Writer’s Block With John Boyne

SOPHIE GRENHAM talks to author JOHN BOYNE about MEMORABLE ENCOUNTERS, UNUSUAL REQUESTS and FILM ADAPTATIONS

Photograph by Eoin Rafferty

John Boyne is one of contemporary Irish literature’s most successful authors of recent times. Over the course of nearly two decades, he has produced a hoard of bestselling books, which have sold all over the world, and given him both a colossal readership and critical acclaim. His work has been translated into over fifty languages.

To date, John has published a collection of short stories called Beneath the Earth (2015) and five books for younger readers, most notably the phenomenal, multi-award-winning The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas (2006), which was adapted for the big screen in 2008, starring David Thewlis and Rupert Friend. His eleven novels include The Thief of Time (2000), The House of Special Purpose (2009), The Absolutist (2011) and A History of Loneliness (2014).

His magnificent The Heart’s Invisible Furies (2017) was chosen for the Richard and Judy Book Club. Judy Finnigan said, “This is a beautifully written novel with powerful themes and a cast of original and convincing characters. No need for any Hail Marys either – Boyne doesn’t commit a single sin in the writing of his mini-masterpiece.” Actress Sarah Jessica Parker has even taken to Twitter to express her admiration for John’s work.

John’s eagerly-anticipated new novel, A Ladder to the Sky, will no doubt strike a chord with wordsmiths everywhere, as the darkly driven central character, Maurice Swift, poaches other people’s stories in the absence of any real imagination. One could read this tale as a reminder for writers to keep their wares closer to their chests. In true John Boyne fashion, the work is luxurious, quick-witted and kidnaps your mind from the very first sentence.

John studied English Literature at Trinity College Dublin and creative writing at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, where he was bestowed with the Curtis Brown prize. He now offers a scholarship to Irish students undertaking the MA programme at UEA.

In 2012, he received the Hennessy Literary Hall of Fame Award. Also in his collection are three Irish Book Awards for Children’s Book of the Year, a People’s Choice Book of the Year and Short Story of the Year, the Que Leer Award for Novel of the Year and the Gustav Heinemann Peace Prize. He was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Letters from the University of East Anglia in 2015.

John Boyne lives in Rathfarnham, Dublin.

A Ladder To The Sky (€15.99) is published by Transworld and available from bookshops nationwide.

On home

I’ve lived opposite Marley Park since 2008 and grew up nearby, in Sandyford. My parents live about ten minutes away and both my sisters also live in the area so I feel safe and comfortable here. I spend far too much time in the Dundrum Town Centre, driving down four or five times a week to stock up on supplies. My local pub is the Coach House and I drop in there a couple of times a week too. I used to have a dog and Marley Park was great for walks; it’s a wonderful resource on this side of the city. Of course, every summer there are a couple of weekends of concerts in the park and I enjoy the buzz around the area then, as well as the fact that, from my garden, I can hear the music without having to buy a ticket or deal with the crowds. It’s the perfect arrangement.

On roots

I lived on Sandyford Road. My parents bought the house before I was born and still live there now. I moved out in my early twenties when I went to England to study for a Masters in Creative Writing at UEA, Norwich. The area has changed a lot since I was a kid. Obviously, Dundrum has been transformed but so have the areas leading up towards Ballinteer, with enormous amounts of apartment buildings and new roads. It was a much quieter place back then, but I think the developers have done a good job on it. But when I walk through the old Dundrum village, which is still there, it brings back a lot of memories of childhood. It hasn’t changed very much at all – surprisingly – and retains that 1980s feel.

On creating

I have two offices in my house, one for the winter months and one for the summer. The winter office is inside and is painted a pale pink. My desk is in the corner of the room where a window to the left gives me a view overlooking my garden and a window to the right offers a view of the cul-de-sac in which I live. Outside, in the garden itself, I have a two room building, one of which is a gym and the other is the summer office, glass-fronted and painted a bright green. Both offices are filled with books, family photographs, and interesting curios that I’ve picked up on my travels around the world. I like interesting light fittings and beautiful mirrors. I need everything to be aesthetically pleasing and not just functional. One of my favourite items is the desk in the green room which is a beautiful wooden piece imported from Germany. I also have two colourful armchairs out there that always attract attention from visitors.

On his favourite bookshop

I have to say The Gutter Bookshop on Cow’s Lane in Temple Bar. I worked with the owner, Bob Johnston, many years ago when we were both employed by Waterstone’s, and my younger sister, Sinéad, has worked there as a bookseller since it opened about eight years ago. It always has an interesting Staff Selections area and there are surprises to be found on every shelf. It’s wonderful to see an independent bookshop thriving in this day and age.

