Clare Boylan began her literary career as a journalist for the now defunct Irish Press. In 1974, while working for Ireland's Evening Press, she won the Journalist of the Year Award. She also worked as editor of Image magazine and lent her considerable style and elegance to that glossy lifestyle publication. Her first book, the novel Holy Pictures, was published in 1983. She went on to complete six additional novels, several collections of short stories, two works of literary nonfiction, and an impressive body of criticism.
The book for which Boylan is best known is Emma Brown, a brilliant, imaginative continuation of a 20-page novel fragment left behind by Charlotte Brontë. Before tackling the project, Boylan spent countless hours in painstaking research, immersing herself in the social conventions of Victorian London (where the novel takes place) and striving to re-create the subtle nuances of Brontë's unique literary voice. She succeeded admirably. Published in 2003, the book received lavish praise, especially for its pitch-perfect tone. Writing in the New York Times, reviewer Miranda Seymour raved, "Emma Brown is a powerful and magnificently written novel that does ample justice to the two brief chapters from which it sprang."
Boylan died on May 16th, 2006, from ovarian cancer, a disease she had battled for several years.
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In our interview, Boylan revealed some interesting anecdotes about herself:
"As children my sisters and I read late into the night by torchlight. When the torches gave out we made up our own stories, cliff-hanging serials that always stopped at the most spine-tingling moment."
"I became a professional writer because it was a hidden profession. I always looked too young and too small for a proper job. As a teenager I got a summer job in a grocery shop, but I looked so unimpressive that I was put in the back cutting the stalks off cabbages. The two old ladies who ran the shop would not even let me out to join the street parade for John F. Kennedy, who was visiting Dublin. I have never forgiven them for that."
"My first poem was published when I was 16. It was called "First Love." It earned me ten shillings and a fan letter from a handsome older man (with a blurred photo enclosed) who wrote poems about his wartime experiences. After a fever of correspondence we agreed to meet. What a shock! I couldn't believe anyone could be so old. He had neglected to mention that his service was in World War One. I never wrote another poem, but I did write a short story about the meeting and that set me on the path to fiction."
"Holy Pictures was my first novel, published in 1983. Home Rule, published nine years later, was inspired by an old photograph I found in a friend's house. I realized it fitted exactly my image of Nan's mother, Daisy, and knew I had to tell the story of Daisy's childhood and early marriage."
"I have always loved walking, talking, and reading and I like interesting ways to exercise. I am currently learning to box -- great for me, but a challenge for my instructor teaching a skinny, middle-aged five-footer. Next project is to learn to ride a bicycle. I have been driving since my 20s but never learned to cycle."
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In the summer of 2004, Clare Boylan took some time out to talk with us about some of her favorite books, authors, and interests.
What was the book that most influenced your life or your career as a writer -- and why?
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë -- a breathtaking tale and a cry for revolution to girls isolated by their intelligence or plain appearance. I was 13 when I first read it. I don't think I've ever been the same since.
What are your ten favorite books, and what makes them special to you?
The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields, The Accidental Tourist by Anne Tyler, and The Shipping News by E. Annie Proulx -- I love these three superbly written books because they illustrate the humanity and profundity of ordinary lives.
Carol Shields once very flatteringly described my writing as "serious humor," and it is in this category that I would place Good Behavior by Molly Keane and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark, both incisive, witty books full of insight and dark undertones. Molly Keane wrote her dazzling dark comedy at the age of 75. The story of an Anglo-Irish family in decline, it is narrated by the only daughter, Aroon, who, deprived of love, grows monstrously selfish and obtuse. I would recommend it for its brilliant dialogue and masterly mixture of comedy and tragedy -- and perhaps because I have adapted it as a drama for BBC radio.
I like an offbeat love story, and two longtime favorites are A Russian Beauty by Ivan Turgenev and, Transparent Things by Vladimir Nabokov. The Turgenev is the story of a young boy's infatuation with a capricious Russian princess, and the Nabokov is about a plain man in love with a beautiful girl.
Another remarkable love story is The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald, about the infatuation of the 18th-century German novelist Novalis for a 12-year-old girl. It is the sort of theme that could be sleazy, but it is a wonderful tale of illusion and heroism.
There are so many women's books I love that I can't even list them. Contemporary women writers have retrieved sex from its lonely literary position as arbiter of good and bad women, but some men have, too -- especially John Updike. I would have to pick his The Witches of Eastwick.
Can I have one more? I'll choose Disgrace by J. M. Coetzee, a stunning and disturbing short novel about the visitation of past deeds on contemporary white South Africa.
What are some of your favorite films, and what makes them unforgettable to you?
Almost anything with Bette Davis or Lauren Bacall. There just aren't any dames on the screen any more. Who could resist Bette Davis's last line in Now, Voyager when she and her married lover settle for a platonic friendship: "We have the moon. Why look for the stars?"
I have a long-standing love affair with both Some Like It Hot and Tootsie. I have a soft spot for transformation movies (I have an ambition to script one someday), especially ones like Tootsie, where the character discovers himself by being his opposite.
