John earns his stripes
Author John Boyne's career was not the only thing to change for the better after the world was won over by his novel The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas -- his take on life did too. He is still as hard-working, finds Ciara Dwyer, but more outgoing
'I became the person I always wanted to be," says John Boyne. The Dublin-born writer is talking about his life after the publication of his immensely successful novel The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. It was a book for young readers, but vast numbers of adults read it too. It went on to be published in 42 languages and was made into a film. Until then, Boyne had written two novels, but, as he says, they were largely ignored. The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas changed everything.
"The day I finished The Striped Pyjamas -- April 30, 2004, my 33rd birthday -- was a key moment in my life. My career is pre-Boy and post-Boy, and post-Boy is much more fun."
It is a bright afternoon when I meet Boyne in the Morrison Hotel in Dublin to talk about his new novel Noah Barleywater Runs Away. His latest, eighth, book -- he has written six novels for adults -- is for younger readers, but it deals with serious subjects, as well as having light-hearted moments. Boyne is a cheerful soul, at ease with himself and others around him. It wasn't always so.
Success has turned the 39-year-old into the happy man he is today. When his first novel was published, he was content. But publication was not the nirvana he had imagined. "The aim for all those years was to get the book published, and you think life is going to be wonderful and you're going to achieve all your ambitions," he says. "You get the book published and six months later you realise, 'This is not how I expected it.'"
He had not set the world on fire. Book festivals of the world had not clamoured for him, neither had the press hailed him as the one to watch. But when he wrote The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, something special happened.
"I wasn't trying to write a book about the Holocaust, but I had an idea for the story and it seemed like a powerful idea," he says. "The story just poured out of me. I feel retrospectively my life was moving towards that point where I was going to write that book. I wrote the first draft in two and a half days. I didn't sleep. I started it and I worked all the way to the end. That's not normal."
When The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas rocketed on to the bestseller lists and gave him an international publishing career, his life transformed, and he did too. "Success turned me into a monster," he says, then laughs gently.
All the changes were for the better. He strikes me as kind and considerate. While he is happy to answer my questions, he is conscious of the time. In an hour, he has to bring his dog Zach to the kennels. He shows me a photo of the sweet Cavalier King Charles on his phone. Boyne couldn't be a monster if he tried.
Many writers have talked about the confidence boost which comes with success and acclamation. Boyne has had the same experience. In many ways, his life story is like a children's fairy tale with a happy ending. But before we get to the happy ending, there were obstacles to overcome.
In Boyne's latest novel, the main character Noah Barleywater plans to run away from home. He is eight and he wants to make something of himself. He decides that time is moving on. While the author did not run away from his Sandyford home at that young age, he does share his character's hunger to get on in life. For many years, the Dubliner dreamt of becoming a writer. From the age of 11, he set about this task. Every evening after dinner, he would go to his room and study. He would also write and read the classics. Books such as David Copperfield, Treasure Island and The Man in the Iron Mask were his companions.
Although he says that he had a happy childhood, he was aware of being cut off from other people. A lot of that was self-imposed. "I was quite fragile," he says. "I wasn't confident in any sense. I was very shy and very bookish. I didn't have a lot of friends. A lot of the time, I only felt safe at home. I was nervous a lot of the time and I lacked confidence. In school, I wouldn't have been one of the popular kids. I wasn't really bullied. I was just sort of ignored a lot of the time, but don't get me wrong, I wasn't unhappy."
When he writes for children, he thinks of his young self. "The kids I've written about tend to be intelligent and curious, and have old heads on young shoulders," he says. "I quite enjoy that and I was a bit like that. I quite enjoy those slightly precocious but hopefully not annoying children."
Was he a loner? "A loner implies that you want to be alone and I didn't want to be a loner. I was alone but I didn't want to be. I look back from the perspective of adulthood and from what confidence I have now, and I would do things differently. After dinner, I used to go to my room to study. Now I think, what was I doing? I should have got out of the house."
