John Boyne had already penned a clutch of novels when he wrote his first book for young adults. Published in 2006, The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas went on to become a literary phenomenon, selling seven million copies. But behind that remarkable success lies a very different kind of life story. Now, with the publication of his latest novel, The Heart’s Invisible Furies, the best-selling writer feels that he can talk honestly and openly about his past: about growing up in Ireland, his sexuality, the break-down of his civil partnership, depression, drinking and a lot more besides.
Whoever said nice guys finish last obviously never met John Boyne. He is one of Ireland’s most successful ever writers, having sold an astonishing seven million copies of his widely loved novel, The Boy in The Striped Pyjamas. The book, written for younger readers, went to No.1 on the New York Times bestsellers list and was turned into a Hollywood movie. Yet there was no ego about the man: not when I first met him back in 2009; and not when we spoke again for this interview.
Like many other would-be authors, John started writing while working behind the till at a Dublin bookshop. The now 45-year-old Dubliner has gone on to sell over nine million books in total, an incredible achievement, unmatched by many of the literary heavy hitters from this neck of the woods. John is a prolific writer too, to date having penned ten novels for adults, five books for younger readers, and a collection of short stories.
His latest novel, The Heart’s Invisible Furies, is not only his best work to date, but also his most personal. For the first time in one of his novels, John explores the subject of homosexuality. For a man who refused point-blank to discuss his own sexuality in a newspaper interview, it is a breakthrough moment.
John was on a break in Australia when we did this interview over the Christmas holiday period. It might’ve been summer Down Under, but it wasn’t your stereotypical sun-drenched morning. The overcast sky matched John’s reflective mood, as he opened up for what is undoubtedly his most candid interview ever.
Jason O’Toole: What do you make of Hemingway’s famous saying that the best training for a writer is an unhappy childhood?
John Boyne: I wouldn’t be able to agree with it. I had a very happy childhood. As a kid, I was – I still am, in a way – somebody quite solitary, quite isolated. Even from a very young age, books were the thing that got me out of myself.
I read a piece you wrote in the Irish Times a couple of years ago about how you were beaten in school by a priest.
It was a Carmelite – not that it matters (laughs). When I published A History of Loneliness a couple of years ago, which was about abuse in the Church, I confronted a lot of that: the ritual beatings.
But weren’t you so badly beaten that you needed two weeks off school?
It was a priest who had this stick that he kept up his sleeve and he called it Excalibur. He had a metal weight taped to the top of it and that was his weapon of choice. In those days, if you were coming home beaten up, parents would maybe feel, ‘You probably did something to deserve it.’ You know: that inherent fear of going up against the Church. Ireland has changed for the better because those things don’t happen anymore.
When did you realise you were gay?
Oh, before I even knew what the word meant, like eight- or nine-years-old. At around eight or nine, generally people feel some sort of attraction to somebody without understanding what that attraction is. I would’ve known from then. And then when I was about 11 or 12, I started to understand that better – and I felt quite terrified about it really, to be honest.
As a teenager in the ‘80s, one of the most prominent news stories was Aids. As the Aids epidemic started to grow – and so many people were dying – it was so connected to the gay community. It would’ve been really frightening.
What ran through your mind?
I can remember being in the car going to school, hearing news reports about the terror of it and – not telling anybody I was gay – thinking, ‘Oh God! Is this going to happen to me? Am I going to die? Is this some kind of biblical punishment?’ We were uninformed. I think even straight people struggled because sex was something that was not talked about as much back then. People were intimidated and frightened by the idea of it.
Things are very different these days…
It’s terrific for kids today. But one can also feel slightly envious of how free they are, in the way you think, ‘God! I wish I was like that when I was 15, instead of terrified of what people would think’. I have a friend who has an 11-year-old son and she recently told me about a kid in his class, also 11, who has already declared himself to be gay! I know! I thought it was a bit odd as well (laughs). But can you imagine somebody saying that when we were kids? You would’ve been beaten out of the place with a stick (laughs).
Some younger Hot Press readers might not realise that it was illegal to be a sexually active gay person when you were growing up.
