JOHN BOYNE interviewed by Trevor Agnew
Trevor Agnew talked to John Boyne in June 2007, after he had finished his Australian tour, and was beginning a New Zealand visit as part of the Storylines Festival.
Trevor Agnew: You were born in Dublin in 1971, and studied English Literature at Trinity College, Dublin. Then in 1994 you entered the famous Creative Writing M.A. course at the University of East Anglia. Ten years later, you returned there as a writer. That must have been a remarkable contrast.
John Boyne: Yes. When I was there as a student, there were only twelve of us on the course. Everybody wanted to be writers. I was quite young when I took it, only 22, and I didn’t know what sort of writer I wanted to be. The thing I really learned from that course was that I had to decide what kind of writer I was going to be.
Ten years later, when I went back, I’d had a few novels published, and was now teaching students the same age as I had been ten years earlier, so there was a sense of accomplishment, that’s for sure. If somebody had told me ten years before that I‘d be back I’d have felt pretty good. I liked the University of East Anglia; it’s a very good university.
Malcolm Bradbury took the course – we were his last group. He retired at the end of our year. I’m glad we got that chance.
TA: You worked in a bookshop for seven years, yet you still wanted to be a writer?
JB: That’s right. When I went to work there first, it was waiting around while I was trying to get published. It was just after I’d done my creative writing degree. Then, of course, the bookshop [Waterstones in Dublin] became one career and trying to get published became another career.
I had published two novels and was working on my third; that was when I decided to write fulltime. I couldn’t really afford to write fulltime at that point but I thought because I was getting promoted – I was managing the shop – and it was becoming too much work
I thought I had to make a decision here: to take a chance and really go for it, or maybe I wouldn’t achieve what I had really wanted to achieve in writing.
So I quit in 2003 and I’ve been writing fulltime ever since.
TA: The bookshop didn’t put you off books?
JB: On the contrary, being around books was where I wanted to be. When I started working there, I was in my 20s and the people there were all aspiring writers, musicians and actors. It was a really good creative feel. I also got to meet novelists who came there to give readings. If anything, it spurred me on.
TA. Your books have a strong historical content, yet you don’t feel you are a writer of historical novels?
JB: I suppose, increasingly, I’m coming round to that. My first two books – The Thief of Time and The Congress of Rough Riders - half the content was historical and half was contemporary.
I don’t see myself as a historical writer in the way that you would say, for example, Philippa Gregory is a historical novelist. I just happen to have chosen subjects which are in the past. I hope to write something which is set in the present, at some point. But also, my themes are often contemporary themes in a historical context
Having said that, I don’t have any problem with being called a historical writer. I just don’t think that it’s necessarily entirely what I’m doing. Also I never fully understand what it means. I think of, say, Alan Hollinghurst’s book The Line of Beauty, which is set in the 1980s: Margaret Thatcher’s England. Is that historical? I’m never entirely sure of the criteria. But I enjoy writing about history. It’s what I enjoy reading a lot. So if that’s what I continue to do, I’m perfectly happy to be called that.
TA: Your other four novels have been for adults, but you have written short stories for children. And they’ve been televised?
JB: Yes, back in Ireland, our national television station, RTE, commissioned me to write some stories – after The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas came out. They have a children’s series, called Story Lane. I wrote five stories for them about a young boy named Ralph. It was something I’d never done. They’re for very young children, from 4 or 5 years old. They were good fun to write and it was nice to see them televised.
TA: This brings us to The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. You began with a vision of a fence: two little boys, Bruno and Shmuel, sitting on either side of a wire fence.
JB: I started writing the book in April 2004. The image I had that made me start the book was just that: I saw these two boys sitting at the fence, just talking to each other. I knew where that fence was, and I knew that theme was going to be at the centre of the book. I knew that it was going to be about them: two boys who didn’t understand what they were doing there, who were trying to understand what sort of place it was and having similar experiences in many ways but very different in other ways.
