Image © Rich Gilligan
John Boyne’s novels have been treasured by adults and young readers alike for almost a quarter of a century. Whether he is exploring history in The Thief of Time, discovering humanity in the trenches in The Absolutist, revealing personal trauma in A History of Loneliness, creating dark comedy in A Ladder to the Sky, or making us laugh with the broad farce of The Echo Chamber, his work has found a global readership. And, with the modern classics, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas and The Heart’s Invisible Furies, he has created two of the most beloved novels of the 21st century.
His latest novel, Water, is a masterfully reflective story about one woman coming to terms with the demons of her past and finding a new path forward. John is appearing at the Southwold Literary Festival on 4 November.
Who were your literary influences as you were growing up and did you have many books around you as a child?
We had a lot of books in my house but I spent more time in the library than buying books of my own. In my early teens I started reading classic fiction and particularly enjoyed Charles Dickens’ orphan books – Oliver Twist, David Copperfield, Nicholas Nickleby. Anything with a child left alone in the world to make his or her own way always fascinated me and a number of my young adult books focus on this theme too. When I discovered John Irving’s novels, my imagination really opened up and I knew that I wanted to be a writer.
What was your path to publication?
By the age of 18, I was writing short stories constantly. I studied for an English Literature degree in Trinity College, Dublin, and then earned a Masters in Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia, Norwich, where I was tutored by the late Malcolm Bradbury. I was very focussed on my ambition of being a writer and wrote a couple of novels in my mid-twenties that weren’t good enough for publication but earned me an agent – Simon Trewin, who is still my agent today – and finally, when I was 29, I wrote a novel called The Thief of Time, which became my first published novel.
What does a typical writing day look like for you if such a thing exists?
I’m an early riser and am usually at my desk by about 8 am. I don’t try to write for a specific number of hours every day. Instead, I like to feel that, by the end of the day, I haven’t wasted time. So I’m in and out of my office throughout the day, writing a little, then reading, then doing other things. I write every day, even Christmas Day. But while it’s always challenging, I don’t find it a chore. I love the act of watching a novel build on the screen before me.
In 2006 The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas was published. It went on to be translated into 59 languages with 11 million copies sold. How do you look back on that time now? When did you first realise it was going to be a huge success?
It was an extraordinary time in my life. The novel took off almost immediately, reaching number one in the best sellers chart on its first week. Readers embraced it in a way that I had never imagined and I found myself travelling the world for several years, speaking at literary festivals and living the life that I had always dreamed of. It laid the foundation for the career that I've had ever since. I'll always look back at that period of my life with enormous gratitude.
Your latest novel, Water, packs a lot into its 176 pages. Can you tell us a little about the book?
Water is the first in a sequence of four novellas – Water, Earth, Fire, Air – that will be published at six-monthly intervals between November ’23 and May ’25. All four books are standalone stories but a minor character from each becomes the narrator of the next and they share recurring characters and themes. The theme of the entire sequence is abuse, but looked at from four different perspectives: a person who might have been complicit in the actions of another, a person who watches a rape take place, a person who is an abuser, and a victim. Water takes place on a small island off the West Coast of Ireland where a middle-aged woman goes to recover after a traumatic year in her life.
Water is the first in a quartet of novels based on the elements. Do you have the others roughly sketched out in your mind?
Yes, the second novella, Earth, is already written and I’m currently on the fourth draft of Fire. Soon, when I finish that, I will begin Air. As we’re publishing at six monthly intervals it was important that I had all the books either ready or in my mind before Water arrived in bookshops.
One of the key themes in Water is the effect on women of the patriarchal system in Irish society. Was this something you were aware of as you were growing up and finding your voice as a writer?
I think I became aware of it for the first time during the 1990 presidential election in Ireland when Mary Robinson became the first woman to be elected as head of state. The level of misogyny directed towards her during that campaign, along with the what I perceived to be a hatred and fear of women during the referenda that preceded it – divorce and abortion – made me understand my own country a little better and I was disturbed by its historic, patriarchal beliefs. As a gay man, I found myself more connected to the campaign for women's rights than I did to the patriarchy itself.
We're starting to see the effect of AI on literature and some of our audio books are already described as being narrated by 'synthesized voice'. Do you think quality writing can survive?
I don't know much about AI to be honest but I think there's always fears for literature that turn out to be unfounded. When the kindle was invented, for example, there was concern that the printed book would go out of fashion but it never did. Indeed, going back in time to when the first paperbacks were produced, there were similar fears. Good writing will always flourish because new writers always appear on the scene and readers look for intelligent, moving and powerful stories.
You are appearing at the Southwold Literary Festival on 4th November. Can you give us a little taster of what to expect?
I'll be reading from and discussing Water, as well as talking about my writing career in general, the four novella sequence of The Elements, and hopefully being able to give any aspiring writers in the audience a few tips on building their own careers.
Can you tell us one thing about yourself that your readers may not know?
I can play a mean version of Your Song by Elton John on the piano!