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Interview with Children’s Author John Boyne (2006)

(Also writes adult novels !)

In December 2005 I was privileged to be the first Irish journalist to interview author, John Boyne. Talking from the Library Bar in the Central Hotel in Dublin on the eve of publication of ‘The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas’, John told me about his early struggle to get published and about how his life has already changed in the heady last few months. I used to work with John in Waterstone’s for many years, and he’s a charming and erudite man. I’d like to thank Marie Kelly, Editor of Woman’s Way who commissioned the original interview.

Sitting casually in an armchair, John, 34, with trendy glasses, jeans and closely shaven head doesn’t look like your average children’s writer. But his first children’s book, ‘The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas’ is all set to be the biggest children’s literary sensation of 2006. The tale of two young boys who become friends against all odds, it’s a storm of a read and is already garnering some amazing pre publication reviews. It is also controversial as some critics feel its themes are too harsh and adult for a young reading audience. But I loved it.

It’s not often that a children’s book sparks off heated discussions pre publication, but I’m reliably informed it was one of the main topics of conversation at the Children’s Books Ireland Christmas staff dinner no less.

John, an established ‘adult’ writer, had no idea he was writing a children’s book at all. But he’s well aware that ‘The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas’ will change his life, and not just his writing life. It has already been optioned by film director Mark Harmon of ‘Little Voice’ fame, been snapped up by fourteen different publishing houses worldwide, and is on the short listed for the Ottaker’s Children’s Book Prize in the UK.

John has been a full time writer for several years now, since Penguin bought his third adult novel, ‘Crippen.’ John’s dad worked in insurance and his mum was a housewife and there are no writers in the family. I asked him where his writing talent comes from?

‘I’ve 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.’

After school, you studied English in Trinity College, Dublin then attended the prestigious Creative Writing course in the University of East Anglia.
How did this course change you as 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 I’m 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 Waterstone’s bookshop in Dublin. It was a great environment, full of aspiring writers, aspiring actors, journalists.’

And what about the writing?

He pauses to reflect. ‘I was getting up at half five or six to write. I’d 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 John’s agent to this day, liked John’s work and offered to represent him. There was only one slight hitch. He felt the book John had spent hundreds of hours writing wasn’t 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’.

When you found out ‘The Thief of Time’ was going to be published how did you feel?

‘It was amazing. I was twenty-eight, I’d 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 didn’t set the world on fire and I wasn’t making enough to live off.’ It was a low point in John’s life. He left Waterstone’s 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 can’t quite explain to this day.

John how did you write ‘Boy’? And how did it compare with writing your other novels?

‘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 don’t 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 ‘I’ve written this book, it’s very different to anything I’ve done before. I think it may be a children’s book but I think adults might like it too.’

Why did Simon decide to send it to David Fickling
(one of the most well respected editors in the business, a regular visitor to Ireland and the man who discovered Mark Haddon of ‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time’ fame)?

‘Everyone who knows about children’s books knows about David Fickling. He’s what I term an old-fashioned gentleman publisher. He’s passionate about what he does. He’s wonderful, he’s great fun and he really knows his stuff. He’ll 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.’

When Simon sent David the manuscript when happened next?

‘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 didn’t know if they wanted the book or not. They told me later that they were having the same thoughts - they didn’t know if I wanted to sign with them or not. They thought they’d 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 ‘Where’s the pen? Absolutely!’

And how much editorial work went into getting the book right?

‘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 didn’t 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 can’t see it anymore and I need someone to read it and say what’s working and what’s not working. I wrote some new scenes based on the editorial comments. There’s a minor character, the waiter. And David and Bella said ‘we like that character, we’d 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.’

Do you feel it’s your best book so far?

‘Yes, absolutely.’

And how do you feel about your best book being a children’s book?

‘I think it’s great. I’m delighted.’

Are you aware that the literary establishment can be a little sniffy about children’s literature in general?

‘My initial audience I want to be children, but I don’t see it just as a children’s book. I think the very best children’s writing isn’t 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 I’m proud of the book and I’ve found so much passion in children’s publishing. It’s a new world to me. People are so passionate about what they’re doing and have such feeling for literature, all kinds of literature. I’ve seen more of it (passion) in this world I’ve 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.’

You’ve had loads of really good feedback and reviews pre publication, how do you feel? Are you nervous?

‘I guess I am now. I was very excited about it for ages. It’s my fourth book and my first three have done fine but I’ve never experienced this before. And I have to say with a few weeks to go I’m really, really nervous. You just don’t know. The thing about working in Waterstone’s is you’d hear about books that were expected to do really well and didn’t. 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. . . I’m really proud of it and I just want people to read it.’

You’ve also been writing some children’s stories for RTE. Tell me about those.

‘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 he’ll be labelled as a children’s writer if he’s not careful and he smiles and shrugs. ‘That’s OK. I’m completely focused on my adult books as well and one can only help the other.’

Who are your favourite modern children’s authors?

‘I’ve been reading a lot more children’s books recently. Mark Haddon. David Almond. I think at the top end of children’s writing there are more interesting stories and better writing than at the top end of the adult world.’

And your favourite adult writers?

‘John Irving, Philip Roth, Dickens. I love Margaret Atwood as well. Anne Tyler.’

What advice would you give people who dream of being a published writer?

‘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 people’s work. I’ve taught some (creative writing courses) and even teaching them I learn from reading student’s work. And keep writing. If you can pull it off it’s a wonderful world to work in.’

So what’s 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 children’s book, this time with girl and boy protagonists. I can’t 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 Woman’s Way magazine.

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