That’s another thing! I was in Trinity when it was still illegal. When I tell people that in other countries, that’s shocking to them. But that’s all part of the mindset of feeling there’s something wrong with it: that there’s something wrong with you, and that you’re deformed in some way! And that does lead to an inability to have relationships when you’re younger. It definitely did with me. There would be people who were fine with it, but I struggled quite a bit.
How old were you when you lost your virginity?
I was 17.
Were you very nervous?
I guess. Excited (laughs)! Everybody’s a bit nervous, I suppose, but I was excited. I wanted to do it (laughs).
Were you ever curious about sex with women?
Oh, yes, certainly. I should’ve pointed out that when I lost my virginity it was to a woman. So, there you go! A lot of gay people have probably been with girls when they were younger. It’s a normal thing to do because you’re still trying to figure everything out. You’re still trying to understand your sexuality. So, I tried it out with a couple of girls at that age. It wasn’t really for me, but it was fine for the two-and-a-half minutes it lasted (laughs)!
How old were you when you first had sex with a man?
I was about 19 when I first had sex with a guy – and that was much better (laughs)!
Did the Catholic guilt thing hit you the morning after?
I never felt any Catholic guilt. What I did feel was a nervousness about anybody finding out, because I felt that the minute you say that you’re gay then that’s it: you are forever. You can’t take it back. It felt like you’re getting out of a lot of possibilities from life – marriage, children… there’s no way back once you said it.
You must’ve felt liberated going over to England to do your MA in Creative Writing?
I did because I felt I really wanted to start my life over. I hadn’t had a great time in Trinity – no fault of Trinity’s. It was because I was quite shy and quite closeted. I got to the end of that experience and regretted not making more of the time there. So, when I went to UEA (University of East Anglia) I went with the idea that you can reinvent yourself. And that’s when I really came to terms with everything and started being able to tell people I was gay. Maybe because I was out of Ireland, it felt like a safe place where I could be myself.
How old were you when you came out to your parents?
I was 23. They were cool with it. I remember when I told them I was very much like, ‘I don’t want to turn this into a drama. I don’t have the energy for it’. They’ve always been terrific. I told them, they were fine, and we moved on.
Was it a case of them saying, ‘Oh, we half-guessed?’
I don’t think anybody was falling off the seat in surprise. There was a lot of Jason Donovan posters on my bedroom wall!
Was he your big crush?
(Laughs) He was one of them.
What type of music were you into growing up?
I was always a pop kid, following the charts. My favourite was always Kate Bush. I’m a Kate Bush obsessive. I was lucky enough that I got tickets to the opening night last year when she was doing those concerts in London, which was incredible. She was always like a mythological figure to me. I was in the second row: I couldn’t believe it.
Did you read Hot Press growing up?
Yeah. It was always around.
Would you’ve related to the Bootboy column by Dermod Moore, who used to write in Hot Press about the experiences of being a gay man at a time when homosexuality was illegal in Ireland?
I remember reading that. I don’t think it was really something that I personally would’ve related to very much because he was probably a lot more active than, well, anybody from what I can recall (laughs) – but certainly me! When I was a teenager I would’ve been slightly intimidated by the experiences he was writing about.
You once did an interview where you refused to talk about being gay. I’m guessing you didn’t want to be pigeonholed as a gay writer, right?
Yeah. I think when it would come up, I’d feel: if I was talking about a book, if it had nothing to do with the book, I couldn’t quite see the point of discussing it. I’m not really personally that interested in the lives of writers. I’m only interested in their books. I don’t care what they do outside of that. This phrase ‘openly gay’ is one that always irritates the hell out of me.
You don’t see hetero writers being referred to as openly straight!
I don’t think a person’s sexuality has got anything to do with their work. But the problem is: if you pull back from it and if you’re not willing to talk about it, it almost seems as if you’re ashamed, or closeted in some way. But sexuality is a very personal thing and it’s not necessarily something that everybody wants to be talking about. Now, when it comes to this book, sure, because that’s what the book is about: it would seem disingenuous of me not to talk about it. If I were talking about Mutiny on the Bounty, it’d seem completely irrelevant to the subject.
Last year I interviewed the Primate of All-Ireland, Archbishop Eamon Martin, and he said that the act of homosexuality was a sin but being gay wasn’t a sin. Isn’t that medieval nonsense?
