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Battles of the Boyne: making peace with history

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John Boyne

John Boyne

Fergal Phillips

John Boyne

John Boyne

Fergal Phillips

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John Boyne

John Boyne is one of the best selling Irish authors of all time but he has a love-hate relationship with past glory. He talks with Donal Lynch about growing up, getting hitched and his own history of loneliness.

'Yes, Yes, YES!" No, not Meg Ryan in When Harry Met Sally. John Boyne when, out of the blue, he receives a text message from his musical idol, Sinead O'Connor, inviting him to dinner. Boyne had written a piece in gushing praise of the singer in the Irish Times a few weeks previously and now it had produced the intended results.

He was about to be granted an audience with the rock goddess - over dinner at a restaurant in Dublin. This would be followed a few days later by backstage passes to her Dublin show, where she belted out a large portion of her new number one record. Boyne watched in quiet awe, as excited as a make-a-wish foundation child.

"Sometimes a plan just comes beautifully together," he tells me over pints at The Long Stone in Dublin. "She was very different than I thought. In the piece I'd said she came across as fragile. But in real life she comes across as strong and sensible and very much in control. Which is different somewhat than her public persona. After a while I was able to forget who she was."

Boyne handed O'Connor a copy of his new book, The History Of Loneliness - his first adult novel in several years, which shares themes that have long preoccupied the singer: sexuality, the long and complicated shadows cast by the traumas of childhood and the complicity of the Church in child sexual abuse.

During the research for the novel, Boyne interviewed many Catholic priests and his view of the scandals that came to light over the last twenty years evolved during the course of the research.

"I think there is a difference between feeling sympathy for someone and feeling like their lives were destroyed before they had even begun," he tells me.

"You had boys put into seminaries before they came to terms with their own sexualities. They might not have gotten to grips with their sexualities until they were in their thirties, by which time they were so screwed up that the only outcome was looking for vulnerable people to take it out on. I don't think most of the so-called paedophile priests are really paedophiles. I don't think they were attracted to children but instead that they were looking for the most vulnerable people and children are the most vulnerable."

If the book holds anyone ultimately accountable for the abuse scandals it may be the hierarchy, which intimated everyone into silence.

"I'm not a fan of the Church by any means but I didn't want to write the obvious attack [on the church] in the book", he tells me.

"A lot of priests told me they are afraid to wear their collars into the city, that they're terrified of someone calling them a paedophile in public. One priest told me that if a child knocked on his front door with one arm hanging off and blood pouring down his face the first thing he'd do is close the door, that he couldn't risk it. And there's something really tragic about that.

"I'm not religious in any way and I went through a long period where I loathed the Church," Boyne tells me.

"In the interviews for the book that loathing lessened. Not one priest I interviewed had anything positive to say about John Paul II. He was sanctified but in my mind he is the greatest criminal of the second half of the 20th century. He is disgusting to me. I'm talking about the spread of AIDS in Africa, his contempt for women, his knowledge of what was going on in relation to child abuse in this country and elsewhere. He really did more than any single individual to destroy the Catholic Church."

I feel a JP II picture shredding coming on but that would have lost its shock value at this stage. Besides Boyne already has an easier echo of Sinead's career to relate to. Like the singer he too had an unrepeatable hit early in his career - the publishing supernova that was The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas - and has a bit of a love-hate relationship with its legacy.

"Of course I'm grateful for it because it gave me the freedom to write what I want," he tells me.

"But the thing that frustrates me about it is that it's not my best work and it was such a massive success that it means other books are perceived as failures, when of course you can't sell that amount with every book. It frustrates me that reviews of newer novels will spend the first few hundred words harking back to something that was written almost ten years ago. Sometimes journalists won't even have read the new book. At the same time I am realistic enough to realise that when I die they will refer to me as the author of that book."

The book may have pigeon-holed Boyne somewhat as a children's author - although he says he doesn't distinguish between adult and children's fiction now - but the themes of his new book are decidedly grown up and close to home.

"I am the Irish writer who hasn't written about Ireland", he says.

"I haven't allowed myself to write about it for whatever reason. I always said that I wouldn't write about Ireland until I had a story to tell. This was a subject I thought I could write about in an unexpected way. It flowed out of me. A lot of it I set around parts of the city I grew up in. I was an altar boy. We always went down to Wexford for our summer holidays when I was a kid, which is crucial in the book. There is a gay novelist in the book, although he is much better looking than me."

Interestingly the book is also set in Boyne's old school, Terenure College, which once tried to honour him with a past pupil's award - he refused.

"I was badly beaten by a priest when I was at that school", he tells me.

"For meaningless things. One of the teachers, Fr Patrick Grace, who has since died, used to keep a stick up his sleeve called Excalibur. And at the top of that stick there was a metal weight taped to it. And he would take out Excalibur and beat me with it. He once beat me so badly that I was off school for the next two weeks. I have no doubt in my mind it was a sexual thing. Beating a thirteen-year-old boy senseless - don't tell me he wasn't getting a sexual turn on from that. And you know what I had done? I had taken the stick and passed it back down the class.

