‘Tril­ogy books like the Hunger Games are like Happy Meals’

John Boyne, the best-sell­ing au thor of The Boy in the Striped Py­ja­mas who is ap­pear­ing at the Emi­rates Air­line Fes­ti­val of Lit­er­a­ture, tells Shreeja Ravin­dranathan he hates books that dumb down for chil­dren

Friday - - Motoring -

J ohn Boyne laughs when he’s asked whether he re­ally did take less than three days to write the first draft of his most fa­mous work, the award-win­ning The Boy

in the Striped Py­ja­mas. “Yes,” he says. “I wrote for 60 solid hours, only tak­ing a break be­tween chap­ters for a cup of tea or a sand­wich. Usu­ally I have an idea for a book and I think about it for a long time be­fore start­ing to write, but when I had that idea I started writ­ing it the next day... The story seemed to take me over and I couldn’t walk away from it.”

The book ex­plores the re­la­tion­ship be­tween two chil­dren who live in ad­ja­cent homes sep­a­rated by a fence. It went on to be­come a New York Times best-seller and a crit­i­cally ac­claimed film di­rected by Mark Her­man.

But Boyne, who’s sin­gle and lives in Dublin, is far from a desk-bound her­mit. In fact, the award-win­ning writer – he bagged two Ir­ish Book Awards and the Bisto Book of the Year (now known as CBI Book of the Year) a lit­er­ary award pre­sented in Ire­land to writ­ers and il­lus­tra­tors of books for

chil­dren and youth – treats his work like any other day job.

“Al­ways an early riser, I’m usu­ally up by 6.30am at the lat­est,” he says in an exclusive in­ter­view with Fri­day. “Four morn­ings a week I go to the gym first thing. It’s im­por­tant for a writer – who nat­u­rally leads a seden­tary life – to get ex­er­cise as this fu­els the cre­ative process. I work on a new novel in the morn­ing and early af­ter­noon, fin­ish­ing around 2.30pm. I never write at night.”

Boyne, 42, has the distinc­tion of be­ing one of the few au­thors to have been si­mul­ta­ne­ously suc­cess­ful as both an adult and chil­dren’s fic­tion writer, hav­ing sold more than 4 mil­lion copies of his 12 books, in­clud­ing the most re­cent Stay­Where

You Are Then Leave. His works have also been trans­lated into 46 lan­guages.

Boyne’s fans in the UAE will have the op­por­tu­nity to quiz him about

Stay... to­day at the Emi­rates Air­line Fes­ti­val of Lit­er­a­ture, where’s he’s host­ing a ses­sion be­tween 11.30am and 12.30pm and both chil­dren and adults are wel­come.

“I en­joy writ­ing for the dif­fer­ent au­di­ences,” he says. “In my adult nov­els I tend to write from a first­per­son per­spec­tive and get deep in­side the psy­chol­ogy of a char­ac­ter; in my books for younger read­ers, I write in the third per­son and have a more global view on the story. But the process of writ­ing a novel is what in­ter­ests me, it’s not as im­por­tant who the au­di­ence is in­tended to be.”

Boyne started writ­ing at the age of 11 “by tak­ing char­ac­ters from fairy tale books I loved and writ­ing new sto­ries for them.

“I love the process of build­ing a story to­wards an hon­est res­o­lu­tion and knew from a very young age that this is what I wanted to do with my life,” he says.

Sen­si­tiv­ity is in­te­gral to ev­ery­thing Boyne does, writes, says and ap­proaches… Ev­ery­thing ex­cept medi­ocre young adult fic­tion.

“I think there are two types of chil­dren’s fic­tion be­ing pub­lished to­day – chal­leng­ing, un­com­pro­mis­ing nov­els that re­spect the in­tel­li­gence of their read­ers from writ­ers such as Malo­rie Black­man, [ Noughts and Crosses], Philip Pull­man [ His Dark Ma­te­ri­als tril­ogy] and Michael Mor­purgo [ War Horse].

“And then there are the trilo­gies, the quadrolo­gies and the longer se­ries that all have their eyes on the film adap­ta­tions, the theme park rides and the Happy Meals.” Mass-sell­ing se­rial nov­els like

The Hunger Games and The Twi­light Saga, Boyne feels, lack in in­tel­li­gent con­tent un­like CS Lewis’ Nar­nia se­ries, of which he is a great fan.

Ac­cord­ing to the Ir­ish au­thor, a book should not be writ­ten with the idea that it would be made into

a movie. “I’m al­ways more in­ter­ested in the for­mer and have no pa­tience for the lat­ter,” he says.

His in­ter­est in writ­ing has paid off, but suc­cess didn’t come easy and in­volved six years of writ­ing while work­ing atWater­stone’s book­shop to pay the bills af­ter gain­ing two de­grees in English Lit­er­a­ture and Cre­ativeWrit­ing from the renowned Trin­ity Col­lege, Dublin and Univer­sity of East Anglia, where he won the pres­ti­gious Cur­tis Brown award for the best writer of prose fic­tion.

