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‘One Small Step’ – An interview with Dr Michael Flavin on his debut novel

Dr Michael Flavin.

Staff writer Sarah Thompson interviews Dr Michael Flavin about his debut novel, “One Small Step”, which focuses on a terrorist attack that changed the course of both his and his protagonist’s lives. 

Situated in a rather quaint coffee shop, my laptop open and my pen and paper poised at the ready, a very willing interviewee sits across from me. It is none other than King’s College London’s very own Dr Michael Flavin. A Senior Lecturer in Global Education, he holds a degree, three master’s degrees and two doctorates. Although he has authored two books on nineteenth-century literature and another two on technology-enhanced learning, “One Small Step” is his debut novel.

Combining personal experience with creative storytelling, Michael Flavin’s novel is an intriguing ode to the often-forgotten events of the 1974 Birmingham Pub Bombings – the aftermath of which form a large part of Michael’s earliest memories. 

The tale traces the story of carefully crafted protagonist Danny Cronin, the Birmingham-based son of Irish immigrants, who has a passion for outer space, hence the title. After two IRA bombs explode, murdering twenty-one people and injuring over two hundred, it becomes clear that the troubles have come to Birmingham. The life of this introspective ten-year-old boy is irreparably changed, especially after the mysterious arrival of a Northern Irish visitor on the night of the bombings. 

With this compelling plot and its historical entanglement in mind, the interview began with a discussion of the personal inspirations and aspirations of this two-hundred-and-sixty-page book. 

What inspired the book and why Birmingham?

I asked Michael what inspired the book, and why Birmingham? To which he nonchalantly responded, “Well I grew up in Birmingham and my mum and dad were Irish, and a really early memory [of mine] is the Birmingham pub bombings. Now obviously as a shoeless urchin, I didn’t have the first idea of what was going on, but I was suddenly getting beaten up on my way home from school”. The informality and striking honesty of his response were equally palpable in his novel. While as a child he had “no idea what was happening”, this book was “by far the easiest one to write”. After more questioning, he agreed that in some respects, the project was an outlet for difficult memories and was, therefore, a long time coming – to the extent that once he did start putting pen to paper, “it was like it had been waiting a long time to be told”.

The universal and the particular

Despite being a fictitious account, similarly to a lot of great authors that have come before, Flavin has drawn on the emotions and experiences of his past to create his work. That is to say – he has written what he knows. As a result, his characters are imbued with a sense of realness, rawness and humanity. For example, Danny’s father, like Flavin’s, was a bus driver.

Flavin spoke of his admiration for Thomas Hardy’s ability to be both particular and universal at the same time, a practice he too has adopted when writing “One Small Step”. In his own words, “although this book is particular — it’s the Irish community around the time of the pub bombings in Birmingham, there is that universal element too. It’s about a child who just wants his mum to love him”.

The intrinsic desire for a mother’s love was indeed a constant theme throughout the book, accompanied by an undertone of discontent between both mother & son and husband & wife. Complex character arcs were essential to the exploration of this theme. After a lengthy discussion regarding our opinions on the characters, Flavin admitted that, as the character of Danny’s mother evolved, he began to dislike her, particularly in the latter chapters.

Does the novel serve a greater purpose?

While Michael took a few sips of his large mocha, I readied myself to ask the leading question of whether or not the book served a greater purpose. According to him, it did. Flavin pondered the “untold history of diasporic immigrant communities” and went on to suggest that “the story of the Irish diaspora in Britain and this really quite oppressed working-class community – I think that story really does need telling, whether this [book] contributes to this telling is a separate point”.

Although I am personally not equipped with the expertise to vouch for any such contribution, I can indeed mention that the research that Michael undertook in support of the book was so rigorous that it has culminated in a self-proclaimed “bizarre” bi-product, an article on leadership in the IRA and Sinn Féin during the Troubles that has recently been accepted by the Terrorism and Political Violence Journal. Flavin also motioned towards a broader message during the interview, that communities should not be demonised for the actions of a few.

Who is the desired audience?

When asked who the desired audience is, Flavin appropriately answered “firstly, I’d quite like people to like it”, and claimed his audience isn’t nearly as niche as those he’s used to writing for. Although this book considers the narrative of a child it is certainly not suitable for children. Instead, Danny’s innocence and naivety allow readers to unpack complex issues in a considered context, which creates a more vivid sense of time and place for the more mature readers. 

The theme of space

Danny’s love of space is often used as an innovative escape from a very adult world and its associated problems — a profound addition that further elevates “One Small Step”. We explored this unique topic of space, which Michael claimed had been a feature of the story right from the get-go; early drafts were complimented for the originality of the idea, so it was something that worked and therefore stuck. 

Conclusions

The final part of the interview was directed towards logistical questions. Michael informed me that “knowing how to write and research helps” and recommended extensive reading to prospective writers – “I fed myself a constant diet of books and articles about the troubles”. It took a mere six months to complete the first full text of the book.

Since its publication on 20th September, the novel has received positive feedback from a wide audience. One review has hailed it “an awe-inspiring account”. Although it is “unlikely” we’ll see a “One Small Step” sequel or series, we can be sure that Michael Flavin’s novel writing days are far from over — especially if his debut novel is anything to go by. 

You can purchase “One Small Step” here

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