The authenticity and secret obsessions of John Boyne – Auckland Writers Festival 2016

Did you know that John Boyne is obsessed with stationery? And that Ireland has such remarkable literary tradition because of Guinness? No, me neither. But it is all true. It wasn’t only me who heard it, there was probably 200 other souls at John’s second session of the day. The first one was sold out, of course.

John is one of those authors, who knew they wanted to be a writer since they were little. Many people laughed at him then, but – no one is laughing now! Reading and writing were integral parts of his childhood.

It took John Boyne a long time to get over anger and write about the Catholic priesthood in Ireland.(image supplied)

Besides publishing nine novels for adults and five for young readers, John has always been writing short stories and published one collection. His work has been translated to 48 languages and the story of young friendship in holocaust, The boy in the striped pyjamas, was turned into a film. The list of awards and nominations is endless. When he speaks he addresses everyone. He radiates openness and sincerity.

His work captures two groups of voices: voices from very young people and voices from old people (and not many in between). He prefers to use different prepositions when describing his work: he writes ABOUT children and ABOUT adults, and not FOR them. His books classified as books for young readers are stories about children, who find themselves in the adult situation. John doesn’t believe in classifying literature by the age of a reader: these are modern, booksellers terms, he says. What is important is that story is told, not how it is labelled.

history  boy in stripped    boy mountain   absolutist

He considers himself as a happy person. So why so many scenes of dreadful sadness and even worse – sad endings? “My endings might be sad, but I like to think of them as authentic endings.” And so are his characters. Their complexity comes to surface in the challenging conflicts and difficult life situations they find themselves in. Like Father Yates, the protagonist in A history of loneliness. Its theme of sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests in Ireland occupied most of the session. But complicity of such issues can only be addressed justifiably in art.

His advice to writers? Don’t take reviews personally. Don’t believe the good ones and don’t believe the bad ones. And if you meet a reviewer, who has been brutal with your work, shower them with kindness and praise – it will make them feel really bad!

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Is the term YA creating a barrier for teens?

My final session at The Press Christchurch Writer’s Festival session this morning was probably the one that I was most looking forward to. Three great writers, John Boyne, Jane Higgins, and Helen Lowe, sat down with James Norcliffe to talk about YA or Young Adult fiction.

After a very detailed introduction, James Norcliffe asked each of the authors whether YA was a word used to describe their writing. John Boyne felt that YA is very much a term used by publishers, media and bookshops, and that putting labels on books tend to exclude people. John doesn’t think of himself as a ‘YA author’ and doesn’t really know how to write for a 14 year-old.  He alternates his writing between a novel for adults and then a novel for a young audience, and his younger books have featured an 8 or 9 year-old protagonist.  He is ‘not interested in categories, just whether it’s a good story or not.’

Jane Higgins didn’t read YA fiction when she was a teenager, preferring adult science fiction writers, books that weren’t ‘tagged as a young person’s read.’  Jane doesn’t think that we are helping teens by having walls between YA and adult fiction, but she does think that it’s important to have guides, like librarians, who can point them in the direction of a new book or author.

When Helen Lowe sits down to write, she doesn’t consciously consider her audience.  She was quite surprised when Thornspell (her first published novel) was published as a children’s title, and when people tell her that her Wall of Night series is young adult.  As a teen, Helen would read anything she could get her hands on, and reading adult books got her thinking about hard issues and the way the world is.  Helen wondered if the thing that makes a book YA is that the protagonists are teens.

Each of the authors then discussed whether they thought there was a genuine divide between adult and teen writing or whether YA is just a marketing term. John pointed out that marketing for YA books relies on the fact that they’re in a series (look at Twilight or The Hunger Games for example). John’s books all have natural endings and he said that he doesn’t have any ideas for series, and he doesn’t really want to write a series. Jane highlighted the extremely careful marketing campaign for The Hunger Games, which developed over time.  They figured out how they wanted to market it and released reviews at specific times.  Jane wondered if, by having a specific area of a bookshop or library set aside as “Young Adults'”we are saying ‘this is your area of the bookshop. This is where you go.’

The teen reading habits of boys also came up in the conversation. John pointed out that boys read a huge amount between 8 and 12 years of age, and that in order for them to keep reading in their teens, we have to keep giving boys good stories to read. He is keen to get boys reading, because books changed his life. As a writer, Jane said that it’s dangerous to say ‘this is a book for boys and I’ll put this in it’ or vice versa. As John pointed out in his session, you have to write for the unknown reader. Helen said that you shouldn’t underestimate boys.  They like quality stories and believable characters too and they’ll pick up on any inconsistencies. One thing that all the authors agreed on was that their goal is to break barriers.  They want boys and girls to be reading the same books.

To end the session, James asked the authors if there were any ‘no-go’ areas in writing for teens.  John suggested that there aren’t any no-go areas, only different approaches to subject matter. John feels that he doesn’t want to write about puberty ‘so if you set the story before then, say around 8 or 9 years, boys and girls can just be friends.’  Helen mentioned that at any age there are things that go over our heads when we read, like the icky things when we’re younger, and we take different things from books at different ages.

Jane’s last comment summed up the whole session for me – ‘Reading at that age is finding stuff you love.  If you don’t like it, you’ll go and find something else.”  So whether we have specific areas for YA in our libraries or bookshops, or group books for teens under the term ‘YA’, in the end, they’ll find something they want to read.

Writing for the unknown reader: An Hour with John Boyne

After interviewing John Boyne yesterday morning and asking mostly about his writing for children, I was curious to find out more about his adult novels. I’ve often seen them on the library shelves and wanted to read them, but when you hear an author talk about their books that you haven’t read, it often inspires you grab hold of the books immediately. This was certainly the case with John Boyne’s adult novel The Absolutist.

John focused on this novel  which is about conscientious objectors during the First World War.  He shared an extract from this book and talked about why he wrote this story.  He mentioned that he hadn’t read much about conscientious objectors prior to writing The Absolutist.  Most conscientious objectors would be involved in the war effort in some way, such as working in field hospitals, but John came across the term Absolutist (meaning those conscientious objectors who refused to absolutely anything connected with the war) and he thought it would make a great title.

John wanted to write a novel about the First World War, but didn’t want to recycle any ideas used by other authors.  I think this is something that makes John’s writing stand out, his stories are always unique and he looks at historic events from a completely different point of view.

We also got an insight into writing life of this very disciplined and focused writer.  Each author approaches their writing differently and John is one of those authors who writes every day, grabbing a quick bite to eat as he types. His first three books were planned out before he started writing, but for the last five or six books he only knew the general idea of the story. He mentioned that this approach doesn’t work well for a lot of writers, but with time, it’s much more important to just write and see where it takes you.

He writes short stories occasionally, but finds these incredibly difficult to write, especially the really good ones. He really enjoys the process of writing and “being taken where your imagination leads”. John says that one of the most important things you need to remember as a writer is to “write for the unknown reader” so there can be no in-jokes.  He tends not to return to the same subjects for his books and says ” don’t do sequels”.

When writing for children, he says he wants to write something for a positive message for children and you would never find him writing “something like Twilight”. John is also very active in social media, using his blog, Facebook and Twitter to interact with his fans.

John’s is now working on a 19th century ghost story.  He had been writing  that morning in his hotel room. In it he wants to take all the ghost story cliches and make it something fresh.  He also plans to collaborate on more books with the wonderful Oliver Jeffers. I certainly hope we have many more books from him to look forward to.

The multi-talented John Boyne

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.