Interview with Childrens Author John Boyne (2006)
(Also writes adult novels !)
Ive always been a big reader. We had a ritual of going to the library every week and getting out books. I loved Enid Blyton, I was obsessed with The Secret Seven. When I was twelve I had my appendix out and I read through the whole of the Narnia series in a couple of weeks. I started writing short stories and poems. I had so many copybooks filled with my work. I never wanted to be anything else but a writer.
It was a huge year for me. Everyone was writing around me. It did get a bit competitive. And a bit incestuous. There were arguments, trouble, relationships . . . He laughs. Afterwards there was a feeling - is this is? Is this the one year Im going to be taken seriously as a writer? I was a bit depressed leaving (the University). It was like the whole world is in front of me and what am I going to do now? So I took a job in Waterstones bookshop in Dublin. It was a great environment, full of aspiring writers, aspiring actors, journalists.
He pauses to reflect. I was getting up at half five or six to write. Id do a few hours before going into work. I wrote a novel and I sent it to an agent.
The agent, Simon Trewin who is still Johns agent to this day, liked Johns work and offered to represent him. There was only one slight hitch. He felt the book John had spent hundreds of hours writing wasnt quite strong enough to send out to publishers. But John had sent him another idea which he did like, the early pages of a book he had just started called The Thief of Time. But John was determined to make it, so he gritted his teeth, put the first book aside and got on with writing The Thief of Time.
It was amazing. I was twenty-eight, Id been writing since I was a child. Now I look back and say Twenty-eight you were a kid! But I felt about ninety-four and I thought it was never going to happen. It was one of the best moments of my life. I was in my flat in London watching Eastenders when Simon rang. It was a dream come true. The best thing ever.
The Thief of Time and his next novel, The Congress of Rough Riders, did well but as John admits, they didnt set the world on fire and I wasnt making enough to live off. It was a low point in Johns life. He left Waterstones and moved to Wexford, worked in a local bookshop for a while and lived beside the beach. While living there he wrote his third book, Crippen. But then after moving back to Dublin something incredible happened, something he still cant quite explain to this day.
I wrote the entire first draft of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas in two and a half days. I barely slept, I just kept writing until I got to the end. The story just came to me, I have no idea where it came from. As I was writing it I thought just keep going and dont think about it too much. With the other books I plan them all out. I think about them for months before writing anything down. But with this one on Tuesday night I had the idea. On Wednesday morning I started writing, and by Friday lunchtime I had the first draft. The following Wednesday I gave it to Simon. I said Ive written this book, its very different to anything Ive done before. I think it may be a childrens book but I think adults might like it too.
Everyone who knows about childrens books knows about David Fickling. Hes what I term an old-fashioned gentleman publisher. Hes passionate about what he does. Hes wonderful, hes great fun and he really knows his stuff. Hell only publish a book if he really, really believes in it. He takes great pride in publishing a good book, publishing it well and putting all his resources behind it.
David and Bella, one of his senior editors read it and asked me to go over to Oxford to meet them. It was actually on the day Crippen was published. We went to their offices. Now, I didnt know if they wanted the book or not. They told me later that they were having the same thoughts - they didnt know if I wanted to sign with them or not. They thought theyd have to persuade me. After an hour of talking they said they really wanted to publish it and asked how I felt. How did I feel? I said Wheres the pen? Absolutely!
There was a lot of debate with David and Bella over the content. We wanted to get it exactly right. There were a lot of drafts, a lot of rewriting. It was October (2004) that they bought it and we didnt get a final draft that everyone was happy with till May of this year (2005). I did a good seven or eight drafts. At the start I had to trim it down a little. As a writer I get to point where I cant see it anymore and I need someone to read it and say whats working and whats not working. I wrote some new scenes based on the editorial comments. Theres a minor character, the waiter. And David and Bella said we like that character, wed like a bit more of him. So I gave him a whole new scene - the swing scene - so he could tell his own story while he was doing the bandaging of the knee.
I think its great. Im delighted.
My initial audience I want to be children, but I dont see it just as a childrens book. I think the very best childrens writing isnt just for children; I think anyone should be able to appreciate the story and be moved by the characters. As for the literary establishment. He smiles. To be honest Im proud of the book and Ive found so much passion in childrens publishing. Its a new world to me. People are so passionate about what theyre doing and have such feeling for literature, all kinds of literature. Ive seen more of it (passion) in this world Ive been moving in recently than I ever have before. The people in marketing, sales, in the libraries, the schools . . . everyone. They take enormous pride in what they do.
I guess I am now. I was very excited about it for ages. Its my fourth book and my first three have done fine but Ive never experienced this before. And I have to say with a few weeks to go Im really, really nervous. You just dont know. The thing about working in Waterstones is youd hear about books that were expected to do really well and didnt. Then there were books no one knew anything about that did. For me, the readers will be the real judges. Getting all the responses from the booksellers and everything has been fantastic. . . Im really proud of it and I just want people to read it.
RTE asked me a few months ago to write some stories for Story Lane. Either to rewrite old stories or to write new ones. So they asked me to do five and I centred them around a boy and his grandfather. It sounded like fun. I suggest to John that hell be labelled as a childrens writer if hes not careful and he smiles and shrugs. Thats OK. Im completely focused on my adult books as well and one can only help the other.
Ive been reading a lot more childrens books recently. Mark Haddon. David Almond. I think at the top end of childrens writing there are more interesting stories and better writing than at the top end of the adult world.
John Irving, Philip Roth, Dickens. I love Margaret Atwood as well. Anne Tyler.
I think the best thing you can do is to join a creative writing group. You have to be thick skinned and willing to take criticism but the one thing you get is readers. Strangers. And you learn so much from reading other peoples work. Ive taught some (creative writing courses) and even teaching them I learn from reading students work. And keep writing. If you can pull it off its a wonderful world to work in.
So whats next? With a new adult book published by Penguin in the autumn and a film of Boy on the cards John will be a busy man. He has already started his next childrens book, this time with girl and boy protagonists. I cant wait to read it. John is a talent to watch and certainly a hot contender for the CBI/Bisto Award 2006 - watch this space.
A version of this interview originally appeared in Womans Way magazine.
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