Today’s guest on What Cathy Read Next is Simon Bourke, author of And The Birds Kept On Singing. I’m delighted that Simon has agreed to answer some questions about the book, its inspiration and his approach to writing.
About the Book
Description (courtesy of Goodreads): Pregnant at seventeen, Sinéad McLoughlin does the only thing she can; she runs away from home. She will go to England and put her child up for adoption. But when she lays eyes on it for the first time, lays eyes on him, she knows she can never let him go. Just one problem. He’s already been promised to someone else. A tale of love and loss, remorse and redemption, And The Birds Kept On Singing tells two stories, both about the same boy. In one Sinéad keeps her son and returns home to her parents, to nineteen-eighties Ireland and life as a single mother. In the other she gives him away, to the Philliskirks, Malcolm and Margaret, knowing that they can give him the kind of life she never could. As her son progresses through childhood and becomes a young man, Sinéad is forced to face the consequences of her decision. Did she do the right thing? Should she have kept him, or given him away? And will she spend the rest of her life regretting the choices she has made?
- Format: ebook
- No. of pages: 642
- Publication date: 26th January 2017
- Genre: Contemporary Fiction
To purchase And The Birds Kept On Singing from Amazon.co.uk, click here (link provided for convenience, not as part of any affiliate programme)
Find And The Birds Kept On Singing on Goodreads
Interview: Simon Bourke, author of And The Birds Kept On Singing
Without giving too much away, can you tell me a bit about And the Birds Kept on Singing?
The story begins with a young woman, a teenager, about to give birth to her first child, a child she intends to give up for adoption. However, when her child is born, her son, she changes her mind and decides to keep him. From there the story splits in two directions, one telling the story of how the boy’s life would have turned out had he been put up for adoption, the other how it would have went had he stayed with his mother. We follow this boy right the way through childhood, into his teens, until he is on the cusp of manhood, with the story switching back and forth between the two narratives. I guess it’s a story about ‘what might have been’ and how we often consider what kind of lives we might have had if certain situations had turned out differently. But in this instance the person in question has little choice in deciding how his life turns out.
What is the inspiration behind the book’s eye-catching title?
It refers to a specific line in the book, one which I obviously won’t mention here. But when you read it you will understand the significance.
The book focuses on a pivotal decision and depicts the consequences of each option. Did you always plan for the book to have this structure?
Yes. Like many first-time authors I had an idea rumbling around in my head for a few years before I actually sat down and started to write it. I always knew how the book would start and that its main concept would be this split narrative about the same boy, but when it came to writing the book it turned out to be a lot more difficult than I had envisaged. I was basically creating the same character twice, but in two different worlds as it were. That took a lot of effort and was a real challenge. In hindsight it was quite ambitious for a first novel but I’m happy with how it turned out.
The book is set in 1980s Ireland. Why did you choose this time period and location?
I’m not of those authors who can imagine or create great universes, so I pretty much rely on the things I know and the places I see when it comes to my writing. So, in this instance, having moved to Ireland from the UK in the nineteen-eighties, I decided to call upon those experiences when choosing a setting for And The Birds Kept On Singing. It’s always best to write what you know!
And The Birds Kept On Singing is your first novel. Can you tell us a bit about your writing journey?
It’s quite a long journey (I’m 38 now). I was an avid reader as a child but not very good academically so when I finished school I didn’t progress to third-level and ended up working in the usual kind of dead-end jobs young men without any qualifications end up in. Even then I always thought I’d write a book at some point but it was only in my late twenties that I really started to write properly. I started a blog (just social commentary pieces, humorous stuff) and applied to the University of Limerick (UL) to get into its journalism course. Having been accepted I started a four-year degree as a mature student at the age of 32. From there, and with plenty of encouragement, I flourished, quickly realising that I preferred writing long-form articles; news features, colour pieces, opinion pieces etc. After that, given that I was constantly writing and really enjoying it, it seemed a natural progression to start my first novel. And, over the course of writing And The Birds Kept On Singing, I discovered that although I enjoy journalism and see myself carving out a career in that field, novel-writing is my true love, it’s the thing which makes me happier than anything else and gives me a sense of satisfaction unlike anything else.