On his “TBR” pile

Looking at the “To Be Read” shelf to my right as I type this, I see: Love After Love by Alex Hourston, Asymmetry by Lisa Halliday, Oliver Loving by Stefan Merrill Block, and two recent Folio Society editions: Peter Pan and Wendy by JM Barrie and Queen Victoria’s Letters to Vicky. For new books, I keep an eye out on the book review pages and buy anything that sounds interesting to me. I buy a lot of first novels, I’m always interested in new writers. I get sent a lot of books by publishers too, with requests for endorsements, and again, if the novel sounds interesting it lands on the shelf too. I try to read a classic every so often too, hence the Folio Society editions. Some of the better books I’ve read so far in 2018 include Under the Table by David Hargreaves, Almost Love by Louise O’Neill, From a Low and Quiet Sea by Donal Ryan, and White Chrysanthemum by Mary Lynn Bracht.

On escapes

For about a decade, I’ve been spending a month every year in Sydney, Australia. Usually January, when the weather is warm. I first visited Australia in 2007, when I was touring with The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, and I fell in love with the country and have returned each year either for book tours or literary festivals or simply on holiday. The people are so friendly, and I’ve got to know Sydney extremely well. I have my favourite bars, restaurants, galleries, and long walks where I take a book and pause every so often to read. Of course, as a pasty white Irishman, I have to keep the Factor 30 close to hand, but I find that it rejuvenates me every year to visit.

On memorable encounters

My favourite writer from the time I was a teenager has been John Irving, the author of The World According to Garp, The Cider House Rules and so many other wonderful and memorable novels. I wrote to him after my first novel, The Thief of Time, was published, sending him a copy of the book and a fan letter and he wrote back and since then we’ve become great friends. I’ve shared stages with him a few times and we always see each other when I’m in Toronto or he’s in Dublin. At moments like that, I still feel honoured and grateful for the life I lead. Recently, I met Margaret Atwood for the first time and that was quite thrilling. I remain thrilled by writers and whenever I’m on stage with one, no matter if it’s a first time writer or someone who’s been around for decades, I still feel privileged to be there and to look out at a room of passionate readers, all of whom make my job worthwhile.

On unusual requests

Last year, I was approached by a young woman at a signing in Germany who had a tattoo on her ass of the two boys from The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. She asked me to sign it. That was, by far, the most unusual request I’ve ever received! I try to reply to as many people on social media as I can, particularly young people with questions about writing, but it can be difficult to make time for everyone, especially when I’m working on a book myself or am just up to my eyes with tasks that need completion. The most difficult thing is when a stranger wants to give you his or her novel to read; for legal reasons, I can’t take it and I always feel bad, particularly if they’ve read my books, but it’s too complicated and potentially troublesome, so I try to offer a few words of advice instead.

On film adaptations

People always think that the writer needs to learn to trust the film-makers. Actually, it’s the other way around. For a writer to have any involvement in the project, one needs to be supportive and helpful and not try to cling jealously to the work they originally produced. After all, one has signed the contract, cashed the cheque and is allowing someone else to adapt it. I found the experience a wonderful one and became great friends with both the director, Mark Herman, and the producers, David Heyman and Rosie Alison. (In fact, I dedicated my novel, The House of Special Purpose, to the trio.) Remember, a movie, whether it’s good or bad, can’t alter the original novel. The book still exists exactly as it always did. The Heart’s Invisible Furies, is in development at the moment with Scott Free, Ridley Scott’s production company, for a potential TV series. Fingers crossed that comes to fruition.

On the Richard & Judy Book Club

They really are the most generous and warm-hearted people and, importantly, they’re passionate about books. They used their television show to promote books, which are not always the most TV-friendly art form, and they continue to do so. I first met them at the Dubai Literary Festival a few years ago and it was lovely to be invited to be part of their book club this year. What I most admire is the range of books they recommend. There’s something for everyone – popular fiction, literary fiction, crime. It seems to me that they just read very widely and pick the books they’ve enjoyed the most and want to recommend to others. That’s a pretty good of approaching things, I think.

On what’s next

My new novel, A Ladder To The Sky, has recently been released. Here’s the blurb:

If you look hard enough, you can find stories pretty much anywhere. They don’t even have to be your own. Or so would-be writer Maurice Swift decides very early on in his career.
A chance encounter in a Berlin hotel with celebrated novelist Erich Ackermann gives him an opportunity to ingratiate himself with someone more powerful than him. For Erich is lonely, and he has a story to tell. Whether or not he should do so is another matter entirely.

Once Maurice has made his name, he sets off in pursuit of other people’s stories. He doesn’t care where he finds them – or to whom they belong – as long as they help him rise to the top.

Stories will make him famous but they will also make him beg, borrow and steal. They may even make him do worse.

A psychological drama of cat and mouse, A Ladder to the Sky shows how easy it is to achieve the world if you are prepared to sacrifice your soul.

@SophieGrenham

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