Boyne battles in his books
Author John Boyne always wanted to be brave and adventurous. Now the characters in his books are, writes Donal Lynch
CAMILLE Paglia used to say that it was no coincidence that the greatest writers of the 20th century (among which she naturally included herself) tended to come from suburbia because the boredom and mundanity of life there often encourages fecund imaginations.
Coming from the same part of Dublin that John Boyne spent most of his childhood, I can only say that if Paglia's theory is correct he had the best conditions imaginable for the literary greatness that followed. A life as a celebrated writer seems just compensation enough for an adolescence stranded in southside suburbia.
Both Boyne's most celebrated novel, the acclaimed The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas, and his newest work, the excellent Mutiny On The Bounty, feature resourceful and daring young protagonists. But ask the writer about his own youth and he writes it off as a dull prologue, painting a picture of a mouse-ish child peeping timidly from the wainscoting of Terenure College. "I was the kind of kid that nobody bullied but also the kind of kid that nobody took any notice of. I was inconsequential. I had this quiet middle-class existence and it really took me until I went to college to come out of my shell. I always wanted the people in my books to be the things I wished I was; brave and adventurous."
Boyne did a degree in English at Trinity College before going on to do postgraduate work at the University of East Anglia in Norwich. But it was during his time at Trinity that he began to get published. "I got to mix with some real novelists and the idea of being a writer became a real possibility. But at the back of your mind you know that only a few people are going to actually get published. And you think to yourself 'Am I setting myself up for a fall?' I didn't want to be 35 and have people saying 'hey didn't you use to be a writer ... '"
To pay his way while waiting to be famous, Boyne worked at Waterstone's, typing up his drafts by night. His family were supportive. "My parents are quite traditional but nobody ever said, 'Get a real job'. I did have some kind of level of responsibility, and I think that was quite important. I needed to have some kind of plan B."
Getting his first novel published was a huge coup, but it didn't mean he could give up the day job. "It's true that very few people actually read books and very few people who actually buy books go and read them. If you change direction each time, you don't get the publicity they give to genre writers and the rewards are zero, unless you feel you're getting what you set out to achieve."
Despite not having enough money to stop working, after his third book he decided to take a risk and retreat to Wexford to go full-time at writing. He expected the resultant book, The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas, the story of the Auschwitz concentration camp seen through the eyes of a nine-year old boy, to sell better than its predecessors but not even he could have predicted the literary supernova he was sitting on. The book went on to sell over 2.5 million copies, was translated into 35 languages and has now been made into a film to be released soon.
"There was a bit of early buzz about it. Feedback from booksellers. There were articles written in the Guardian about it and other pieces about children's literature in general." There was moderate controversy too, however, as some critics wondered about how appropriate a book about the Holocaust could be for children. One even called the title, with its bedtime-story connotations "disingenuous".
Boyne doesn't seem in the least bothered by such analysis. "Even now, people have an opinion on the book, where they approve or disapprove of it and I think that was always part of its strength." The title of his new book suggests it might belong alongside big adventure books for boys, but Boyne summons up a viscerally real version of life on the high seas. At times brutal and sexual, and darkly witty, it stands alongside The Boy in The Striped Pyjamas as his best work. Boyne lives in Dublin with his partner and for the first time becomes a little uncomfortable when I ask about his domestic arrangement, fearing perhaps being unfairly pigeonholed as a "gay writer".
"You know, that's really just another incidental part of me, but it is something some people still get a bit fixated with," he tells me before making some points about civil unions and telling me he would like kids some day. He has a lot to say about the inequities of the publishing industry. "You know you have the likes of Jordan or Russell Brand getting awards or being hugely promoted by their publishers, whereas young writers who are trying to write something that lasts can hardly get their foot in the door. It seems wrong." He admits he hasn't read Russell Brand's (actually rather brilliant) autobiography, but tells me the principle still stands. "It's celebrity driven. It's what you look like and what kind of sound bites and press you can generate. I think it should be possible for people to actually enjoy a good book without all of that."
He adds that he himself never felt he was "a writer who was going to be on the cover of things" and seems quietly pleased that he's done so well without hawking his personal life or courting controversy. His work, he tells me, can be judged on its own terms. "At the same time, I don't want to be an unknown writer -- I'm not interested in just writing for myself. The reader is who I care about and that's who I'm writing for."
'Mutiny On The Bounty' by John Boyne is published by Doubleday, priced €12.99