"In those days parents were very intimidated by the church and the school and were very unsure about what to do about it. Of course that kind of thing doesn't happen in the school now. I don't live my life trying to worry about my schooldays any more than I spend them reliving my schooldays."

The protagonist in A History Of Loneliness observes that some people's glory days happen while they are in school. Whereas for others life only begins when their classroom days are over. Unfortunately for Boyne, things didn't improve hugely after school. He studied English at Trinity College, where he struggled mightily with his sexuality.

"I really wanted to tell people that I was gay but in those days it would have been really hard," he tells me.

"I was terrified and didn't want to be alone all my life. Inside myself I always thought I would never meet someone or that I wouldn't have success in that department. I always felt that I was ugly and that none would ever fancy me. I never had great self-esteem.

"When I started in Trinity we'd all go out and of course the point was always getting laid and I felt there was no one who would sleep with me and you just feel like a worthless human being. All those years of going to weddings on my own - it was quite lonely in a way."

He tells me: "In my early or mid twenties I was just trying to have as much sex as possible. But once I got to my late twenties I felt like I'd like to go for a beer with someone I'm sleeping with. None of which is different from any heterosexual couple.

"I did have some relationships later on - some went on for a while and some were as brief as they could possibly be. I suppose I did alright but I really wanted to fall in love. I'm quite a romantic and quite emotional. I think I wanted what everyone else has - you hear these anti marriage people talking about the importance of the family - but that's all I wanted: my own family."

From an early age he had also wanted to be a writer and after college went to work in Waterstone's book shop. He was still working there when his first novel was published. Despite this early success the years that followed were not a happy time.

Boyne found himself working 12-hour days and getting embroiled in the most dysfunctional relationship of his life.

"The seven years working there were the most important of my life, but I divide it into two parts. At the start it was incredible - a wonderful place to be young. I went to London for a year and came back for three years and everything changed. There was a negative energy. I was institutionalised.

"Everything in my life was a disaster. I was in a really horrendous relationship. It was a scar that lived on for years. If I could have gone through my life and not have met one person it would have been him."

At work, John felt the atmosphere was depressing: "When I left Waterstone's on my last night I locked up the door and ten of us went across to the Duke pub. I just lost my mind and had a bit of a breakdown. We were in the pub and I threw the keys on the table and told them all what I thought of them. And then I went straight home and emailed the area manager telling him I quit. Someone else can do this job tomorrow. And I literally never went back."

Boyne had been knocked down in a car some months previously and had received €8,000 in compensation. This, combined with his earnings from his first, modestly successful novel, enabled him to take a year out.

"I was on all these painkiller and antidepressants. I was drinking too much. It was the lowest point in my life. I stayed the whole year in Wexford. It is even now a wound inside in me. I decided down there, enough with the misery, you've got to find someone to love, you've got to find happiness."

Within three years, Boyne's gripping Holocaust novel The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas was published turning him into a literary superstar and ensuring he would never again have to return to the day job. That left only the love portion of his future dreams left to realise.

He met his future husband, from West Cork, on a blind date - "set up by our friend Mr Internet" - in Sinnott's nine years ago and tells me he "certainly knew within about five minutes, 'don't blow this." They had a civil union in February of this year.

"We had the ceremony in the Westin Hotel - it was so beautiful - a civil ceremony for about 20 friends and family," he tells me.

A few years he ago he expressed impatience with the whole notion of people talking about their civil unions, telling one interviewer: "It really irritates me when I see people going on the front page of The Irish Times or the Late Late Show and talking about it and saying, 'We're getting married in the morning'. Do it in your own time. Who cares? Gay people have spent the last 100 years saying: 'We don't care. If we want to live with somebody, have a relationship with somebody, it's no one else's business."

So what caused this about turn?

"It's because it's been a while now", he tells me. "When I saw people being public about that initially I thought 'they're just proving a point', but now that it's been there for a while it's no longer a case of that - it's more just wanting what other people have. Kids today look down their nose at someone who is homophobic. Being different is a positive thing now."

Nevertheless, he tells me he is dreading the upcoming referendum on gay marriage.

"You're going to have all these bitter little small-minded people getting time on the radio to talk about me and my life - people who don't know me, people whose lives I will have no effect on. You kind of wonder what their motivation is, why is this, something that won't affect them, a preoccupation for them?"

As is normal for him, Boyne is already working on a new book. He says if he's not writing he feels "lost." He talks about the upcoming publicity trail with a degree of weariness.

"This - the period leading up to the book coming out - is my least favourite time," he tells me. "When I'm away on my own, writing, that's when I feel good. There's nobody but me and the page and the characters in my head. It might seem a lonely profession but it makes me happy."

And it has its perks: the week after we meet he has front and centre row seats to see Kate Bush's much anticipated new show in London.

"It's going to be incredible", he tells me. "Nothing will top Sinead but this comes a close second."

And if he managed to meet the Wuthering Heights singer?

"Of course I'd make friends", he laughs. "I'm on a roll!"

The History of Loneliness by John Boyne is published by Doubleday, €21.50

Sunday Independent