Irish author John Boyne on nurturing the creative writer – and the importance of celebrating uniqueness

Irish author John Boyne has written five books for children including the global bestseller, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, and was recently in New Zealand to inspire young talent at the Auckland Writers Festival.  Boyne, 45, recalls how his writing career was both nurtured and hindered during his boyhood in Dublin.

Q: Tell us about your earliest memories of reading and writing.
A: I grew up on the south side of Dublin and there was a wonderful library down the road from my house. (It’s still there.) I got a half-day from school every Wednesday and my mum would bring me there. I remember I was allowed take out three books each week and I was obsessed with choosing the right ones! Like every kid, there were books I liked to read over and over and books that I wanted to try for the first time. Reading and writing were always connected to me, even at that young age. I stole characters from other books and wrote new stories for them all the time. I try not to do that anymore.

Q: Is story telling in your family?
A: Writing isn’t, I’m the only writer in my family, but reading certainly is. My parents were both great readers, and are still. Of course I grew up in the 70s and 80s when we didn’t have as many distractions as young people have today. There were no computers or PlayStations or social media and so reading was simply a normal part of life. Our house was always full of books.

Q: Was creativity encouraged at school?
A: No. I think it was looked upon with suspicion. I went to a Catholic all-boys school that was completely rugby-oriented and I don’t recall ever being encouraged towards creativity at all. In fact, I remember my English teacher growing increasingly angry with me for turning essay assignments into opportunities to write fiction. (He also refused to study Pride & Prejudice, which was on the syllabus, because he considered it “a woman’s book”. Which will pretty much tell you everything you need to know about him.) However, whenever I’m promoting a book for young readers and find myself in schools I’m continually impressed with how much teaching has changed in this way and how teachers go out of their way to encourage and promote both creativity and individuality. It’s definitely a change for the good.

Q: When did you know that you wanted to be a writer?
A: From the time I was about seven years old I always said that I wanted to be a writer. I don’t feel it’s something that I chose, it was just always there in my mind. I would write my stories and bind them up like little books with my name on the spine and put them on my bookshelves. Had it not worked out, I would have still liked to be involved with books, either as an editor or perhaps to run my own bookshop.

Q: What encouragement do you recall?
A: My parents were always very encouraging. Despite being quite traditional types, expecting their kids to go into good jobs with decent pensions, they could see how committed I was to writing and how hard I worked at. And because of this they were willing to support me, both emotionally and financially. I think there are often a lot of young people who say they want to be writers but they simply like the idea of it and they’re not actually sitting down every day and putting in the time to make their dream a reality. Had I not been clearly doing that, my parents might have been less supportive but I think they were impressed by my commitment. I certainly owe them a lot.

Q: What and who have inspired you to write?
A: Other writers and the wonderful books they wrote. I was so captivated with story-telling from a young age that I knew I wanted to be just like them. Also, when I was a teenager and in my early 20s, Irish writing was becoming very successful around the world. Writers such as Roddy Doyle, John Banville, Colm Toibin, Colum McCann, Joseph O’Connor and so on were writing great books and bringing them to a wide international audience. This was incredibly encouraging to me as it said that my dream was not as crazy as it might have appeared. One of the great joys of my life has been becoming friends with writers such as these and my all-time favourite, the American novelist John Irving, who has been a great friend and mentor to me over the years.

Q: As a child, who were your favourite authors and/or what were your favourite books?
I’ve never been a fantasy guy but I loved CS Lewis’ Narnia books. I also loved classic adventure stories, such as Treasure Island, Kidnapped, and The Man in the Iron Mask. Books like that. Books that transcended both genre and age-range and the narrow definitions we sometimes have of ‘adult’ literature and ‘children’s’ literature. I became a Dickens obsessive around the age of 12, particularly loving his books about orphans, and the 19th century novel in general was something that I fell in love with and still love to this day.

Q: Did you have a school library?
A: We did. But it was pretty basic and not very exciting. Also, it smelled bad.

Q: Have you done any formal writing training?
A: Yes. I studied for a MA in Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia, Norwich, under Malcolm Bradbury during the mid-90s. It was a difficult and emotionally turbulent year but I learned a lot, mostly about finding my own voice and not simply imitating the styles of those writers I admired. One of the misunderstandings of these courses is that they ‘teach’ you something. They don’t; they simply provide a forum where a group of aspiring writers can share work over the course of a year and discuss it with each other, helping each other with what should hopefully be sensible advice. Some of those friendships have lasted ever since and in fact I’ve returned to UEA over the years, both as Writing Fellow and teaching on the MA Writing course itself. Although I don’t teach very often, I always enjoy it when I do and feel that I learn as much from the students as they learn from me.

The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is a global best seller and also a major motion picture

Q: What is your advice to teachers wanting to encourage young writers?
A: Set up writing groups. Encourage the kids to give each other their work. And do what I did early on, steal published writers’ characters and write new stories for them.

Q: If you had to choose only six items to keep, what would they be?
A: My wedding ring. The photo album from my wedding day. My MacBook Air (my entire life is on there.) A first edition of all my novels. (Can we call that one item?!) A notebook. A fountain pen.

Q: What inspired you to write The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas?
A: I had been fascinated by the Holocaust and Holocaust literature from my mid-teens. It was a subject that I returned to time and again in my reading, hoping to understand it better. I never expected that I would write about it – I didn’t think I would have a story to tell – but then one day the idea for the novel came to me. And since then, with both Stay Where You Are And Then Leave and The Boy at the Top of the Mountain, I find that I am fascinated by the role children play in war and the effect that war has on them. It’s a subject I will certainly return to time and again in my life.

Barnaby Brocket’s parents let him go “because they were too dim to appreciate his uniqueness”.
Q: And a question from a very big fan, age 9, regarding The Terrible Thing Happened to Barnaby Brocket – why did his parents let him go?
A: Because they were too dim to understand that the greatest thing about their son was the fact that he was different. They were embarrassed by this and felt that people would mock them but Barnaby ultimately learned that the thing that made him different, the thing that made him stand out and be a unique person, was something to be celebrated.
John Boyne’s books for young readers:
The Terrible Thing That Happened to Barnaby Brocket
Noah Barleywater Runs Away
Stay Where You Are And Then Leave
The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas
The Boy at the Top of the Mountain

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