This is not a wistful reminiscence, rather, he laughs at himself. "I would join the drama group in school for one thing," he says. "I'd get out of my shell more. It hasn't held me back; it's just who I was at that age."
Boyne went to Terenure College, but recently when he was asked to write about a teacher who inspired him, he was at a loss to think of one. "I didn't have any inspirational teachers," he says. "I don't feel I was encouraged at all in school. In fact, I would say that any creative side of me in English was discouraged because I tended to write essays and stories which were outside the boring, staid normal and that was frowned upon,
whereas, in retrospect, clearly that was the creative ability trying to get out."
But for all that, he was quietly writing away at home and serious about becoming a writer. It wasn't long before the envelopes were being sent out and coming back. "I might have been shy but I was keen to get ahead. I was ambitious."
He had his first short story published when he was 19 and from then on, it was full steam ahead. First he did a degree in English at Trinity College. While there, his lecturers David Norris and Brendan Kennelly were wonderfully passionate about books. But it was his year in the famous Masters in Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia with Malcolm Bradbury which formed him.
"It was one of the key years in my life," he says. "I was 23, landing in Norwich, the first time to live away from home. It was an incredibly intense, creative experience. It could be traumatic too. They broke you down as a writer, but in a good way, because you were challenged on everything and it stopped you writing stuff that was an imitation of your favourite writer. At times, it was incredibly difficult and upsetting, but it toughened me up. I wouldn't trade a minute of it for anything."
At that stage, Boyne had a goal in mind. He wanted to have his first published book in the shops by 30 and he didn't think that was an unrealistic goal. In addition, since leaving school, he started to attack life and live it more fully, squeezing the most out of his days.
"As I got older, I thought about my childhood and I became aware that I had thrown away some portions of my youth a little bit," he says. "I became determined to live an exciting life and I'm still determined to live an exciting life. I really fill every moment of every day. I don't laze around watching TV all day. I write and I travel a lot for work. I try to fill all those times when I'm away and when I'm not working. I'm interested in the world. I don't want to be boring. I want to live."
After The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, Boyne was suddenly asked to go to book festivals, and to give talks and readings. Part of this new life meant that he would have to become confident and stand up on stage and connect with people. He may have been too shy to pursue an acting career, but these events give him an audience. And he revels in being in theatres. Standing backstage, in the wings, he thinks of what might have been had he decided to act, but he is keen to point out that writing is not his second choice.
"I love writing," he stresses. "One half of your life is solitary but then the other half is quite public. Maybe I could have become an actor, but as a kid I didn't join the drama society, and because of that I try to make the most of every opportunity that comes along. That's why I write so much and work so hard. I'm conscious of time and life, and I do as much as I possibly can. I'll never be the kind of writer who takes 10 years to write a novel."
When Boyne finished his course, he came back to Dublin with a plan. He would work in a bookshop -- Waterstone's -- and spend all his spare time writing. He had imagined it would be an easy job. He tells me it was demanding but highly enjoyable. While working in the shop, he would meet authors who were doing readings. People such as Tobias Wolff, Carol Shields and Richard Ford would wish him well with his work. Being in that community of books and writers helped him enormously. After his second book, and seven years in the store, he decided to take a year off to dedicate himself to writing full-time. He moved down to Wexford and lived on his savings. "It was a risk, but a risk I felt I needed to take," he says.
Out of that time came The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. Since then, he has continued to soar.
These days, Boyne lives in Rathfarnham with his partner. He prefers not to mention his name, but he tells me that he has nothing to do with the writing world. They enjoy their life together, they play squash and, after Christmas, they will go on a long break to Sydney.
"The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas gave me a huge confidence boost," he says with a smile. "I completely changed as a person."
And that has made all the difference. Timid no more, these days he is happy to take on the world in his writing and in his life. Bravo.
Noah Barleywater Runs Away by John Boyne (Random House, €11.99) is nominated for the DAA's Children's Book Award. Visit www.irishbookawards.ie for more information