- 17 Sep 08
He was a struggling author until a book he wrote for children became an adult sensation. John Boyne talks about The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas.
The author of a book that’s sold three million copies and has just been made into a Disney film, you might call John Boyne a lucky man. On the other hand, a writer makes his own luck. Behind any Literary Phenomenon there are usually long years spent learning the craft, drawers full of abandoned manuscripts, or worse, books published to the sound of one hand clapping.
The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas, the story of the friendship between Bruno, son of a German army officer, and Shmuel, a Jewish boy interned at Auschwitz, is just one of seven novels and two novellas Boyne has written over the last decade, but it propelled him onto the New York Times best-seller list, was translated into 35 languages, and scooped the Irish Book Awards in 2007.
“It’s been two and a half years, and over that time my life has become very much about this,” Boyne says over coffee in the Clarence Hotel, on a long day of promotional duties for director Mark Herman’s film adaptation of his novel. “I’ve been writing and publishing, but there’s always something to do with Striped Pyjamas on the calendar.
“I guess there have been moments along the way where it’s got a bit overwhelming,” he continues. “I certainly wouldn’t have wanted it not to happen, but there has been the occasional moment where I’ve just wanted to hide away in a little dark room and forget about it. But it’s been amazing.”
He’s earned it. Few writers put their noses to the grindstone as soon as they leave school. Most drift for a decade, if not more. But Boyne went straight from Terenure College to Trinity, studied creative writing at the University of East Anglia, and worked for a year in Waterstone’s, writing his first novel The Thief Of Time in the evenings.
“I was totally focused,” he says. “I didn’t get my first book published until I was 29, and I have to admit, I thought my whole life was passing me by. When I did the writing course at East Anglia, I was only 23. I went into that course thinking I was really talented, and I came out the other side realising that I knew nothing at all, that everything I was doing was totally derivative and I had to find my own style of writing.
“I did take a year off when I came back and started working in the bookshop and recharged myself. I knew I still wanted to write, but prior to that I had never thought, ‘What kind of stuff do you want to write?’ I’d been writing Salinger-esque or John Irving or Philip Roth type stories, anything I read and liked. So when I wrote The Thief of Time I felt I had found my own style, and through six novels since, have kept to a type of historical writing that seems to work for me.
“But there were lots of times where I thought, ‘Why does nobody want to publish me?’ And then when they did publish me, ‘Why does nobody want to read me?’ A lot of times you see young novelists, first novelists, getting highly promoted by their publishers or highly recognised in the papers for reasons that maybe aren’t entirely due to the words on the page. I never had any of that. Nobody paid any attention to me until I wrote this book.”
The first draft of which was completed in a mind-boggling two and a half days…
“… and then it changes your life! I had the idea on a Tuesday night and started writing on Wednesday morning. I often think to myself that if I had plans on the Wednesday…It was then or never!”
Ostensibly a children’s book for grown-ups, The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas was published at a time when the delineation between young readers’ and adult fiction was blurred by novels like Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-time and Neil Gaiman’s Coraline.
“I don’t think of it now as a children’s book,” Boyne admits. “When I first wrote it, yes, I did present it as a children’s book to my publisher and agent. I felt when it was coming out that it needed to be published as a children’s book that adults would then find. If it had been published specifically as an adult book, that would have excluded children.”
What does he think of this age-banding business?
“Oh, I’m totally opposed to it, and I’ve signed onto Philip Pullman’s thing about it. In cinema, you have age-banding to prevent children from seeing things which are inappropriate for their age. But in books what they’re suggesting is a ‘suggested age group’. Which means if you say a book is for ten-year-olds, no 11-year-old is going to read it. It’s that simple.
“But if Striped Pyjamas hadn’t been published as a children’s book, I don’t think it would have been the same success. Like, for example, The Curious Incident was published as a children’s book, and it’s not. It’s not an adult book either. It’s just a book. The book that Bruno reads in this is Treasure Island, and I specifically had him reading that because he wanted to be an explorer, but also because it’s another one of those books that sometimes would be in the children’s section, sometimes the adults’.”
Without spoiling the plot of The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas, the shock ending is crucial. Did Boyne ever worry that the filmmakers might bottle out under pressure from the studio?
“Well, right from the start, the very first meeting I had with Mark, within the first ten minutes, I said, ‘If we’re gonna do it, you can’t change the ending’. But Mark was clear, he said, ‘Why on earth would I? The book would have no reason to exist without that ending, and neither would the film’.”
Even after Rwanda and Bosnia and Darfur, the viewer is still left with a sense of disbelief that this genocide took place a mere 65 years ago.
“It happened in your grandparents’ time,” Boyne says. “My father was born on the 15th of April, 1944, which is the birthdate of the two boys in the book. So he would have been nine, the same age as Bruno. For years I had been fascinated by the subject and read very widely on it, never thinking I was going to write a novel about it at all. I think if I had planned it out more, it wouldn’t have worked in the same way. I felt I understood as much as anybody the historical context, and I knew what needed to be put in and what wasn’t so important in order to tell the story, so I didn’t need to do any research.”
Hermon’s film adaptation is a respectful rather than risky piece of cinema. Visually it errs on the side of BBC drama, although the casting is inspired and the performances near-faultless, particularly David Thewlis as Bruno’s father.
“I think one change they make in the film, which I actually really like, is they’re quite a warm family unit, up to a point anyway,” Boyne observes. “For the first two-thirds or so, mother and father generally have a good relationship and love each other. I quite like seeing that family unit on screen.”
Was he on set at all?
“Yeah, a few times. They were very welcoming actually. In the two years before the shooting of the film I’d already built up a good relationship with the director and the producers. I think at the start of something like this you make a decision whether you’re going to be a total pain in the arse or just let them get on with it and be a resource if they want to ask questions. And that’s what I decided to do. And they were really decent to me. They’re taking me on the journey over the next few months, travelling, which they wouldn’t normally do with a writer, but it’s testament to Mark’s lack of insecurity that he’s perfectly happy for me to be there.
“Having spoken about the book so much over the last few years at so many festivals to so many audiences, I know it better than anybody. I’ve analysed it and taken the praise and the criticisms and thought about both and know exactly where I stand on those issues. The filmmakers are about to start on that journey.”
The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas is in cinemas now. John Boyne’s latest novel Mutiny On The Bounty is published by Doubleday.