The Wages of Fear and Jean de Florette are two superb French studies of human nature, where even at its most unappealing, it is compelling and poignant. Then there are great redemptive studies of humanity in films like Babette's Feast, The Piano, and Fellini's Amarcord. I also adored John Huston's lovely, elegiac film of James Joyce's story, The Dead, which is about the beauty of family, even when failed or dysfunctional.
Gustave Flaubert once wrote to a friend that one should not read for education or entertainment but in order to live. I feel the same way about my favorite movies.
What types of music do you like? Is there any particular kind you like to listen to when you're writing?
Alas, I can't write with any distractions. If I put on music I stop to listen to it. But I am inspired by music, especially the String Quartet in C by Schubert; any jazz, but particularly sung by Billie Holiday; any opera, but especially sung by Maria Callas.
If you had a book club, what would it be reading -- and why?
Am I allowed to pick my own novel? I think Emma Brown is a perfect book club choice. There are two authors for the price of one, as the book is a continuation of Charlotte Brontë's brilliant unfinished last novel. I have tried to run my plot parallel of various developments in Charlotte's life, as she herself did in her fiction, so there are lots of good guessing games for the reader, one of whom recently told me she had to put her life on hold for three days as she could not put it down. Critics have been hugely supportive, including Miranda Seymour in the New York Times Book Review, who wrote: "Emma Brown is a powerful and magnificently written novel that does ample justice to the two brief chapters from which it sprang."
What are your favorite kinds of books to give -- and get -- as gifts?
Last Christmas a friend asked for a gift of the books I had most enjoyed in the previous year. It meant a hard parting but she assured me it was a terrific gift. As it turned out, all were memoirs: the quite stunning Borrowed Finery by Paula Fox, about the tossed-about child of a Hollywood scriptwriter and his beautiful, selfish wife; Too Close to the Falls by Catherine Gildiner, an utterly joyful childhood recollection by a woman who was diagnosed as hyperactive at the age of four and whose eccentric local doctor prescribed full-time employment in her father's pharmacy; Bad Blood by Lorna Sage, about a family with a dark secret; and Giving Up the Ghost by Hilary Mantel, about an intelligent little person badly cast in the role of childhood.
I enjoy reading and writing about young girls and I adore memoirs -- especially the kind where the country of childhood is reestablished in all its strange perfumes and shocks and one is given a delicious little hand to lead one along its paths.
Do you have any special writing rituals? For example, what do you have on your desk when you're writing?
I used to have a lovely orange cat called Horace Woolington, who slept in my paper box on my desk while I worked, but my current cat is far to irritable for desk furniture. Apart from a computer and a cup of coffee, I always have a good fountain pen and handmade notebooks from Siena, as I still write a good deal by hand. I like to get down to work first thing, still in dressing gown. There is an old Arab saying, "Rise early, for the hours before dawn are stolen from paradise" -- and I think that it's so true for creative work. You have to get going before the phones start ringing. I work until my brain starts howling for mercy, and then I do the dull business things, and then I phone my friends, and then I go for a long walk.
What are you working on now?
Having just recovered from ovarian cancer [Ed. Note: Boylan died in May, 2006] , I'm working mainly on growing my hair! But I'm longing to start work on a new novel. Lately, I find, when I'm looking for a novel to read, I think: "I'd love a great mystery -- not a thriller, but a spine-tingling psychological mystery like Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca. I do actually have a good idea, but it's not quite ripe for picking. Recently, in bed, I thought I would just love someone to tell me a wonderful story, so I decided, when I start my next book, I'm going to sit down and listen for the storyteller. This is probably a legacy from having "worked with" Charlotte Brontë on my latest novel. Charlotte had a great sense of intimacy in the storytelling. Each reader could feel it was just for her.
Many writers are hardly "overnight success" stories. How long did it take for you to get where you are today? Any rejection-slip horror stories or inspirational anecdotes?
I started out as a journalist in the '70s and then began writing short stories. I never meant to write a novel and only did so when a publisher said he would publish my collected stories if there was a novel. My first novel, Holy Pictures -- about children growing up in a religion-steeped Dublin of the 1920s and becoming obsessed by the new cinema films -- became a surprise success in America, as well as England and Ireland and various other countries. After that I thought novel writing would be plain sailing, but seven novels and four volumes of short stories later, I would term it difficult but worthwhile.
What tips or advice do you have for writers still looking to be discovered?
It's never too late. Think of Molly Keane (brilliant novel at 75). The other thing is, write for the pleasure and not the money. You have to learn a different way of budgeting as a writer. The best advice I ever got was from the Irish writer Jennifer Johnston, who said that writers are nearly always poor so the only way to have a good time is to divide your earnings into income and "fairy money." Fairy money is unexpected earnings sale and should go on champagne or nice dinners out or little holidays, depending on size. With Emma Brown the fairies were very good, and I was able to buy myself a little writing house in France. Real success as a writer depends far more on keeping the vitality and pleasure in your work and the originality, rather than on immediate recognition and sales. And I promise you, although all writers crave public success, it doesn't give the same buzz as a delight in what you are writing.
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