Yeah. That sort of hate the sin but love the sinner type of thing...
There was an awful lot of insulting things said during the heated same-sex marriage debate.
In advance of the referendum happening, I wasn’t much looking forward to it because I knew it would bring all the bigots out of their closets and that you’d have to be listening to it on the radio and on TV. I hated that. I don’t like that kind of violence in society, you know?
It was even more hostile on social media…
A mistake I made during that time was engaging on Twitter with crazies. You can’t argue with stupid. But I would go onto Twitter and hashtag the referendum result and see what the latest comments were and then you’d start into some debate with some crazy person – and what always bugged me was like, ‘Why did anybody care? Why would a married man or a married woman care what somebody else does?’ It baffled me.
Did it upset you?
I found it an upsetting experience. I didn’t like hearing people talking nonsense. We know they made up so many lies and tried to connect homosexuality to the adoption thing, to paedophilia. They would say anything. And you think, ‘Why do you care? What does it matter to you what somebody down the street does?’ I find those people quite tragic. It’s fantastic that it passed.
It was extra special because Ireland passed the first referendum on it in the world.
I think that referendum was the closing chapter of all the Church scandals – because, at the end of all the Church scandals, a referendum happened where people could say, ‘We are no longer tolerating this repression, this bigotry. And this just happens to be the subject that’s on the table now and we’re going to use this to tell you what we think’.
And now we’ve got another emotive issue coming up with the Eighth Amendment. I presume you’re pro-choice?
I definitely am. I would be 100 per cent pro-choice, but I can also see that it’s a more complicated issue in a way, because where equal rights marriage doesn’t affect anybody else, the Eighth Amendment does. This will be another nightmare to go through. I wouldn’t be as confident as I would’ve been with the equal marriage referendum. But I absolutely believe in a woman’s right to choose. No question.
In an Irish Times article a few years ago, you briefly mentioned that you had unhealthy and troubling relationships growing up. Can you expand on that?
As I started trying to date or form relationships with guys, there was a lot of subterfuge involved. There was a lot of lying to people. A lot of deceit. Sex was something that was often conducted in darkened places and outdoors – and that made you feel that there was something wrong with what you were doing. And that’s what I meant by it being unhealthy.
What about when you returned to Ireland after finishing your MA?
See, even when I got back to Ireland, a lot of people who I would’ve had a fling with would’ve been people who were not ‘out’. It wasn’t like you were going to go on dates, like a guy and a girl would. You wouldn’t go out to dinner and a movie. It was built around sex. And while that’s fine and perfectly enjoyable, looking back there’s an unhealthiness to it because there was no personal intimacy. And even when I was first out and was reasonably comfortable telling people I was gay, I still struggled with the idea of dating.
It still seemed almost embarrassing. I wasn’t completely comfortable with it. It’s hard now to look back 20 years and understand why. Now, I wouldn’t give a shit. I couldn’t care less. But I did back then. People were much more defined by their sexuality. When I first started working in Waterstone’s I was 25. Anybody there that was gay, you almost defined them by that fact. It wasn’t like, ‘Oh, that’s the person who works in the poetry department, or the cinema department’. It was an all-encompassing thing.
You had your first couple of books published while working in Waterstone’s.
My first couple of books didn’t do particularly well and my editor at the time left the publishing house. I was out on a limb. It was touch and go really for a little bit, whether I was going to be able to sustain a career. I think a lot of people have this with their first couple of books – the publishing industry can be quite unforgiving and if you don’t have immediate hits then the possibility of that career surviving is slim.
Was it a tough time emotionally?
It was a rough couple of years. Things weren’t going well. I got hit by a car. I was on a scooter and I broke my leg. It wasn’t life threatening, but I had just got out of what was my first real relationship – a falling in love relationship. And I had been pretty bruised and battered by it. And my career didn’t seem like it was going well. I was struggling with that. I was not enjoying my job and I was drinking too much. It was one of those periods in life where nothing was going right and I needed to make a change.
Did you become depressed?
I did because I felt very much like a failure. I felt like my literary career was over before it began. The person I had fallen in love with didn’t love me anymore. It was the first time I was trying to process those kind of emotions and I wasn’t very good at it. I’m still not very good at it. There had been this brief moment where everything was going well – and then suddenly everything was going terrible. I felt like everything was over before it had even begun. I did sink into a bit of depression. I’ve suffered from that on and off over the years. I still do. I think that was the first time where I was really struggling.
