John Boyne: Getting to the Heart of Story, Character and History

photo: Rich Gilligan

John Boyne is an Irish novelist who has written 10 books for adults and five for younger readers, including the New York Times bestseller The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, which also was made into a film. His work has been translated into 51 languages and has received numerous awards. Boyne is a regular book reviewer for Irish Times. He lives in Dublin, the city where he was born.

You dedicate The Heart's Invisible Furies to the author John Irving and indeed, this novel feels very "Irving-like." Is he one of your literary influences?

I read The Cider House Rules when I was 17 years old and quickly devoured all of John Irving's novels. Since then, he has been my favourite novelist. I admire his storytelling abilities but also his empathy for what he has always described as "sexual misfits." John was writing about transgender people, for example, in The World According to Garp, long before that was a subject that was talked about. When I published my first novel, The Thief of Time, in 2000, I sent John a copy of the book and a fan letter, telling him how much he had inspired me and he very kindly read the novel and wrote back. Since then we have become good friends and seen each other on many occasions. He has been a real mentor to me over the years and has given me some great advice. When I am with him, I still have to pinch myself and think I'm friends with John Irving! I wanted to dedicate a novel to him to thank him for his support and, because the subject matter of this novel ties in with the subject matter of some of his books, this felt like the right one.

Which other authors have influenced your career as a writer?

There are so many other writers who I admire but a quick list would include John Banville, Anne Tyler, Christos Tsiolkas, Damon Galgut, Sarah Waters, Colm Tóibín, Philip Hensher, Jonathan Coe, Rose Tremain... the list goes on and on.

You describe The Heart's Invisible Furies as your most ambitious work to date. Can you say more about this?

It is ambitious because it's set over 70 years of Irish history, from the end of the Second World War in 1945 to just after the Marriage Equality Act of 2015. I didn't want the novel to become just a history book, however. It was important that story and character lay at the heart of everything.

Was this a particularly difficult novel to write?

It was certainly a complex book to write because each chapter sees Cyril, the narrator, at a different point in his life--seven years later each time--and he had to be different and yet the same, if that makes any sense! Different in that he would have changed in the seven years since we last met him, but the same in that his voice needed to be recognisable each time. However, it was a lot of fun to write because for the first time in my writing career I was employing humour and once the jokes started falling onto the page, they just kept coming.

The structure of the novel--spanning from the 1940s through 2008, with an epilogue that occurs in 2015--seems to reflect the trajectory of society's response to LGBTQ rights and increasing awareness and acceptance, alongside Cyril's life and experiences. Were you conscious of these parallels as you were writing?

Yes, definitely. I wanted Cyril to represent the country and how it has evolved over those 70 years. Although Cyril is gay, he is very frightened of that fact when he is a younger man and is terrified of the consequences of anyone finding out. He lies to himself, he lies to his friends and he lies to a woman he plans to marry. Homosexuality was still illegal in Ireland until the early 1990s, so it was a very difficult place for any gay man or woman to be. But eventually he starts to change, he begins to accept who he is and becomes proud of that. And so it is with Ireland itself, which has evolved for the better over those years. In 2015, we became the first country in the world to vote for equal rights marriage by public plebiscite and, only this year, elected a gay Taoiseach [Prime Minister]. I think Cyril would be proud of that!

Your personal philanthropy includes funding a creative writing scholarship for Irish authors. Why is supporting the arts critical to a sustainable culture? 

I was a student on that same creative writing course at the University of East Anglia in the 1990s and, like most students, I was flat broke and could barely afford to eat some days. I have been very fortunate in my career, and wanted to do something positive. I decided to set up the scholarship for Irish students on the course, paying the fees for one student each year. I think it is important that those of us who are lucky enough to have the support of publishers and readers around the world help those who are just starting out. Kevin Spacey has remarked that when you have achieved something substantial in your career, you should send the elevator back down and invite the next generation to get on board, and he is absolutely right. Also, I'm a passionate and voracious reader and the idea of doing something to support new Irish writers is one that makes me very happy.

As the author of 10 novels for adults and five for younger readers, how is your writing process different for various audiences? Or do you notice a difference?  Knowing that writing is not easy, do you find one audience or genre easier than others?

It is not as different as people might imagine. My young adult books usually feature a child who is thrust into a very adult situation way ahead of his time, so the themes of both are complex and challenging. Perhaps the only major difference is that my adult books are almost always first person, as I feel I need to get as deep into the psychology of a single character as I can. The young adult books are always third person, as I need to keep some sort of distance and recount the story from a narrator's point of view. Neither one is any easier than the other; writing a novel is always hard, regardless of the intended audience, and that's how it should be. If it becomes too easy, then you're doing something wrong. -- Melissa Firman

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