Monday 16 September 2019

'There is this misperception that all of the letters in LGBT completely understand each other' - John Boyne on his new book, backlash, sex, divorce, and moving on

Bestselling author John Boyne's new novel has been greeted with a storm of protests. He spoke to Donal Lynch about the book, about sex and grief, moving on after his divorce and excessive fawning over some Irish authors

Author John Boyne. Photo: Kyran O'Brien
Author John Boyne. Photo: Kyran O'Brien
Nuala O'Faolain
Oscar Wilde
John McGahern

John Boyne

It's been a tumultuous few days for John Boyne. The liberal furies of modern Ireland have come for him. He has written a novel - My Brother's Name Is Jessica - which deals with a young boy's reaction to his sister being transgender.

To promote the book, he wrote a piece in The Irish Times in which he rejected the label of 'cisgender' (meaning people who are not transgender) and discussed the involvement of everyone from Father Ted writer Graham Linehan to tennis legend Martina Navratilova, in the trans debate.

A follow-up piece by trans woman and activist Aoife Martin accused Boyne of failing to check his privilege and the author spent the following weekend caught in a Twitterstorm, vilified on one side by transgender people who consider him sorely mistaken in even wanting a "discussion", and on the other by transphobes disquieted by the idea of a beloved children's author approaching such a fraught theme.

Boyne says he has no problem with Martin's piece, but takes issue with the onslaught of online invective which rained down on him as soon as the piece and the book were published.

"I went online the other day and saw that the book had been given all of these one star reviews by people who said 'I haven't read it and I'm not going to read it'. I was surprised at how much of a reaction it provoked. There is this misperception that all of the letters in LGBT completely understand each other. I didn't fully understand it all. I think the Navratilova thing (she recently wrote that trans women who compete in women's sports are 'cheating', and was promptly dropped by several LGBT sports groups) is crazy - the fact that you're not allowed hold a conversation now is incredible."

As with his seminal work, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, Boyne's latest work uses the device of a child observing, and being himself transformed by the world that is revealed. He says this narrative was in part inspired by witnessing the transitioning process in a close friend.

"She had been a boy and was becoming a girl," he explains. "She had done all the hormones and her body was changing. She was a really good looking girl and had been a slight, pretty guy and in my naivete I asked lots of questions. She told me that when you're in a club and a straight guy hits on you there is a potential for trouble. There is always a potential for violence, for instance. In the book, Sam, the narrator, is taking my part, trying to understand, and saying things that are potentially offensive without meaning to be offensive." Growing up gay in theocratic Ireland gives him an insight into the difficult process that trans people must embark upon, he says. "There is a comparison. You are a minority and have to be brave when you come out. Alienating people like me, or Martina, is not the best move." The accusation that he is 'appropriating' a transgender story is also baseless, he adds. "It's not always the best idea to write about what you know - which is what aspiring writers are told to do - I prefer to write about what I don't know. Someone said that's like having a surgeon operate on body parts he doesn't know. It just seemed like such a stupid analogy. The stakes are so different for one thing."

Outsider children have always been something of a theme in Boyne's work and growing up he was something of an outsider himself. He went to Terenure College where he says he "wasn't even noticeable enough to be bullied".

There was one teacher there "who really inspired me," Boyne recalls. "I've often told this story at events: when I was 15 or 16 a teacher of mine gave us a list of books to read over the summer holidays and he said it's not a test, just read them and you'll be better for it. I started with Primo Levi and that got me into my interest in the Holocaust. That teacher also took me on a course for the modern novel for the Leaving Cert. So he had a big influence on me." 

He studied English at Trinity College and came out when he was 22, but still felt lingering issues to do with his sexuality. He was "terrified" of going into The George (a popular gay nightspot in Dublin) and had a strange feeling he would be "torn limb from limb".

"I went in by myself, I didn't have any gay friends. I would've just hovered in a corner with a pint, until I found someone equally frightened and nervous."

His romantic life in those years was a wasteland. A passage in one of his books, The Heart's Invisible Furies, comes close to describing it, he says: "I could number more sexual partners in my history than anyone I knew but the difference between love and sex could be summed up for me in eight words: 'I loved Julian; I had sex with strangers'."

"There was a lot of me, the person, in that book," he explains. "In my early 20s sex was something done in darkness and hidden away. Walking down the street hand-in-hand with someone didn't seem like an option anyway. Most of the experiences I had in my late teens and early 20s were one-offs and probably if you saw the person on the street a week later you'd barely recognise them. It made it feel like something dirty and wrong. I did eventually move past that though."

If his love life was somewhat desolate, his belief in his abilities as a writer was unwavering. Alongside a day job in Waterstones booksellers, he wrote obsessively and set himself the target of being published before the age of 30. Two rejected novels didn't knock him off his stride. "I didn't feel any great sense of despair. I felt that was what was supposed to happen. My plan was to get published by 30 and it happened when I was 29. I didn't want to spend my life doing something I wasn't good at."

He published four novels which were well received, but, he concedes, "didn't set the world alight". Then, in 2006, came The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, which was a bona fide publishing sensation across the world, and was later adapted for a successful film. "Everything in my life is before Bruno (the book's protagonist) and after Bruno," he says. "It came out and everything changed. It gave me everything I have."

