Interview with Paula Coston about her novel, ‘On the Far Side, There’s a Boy’
- What is On the Far Side, There’s a Boy about?
That’s a simple question with a complicated answer!
On the surface, it’s about a London career woman, Martine, from the 1980s to now who, perhaps for too long, isn’t sure that she wants a permanent partner or children. By the time she knows that she does want a family, she finds that it’s too late, and she has no easy means of having one. In 2013, at the end of the book, she is 64. Like 1:5 women in North America, the UK and Australia over their mid-forties today, she has ended up childless not by choice. This is a shocking statistic, but quite true – and the figure is going up for women approaching their mid-forties now. (I blog about this on TheNotMom, Life Without Baby and my own blogsite,http://boywoman.wordpress.com ).
Under the surface, it’s about clinging on to romance and need and letting them damage you. In this case, Martine’s romance is to have a child – a boy. A boy (not a girl) represents something exotic and different to her; the child she finds she especially wants is a little boy she used to write to on the Asian island of Sri Lanka, because that sounds wonderful and exotic too. She goes to try to find him, falls in love with the mountainous Kandyan region he lives in, but fails in her mission.
- In real life, you, like Martine in the novel, selected a Sri Lankan child as a pen pal through a charity. Why Sri Lanka?
Readers will have to read the book to get the answer to that question! There is a reason, quite similar to Martine’s reason (the London woman) ….
- For how long were you in touch with the Sri Lankan child?
From about 1986, when he was 5, until about 1989 or 1990, when he was 8 or 9. In the book, the woman, Martine, and the boy, Mohan, write to each other for longer, starting in 1983.
- What did you get to know about him and his family?
Not very much. His name was Denushka. I suspect that the family was told to keep their remarks general, so as not to give away where they lived! But he had a father who was a farmer and a mother, described as a housewife. And they lived some kilometres from the beautiful lake and temple town of Kandy, in a village. I have no idea in which direction. The money I gave the family went towards a well project.
- The communication between the two of you stopped. Why?
The charity wrote to me one day and said that that the civil war there had made their work in Sri Lanka untenable. They told me that I couldn’t write to him again, not even to say goodbye. They had never revealed his address, the name of his school, of his brother, mother or father, so I had no way of contacting them for myself. This was in the days before the internet! 1989 or 1990.
- Like Martine, you looked for him. How did that come about?
At first, I didn’t. I was just very disappointed, refused to write to another child in another country, as the charity suggested, and got on with my life.
Then I got the chance to go to Sri Lanka on holiday with my mother (her suggestion). This was February 2004, the same year as the Tsunami (which was later, that December). I was 49, past my childbearing years. I was now one of the childless statistics above.
I contacted the charity, which had changed its name, and asked if they could use their connections to try to find him for me. They said they would, but despite several ever more frantic phone calls to them, they hadn’t done so by the time I went for my flight. We were in Sri Lanka for two wonderful weeks. Everywhere I went, especially around the Kandyan area, I kept wondering if we had just passed the boy of my letters, now aged about 23. I asked the guide on the tour if he had any suggestions on how to find him, and he did ask a few people, but nothing.
When I got home to England, there was an answerphone message from the charity saying that they had found Denushka, and he was excited and ready to meet me. Of course, it was too late. But the charity wouldn’t let me write and explain, they said for reasons of privacy and data protection: they said they would do this for me. I was extremely upset.
I think that by this time, Denushka had come to represent all the children I have never had (I tried to adopt as a single adopter in the early 1990s, but the delays and bureaucracy got too much for me and I gave up, having nearly adopted about 5 children).
My hunt resumed when I went back in October 2012 to research a lot of final details, scene locations etc. for the book. This time, I had a personal guide, and the benefit of the internet, but we still failed to trace anyone with his name. I was again out there for 2 weeks.
- Why did you decide to write this book?
I have always written, but only succeeded in having books for the educational market published, although I had tried with two or three novels before. In 2010, I was on a writing holiday on the Greek island of Skyros. Our tutor was a published novelist, and she kept encouraging the group of writers to brainstorm ideas connected with families and children. In the end, we pointed out to her that none of us had children! (She did.) After that, she and I talked quite a bit about our lives, and I told her some of the above. She was mesmerised, and said that that was the story I should have been writing as a novel all along. I realised she was right!
- Has it been a cathartic experience in any way?
Very much so. It has shown me how much my lack of a partner and children has shaped my life, and I’ve wept quite a few tears working out how to turn real life into fiction, while confessing to the world it was fact. I’d still swear blind that Martine is not remotely like me, though! Having got a publisher has been a marvellous feeling. At last all the heartache of the last few decades seems to be worth something. I feel I am carrying the banner for all those women who wanted children but never had them.
- So would you say that your book is autobiographical in its content?
Oddly, yes but more, no. It isn’t part of me any more. It’s grown into something else and something more, something for many kinds of readers, especially the childless and the single – and those who love, or would like to visit, Sri Lanka, of course.
- How long did it take you to complete the book?
About three and a half years. I did a lot of reworking, as it was getting too long, and some of it wasn’t right. It has a whole layer of dream and ‘alternative reality’ to it, which was hard to perfect, but worth it. The moon, for instance, is very important in the story – as it is to Sri Lankans! And I had to keep the little boy’s sister in the centre of Martine’s tale.
- What has the response been to your book?
The book comes out officially on 27 June 2014 on Amazon (https://www.amazon.com/author/paulacoston ) (e-book and paperback). Of the people who’ve read it:
Jamila Gavin, the part-Asian English novelist who won the Whitbread writers’ prize for her own work and had one of her novels dramatised on Broadway, has said:
‘A new writer with an absorbing tale, Paula Coston gives us a wonderfully contemporary book with a very contemporary voice.’
Jody Day, who has written a book for childless women called Rocking the Life Unexpected, has said:
‘Paula Coston addresses what will, in time, be seen as one of the central themes of our time: what becomes of the woman who wanted to be a mother but it didn’t work out? On the Far Side, There’s a Boy is an important novel which finally fleshes out the interior world of the ‘nomo’ (not-mother) and shows how the themes of motherhood-or-not surface in unusual ways in the lives of modern women. She has set a high benchmark!’
The Sri Lankan press has taken up my story big time and is trying to help me find Denushka!
Friends and family and other, more impartial buyers are enthusiastic and warm about the book, but even those who know me are surprised at how deeply the theme of childlessness has run in my own life.
- What are your expectations from publishing this book?
I’d love my story to resonate with non-parents, especially women, all over the world. I’d also love more readers to get to know a part of Sri Lanka – Kandy and the Kandyan mountains – that has never featured in English language fiction before.
And finally…. I’m 59 now; and it would be the most wonderful gift and bonus if, somehow, the publication of the book enabled me to find Denushka, now all grown up and possibly a parent now himself, but to me still my little boy from long ago.
About the Author
Paula Coston’s real name is Paula Iley. She has written ever since, at the age of ten onwards, she was mentored, informally, by J.R.R. Tolkien, but until more recently has only published non-fiction. In common with the book’s main character Martine, she has worked with children and young people, and others who do, for much of her life. She lives in Stroud, Gloucestershire, in the UK.