John Boyne is one of my favourite authors, so I was very excited about having the chance to ask him some of my burning questions this morning. John is an incredibly talented writer, who writes for both adults and children, and he’s probably best known as the author of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. I asked John about his quirky protagonists, writing for children, and how libraries have affected him as a reader and as a writer.
What do you like most about writing for children?
I had never really thought about writing for children. My first four books I wrote were all aimed at adults, so when I wrote my first children’s book (The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas) it came as a surprise to me. I entered a world I wasn’t familiar with – children’s book festivals, schools, and having to talk to children. I also discovered the wealth of contemporary children’s literature, which I had ignored as a reader since I was a kid. In the year before The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas came out, I delved into that world and discovered what I was missing. Children’s literature had changed a lot since I was a kid. It had become more serious and explored adult themes in a non-patronising way. It felt like a fresh challenge and I thought I could do both, I could write a novel for adults and a novel for children. I thought, why shouldn’t I if I have a story to tell.
How does writing for children differ from writing for adults?
The only main difference is that children’s stories feature child protagonists. They have children at the centre of the story and you see things through their eyes. I don’t change the language at all. A school I visited in Dublin recently were studying Noah Barleywater Runs Away and the teacher got the children to write a list of words from the book that they didn’t understand and they had to look them up in the dictionary. I was quite pleased that those lists were so long and that they had to go and look them up because it showed me that I wasn’t dumbing the story down and using simple language. My children’s books are always told in third person narration, and when I think of children’s novels, I think I should always write them this way. I feel that I don’t want to put myself into the total mind of one child.
Barnaby Brocket is special because he floats. If you could have a special ability what would it be?
I think I’d like to be in two places at once, because over the last 6 or 7 years I’ve spent so much time travelling. I like travelling and I like invitations to visit places, but I also like being at home. I’d like to spend all the time at home, in my own house, while at the same time being able to travel the world.
Barnaby meets lots of interesting characters in his travels all over the world. Who is the most interesting character that you’ve ever met?
It would have to be John Irving. I was a huge fan of his growing up and he was the writer that really inspired me to be a writer. When I published my first novel in 2000, I sent him a copy of the book and wrote him a letter. He read it and wrote back, and we struck up a friendship. We’ve known each other since and when he was on tour in England this Summer I went with him as his interviewer. He has great insights into literature, how novels work, and all the time I’ve spent with him has been inspiring.
Oliver Jeffers has created some fantastic illustrations for Noah Barleywater Runs Away and The Terrible Thing That Happened to Barnaby Brocket. Did you have any say in the illustrations or did you not see them until the book was published?
With each book we talked about it in advance and what we thought it should look like. I was very clear with Oliver the first time around that I just wanted him to do whatever he felt was right. I asked him to do Noah Barleywater originally because I love his work and think it’s wonderfully imaginative and creative. He’s very talented so I didn’t want to put any restrictions on him.
Your characters, particularly your protagonists (Barnaby Brocket and Noah Barleywater) have brilliant names. How do you come up with their names?
I’d had this name, Barnaby, for a while and I thought it was a great name for a character. I just tried different names and I thought an alliterative name would be good. I also liked the name Noah and the connection with water. You try different sounds and figure out what seems to ring true. You want your characters to be memorable and Barnaby Brocket is a memorable name.
Your heartbreaking novel, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas has just been re-issued as a Vintage Children’s Classic. How does it feel to have your book considered a ‘classic’?
It makes me feel about a hundred years old! It’s flattering, especially since the book has only been out for six years. I hope that 50 years from now it feels like it’s earned its place on that list.
How did you find the experience of having The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas turned into a film?
It was exciting. I had a very good relationship with the director and the producers, which a lot of writers don’t have. I made a conscious effort at the start that I would be helpful to the process, not troublesome. A lot of novelists make that mistake, of selling the film rights and wanting to control aspect of the film. Whatever happens with the movie, it doesn’t change the book. I think they did a great job and that they really understood the book.
How have books shaped you and what part have libraries played in this?
A huge part. I grew up in Dublin and down the road from my house there was this really big library, in this really old building which is still standing. As a kid, my mum took me and my siblings down there every Wednesday and we would get our three books. I so looked forward to it! It was so exciting to go inside this big, old building and I thought it was amazing that you got stuff for free. The adult’s stuff was on the ground floor and the kid’s stuff was upstairs. Like most kids, I loved re-reading. You would go back to those books you loved, and get them out week after week.
How important are libraries to writers?
In a lot of libraries now, reading groups take place, creative writing groups meet, and libraries have become much more of a place to meet and be part of a collective experience of literature. Book clubs and reading groups have been incredibly helpful to authors over the last 10 or 15 years, and I think libraries have played a great part in that.
John Boyne will also be appearing with Jane Higgins and Helen Lowe at the Why YA? Panel on Sunday at 9:30am.