I just sat down the next morning and started writing it. I knew three things at the start: I knew that moment in the middle, I knew how the book would begin, with Bruno being taken away from his house to a new one (where there would be a portal to a different world, which I think is a common theme in children’s literature) and I knew how the ending would be. I just started trying to draw the lines between those three points
TA: You wrote the first draft of 50,000 words in two and a half days. This suggests an immense creative burst?
JB: I started on a Wednesday morning and finished at Friday lunchtime - which was my birthday. I didn’t sleep on Wednesday or Thursday night. I hadn’t planned when I started it that was the way it was going to work but at some point, late at night, I realised this story had totally taken me over. I felt I had this tone of voice going, I felt the story was working well and I just had this panic that if I didn’t continue to write it, I was going to lose it. I thought maybe something special was happening.
Whatever it was, I just couldn’t stop myself. I finished it on the Friday. As I say, it was my birthday, and I went out that night with a couple of friends and I told them about the book and what I’d been doing. They looked at me and said, ‘You can’t write a book in two and a half days.’
I just couldn’t wait to get home and get up on Saturday morning and go back to the start and see exactly what it was that I had done. I knew that something good had happened, that was definitely better than anything I’d ever written before.
TA: When did you decide to call it a fable?
[A fable is, among other things “a story conveying a moral”]
JB: It was at some point during the editing of one of the drafts. I just thought because I was changing some facts of the camp, and was making it one step away from reality, a little bit, it was better to call it a fable and have it represent all the camps. I thought it would put a halt, right at the start, to some of the potential criticism, you know, that at a camp the fence would be electrified, and so on. I could say ‘It’s a fable; you’re not supposed to look for the absolute, definitive facts. It’s a fiction with a moral at the centre of it.’
TA: You offered this book to David Fickling – a children’s publisher. You saw it as being for younger readers?
JB: Yes, I did. When I went over and gave it to my agent, I wrote ‘a children’s novel’ on the title page. So, in the first instance, I wanted children to read it. I thought there was no reason why adults couldn’t come to it as well. But I thought the book would work best from coming to children first.
I thought there was no particular reason why children couldn’t read adult books, you know, historical stories and things. But I did want this to be read by children at the start.
TA: So, children were the specific audience you had in mind as you were working through the seven or eight redrafts?
JB: Yes, definitely. I was trying to see things from the point-of-view of a child.
TA: It’s also become very popular with adults. I notice that the publishers produced both a children’s and an adult’s editions.
JB: The difference is only the jacket and the type-face. There’s no difference in the words, in the actual book itself. It’s just one of those quirky publisher’s things.
TA: Do you have any idea why The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas has crossed over so well into adult readership?
JB: I don’t really know. A lot of it has been word-of-mouth. I think it’s a slightly new perspective on a subject which has been explored so many times in fiction. By taking a child’s point-of-view on it, it’s just something fascinating.
I don’t really know why people have taken so much to it. I’m just glad they have. Maybe the ending of the book inspires people to tell their friends about it.
TA: You seem to have found a difference in the response to this book between actual holocaust survivors, who haven’t raised objections – and others, such as their descendants and concerned groups, some of whom have raised concerns about your novel.
JB: I think sometimes there’s a sort of political correctness that people have. I have found that some of the criticisms that have come my way in letters and e-mails are not particularly well thought-out. They’re things that I can quite easily swat away.
I didn’t write this book from the point of view of the Jewish character [Shmuel]. I wrote it from the point of view of the non-Jewish character [Bruno]. I’m not Jewish so that seemed appropriate.
I’ve always been aware of Elie Wiesel's phrase that ‘If you weren’t there, don’t write about it.’ But at the same time, I think that twenty years from now, what does that mean? Does nobody write about it any more? At the same time we are told that people should keep writing about it, and that it should never be forgotten. So I feel that if you have got an interesting story to tell, and it’s going to get people talking, that’s a good thing. Surely even bad books about the holocaust should be welcome.
TA: You visit schools, to talk to classes. How do young people respond to the story?
