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'The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas would be difficult to publish today' - John Boyne reflects on how the literary landscape has changed in two decades

As his experimental new novel hits the shelves, John Boyne reflects on how much the literary landscape has changed in the two decades since his debut, including the rise of Twitter 'witch-finders'


New direction: John Boyne has decided to do something different with his latest book, A Traveller at the Gates of Wisdom. Photo by Kyran O'Brien

New direction: John Boyne has decided to do something different with his latest book, A Traveller at the Gates of Wisdom. Photo by Kyran O'Brien

A Traveller at the Gates of Wisdom

A Traveller at the Gates of Wisdom

New direction: John Boyne has decided to do something different with his latest book, A Traveller at the Gates of Wisdom. Photo by Kyran O'Brien

Twenty years ago this week, my debut novel, The Thief of Time, arrived in bookshops. Since then, I've explored many diverse subjects in my books, from the Russian Revolution to the Holocaust to transgenderism, but it feels appropriate that I come full circle with my 12th novel, and 19th book, A Traveller at the Gates of Wisdom, which begins in King Herod's Palestine and ends in a space station in 2080.

I've never been what's considered an experimental writer and have occasionally carped at those who embrace eccentricity on the page. Those criticisms might come back to haunt me now, however, as I've tried something a little different here and there's always the chance that it might turn out to be what my niece would call a hot mess.

As readers, we're accustomed to following a character across a narrative but, in Traveller, I follow emotion. My central conceit is that while language, industry, geographical boundaries and technology have been in a state of constant flux across the millennia, emotion has always remained the same. If a man falls in love in Ireland in 2020, does he not experience the same bewildering sensations as one whose heart was captured in Turkey 1,500 years earlier? If a parent loses a child in 1st century Italy, does he or she not suffer the same insupportable grief as one in 9th century Japan? Desire, ambition, betrayal and lust have existed since the dawn of time and no matter how much the world evolves, we, as humans, never do. Sometimes, in fact, it feels as if we're regressing.

Like many people, lockdown has left me in reflective mode. Having lived through these months of isolation, and cognisant of people who have either died or lost loved ones, I feel a renewed determination to make every day count. The novel remains my great love, but I'm branching out into screenwriting for the first time and working on some children's picture books that will require an illustrator. I've been alone for too long in my creative life and feel an urgent need for collaboration, to be around other artists and benefit from their energy and ideas.

Celebrating 20 years has also left me thinking about how the publishing industry has changed since I first became part of it. In 2000, there was no social media, few literary festivals and even fewer opportunities to promote one's work. It took four books for me to achieve success with The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas and it's almost impossible to imagine a young writer being given so much time today to build a readership when debut authors are either randomly plucked from the herd or get trampled in the stampede.

I've lost track of how many 'Voices of their Generation' have come and gone since I started out, but have also known too many talented young people whose careers have been cut short because the wind wasn't blowing in their favour.

The survivors from my own generation of Irish writers are a small but talented crew, writers like Claire Kilroy, Paul Murray, Cecelia Ahern and David Mitchell, who's been officially adopted after years spent perfecting his West Cork accent in Clonakilty. We each arrived well after that inspirational collective who were first published in the Eighties and Nineties, but long before the dozens of new writers who have appeared since the mid 2010s. The former carved great individual identities in their work, the latter can sometimes be a little more difficult to distinguish from each other, but the truest and most authentic voices will be uncovered in time. And while not everyone will survive the regular culls, some are too talented and distinctive to let anything stand in their way.

Rob Doyle, a 17th century libertine in the body of a 21st century flâneur, is a breath of fresh air with his genre-defying works. The complex characterisation of Tana French's thrillers makes them more addictive than Haribo jellies. Anne Griffin and Graham Norton have proved that stories featuring older characters are just as valuable as those featuring young, while Donal Ryan is, quite simply, a modern master. Helen Cullen and Emilie Pine have dazzled with their initial publications and, having read many of the stories in Stephen Walsh's forthcoming collection, Shine/Variance, I can see why there's so much industry excitement over this witty and inventive new writer.

On a side note, in the same way that my most popular novel, The Heart's Invisible Furies, would have been unpublishable in the 1950s - it would certainly have been banned and the church would have bought me a one-way ticket to England - I've come to realise that The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas would be difficult to publish in 2020. Eleven million copies sold, published in more than 50 languages, a film, a play, a ballet and an opera, taught in schools all over the world and published on Random House's classics list, but if I submitted that book today, it would almost certainly be returned to me.

While reading and writing has always been about imagining the lives of others, we live in a time where agitators, weaned on a diet of video games, pursue any writer who dares to step outside his or her own life experiences with a policy of attack and destroy, using their smartphones as consoles to shoot their target down. Social media has become more destructive than an asteroid shower. Anyone watching the despicable treatment of JK Rowling in recent times, treatment rooted in nothing more original than good old-fashioned misogyny, will recognise this only too well.

All civilities have been abandoned on Twitter, where self-appointed witch-finders hound people for perceived moral transgressions as they trash reputations, destroy careers, shout down women and pursue that most disgusting of modern phenomena, cancel culture, before taking a quick lap of honour until their own faults are unearthed and they're destroyed in turn.

It's worth remembering that while Robespierre may have been one of the architects of the Terror in the French Revolution, he too eventually found himself lying beneath the blade of the guillotine. Literature remains my passion but, increasingly, it's this very disregard for public decency that makes me feel like taking the JD Salinger route, disappearing from sight, writing for pleasure and allowing all the stresses of a public career to fall from my shoulders. But then I get a good idea and I want to share it with people. And, God help me, my fragile little ego still wants a clap on the back. I guess retirement will have to wait.

'A Traveller at the Gates of Wisdom' by John Boyne is published by Doubleday, out now

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