Did it get so bad that you had suicidal thoughts?
Definitely. At that point, it did. I moved down to Wexford for a year. And while I was there, in some ways, I felt very isolated. There were days when that isolation was really good for me, where I was feeling, ‘I can walk on the beach. I can read. I can write’. And it felt good to be removed from the world for a while. There were also days when that was an absolute nightmare. And you never knew, waking up, how it was going to be. I don’t think it’s unusual – but the actual process of suicide is a much more terrifying and painful thing. I don’t think I would ever act on it. But I think most people have those thoughts.
Mental health is less of a taboo subject today.
One of the things now about it – everybody being more free with their emotions and liberated in that way – is that we do tend to express these things and think about them. We are more in touch with our feelings than we all were 20 years ago. Although that’s a good thing, it also brings some negatives, in that we’re prone to extremes of happiness or unhappiness, depression or alienation.
You once told me that you weaned yourself off anti-depressants at the time…
I did. I was wrong in a way too, because what I thought was – when I started taking anti-depressants first, in some way it felt like it was a failure of character, and I wanted to get to a place where I wasn’t on them anymore. And then, of course, your mood goes up and down, and up and down. What I eventually recognised is that a lot of this is just a chemical thing.
The serotonin level, right?
Yeah. You just need it.
Are you taking medication now?
I have to take an anti-depressant every morning, which is fine. It keeps me balanced. So, when I went back on them a few years ago I realised, ‘Actually I need to be on these for life’. It’s one tablet every morning. It’s no big deal. But I don’t need to use them thinking, ‘Eventually I’ll be able to get off them.’ Instead, I’ll use them thinking, ‘No, I’ll stay on them. It keeps me balanced’. I’d be nervous of not being on them, to be honest.
Do you think your depression is simply a chemical imbalance or is it rooted in something like the beatings?
Honestly, I think it’s just chemical. I handle it fine by taking a tablet every day. I don’t think it’s rooted in anything.
But you have to be careful with drinking when you’re taking pills like that.
Yeah. I must admit I like a pint, but I think I’ve got that on a good balance. Back in those days, yeah, I was completely doing it wrong.
Have you gone to therapy?
I tried it once and it wasn’t really for me: mostly because I’m actually quite an open person with my friends, my family. If I’ve got an issue, I can talk about it. I don’t think I’m somebody who’s got something hidden inside that needs to come out. I think I’m increasingly open. So, I didn’t feel I was getting anything from therapy that I couldn’t get from talking to my sister.
You wrote on your Facebook page recently that 2016 was a bad year for you.
Yeah, it was. I’ve been in a relationship for the last 11 years and we entered into a civil partnership, but, unfortunately, that fell apart this year.
I’m sorry to hear that.
It’s been really difficult. We remain good friends. In fact, I just replied to an email from him. It was just one of those things where the relationship somehow comes to an end, but obviously for both of us it’s been really, really sad. It’s one of the reasons I’m in Sydney now. I just wanted to take a six/seven weeks break. I was feeling naturally down over it, but not in an insane way – just the sadness of it all. I’ve got the book coming out in February and I wanted to get through Christmas and the New Year. I can come back to start over, in a way.
Why did you split?
I don’t know. I’m still trying to figure it out: why it went wrong or what happened? We had a very happy relationship. There was no other person involved or anything like that. He felt he needed some space and some distance to figure out some things in his life. I think what’s important to me now is that we try and maintain some sort of friendship – because 11 years is a long time to spend with somebody. We’ve gone through so much together and so it’s quite sad really. It wasn’t entirely my choice, put it that way (nervous laughter).
It’s lovely that you’re still talking. There are loads of ex-couples who refuse to speak to each other.
That’s what I’m trying to avoid. And one thing I’ve realised – because I’m trying to figure it all out in my head – is that, no matter what the pain or anger, the notion of not being in each other’s lives when nobody has done anything to specifically hurt the other person is pointless. We’ve got to find a way to be friends, rather than losing each other. Because he’s too important to me and I hope that I’m important to him.
It sounds like you still very much love him?