JB: Very well. Whenever I go to a school, I always say to the teacher in advance that the children have got to read the book first. So they’ve read the book first. Then what I tend to find is, depending on how much education they’ve already had around that subject matter, their questions will vary. They tend to ask a lot about the scenes that end in moments of violence that you don’t see. They want to know what happened, for example, to Pavel the waiter. They want to know about the closing scenes.
So I think they have a relationship with the boys by that stage and they want to actually know. I turn it back on them and I say ‘What do you think happens?’ And we get a conversation going.
TA: I like your use of Bruno’s viewpoint. We see things almost entirely from his angle, with his nine year-old understanding.
JB: Sometimes there are hints given to Bruno that he brushes off. Whether he doesn’t want to hear them, or is just too young to grasp them, is up to you.
TA: “He doesn’t understand you. He’s only nine,” says Gretel. Everyone asks if a nine year-old boy could have been that naïve? Bruno doesn’t even seem to be aware there is a war on.
JB: Naivety is often seen with the hindsight of history. He is a young boy, who has grown up in a house where his father has always worn a uniform, where there are soldiers always running to and fro. It’s nothing new to him. It’s the way it’s always been. The war’s been going on for four years, since he was five. The war’s nothing new to him. It’s what happens in the world; there are soldiers, there are wars.
He’s naïve in relation to a nine year old today but I think he’s a perfectly normal nine year-old for the times.
TA: Bruno’s statement that “Germany is the greatest of all countries…We’re superior.” suggests he has gained an inkling of Nazi philosophy.
JB: Bruno tends to parrot phrases that he has heard. And he gets them a bit wrong, like his sister Gretel being a ‘hopeless case’, for example. He has heard these things and he doesn’t fully understand them but he likes to repeat them to make himself sound more grown-up. I think kids do that a lot.
There are a lot of phrases in the book that Bruno uses which are adult phrases, that are humorous when they come out of his mouth.
TA: Gretel puts away her dolls and starts moving pins on maps. Does this mean she has got the message?
JB: She’s a few years older and she’s getting more brainwashed into it by something very simple; that is Lt Kotler. I suppose what she’s representing is those young people who blindly walk into a genocide and are willing to be a part of it.
TA: There are plenty of people around who have denied massacres and genocide, both in history and today. They don’t have Bruno’s lack of knowledge. Even as you were writing this novel, David Irving was denying the very existence of gas chambers at Auschwitz.
Is this why critics keep worrying away at Bruno’s naiveté?
JB: I’m often surprised that people like David Irving are given space in newspapers.
It is the writings of a madman, so why do people listen, why do they report it? The simplest way to deal with people like David Irving is to stop reporting on it.
TA: Your story is skilful in passing clues to the reader that Bruno doesn’t notice.
Maria, Grandmother, Mother and even Father all hint at the terrible things being done. Well Grandmother says it straight out.
JB: Grandmother; she’s the one voice of reason. Her voice will have to be silenced. She represents those people, that small minority of people, who would have stood up and said ‘No, this is wrong.’ And because those are the things she’s saying, she has to die because those voices were silenced.
TA: It’s an alarming moment when Bruno’s mother addresses Lt Kotler as “Precious”.
JB: And there’s also the part where Bruno says one of the reasons he doesn’t like Lt Kotler is because, even when Father is away, Kotler is in the house so early in the morning that he’s there even there before Bruno gets up. The reader thinks ‘there’s something more going on here.’ Bruno, of course, doesn’t recognise that.
TA: Mother says,“War is not a fit subject for conversation.” Is there any subject unsuitable for children?
JB: It is not about subjects. It’s about how you write about them. It’s about context.
I don’t think that there are any subjects that you can’t explore in children’s literature. But you’ve got to be sensitive. You’ve got to be careful. You’ve got to think about your audience and not try to frighten them. At the same time I’m not trying to shrug off what you’re talking about.
