Interviewed by Sue Leonard.
Published in the Irish Examiner on 23rd may, 2009
Writing, we’re often led to believe, is a miserable business. Just this month Colm Tóibín has said that it doesn’t make him happy. So it’s refreshing to meet John Boyne; a writer who absolutely adores what he does.
“Unless I am engaged in writing a novel I am not happy,” he tells me, as we relax in the library alcove at the Fitzwilliam Hotel in Dublin. “I love the writing. I love the publishing industry. I love the events and the readings. I love everything that goes along with it. It is the life I have always wanted to live.”
I first met John back in 2004. His 3rd novel Crippen had just been published, but he was more excited about a children’s book he had written. The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas had just been accepted for publication, and he had a good feeling about it.
As well he might. The book, and the subsequent movie have catapulted John to fame. His novels are now published in over 35 languages, and financially, he is set up for life. He has just returned from the movie’s premiere in Berlin; relieved that both the Jewish, and German audiences approved of his tale based on the holocaust.
Since writing that book, though, Boyne has returned to adult fiction. Mutiny on the Bounty sold more copies that the five other adult books put together. And his new novel, The House of Special Purpose has, so far, garnered great reviews.
The novel is set in Russia before, and during the revolution. 16 year old Georgy Jachmenev steps in front of an assassin’s bullet, and saves a Grand Duke. Proclaimed a hero, he is taken to St Petersburg where he lives in the Winter Palace as bodyguard to the Tsar’s only son.
The action switches between those vibrant scenes, and London, where Georgy and his wife Zoya live in the quietest way imaginable. 65 years on, Zoya is dying, but using flashback, the novel shows us how their lives panned out. This juxtaposition works wonderfully.
“It’s like my life,” says John. “One of the strangest things in the last couple of years, especially since the movie, is going away somewhere for a week where things are out of control. There’s a film festival and crowds and chaos, and then I go home and sit in the garden writing. Sometimes I think, ‘did that just happen?’
“I wanted a quiet voice. Something different from Mutiny on the Bounty where the voice had been noisy, extravagant and wild. And I wanted to write about someone who really loved his wife; something really romantic like Dr Zhivago.”
It’s a wonderful, many layered novel, written with thought and tenderness. It shows how the dramas of history have made it impossible for a couple to fully engage with the rest of their lives.
“It is never about the things in the couple’s lives, but the result of things,” says John.
There is a mystery behind the couple’s lives. But John doesn’t wait, and reveal all at the end.
“I didn’t want to do that,” he says. “I wanted readers to figure it out, and ask themselves, ‘how is he going to resolve this.’”
The descriptions of the Winter Palace and of the profligate Rasputin, are mesmerising. They ring so true, that it’s no surprise to learn that John spent two weeks in St Petersburg.
“I went there in December 2007. In the morning I would walk down to the Winter Palace with my laptop, walk around and just find a room.
“I took some of the scenes I had written at home, and re-wrote them there. But some, I wrote there from scratch. I could view exactly what my characters could see. It was fantastic. I would go to my hotel every evening burning up with the stuff. In fifteen years of writing it was my best, ever, experience.
“In the evenings I would wander up and down the river banks trying to get a sense of the place. I followed Georgy’s journey when he goes to Rasputin’s place; and also Rasputin’s journey when he was killed.”
Boyne is never short of ideas for a book.
“I am worried about writing too many books,” he says. “I have already written 7 in 10 years but I can’t stop. Once I finish a book, I want to start something else. I keep writing all the time.”
Surely, though, there is pressure from John’s publishers to produce another children’s book?
“The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is a tough act to follow,” he says. “I do not want to follow it up for the sake of it. If I get another great idea I will write one. But I am not searching for an idea.”
John always has ideas for adult books. And he is sure, one day, that he will write again about Russia.
“The House of Special Purpose is my favourite book by a mile,” he says. “When I got to the end I did not want to leave my characters. Usually, I want to get away. I loved those two characters. I loved writing them and hated walking away. I want readers to feel really connected to them. I want to move people. If someone said to me that it made them cry; that would be nice,” he says.
The House of Special Purpose by John Boyne is published by Doubleday at 13.99 euro.