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An au­thor who shot to fame with a dev­as­tat­ing best­seller for chil­dren re­turns to Norwich for UAE lit­er­ary fes­ti­val

EDP Norfolk - - INSIDE - WORDS: Rowan Man­tell

UEA alum­nus John Boyne back in the city for fes­ti­val

John Boyne does not shy away from dark­ness. He tack­led the hor­ror of the Holo­caust in a novel for chil­dren. His lat­est book fo­cuses on a so­cio­pathic anti-hero who cheats, lies and steals his way to­wards star­dom, with sec­tions set in Ber­lin, Italy’s Amalfi coast, New York, Lon­don – and Norwich. A Lad­der to the Sky has been de­scribed as a “de­li­ciously dark tale of am­bi­tion, se­duc­tion and lit­er­ary theft.”

Real peo­ple wan­der in and out of the novel, along­side in­vented char­ac­ters like Mau­rice Swift – as­pir­ing writer, charm­ing se­ducer, beau­ti­ful, ir­re­sistible and un­set­tling, who in­sin­u­ates him­self into the lives of the vul­ner­a­ble.

Mau­rice comes to Norwich with his wife, who is about to start teach­ing on the real univer­sity cre­ative writ­ing course which helped launch John’s ca­reer. Did John base any­thing of Mau­rice on him­self or any other writer?

“Mau­rice is nar­cis­sis­tic, vain, in­se­cure, ma­nip­u­la­tive and deadly hand­some. So no, I didn’t base him on my­self! At least, not in­ten­tion­ally. His ini­tial ge­n­e­sis came from some­one I knew a lit­tle, but the char­ac­ter grew from there. Over 20 years of pub­lish­ing I’ve met and got to know a lot of writ­ers and per­haps there’s a lit­tle of all of us in him.”

John stud­ied for a mas­ters de­gree in cre­ative writ­ing at the Univer­sity of East Anglia, re­turn­ing 10 years later as a tu­tor, and then to re­ceive an honorary doc­tor­ate from the univer­sity. He is one of the many suc­cess sto­ries from the in­ter­na­tion­ally fa­mous cre­ative writ­ing course, with fel­low alumni in­clud­ing Ian McEwan, Kazuo Ishig­uro and Rose Tre­main.

Why is the course so suc­cess­ful? “I think it be­comes self-ful­fill­ing in a way,” said John. “There have been so many suc­cess­ful and tal­ented grad­u­ates of the course that the best as­pir­ing writ­ers ap­ply to UEA first. So we get the cream of the crop, so to speak. And once those writ­ers are on cam­pus, they’re chal­lenged to live up to the achieve­ments of those who have gone be­fore.”

John’s 2006 novel The Boy in the Striped Py­ja­mas was an in­ter­na­tional best­seller and was made into a Mi­ra­max fea­ture film. The tragic story is told by a child, with the loom­ing hor­ror, out­side and in, clos­ing in and even­tu­ally en­gulf­ing char­ac­ters, set­ting and child­hood it­self.

A Lad­der to the Sky is also a tense, com­pelling read, but shot through with hu­mour, about a man who steals other peo­ple’s sto­ries. “The course taught me to find my own voice,” said John. “When I ar­rived at UEA in Oc­to­ber 1994 as a 23-year-old, most of the sto­ries I was writ­ing were in im­i­ta­tion of writ­ers I ad­mired. I learned to stop be­ing a mimic and, even­tu­ally, how to write in my own style.”

He fell in love with the his­tory and at­mos­phere of Norwich. “And I like how UEA is si­t­u­ated a lit­tle away from the cen­tre so you can just de­cide to hang around there all day, take a walk around the lake, have a cof­fee in one of the bars. It’s al­ways been very friendly to me, which is why I keep re­turn­ing.” He will be in­ter­viewed by friend and fel­low-writer Jean McNeil at the Lit­er­ary Fes­ti­val in Norwich this month and said: “I imag­ine the fact that some of this novel takes place on the cre­ative writ­ing MA will come up at some point. And prob­a­bly just the craft of writ­ing it­self.”

NJohn Boyne will be at the Univer­sity of East Anglia, Norwich, on Wednes­day, March 13 as part of the UEA Spring Lit­er­ary Fes­ti­val. Three more writ­ers, thinkers and speak­ers will be tak­ing part in the Fes­ti­val this month. Gina Miller, au­thor of mem­oir Rise, took the gov­ern­ment to court over its author­ity to in­voke ar­ti­cle 50 and trig­ger Brexit. She is at UEA on March 6. Rachel Cusk will speak on March 20 and Max Porter on March 27. Full de­tails from uea.ac.uk/lit­fest/tick­ets

A Lad­der to the Sky, by John Boyne, is pub­lished in pa­per­back by Black Swan for £8.99.

‘The best as­pir­ing writ­ers ap­ply to UEA first. So we get the cream of the crop, so to speak’

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