Flying Tips For Flightless Birds is one of my favourite books of 2018. It has everything: memorable characters, themes everybody can relate to and bucketfuls of humour. If you love contemporary YA look no further. This one is special. Kelly McCaughrain has kindly agreed to tell me some more about the story. Huge thanks to Kelly for your time and insight into the novel. I totally love your answers!
About the book:
Finch and Birdie Franconi are from a circus family. Now the family business is in trouble, it is up to the twins to save it with their flying trapeze act. The twins are also a double-act at school. It has never mattered to Finch that everybody calls him a freak, because he and Birdie have always done their own thing.
When Birdie suffers a terrible accident, Finch must find a new double-act if he is going to save the family circus school. Can Finch overcome his feelings about school and new-boy Hector? Will he ever get over James Keane? Can Hector’s Dad accept the son he has?
A warm and witty YA novel about sexuality and identity.
Check out my full review here. Q and A:
Hi Louise, thanks for having me on your lovely blog! This is my very first blog interview so I’m very excited!
Your story deals with a teenager’s feelings around coming out. What were your priorities in writing a coming out narrative?
My priority was never to write a coming-out story, it was to write a love story. But the very unfair fact is, if you’re going to write about a young-teen LGBT romance then coming out is probably going to feature because it just does in real life. It’s the unavoidable roadblock in the way of your first relationship, and I think it’s hugely unfair that if you don’t come out, then you don’t get to do the teen romance thing like all your peers, or certainly not in the same way. I remember telling my parents I’d been asked on my first date by a boy, and that was hard enough (it was awful!), because you’re basically admitting private things about yourself – you like someone, you’re thinking romantic thoughts – things that are really no one’s business. It must be so much worse if you think your parents might react really badly.
So I knew it was going to feature coming out and I did feel strongly that I wanted the characters to be young. I wanted them to get started on their love lives at the same time as all their peers, not in late adolescence or university or even later, which is the case in many novels about coming out. If there was a priority, it was maybe that.
But beyond that, I didn’t really have conscious ‘priorities’ in mind. I wanted it to be sensitive and realistic, but I’d have wanted that for any story, LGBT or not. The whole point is that Finch’s feelings are no different to any teenage boy, so I didn’t try to approach the story any differently than I would that of a straight kid, and I didn’t think about it too much while I was writing it.
Birdie has an accident part way through the narrative. What does this mean to Finch (beyond stress and fear for his sister)?
Finch and Birdie are not only brother and sister, they are twins and trapeze partners, which means their lives really revolve around each other and always will. So Birdie’s accident has huge ramifications for Finch in that sense.
I’ve always found twins interesting. I’m not sure I’d have liked to have one because I’m a bit of a loner, but on the other hand, it might be like having a built-in best friend. But it must be weird if your identity is built around being one half of a pair; twins are so often known as ‘The Twins’, even within their own families. How do you know who you are by yourself?
And I think that period when teenagers start dating must be especially weird for twins who are close, because it’s the beginning of a process of separation. Birdie’s accident is the start of that process for Finch, and it’s the start of him discovering who he is and who he can be without her.
Birdie expresses her feelings through a blog. Why did you choose to tell her part of the story through blog posts?
I chose to let Birdie speak through a blog partly to differentiate her voice from Finch’s, and partly because it felt like a very natural way to impart all that information about circuses. Finch and Birdie wouldn’t sit around talking about circuses, that wouldn’t have felt natural. And if I’d just made Birdie tell the reader all that stuff directly, it would have been boring. But writing it as blog posts meant I could make it entertaining, funny, and believable. So structurally, it was very useful.
But the main reason I used the blog was that, although a lot of the posts appear to be about circus history, in fact Birdie is using them to describe her feelings about her role in the circus. It’s her sneaky way of telling Finch some things he needs to hear but doesn’t want to hear. I think it’s a strange phenomenon that, even though the internet is so public, it can be easier to say things online than in person, because it feels sort of anonymous. It’s also probably what I’d do if I had something important or difficult to say to someone. I’d prefer to put it in writing than try to have a conversation about it, I just find writing easier than talking.
Please can you tell us more about why you chose a circus setting? What does it represent within your story?
I love circuses. I’ve been trying to learn to juggle since I was 16 and I’m still crap at it (I have infinite sympathy for Hector). I love the atmosphere of circuses and the more I read about them, the more I admire them.
The reason people run away and join the circus is that they have always been a place for outsiders. Circuses have been around since the 18th century, when social roles were even more rigid than they are today. People who were severely limited in mainstream society – women, LGBTQ people, people with disabilities or disfigurements, people of colour, people from poor backgrounds – could not only have a career in the circus, but be the star of the show. Talent and hard work were all that mattered.
It was no utopia, of course. The life was rough, they worked hard for their money, they could never settle down, there were sometimes violent clashes with local people or rival circuses, but it must have been preferable to many people than life in the mainstream. Perhaps because they got to be themselves.
In Flying Tips, the circus is a refuge for Finch because it is a completely accepting space. He is loved there for his uniqueness, whereas at his high school he’s rejected because he’s not exactly like everyone else.
Finch is hung up on popularity, and sometimes forgets to value his friends. Please can you tell us more about why you chose to give him this flaw?
I don’t think Finch ever wanted to be the most popular boy in school, but when he experienced rejection by someone he cared about, he reacted by going in the opposite direction and deliberately making himself a total outsider. But really I think he was just hurt, and the reason he tends to be unfriendly is that he’s trying to keep people at a distance because he’s afraid to trust anyone else in case he gets hurt again. It can be brave to step outside the mainstream and be a loner, but it can sometimes be even braver to let people into your life.
- Which role would you choose in the circus?
I’d be torn between Trapeze and Clown. I honestly think Clown would be harder and more rewarding.
- Finch and Birdie wear some amazing outfits. What would your most daringoutfit look like?I love vintage! This is a picture of me at a Jubilee party wearing a tea-dress, stockings and a 1940s headscarf. (Can I stress that the cigarette was part of the costume, I do not smoke!!!) But, unlike Birdie, I wouldn’t dress like that every day, because hair and make up are so time consuming! Actually, I think if I was really brave, I’d just wear men’s clothes all the time because they’re so comfy.
- Hector’s clowning draws attention to himself in a good way. What would you like to be noticed for?
My writing. I have lots of hobbies, but I’ve never truly cared about being very good at anything except writing.