“I would say there are two types of writers: the intellectual writer and the emotional writer”, says John Boyne.
Having read his best-selling novel, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, with such regularity that my copy has become dog-eared and creased, I am confident I know in which category he falls. “I’m very much the emotional writer”, he says, proving me correct. “When I write a novel, I’m trying to draw emotions out of the reader, whether that be making them laugh or cry or scared. That kind of emotional response to a story – that’s what I want from the reader.”
It is hard to deny that the Irishman has been successful in inducing such emotions from his readers. Over the years, his novels have invariably tackled some of the most evocative of subjects and human experiences through the prism of a historical background.
“Your responsibility is ultimately to the story you’re telling, and to your audience, to make it interesting, moving and sometimes challenging”
I wonder if this can lead to difficulties for Boyne in regards to sacrificing historical accuracy for the purposes of telling a story, particularly in cases where his novels touch some of the most significant points of human history, such as World War One in The Absolutist or the Holocaust in The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. Indeed, as Boyne admits, “there are times where you have to decide whether to stick to the actual fact or not. It’s a balancing act: working out what is important and what you can afford to play with.”
For Boyne, however, it is usually fine to “play with it”. After all, he explains, “your responsibility is ultimately to the story you’re telling, and to your audience, to make it interesting, moving and sometimes challenging.”
Yet I am keen to push him on this point. Referencing The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, a book often studied in schools, I ask him whether the balancing act changes in the knowledge that he may not only be entertaining but also educating. But he remains unmoved from his position, telling me “I would always respond by saying ‘if you want that, go read a piece of non-fiction’. I’ve always maintained that The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is a fable and a work of fiction, and if you write a historical novel, the reader is reading it for entertainment – and it’s up to them how they understand it.”
He continues, noting the importance of encouraging engagement with the historical event, which can mean that “even if the reader is a child, to have [the story] completely accurate is not necessarily what you want.” Backing up his point earnestly, he notes that in relation to The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, the lesson that he hopes comes from the book – justifying his description of it as a “fable” – is that “there are still fights in society against racism, sexism, homophobia and other prejudices that we need to engage in. Hopefully, children will read that book and think about prejudice and its consequences.”
Boyne’s work has often oscillated between being targeted at adults and children. With his most recent novel – entitled The Heart's Invisible Furies – he has returned to the older audience in a characteristically hard-hitting fashion. Only his second novel set in his native Ireland, the book “follows the story of Ireland for 70 years from the 1940s to the week after the Marriage Equality referendum through one person’s eyes and follows how Irish society has changed during that time.
“It’s partly a drama, but there are some elements of comedy, too”, Boyne tells me, before explaining how the reader follows Cyril Avery, the protagonist. The Heart's Invisible Furies documents his struggle to come to terms with his homosexuality. Boyne explains that “in his younger life, [Cyril] is very frightened – mainly because he’s living in a society where homosexuality is illegal – but then, as time goes on and the country changes, he starts to come to terms with it.”
“I don’t aim for cleverness; for me, the reader should put the book down and it’s been a personal experience”
Boyne admits that Cyril’s account, which is written in seven-year jumps, does draw on “some memories and personal experiences” but denies there is any autobiographical element to it. Instead, he tells me, “it’s more interested in how [Ireland] went from a place with that prohibition [on same-sex marriage] to being a country which would be open enough to permit it”.
But while there may be an undercurrent of historical analysis, Boyne is clear that his trademark ability to produce a novel that is poignant and where thought-provoking remains uninhibited. “The thing I don’t like,” he tells me, “is when someone says ‘that book is very clever.’ I don’t aim for cleverness; for me, the reader should put the book down and it’s been a personal experience”.
Perhaps it is this drive and ambition to produce books that tug at the reader’s heartstrings that explains Boyne’s international success. Indeed, this would substantiate his theory that “all writers reflect in their work what they want it to mean to themselves”. Interestingly, however, there may be another factor to his success: his education.
After having discovered Boyne holds a degree in English Literature from Trinity College, Dublin, and continued onto the University of East Anglia, where he studied Creative Writing, I am keen to know how he views such courses: in particular, I ask him whether writing is something that can be taught, or it is more a case of a talent being refined and honed.
“I think it’s the latter,” Boyne says with conviction, observing that, “critics of those courses generally argue you can’t teach writing, but nobody ever says that when people go to art school and drama school.” He continues: “there’s never really an element of teaching in the sense of trying to get everyone to write in the same way – it’s much more of a personal experience, where you take the natural writer and hone them, and channel them, and help them find their own voice to construct stories.”
John Boyne will be giving a reading from, signing copies of, and answering questions about his new book, The Heart’s Invisible Furies, at 6:30pm at Heffers bookshop on Monday 13th February. Details about the event, and how to buy tickets, can be found here
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