But Boyne puts paid to the mis­con­cep­tion that cre­ative writ­ing cour­ses teach people how to write. “They pro­vide a fo­rum where people can be in­spired by each other and have read­ers for their work,” he says.

“I was very young, only 23, when I un­der­took that course. I went in think­ing I knew ev­ery­thing about writ­ing and it broke me down al­most im­me­di­ately so that I had to start from scratch. I had no plan B; it was writ­ing or noth­ing.”

He per­se­vered in writ­ing and the rest is his­tory. Which is just as well, be­cause Boyne has a habit of cre­at­ing nar­ra­tives around char­ac­ters and sto­ries that al­ready ex­ist – one that draws him in part to his­tor­i­cal set­tings time af­ter time in his nov­els.

Boyne says it was never his in­ten­tion to set the ma­jor­ity of his book against ma­jor his­tor­i­cal events – right from his first novel The Thief

of Time cov­er­ing over 250 years of world his­tory from Paris in 1758 to Hol­ly­wood of the 1920s.

His­tory, Boyne feels, serves as the per­fect nar­ra­tive ve­hi­cle for get­ting across uni­ver­sal and sig­nif­i­cant themes.

“Look­ing back, I’m a lit­tle sur­prised. I didn’t set out with that [set­ting most of his sto­ries with a

‘Chil­dren can han­dle more se­ri­ous topics than we give them credit for’

his­tor­i­cal back­drop] in mind. I only wanted to write.”

How­ever, some crit­ics have claimed his his­tor­i­cal fic­tion has el­e­ments of the es­capism of fan­tasy fic­tion. To this, Boyne dryly sug­gests

I Claudius by Robert Graves, Wil­liam Gold­ing’s Rites of Pas­sage tril­ogy or David Mitchell’s Cloud At­las.

“A good novel is a good novel; the time pe­riod it is set in is ir­rel­e­vant,” he in­sists.

And he doesn’t ac­cept be­ing squared away as a his­tor­i­cal writer. “I sim­ply call my­self a writer. How other people cat­e­gorise what I do is a mat­ter for them.” His lat­est book for adults, The

Haunted House, is a spook fest set in 19th Century Lon­don.

And his next A His­tory of Lone­li­ness – “A fully con­tem­po­rary novel that runs from the 1960s to the present day” – is due out this Septem­ber.

While the ex­trav­a­gance of 20th Century Rus­sia was the set­ting for

The House of Spe­cial Pur­pose and the

ex­oti­cism of Syd­ney of The Ter­ri­ble Thing That Hap­pened to Barnaby Brocket,

A His­tory... is set in his na­tive Ire­land. He says there are many sto­ries that can be told us­ing his­tor­i­cal set­tings but with con­tem­po­rary themes. “Es­pe­cially in the case of chil­dren. They are a re­silient lot and can han­dle more se­ri­ous topics than we give them credit for.”

It’s a be­lief he bol­sters in Stay... a novel about a young boy deal­ing with the reper­cus­sions the First­World­War has on his fam­ily. “I think if a story is writ­ten in a care­ful and sen­si­tive way, not to trau­ma­tise young read­ers but to move them, then chil­dren are ca­pa­ble of com­ing to terms with any re­al­ity from the past,” he says. “We shouldn’t write down, but cre­ate in­ter­est­ing, un­ex­pected sto­ries for young people with end­ings that will leave them ask­ing ques­tions.”

Does it take years of re­search to get the his­tor­i­cal facts right? “Not re­ally,” he says, adding that he al­ways chooses a sub­ject, time or place that in­ter­ests him.

“I start with nov­els that were writ­ten at the time my book is set be­cause one falls much eas­ier into the lan­guage of the time and the id­iom by do­ing that.

“If pos­si­ble I spend some time in the place where the book is set. For ex­am­ple with

The House of Spe­cial Pur­pose, I wrote most of the Rus­sian sec­tions in the Win­ter Palace.

“When I start writ­ing, how­ever, I put the re­search away and just start to cre­ate. The abil­ity to main­tain a bal­ance be­tween truth and imag­i­na­tion comes with the ex­pe­ri­ence of hav­ing writ­ten so many nov­els and hav­ing de­voted my adult life to writ­ing fic­tion.

“I feel that I un­der­stand the novel struc­ture and am able to in­stinc­tively make de­ci­sions about the proper line be­tween facts and imag­i­na­tion.” Learn the tricks of the trade from Boyne at his ‘36 Things I know aboutWrit­ing’ work­shop to­mor­row be­tween 11.30am and 12.30pm at the Emi­rates Air­line Fes­ti­val of Lit­er­a­ture.

Boyne started writ­ing when he was just 11

It took Boyne just three days to write the first draft of The Boy in the Striped Py­ja­mas


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