I do, yeah, very much.
It must be difficult being over in Australia on your own.
I love Australia. I love coming here. Even though it’s so far from Ireland, it’s a home-away-from-home. It’s my tenth trip here in ten years. I know it very well. I’ve got friends here. I’m doing a lot of walks here. It’s sunshine all day. It’s actually very therapeutic to be here and just be able to read, to write, to walk, soak up some vitamin D. I just knew I couldn’t have done Christmas and New Year’s at home this year. I needed a break from that.
In A History of Loneliness, you wrote: “I did not become ashamed of being Irish until I was well into my middle years of life.” Was that your experience?
No, I don’t think so. Actually – for all the problems and all the faults – I’m really proud of being Irish and I love being Irish. I love living in Ireland. I mentioned that I keep coming to Australia every year. My friends and family often say to me, ‘God! Are you going to move to Australia at some point?’ I’m always like, ‘No. I couldn’t live outside Ireland’. I’m very much a home-body. I live about ten minutes from the house that I grew up in. I feel very settled there. That line was very much the character’s line.
Would you describe yourself as a workaholic?
I don’t think I would because, in a way, that word implies an obsessive nature. I love writing. I’m passionate about it and I really enjoy it. I work all the time, yes – but because I enjoy it. I love the act of creating novels, of writing fiction, of creating characters, of publishing books. It’s given me the happiest and most stable thing in my life. I’m definitely a very hard worker. But a workaholic almost seems like it’s a bad thing, you know?
But you’re very productive.
I am productive. Unlike a lot of my writer friends, I’m fortunate enough that I don’t have another job: I’m able to write full-time. I get up in the morning and I go to work (laughs).
How many hours of writing would you do in a day?
About three or four, I would say. Mostly in the morning.
Would you have any advice for would-be writers?
Read more than you write. Write every day. And stay as far away from writing ‘collectives’ as you possibly can. Writers should work alone, not as part of a group associated with a magazine or publisher. This is particularly true in Ireland where new writers tend to band together, endorse each other’s books in some kind of literary circle-jerk, and show up together at every book launch or party where there might be a press photographer present. That kind of thing has nothing to do with writing. It’s concerned only with basking in the reflected light of others and making sure that people know that you’re a “Writer” with a capital W. The words are all that matter. If you’re aiming for celebrity, pick a different profession.
Growing up, what type of books or authors did you admire?
When I was about 15 or 16, that’s when I really seriously started getting into literature – and moving from the younger stuff or classics to trying to discover what was going on in the world. John Irving was the first person who I really became crazy about as a writer.
You’ve dedicated the new book to him.
When I published my first book in 2000, I sent him a copy and a letter. It’s about the only fan letter I’ve ever written, saying how much he’s influenced me over the years. We became friends subsequently and see each other, whenever I’m in Canada or when he’s over here. I wanted to dedicate this one to him, because in a way I feel it’s almost like my most Irving-esque novel. Most of my novels are quite sad, but this one is funny. At least, I hope it’s funny.
There’s a lot of black humour in it.
If there’s anybody who’s influenced this book, it’s John.
Has he read it?
He has a copy of it. I sent it to him. I haven’t heard if he’s read it yet, but he emailed me to say that it had arrived safely.
I remember at 15, staying up until 6am reading The World According to Garp. And then I binge-read all of his books that I could get my hands on in the local library.
I think a lot of people who like his books have that experience. If you start reading them as a teenager, you just have to keep going, you have to keep reading them all because they’re so funny. But they’re so deep and thoughtful, and provocative in ways. He’s a great writer.
It must be cool to be friends with someone like John Irving...
Yeah, whenever I’m with him, I still feel quite star-struck. You know, just sitting across the table and hearing him talk. I still think he’s a great writer. But one of the great things that can happen with writing is that, along the way, you’ll get to meet or become friends with some of your heroes.
He pushed boundaries when it came to openly addressing sexuality, in a very honest way…
He is somebody who has spent so much of his life writing about sexuality and what he calls sexual misfits and he was writing about transgender people in novels way before everybody was suddenly transgender (laughs), you know? That was a subject that was not talked about at the time of Garp, for example, and he was writing about that. He was writing about abortion in The Cider House Rules, a very political subject to be writing about in the early 1980s America. About Vietnam, in (A Prayer for) Owen Meany. So, he’s somebody I respect very much.
