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John Boyne was born in Ireland in 1971. He is the author of eleven novels for adults, five for younger readers and a collection of short stories. His 2006 novel The Boy In the Striped Pajamas sold 9 million copies worldwide and has been adapted for cinema, theatre, ballet and opera. John has won three Irish Book Awards and many other international literary awards and his novels are published in over 50 languages. He lives in Dublin.
What I’m Reading: John Boyne (author of A LADDER TO THE SKY)
In a phone call that was nothing short of delightful, John Boyne, international bestselling author of The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, spoke in great depth with us about his new novel, The Heart’s Invisible Furies. The book follows the full life of Cyril Avery, from beginning to end. Cyril’s life and experiences shed light on major societal issues in post WWII Ireland – especially the difficulties gay people faced during that turbulent time. It’s a story of abandonment and purpose, love and loss, defeat and hope, and the relentless nature of the human spirit.
If you’re longing to read a writer with unending passion for what he does, look no further. John Boyne’s love for telling a powerful story seeps through every chapter, and every page. Read on to learn about John’s inspiration for this book, his writing techniques, his wisdom, the future of the novel, and more. And be sure to get yourself a copy of The Heart’s Invisible Furies – you’ll laugh, you’ll cry, and you’ll be reminded that a little humanity goes a very long way.
PENGUIN RANDOM HOUSE: You are most widely known for your book The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, which was extremely successful worldwide. When you were writing The Heart’s Invisible Furies, did you feel pressure for it to be as successful as your previous novel?
JOHN BOYNE: No, I never really have, to be honest. I think, for an author, a book like that comes along only once in their life – a book that sells that many copies and has such a big readership. You’re very lucky. But I’m aware that that kind of phenomenon just doesn’t happen every time. And I never wanted to turn what was a very positive experience into a negative one by worrying about subsequent books not having that effect. So, no. If anything, it gave me the freedom to write what I wanted, when I wanted. I don’t feel pressure at all, really.
PRH: Did you ever think that you would write this many books?
JB: I did. I mean, when I was growing up, this was the only ambition that I had. I didn’t know if I was going to have the ability to do it, but it was all I ever wanted to do, so I was hoping that I would get to a place where I could write full-time and not have to have another job. I am the kind of writer that finishes a book and starts the next one. I don’t take years between projects, which is why I’ve written so many books, I suppose. I’m just always working, but it’s because I love it.
PRH: Where is your ideal writing place? I always like to know this about a writer because it varies so much.
JB: I live in Dublin, and I have a really nice office in my house overlooking the garden. That’s my ideal place, for a first draft. Once I’ve got the first draft written, I can take it on trains, or hotel rooms if I’m traveling, and I quite enjoy that. But, for a first draft, I like to be focused and disciplined every day, and be in my office at home. I’m a very sultry person, to be honest. I just like being at home alone for a day, reading and writing. That suits me.
PRH: The story in this latest novel covers an entire lifetime. We see a man being born, and the same man go through his life. What was it like to write an entire lifetime in the span of about six hundred pages?
JB: Well, as a reader, I’ve always enjoyed those kinds of novels, going back to Dickens, who was my big hero growing up, and books like David Copperfield, and so on, where it would start with a person’s birth and go all the way to the end of their lives. My contemporary hero, John Irving, has done that many times as well. I like that. I like following one person’s life all the way through. And then you can use that as a metaphor, in this case, for Ireland, for how society has changed here, how we had gone from being a very conservative country to being a much more liberal society. You can use a lifespan, which is generally seventy to eighty years, as a very convenient way to examine changes in society.
PRH: When you’re creating an entire life, how do you decide which life events would be most important to include?
JB: When I started it, I had the idea of going in seven-year leaps, and the idea that we shed our skin every seven years – we’re in a different place in our lives. So I don’t really plan ahead very much. I don’t like to plan the novel too far in advance; I just start with the idea and see where it takes me. I knew each time I would start a new section that’d he be seven, fourteen, twenty-one, etc., and I’d see where the world was. As that structure was building, I was able to look ahead and think, “In 1987, he would be forty-two, and in the heart of the AIDS crisis.” And in a novel like this, you have to write about that. I didn’t plan too far ahead each time. I was focused on each particular age group, and when I would finish it, I would say, “Where’s the world in 1973 or 2001, what’s happening in that particular year, and is there anything useful I can tie his story in to?”
PRH: How much research did you do when you were writing this novel, and how much inspiration came from your own life?
JB: I would say, of all the books I’ve written, it’s one of the least research-heavy, because in the earlier part of my career and in the books I’ve written for young people, there’s a lot of historical fiction, which involves a lot of research. For this, it’s more a work of imagination. I mean, I did some investigation to understand the lives of gay people in Ireland during those years, and so on. Certainly in the AIDS chapter, I had to do quite a bit of research. But in general, most of it came from the imagination. In recent years, I’ve been focusing more on that than I have been on research-heavy novels.
PRH: Even though the story came from your imagination, it feels real. Going back to John Irving, he says that writers “need the reality principle of fiction.” Do you believe in that?
