m also fascinated by how much communications have changed over the years and how it was a lot easier to keep things under wraps in previous decades when we had to wait days or even weeks for news that we receive now in seconds. And so, armed with these themes, the kernel of a plot, and the names and vague personalities of several characters, I began to write. The first chapter came relatively easily. It’s 1983 and 14-year-old Tim has arrived in Ireland on the ferry from Holyhead to spend what will turn out to be a fateful summer with his aunt Mags and uncle PJ. So far, so good. My second journey on the road was underway.


Then, several months and 20,000 words later, I realised I’d taken a wrong turn. Some of the decisions I’d made surrounding characters and plot simply wouldn’t work. Cue a U-turn and the ditching of everything I’d written after chapter one. It was now October 2013. The Story Of Before had been published in June and I had been fortunate to receive very positive reviews. But the praise didn’t make me feel any more accomplished or confident with my writing. It made me question whether I could produce something that readers might enjoy reading as much as they had appeared to enjoy my first novel.

But I persisted and I headed down another road. I liked this one a lot better. I met new characters who lifted the story and carried it along at a speedier pace, with more humour and more soul. And more. I found a new thread in the voice of a young woman called Orla who, I realised, had been whispering to me for a while but whom I couldn’t clearly hear until she gave me the line: I’ve always known something was missing. A dual narrative novel. I hadn’t thought I would write one. But it felt right, and I could see how the switching perspectives could work.

By March, I had finished and then came the time to share it with my agent, Lucy Luck. Great! she said, but I think you should change the “Tim chapters” from first person to close third. She reckoned this would allow us to see more clearly his relationship with his aunt and uncle, and make his sections more distinct from Orla’s. And I then decided to change Orla’s sections from past to present tense. Added to that were Lucy’s ideas around the enrichment of characters – toning down the stronger traits of some, drawing out the quieter ones in others. I could see exactly where she was coming from and her suggestions made real and perfect sense.

I love the editing process; after so many months working away in solitude, it comes as a welcome relief to have this kind of collaboration. I heard recently of an established author who refuses to do any edits whatsoever, regardless of his publisher’s suggestions. Maybe I’ll revise my own opinion somewhere down the line and adopt a similar stance, but at this stage in my writing career, the editing process is one to which I thoroughly look forward.

I finally finished redrafting in August 2014. Or so I thought. By the end of the year – joy of joys – I had a publisher (Hachette Ireland) and when my editor, Ciara Considine, came on board, she gave me hugely beneficial advice, which has, I feel, served to further deepen and expand the breadth of the novel.

The Boy Between is now about to be published. Following a debut is always a difficult thing. There’s a reduced amount of the wide-eyed-wonder that is a feature of all things new. But this time around, though I’m armed with a little experience, there’s no less trepidation. If anything, because I’m aware of the whole process, there’s possibly more. I’ll never produce a debut novel again, but this is the first time I’ve produced a second. The leap of faith involved remains as huge.

The Boy Between is published today by Hachette Books Ireland.