The main character in your new novel struggles with his sexuality. Your writing is getting closer to your own experiences, the older you get.
Yeah. If you were to follow through from my first book to this book, I almost kept myself at such a distance from stories and just wanted to be missing on the radar, not bring myself in at all. I think it’s only now – I’m older, I’m more experienced as a writer, I’m more confident as a person – that I feel I can write things like this. Some people do that when they’re younger, some people never do it. But certainly in the last five or six years I’ve wanted to bring myself into the stories much more. I’ve wanted to write about my own experiences. And then each one has made me more confident. The History of Loneliness was very important to me for that – and this one now as well. I’m glad I’m changing like that as a writer. I feel like I’m developing in some way.
What initially attracted you to writing this new novel?
I liked the idea to start with the hypocrisy in the opening sentence: somebody who himself has fathered children, who is going to belittle and abuse and demean a young girl who’s got pregnant. We all know in those days that was the worst thing that could happen to anybody. It was terrible. So, I’m starting at the place where I finished with the last one in a different story but then moving on.
Was it a conscious decision to make this novel a black comedy?
I don’t plan these books out very much. I let them develop. I didn’t realise I was going to move down the humorous road. It just comes through the voice of the character, particularly when he’s a little kid – that’s just the way it went. But then I was really happy that it did, because I have written a lot of books which are sad and deal with tragic issues and unhappy people. It’s refreshing for me to write about somebody who – for all his personal problems – is essentially cheerful.
Will you do more black comedy?
I don’t know. I wouldn’t think the next one would be comic. I sometimes feel that every book is almost a reaction to the one before – that you need to change. I’m working on something at the moment and it’s not funny; it’s not morose, but it’s more straight; it’s more serious.
Are you nervous about how your new book will be perceived?
I’m always a bit nervous. Because one of the things with books – and we’re all guilty of this; I’m guilty of this as a reader as well – is that a perceived opinion can form very quickly. You know the way we say, ‘Have you read such-and-such?’ And you go, ‘No. I heard it was terrible.’ A few reviews can make or break something. So, I’m always a bit nervous.
A bad review can kill you…
It can be very hard. John Banville says, ‘If you get a bad review in the paper you can rely on your best friend to call up and make sure you’ve seen it!’ You know that all your friends, all your colleagues will see it. Everybody gets nervous because you put so much into the book and you care about it and you believe in it: you hope people will like it. But ask me a week before it comes out – I’ll probably be trembling (laughs).
I was wondering about the protagonist in the new novel being adopted. The last time we spoke, you said to me you’d love to have kids but felt you were “too long in the tooth”.
If I have a big regret in life, it would be that I didn’t have kids. I would’ve been a good dad. I love kids. I love being around kids. But I’m 45 now. If I was a 25-year-old guy, I think it’s the same as being a straight person: you think, ‘Well, I’ll have kids eventually’. Where obviously it was much more difficult for me then – and I’m too old now.
You’re not too old!
It would take years to get one (laughs) and by the time I actually got one I would be! I mean, if I can have one in nine months I wouldn’t be too old. But adoption would take years. I think for a lot of gay people it’s a sadness that’s there inside – that you’re deprived of something that’s really an inherent part of human nature. It’s not something that weighs me down, but it’s probably the biggest regret in my life.
Is this where your passion for writing for children comes from?
Yeah, a little bit. I love writing about children. I really enjoy all those events I do with kids. I like interacting with them. And that wasn’t something I had planned. I never really expected to be writing for or about children. It came about through The Boy in the Stripped Pyjamas and where that led me. But it’s something that I’ve valued over the years and it’s turned into a big part of my life.
The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas was a phenomenon. Do you feel under any pressure to repeat that success?
No. I’ve never felt under pressure about that because I know it’s impossible. A book like that for a writer – if you’re lucky – comes along once in a lifetime. Something that just sells so much and becomes a phenomenon. I could write a book that’s a million times better, but it will never sell anything like that. What it did for me was give me the freedom to keep writing books and have an audience. So, I’ve never allowed it to become a weight on my shoulders. It was a Godsend.