TA: The publisher’s comment on the book is interesting: “We think it is important that you start to read without knowing what it is about.” Was that your idea?
JB: It was David Fickling’s idea. David wrote that, he sent it to me and asked me what I thought and I said ‘Don’t change a word.” I thought it was spot on.
If you don’t know anything about the book when you start it, then you go on the same journey as Bruno. You ask who is this kid, why is he moving away, what’s he seen outside the window?
If you do know the subject matter, then you don’t have quite the same situation but if you know nothing of the subject matter at all, then you’re going to feel exactly the same thing as Bruno. And then the penny drops, at some point.
TA: Yet one of your most favourable reviews – by Kathryn Hughes in the Guardian (21 Jan 2006) clumps right through the plot to the end, giving everything away! Your response?
TA: She revealed the ending! Even if she assumed that only adults would read it, that’s ridiculous to give away the ending of something. Especially when it’s an ending that is one of the key moments in the book. You don’t want to be told that.
TA: The American edition carries an Author’s Note, where you say: “I believe the only respectful way for me to deal with this subject was through the eyes of a child…a rather naïve child, who couldn’t possibly understand the terrible things that were taking place around him. For after all, only the victims and survivors can truly comprehend the awfulness of that time and place; the rest of us live on the other side of the fence, staring through from our own comfortable place, trying in our own clumsy ways to make sense of it all.”
That’s a marvellous image – why didn’t the rest of the world get a chance to read it?
JB: The UK edition came out in January . The American edition came out in September. And in those months in between, I think, there was nervousness on the part of America. So in some ways I needed to defend the book before it was published.
Whether I did the right thing or the wrong thing, what I wrote in that Author’s Note is absolutely true and valid and I stand by it. Whether I needed to write it or not, I’m not so sure. But anyway I did it.
That bit you just read is very much the point. There’s a bit when Bruno first looked out of his room and asked ‘Who are all the people on that side of the fence and what are they all doing there?’
And that’s what I’m doing as an author, going up to that fence every day and looking through and asking the same questions as Bruno. He is representing me in many ways.
TA: They’re filming The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. You have confidence that the essence can be translated into another medium?
JB: I do. They’re right in the middle of filming it now. They were about five weeks into it, with four weeks to go, when I visited them before I came out to Australia and New Zealand. Mark Herman, the director, gave me drafts of the screenplay as he wrote it and I think it’s a very faithful adaptation. There’s a few things in, a few things out, of course, as it’s translated to screen but it’s all there, the characters are there, the ending is there. I think it’s a very faithful adaptation. On what I have seen so far, what I saw on set, and what I saw on DVD from previous weeks, seemed to me to take the story and be very sensitive to it.
I have to say I’m very optimistic that they’re going to do a good job on it.
TA: You’ve had a busy time in Australia and soon in New Zealand. We know what you’ve brought to us – and we are grateful. What will you be taking back to Dublin?
JB: The great enthusiasm of the Australian audiences towards the book. I’ve spoken to larger crowds, in Sydney crowds of up to 700 to 800 people! To experience that, to walk into a theatre with that many people in it, and to discuss the book with people who love it and are passionate about it too! And to be able to talk to Markus Zusak [author of The Book Thief] which was very interesting as well; to take two books which explore a subject from very different points-of-view.
So it’s been great to come to somewhere where there’s so much enthusiasm for the book. I feel now, after a year and a half, I’m on the back end of promoting this book, that I’m no longer going to countries to get people interested in it. I’m going to countries where people are already interested. I feel that I’m going to answer their questions and meet readers of the book. So that’s quite nice.
Three good comments from the 7 June 2007 Storylines meeting.
“I had a good idea. It was about a fence.”
“I don’t pay any tax. I’m an Irish writer.”
Question: Many have sought the significance of the birth-date shared by Shmuel and Bruno. Is it a key event in German history?
John chuckles. "The date is rather more personal. April 15th 1934 is my father’s birthday. In a way the book is about some of the possible lives my father could have had if he’d been born elsewhere.”