JB: Yes, even though the character in this book is a lot older than I am, the experiences he had growing up are experiences I would’ve had, not just in terms of geography or where he’s growing up, but as a gay man in Ireland growing up in the ’80s. It was a very different society than it is now, and it doesn’t feel that far removed from what Cyril is going through in the 1960s. It would be a millennium removed from what an eighteen-year-old would be going through today, in a society that is much more open and doesn’t care what your sexuality is. I do know what it was like to be a young person frightened of sexuality, frightened of people discovering this terrible, dark secret, you know, at the center of your life. So a lot of Cyril’s fear there would’ve been something that I would have experienced.
Also the fact, of course, that Cyril has a crush on Julian in the book – everybody has unrequited crushes, I imagine, in their lives. But for a gay person, often they’re more intense in the sense that you could have a crush on somebody who you have no chance with. Every gay person, whether a man or a woman, would probably experience that multiple times in their lives. I had a chance to use that and explore that kind of emotion, and the difficulties of it, in the novel.
PRH: Because of that, was this novel the most difficult to write?
JB: It actually wasn’t the most difficult to write. It was the most fun to write in many ways. Even though there was a lot of darkness to it, I really enjoyed the structure and I liked Cyril’s voice. I found it quite challenging and fun. I always think that when you’re writing a novel, you should be enjoying the process of writing it, even if it’s difficult, even if you have days where you think, “This is really hard work.” It should be hard work, but it should be really enjoyable. And I think that if it is, that transfers to the reader as well. So I very rarely have found myself in a position where I’ve been writing a book and I have not enjoyed the process. A level of fun in this was each of those chapters – getting to the end of one, and knowing that I didn’t have to solve any problems that I’ve left for myself there, because I was already moving seven years ahead. So, you could just sort of say, “Well, he got over that.” (laughs.)
PRH: Throughout the course of the novel, I found myself in complete suspense. I’m constantly waiting for Cyril to recognize his mother after crossing paths several times, among other things. Does a writer always have to satisfy a reader’s suspense? Is that important?
JB: I think with something like that, yes. I’m clearly setting it up in the novel, because their paths cross so many times, and the reader is frustrated that the two people don’t know who they are to each other. I think it would be teasing the reader if you didn’t eventually get to a place where they met for real. So with something like that, yes, you have to. Otherwise you’d get to the end and think, “Aw, I just wish they had met.” If I’d opened the chapter where the mother had died, and he didn’t know anything about it, then maybe. But I do think the reader would’ve felt a bit cheated.
PRH: I want to talk about the characters in the book because they’re all so interesting. How did you develop the characters, and how did you channel their voice? Especially Cyril’s.
JB: A lot of it comes through the rewriting with subsequent drafts. In terms of the main character, Cyril, finding his voice and the way he speaks to the reader came from chapter two, when he settled in with Maude and Charles. The humor in that chapter defined the way that I was going to go for most of the book – the eccentric humor and larger-than-life characters. But characters do change. For example, I thought Julian was going to be a bit more obnoxious, and a good-looking playboy type, but as it developed, I realized that Julian’s a pretty decent guy. He doesn’t lie to anybody about who he is, or who he likes. He’s actually a really good friend to Cyril, and Cyril’s quite a bad friend to him in many ways.
You kind of have to trust your instinct, and see where the character leads you through their dialogue and through their actions. That’s one of the interesting things I find about novel writing, and that never changes, no matter how many you write. You start one way, but the whole thing leads you in a surprising direction and you have to go with that when it happens. Whether it’s character or theme, no matter what part of a novel, it’s all about the subsequent draft where you’re refining it over and over again, and trying to make it as authentic as it can possibly be.
PRH: And that’s probably the fun of it – not knowing where you’re going with it.
JB: Yes, and letting yourself go in unexpected directions, and not feeling that you’re tied in to what your initial thought about something was.
PRH: There are many people that come into Cyril’s life who are not bad, but not good either. They’re somewhere in the middle, just trying their best. What constitutes a villain, and are there any in this book?
JB: I don’t think there are many villains in this book, and I don’t think there are that many in real life either. You want to make your characters as true to life as possible, and most of us, if not all of us, are capable of acts of great kindness and generosity, and also capable of moments of dastardly behavior. We all have moments we look back on where we might be ashamed of our actions, and moments that we feel really proud of our actions. That’s what makes us human. I think you’re trying in a novel to write characters that are as human as possible. It’s difficult, I think, almost pointless to write an all-out villain or an all-out saint, because which of us could claim to be either of those things?
Cyril himself behaved pretty badly. Certainly, his relationship with Alice, and the way he treats her when he marries her, is a despicable thing to do, but in our society, here in Ireland during those years, many men and women who were gay would have married somebody simply to make life easier, regardless of the fact that they were destroying the happiness of an innocent party. So, he’s not perfect. He commits bad acts throughout the book brought on by the society that he’s living in. Now, whether that’s an excuse or not is up to the reader to decide, because he’s also capable of quite good acts as well.