What was the biggest challenge you encountered when writing the book?
I suppose at this juncture I should explain how I found the time to write the book and the set of circumstances which led to me starting it. Just after I’d finished my first year at UL I was struck down by a mysterious illness, it was characterised by chronic fatigue, severe aches and pains, nausea and digestive problems. I went to doctors, specialists, got all the relevant tests, and they all came back negative. Without saying as much, the intimation from those medical professionals was that it was all in my head. Eventually, after three years of going back and forth and getting nowhere, I found an alternative physician who diagnosed me with ‘burn-out’ and set me on the road to recovery. But that was a very dark time in my life, I was mostly housebound and alone, unable to return to my studies, wondering what my future would consist of and whether I’d fulfil the dreams I’d set out for myself. It was during this period that I started my book, using all the spare time I had to give it my full attention. Having something to occupy my time and a means of expressing myself helped me cope with all the other stuff going on in my life. The challenge wasn’t writing the book itself but dealing with external factors and my ongoing health problems. Thankfully I’m now much better and can look back at that time as being a mixed blessing, one which, while horrendous at the time, helped produce a work that people seem to enjoy.
Is there a message you hope readers will take away from your book?
I would hope that it might remind people of the fragility of life and how you should never take those closest to you for granted. We should value our loved ones and let them know how much we love them, it’s an easy thing to do but often, through some strange form of emotional repression, we find it difficult.
Which other writers do you admire?
I remember reading The Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe and thinking “how can anyone possibly ever compete with that?” At that time I was still finding my way as a writer and thought that to be successful you had to emulate the best. I’ve since realised you must find your own way and your own voice as a novelist. I’m also a big fan of Sebastian Faulks, Birdsong and Engleby are two of my favourite novels of all time. Other novelists I admire include John Williams (Stoner), John McGahern and Khaled Hosseini. I like writers who can make me feel, writers who deal with damaged individuals and make me empathise with their plight without resorting to overly-sentimental themes and tropes.
Do you have any advice for other first time writers?
Don’t go into it expecting to make any money! The chances of success are very slim and it’s more likely to cost you money than make you any. Because of that you’ve got to be incredibly passionate and motivated about writing, you’ve got to want to work at it, persevere with it and submit yourself completely to it, all the while knowing that when its finished there might only be a dozen or so people who ever read your work. I know that’s an overly negative outlook but I think it’s the first thing any budding writer should be told. If, after that, they’re still interested then they’re clearly mad enough to see the process through to the end. In terms of the writing itself you definitely need to have a regime, whether it’s finding an hour or two in the morning before work or an hour or two at night when the kids are in bed, you really need to have a set pattern and stick to it. I find that if I even go a couple of days without working I lose my rhythm and find it difficult to get back into the flow when I return. Lastly, I would say that finding your own voice is of paramount importance. When I first started I was guilty of trying way too hard, peppering my work with flowery dialogue and grandiose words which just didn’t fit with what I was trying to do. So, just write in a style that suits you; all stories which flow and read well give the reader that same sense of joy regardless of the prose, and some of the best books of all time are also some of the simplest.
What are you working on next?
My next novel is going to be about depression and loneliness among a certain sub-section of men, those who have maybe been left behind by society. You see them all the time, thirty-somethings, unmarried, perhaps unemployed, ambling through life, desperate to find a meaning to their existence but incapable of doing so, perhaps consumed by whatever haunts them. I want to tap into those lives and document them. I’m sure it’ll be very uplifting!
Thank you, Simon, for such thoughtful and interesting answers to my questions. The book has received very enthusiastic reviews so I’m really looking forward to reading it.
About the Author
Having spent the majority of his teens and twenties wondering just what would become of him, Simon chanced upon a hitherto unrealised ability to write. His dreams of super-stardom were almost immediately curtailed by a punishing, unexplained illness which took away three years of his life. He has since returned to his studies and couples them with a weekly column for local paper, the Limerick Post. If you were to ask him to tell you which career he’d prefer; journalist or novelist, he would smirk to himself and say that it’s impossible to make it as a novelist these days. He would then smirk some more and say that journalism is a dying industry.
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