The critical and popular acclaim that followed the release of his Young-Adult novel The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas (2006), left Irish writer John Boyne feeling both amazed and apprehensive.
“The book did unbelievably well,” recalls the 41 year-old scribe over the phone, still sounding almost astonished. “But I do remember thinking at the time, ‘Well, I guess it’s all downhill from here.’”
The concern was understandable. The stirring story of a budding friendship between two boys – one the son of a Nazi officer, and the other imprisoned in a WWII concentration camp – sold more than 5 million copies worldwide, sat atop the New York Times bestseller list for months, and was formatted into a feature length film in 2008.
To his credit, Boyne took his newfound renown in stride.
“I went back to work,” he states flatly.
“The writing muscles are like any other,” continues the Dubliner. “They will only stay toned and fit if exercised regularly. And you don’t want to see how flabby mine get when I am not working.”
The multi award-winning author is an anomaly of sorts; his pleasant nature and light-hearted humour are off-set by the surprisingly somber tones and themes inherent to his nine novels and two novellas.
“I suppose it is a form of therapy for writers,” he explains. “All of us carry a shadow around wherever we go – you know; the murky waters, the dirty little secrets and the proverbial skeletons in the closet. It is what we do with it, how we channel those things, that matters the most.”
In his latest effort, The Absolutist (see review), Boyne again sheds light on that darkness, all the while aligning the account with his own definition of what makes a good book.
“I like characters who are flawed and complicated and whose actions are impossible to predict,” he shares. “I enjoy a story that is engaging and brings surprises at every turn, with themes that speak to the reader.”
In that regard, his hometown has given him plenty of fodder for fiction.
“Ireland, and Dublin in particular, is filled with fascination for me. The people, history and sense of mythology here have been beyond inspiring. Sure, most of my stories take place elsewhere in the world, but this place inevitably shows up in all of them in some manner.”
Boyne adds that his Irish-Celtic roots are also very apparent in his work.
“We are storytellers by nature,” he notes, adding that “centuries of relative isolation forced us to entertain one another at home, at church and in the pubs. As a result, and almost in spite of ourselves, we have nurtured a long and rich narrative tradition.”
It is a heritage that Boyne hopes will continue to flourish on the Emerald Isle.
“I tell young writers to read constantly, and join a writing group – give people work to read and read theirs. Learning to be an astute commentator of other people’s writing is crucial in learning to understand one’s own.
“And, most importantly, I advise them to write every day. Like a muscle, if they don’t use it, they will lose it.”
By John Boyne
Doubleday/ 320 pages/ $24.95
In his new novel, The Absolutist, Irish writer John Boyne has once again created a moving story about isolated youth trapped in desperate circumstances.
In a previous book, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, Boyne portrayed a concentration camp through the eyes of two boys. In The Absolutist, he evokes the loneliness of the young male through the experiences of Tristan Sadler, a teenage soldier caught in the First World War.
Sadler is gay and has been so traumatized by homophobia and violence that he is passive and unable to define his own principles or defend Will Bancroft, the conscientious objector whom he loves. The Absolutist speaks for all young men confined by narrow ideals of masculinity. ~ Carol Moreira