The mid-noughties were something of a golden period in his personal life too. In 2005 he met his future husband, Con, on a blind date, and nine years later they had a civil union. They had 14 years together in total, but last month faced each other in a divorce court.

"It's been a rough couple of years, the worst couple of years, but there has been some closure. The day and week itself were pretty horrible. You go to court, you both have to be there. We talked to each other afterwards and had a hug. By the nature of it, there is going to be one person who is very glad it's happening and one who isn't. I'm not glad it happened, but I've lost my anger toward Con. Now I wish him well."

How does he feel when he looks back on the relationship? "At my worst moments I look back and say it was all a lie and all terrible. But that's not true. We were very loving and have had wonderful experiences together and the fact that it didn't work out in the long-term hasn't negated it. When (a marriage breakdown) happens you get into a real victim mentality of 'oh this is terrible and what did I ever do to deserve this?', but lots of people go through it and come out the other side of it."

Does he think he will be able to continue a friendship with Con? "It's not possible to stay in touch with him right now, I think in five years we can look back and remember good times as well as saying terrible things and doing terrible things, or not. We hopefully won't have grudges or feel love or anything. But maybe he would never want to see me again, and that would be fine too."

He tried professional help to cope with the aftermath of the breakup, but found it wasn't for him. "I tried it, but I'm really not someone who locks all their feelings up. I'll bore people for hours about my feelings, if they'll let me. So I didn't really feel I had to sit with a stranger and pour everything out to them. I felt really awkward and uncomfortable doing that."

He's gone on a few dates since the breakup, but his renown as a writer turns out to be a double-edged sword. "The tricky thing is going on a date with someone where they know much more about you than you know about them. The date becomes kind of like an interview. They've questions like 'did you always want to be a writer?', whereas you really want a date to be a blank slate where you learn about the person and they learn about you. There's a lot you can google about me, unfortunately. The worst thing anyone has ever said to me was 'when I was in school you came in to give us a talk'. It made me feel like such a sicko, so I didn't pursue that one."

In the aftermath of the breakup he did a gut renovation of his house in Rathfarnham and he says this was one of the key steps he took. He walked out one day, handed the keys to an interior designer, and kept in touch with the ongoing process by WhatsApp. He was thrilled with the results.

"I got rid of everything - toasters, kettles, knives, forks. I wanted a psychological clean slate. Even though the house was physically in the same place, the rooms were completely different, even the orientation of the rooms had changed. Because I work from home it feels like a safe space, and it's near to my family which is important. I've basically run out of things to do now, so I may have to start over."

Given that he owned the house, how did he and Con divide their property? "We came to an arrangement and there was no acrimony over that. The only real disagreement came from the fact that he wanted to break up and I didn't."

He says part of the thrill of writing is its solitary nature. "I like being alone but when I'm with people I'm a bit of a drama queen - I want all the attention! Maybe it's a consequence of talking about myself all the time."

He's been reading a lot of short stories lately and has been writing a lot about them, but he has been flagging recently.

"I had to take a break, I got to number 100," he explains. "It was a new year's resolution. I'm planning on writing about the stories as a book. But it might be a two-year, rather than a one-year project."

While he enjoys writing about other writers, the mutual backslapping of the Irish publishing world grates on him. "I don't think it's very healthy for writers or readers. The constant 'everything is a masterpiece' fawning just amuses me - what do you say then when an actual masterpiece arrives? There is huge unwarranted hype around some Irish writers."

He's 47 now but still feels like he is 25, and there is a boyish quality to him, remarked upon in many of his interviews. "I still have as much fun as I can," he says. "I like the idea of being boyish! The last few years have been tough, but I'm feeling good now. There is a lot of life left to live."

'My Brother's Name Is Jessica' is published by Penguin


Irish writers who stirred up controversy

Nuala O'Faolain

Nuala O'Faolain

Colm Toibin once said Nuala O'Faolain's quietly iconoclastic autobiography, Are You Somebody?, was "like shattering glass" and there was no doubt that the now-deceased Dublin woman pushed the envelope with her descriptions of love, sex and alcoholism. Her openness about her long and passionate relationship with fellow writer Nell McCafferty was also shocking when the book was published in 1997 but the book's brilliance and Nuala's legacy meant that her work outlived all controversy.

Oscar Wilde

Oscar Wilde

In the 1880s the mere mention of Wilde's name was enough to provoke ripples of laughter among West End audiences; the Irish writer's notoriety had made him a delicious sort of punchline. His early works were all about the delights of sin and boredom of virtue but after his ill-fated libel trial he changed his mind and decided that life was mainly about pain and grief. His famous description of his sexuality as "the love that dare not speak its name" became a mantra for the gay rights movement in the decades after his death.

John McGahern

John McGahern

McGahern is possibly the most underrated writer in our pantheon. He never sought out headlines or notoriety but in the Ireland of his young adulthood his work counted as shocking. One of his essays begins: "We are sexual from the moment we are born until the moment we die…" He was fired from his job as a schoolteacher due to the controversy over his novel, The Dark. The book was banned in Ireland due to the implication of incest and what was then seen as pornographic content.

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