You always want your central character to be as complex as possible so when readers get to the end of a book, there’s a feeling of ambiguity. When you talk to a friend about a book, you say, “I don’t know if I liked that guy.” A book should provoke the base in that way. You don’t want everything to be completely cut and dry.
PRH: Yes, there were definitely moments during the book where I liked a character one moment, and disliked them the next. Do you think that exile in society is unavoidable?
JB: I think often for a young person, that’s how you change and grow up. I did feel that in the two chapters where I got Cyril out of Dublin – 1980 in Amsterdam and 1987 in New York – that he needed to get out of Dublin for himself, for the reader, for the story, to be able to start afresh and to live in a way that he wouldn’t be able to in Ireland. And I knew when I would eventually bring him back, he would be a very different person. He would no longer care about what people thought of him in that way. He would be able to live as an openly gay man without worrying about the dangers in society.
I think a lot of young people need to go off on their own. You go to college, or spend a couple years traveling, or take a job in a different part of the world, and you return as a different person – you return as an adult. Most of us have gone through that kind of experience, and I felt that I definitely needed the novel to open up in that way, to get Cyril out of the claustrophobia of the Dublin setting.
PRH: How did it feel to write about your home country of Ireland for the first time?
JB: Actually, it was the second time! My previous adult novel, A History of Loneliness, was set in Ireland and was about the child abuse scandals of the church. Before both of those novels, I never had written about Ireland, so it’s actually been quite a liberating experience in many ways. Even though both novels, particularly A History of Loneliness, deals with very dark subject matter, being able to write about the city I grew up in, the streets I grew up on, and experiences I had myself as a kid – personalizing fiction in a way I hadn’t in the earlier part of my career – has been very liberating and very interesting to me as a writer.
I’m forty-six, so it was midlife I suppose, and trying to change direction in these books with writing about home and my own country, and trying to analyze all the good things in it, and the bad things in it, which every country has. Nowhere is perfect. Patriotism as such is exasperating. Real citizenship comes from recognizing both the strengths and the flaws of your country, and recognizing where it is you live and trying to contribute something that could help that. Just as no person is a saint or a villain, no country is perfect. I enjoyed writing about Ireland because I avoided it for so long, and I’m not really sure why. I think I’d need a therapist to tell me why (laughs) but for many books, I didn’t want to write about Ireland. I don’t know if maybe I just didn’t feel confident enough to write about it, or maybe I just didn’t have a story to tell, or my imagination was just taking me outside of the country. But I’ve enjoyed it in these last two books, and I daresay I’ll go back to it again.
PRH: I was just going to ask you if you’ll do it again in the near future.
JB: Well, it won’t be the next book, but I think I will do it again in the future. What’s nice is I’ve got this sort of chip on my shoulder in a way because people used to ask me, “Why don’t you write about Ireland?” Now I have, so I’ve got that covered.
PRH: Have you been to Amsterdam and New York?
JB: Oh yeah, many times. Particularly Amsterdam, which is one of my favorite cities. It’s actually very close to Dublin; you can be there in about an hour. And I’ve been to New York about ten times in my life, I’d say. I’ve spent a few summers there as a student. I wouldn’t have chosen a place, particularly for those longer chapters, that I wasn’t reasonably familiar with.
PRH: There is a cinematic feel to the book. Do you see it becoming a film?
JB: Not a film, but we have sold the rights to Ridley Scott, you know, Scott Free Productions, hopefully for a TV adaptation. So maybe it’ll be a ten-episode type of thing, but it’s in the very early stages. I signed the contract now about two weeks ago. I don’t think it would work as a film because it’s just so long.
Have you been watching “The Handmaid’s Tale”?
PRH: Yes, it’s excellent.
JB: Yeah, oh my God, it’s so good. I’m obsessed with it. I’ve been watching an episode every night. I think now we feel like big novels with a lot going on need to be told over about ten hours or so. You just can’t do it justice in two. I think everybody is feeling the joy of being able to watch something like “The Handmaid’s Tale.” So, I’m keen on that – that they’re hoping to do it as a TV show. Now, as I’m sure you know, things get sold and sometimes never see the light of day. There’s a long way from actually signing the contract to actually having it on screen, but we’ll see what happens.
PRH: I think that’d be great. I would definitely watch it.
JB: Yeah it would be. Especially with the structure of the book, I think. Because you’ve got ten chapters, and you could just do ten episodes, which would be really cool. We’ll see.
PRH: That’s so exciting. The last question I want to ask is: What do you want readers to take away from this novel?
JB: I always think about that in the same way that I would go out and buy a book and sit down to read a novel. All I want is, during the reading of a novel, if I’m going to be transported into that world, I want to be moved by the story and the characters, whether it makes me laugh, or makes me sad. I want an emotional response, and I want to put the book down in the end and say to my sister or my friend, “You’ve got to read this.” That’s what I want from a novel as a reader, and that’s what I want as a writer as well. I try not to manipulate the reader with subliminal messages. I just want the reader to feel that their time and their money has been spent well. I hope that they’ve lost themselves in a story that has made them think – one that they want to share with somebody.
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