Interview with Brian Conaghan

Brian Conaghan is the author of such award-winning books as The Bombs That Brought Us Together, We Come Apart (a verse novel co-authored with Sarah Crossan) and The Weight of a Thousand Feathers. Brian’s latest book, Cardboard Cowboys, is destined to become another award-winner. It’s an unforgettable read, with characters that stick with you long after you finish their story. You can read my review of Cardboard Cowboys here on the blog.

I caught up with Brian to ask about the importance of music in his stories, his characters and how he ensures readers connect with them.

– What inspired you to write Cardboard Cowboys?

I simply had the idea for this 12 year-old character, who evolved into Lenny. However, like all my books, my inspiration is always the same: find an engaging story with an interesting set of characters, chuck some obstacles in their way and tell their story in the most entertaining manner I can think of.

– Music plays an important role in the story, especially in the connections between people. It’s what Lenny’s Mum holds on to when Frankie goes away and what gives Lenny confidence. Does the music featured in the story hold some significance to you?

​Music plays a huge part of every book I write. I feel that it can provide an additional layer to certain characters; in many ways it galvanises Lenny and Bruce’s relationship. The music featured in the story is exactly the music my own mother was listening to when I was Lenny’s age so it’s hugely significant for me. Plus it still sounds amazing!

– Do you play music as you write to help you get in to the characters heads and set the tone for the story? If so, what did you listen to as you wrote Cardboard Cowboys?

When I want to capture a particular moment or tone within what I’m writing I tend to listen to music that corresponds to that mood. It helps to place me in that emotional space that is required. Music has been hugely important in my life for as long as I can remember, I always listen to it when I’m working. For the past few months it seems all I’ve been listening to is Vikingur Olafsson, Kevin Morby, Waxahatchee, Arab Strap and Mogwai…and always Bob Dylan.

– Lenny is a character that I immediately connected with. His voice sounds really authentic. Did he come to you fully formed or did you have to spend time fleshing his character out?

He came to me in many guises throughout the past few years, and his voice kept getting layered as these years trundled on. He is an amalgam of three things: my imagination, students I taught when I was a teacher and one of my closest school friends.

Cressida Cowell has said that ‘empathy is a vital skill, and books are the best, and most fun way to learn it.’ Cardboard Cowboys is a story that will teach readers a lot about empathy. How do you ensure that readers will connect with your characters and what they’re going through?

I always want my characters to be honest with how they are feeling, and how they might express themselves. Emotion manifests itself in many ways, be it laughter, sadness, silence, self-harm etc. Most of my characters over the course of my books have demonstrated such feelings and more. I think readers will always recognise snippets of my characters’ lived experiences, be it relationships with parents/peers or environmental.

– Lenny and Bruce are one of those fictional duos that are really memorable. Who are your favourite fictional duos?

​My favourite fictional duo, by a mile, is Vladimir and Estragon from Waiting For Godot. Beckett shows the possibilities of language through these two characters, and how dialogue functioned beyond anything I had ever read previously (and since). I know it’s essentially an absurdist piece yet the communication between the duo is so fluid and emotional, which is something I always try to aim for in my own work. Although, I’m certainly no Samuel Beckett. 

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