THE WRITING LIFE ... John BOYNE
THE PURPOSE-DRIVEN AUTHOR
TAN MAY LEE talks to JOHN BOYNE about the worldwide success of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, which sold over five million copies worldwide, and the anticipation of his latest novel, The House of Special Purpose
“ALL I EVER WANTED was to be allowed to continue to write and for someone to publish my books.” For the longest time, John Boyne knew he wanted to be an author. He received his solid grounding in English Literature at Trinity College, Dublin, and developed his creative writing skills at the University of East Anglia. He says, “The best writing courses provide an atmosphere of encouragement for a group of aspiring writers and allow them to work at their own pace and then take part in group discussions where all the good and bad elements of their writing are discussed. If they work right, then the student should feel empowered and ready to grow as a writer. Any writer wants readers and for students, this is the best way to get some.” Boyne also worked at Waterstone’s, the UK’s leading bookseller, and other bookstores, so retail and bookselling is all familiar to him, too. Despite knowing the ins and outs of the book industry, and having literary qualifications behind him, he still struggled with his first three novels (The Thief of Time, The Congress of Rough Riders and Crippen) for years before his big break with The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, which won him two Irish book awards.
Boyne’s seventh and latest novel is The House of Special Purpose. The Irish Times says, “Boyne’s novel ... is a work that chimes perfectly with our times.” It is set in Russia during World War I—1915, tracing the fate of 16-year-old Georgy Jachmenev, who one day steps in front of an assassin’s bullet intended for the heart of a senior member of the Russian Imperial Family. From being the son of a peasant farmer, Georgy becomes an overnight hero and goes to St. Petersburg to be the bodyguard to Alexei Romanov, the only son of Tsar Nicholas II.
“I travelled to St. Petersburg while I was writing the first draft [of the novel] in order to get a sense of the city,” Boyne says. In his book, he captures the historic times before Moscow took over St. Petersburg as the capital of Russia after two hundred years. One of the historic places he explored is the Winter Palace, which was the official residence of the Russian tsars before the 1917 storming of the palace during the Russian Revolution. Much of the novel takes place there. Today, the Winter Palace houses the Hermitage Museum, which is open to the public “so I was able to spend time in the various rooms and try to get the ghosts of the Imperial family to suffuse onto the page.” For research, Boyne read “nonfiction accounts of the fall of the Romanov dynasty, the lives of Tsar Nicholas and the Empress Alexandra, as well as that of the monk Grigori Rasputin.”
As for the protagonist Georgy, Boyne says he was not inspired by a specific person, but he’s aware that “a lot of the heroes of my fiction tend to be ill-educated boys who find themselves in extraordinary situations.” It was significant for Georgy to be a librarian, too (at the British Museum, no less), as Boyne often has his heroes befriend a mentor who brings them to the world of learning, particularly that of books. “I came to books quite early myself and a part of me is in each of these characters but they certainly have far more exciting adventures than I had at that age!” he says. In 2008, his novel Mutiny: A Novel of the Bounty (or Mutiny on the Bounty) begins with its 14-year-old protagonist lurking around bookstalls to steal from a French gentleman, who later rescues him from being sent to prison.
The House of Special Purpose took Boyne 18 months to create from start to finish, the average time he takes for writing his novels. Although a diligent and consistent writer, his most famous novel for children, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, saw its draft manuscript completed in a week; in fact, Boyne reportedly wrote the entire book in two and a half days. “When I was writing it, the story certainly took me over entirely and I was absolutely concerned with the characters and the plot.” Boyne had been a serious student of Holocaust-related literature for about 15 years and this gave him the background of the Germans and Nazi concentration camps, with which he came up with the premise of Bruno, the son of a Nazi, who innocently and ill-fatedly befriends Shmuel, a Jew in a concentration camp.
“Of course, I spent the best part of a year then rewriting the novel and making serious decisions about which facts of the camps would remain intact and which I would change,” Boyne says. After it was published, the book went on to sell over five million copies and dominated best-seller lists worldwide, including The New York Times. It was also made into an award-winning Miramax feature film, directed by Mark Herman.
Despite his success, Boyne remains grounded when it comes to writing. “It’s not always smooth sailing,” he admits, “but I certainly feel confident that I know how to construct a novel and create interesting characters.
“I’m unlikely to start something and then abandon it. Once I’ve begun writing I’m very focused and very disciplined, particularly during the writing of a first draft, when I devote myself entirely to the story.” His daily routine begins at 7:30a.m. and he works on his new book until lunchtime. He does his editing and other work in the afternoons. “I try to write new fiction seven days a week,” the diligent author says.
For Boyne, a typical manuscript would have gone through about 10 drafts. “I write on the computer, print it out, write my changes all over the manuscript, feed those changes in and print again, allowing the process to continue until I have a script that has no red marks on it.” The rewriting is where the novel takes shape. “I see a first draft as a block of stone and somewhere inside it is a story trying to escape. You have to chip away until it makes some sense.
“I’m working on a new children’s book at the moment and it’s already up to the ninth draft!”
Curiously, the Dublin-born author has never set a novel in his homeland. “I seem to look abroad for inspiration in my writing,” Boyne admits. “I certainly want to write a novel set in Ireland one day, but I’ve decided not to do that until I have a good story to tell. At the moment I just don’t have one! But I’ll keep trying to find one.”
For now, Boyne is contented with his success and inspiration from other countries to fuel his creative imaginings. He also enjoys the perks of being invited to literary festivals around the world and has been invited to speak in the Netherlands, Germany, Portugal, Britain, Australia and now, Singapore. “At the moment I know very little about Singapore but I plan on reading about it in advance—probably some contemporary writers, too—and I’m certainly going to make time to do a little exploration of my own. Perhaps it will show up in a future novel then!” he says good-humouredly. He describes himself as a voracious reader and tries to keep up with all the new novels every month by writers he admires as well as keeping an eye out for interesting débuts. Currently, he’s reading Glen David Gold’s new novel, Sunnyside.
One of the more affable and livelier authors, Boyne enjoys author appearances and book tours: “I quite like promoting books. I spent a lot of time alone in my study writing, so when I get the opportunity to travel and talk at festivals, such as the one in Singapore, it’s a great delight.” He even spoke at the Aberdeen Word Festival, defending the tradition of paperbacks that it would never lose out to “novels on computer screens.”
“It’s convenient to have all your music on one electronic storage system but books will always need to be printed.”
Even after seven books, Boyne believes there’s still more to come: “I’m still a young writer and I hope I have a lot of novels in my future and it’s important to me that I continue to have a large readership as I grow older.”
TAN MAY LEE graduated from the University of Leeds, United Kingdom, where she was awarded the Bonamy Dobree Scholarship for International Students to do her Bachelor of Arts in English Literature and Language. She also trained as a Master Practitioner in Neuro-Semantics Neuro-Linguistic Programming. She is the editor of Quill magazine.
Reproduced from the special Singapore Writers Festival 2009 issue of Quill magazine