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