BREAKTHROUGH books can be a blessing and a curse. That’s something John Boyne, the 39-year-old author whose novel, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, sold five million copies and was made into a Miramax movie after its 2006 release, surely knows better than most.
Boyne reamed off the first draft of “Striped Pyjamas”, as he refers to it, in a delirious two-and-a-half days. It catapulted the Dubliner to the top of the New York Times bestseller list, spending 80 weeks at No 1 in Ireland. But it also left him with a dilly of a pickle. How to follow it up?
Almost five years later, the answer is Noah Barleywater Runs Away, the story of an eight-year-old boy who runs away from home and encounters a magical toyshop in a forest. Boyne has published two adult novels (Mutiny on the Bounty and The House of Special Purpose) since Striped Pyjamas, but Noah is the follow-up children’s book, and the prospect made him nervous.
“Striped Pyjamas came together out of the blue and quite quickly,” he reflects. “I hadn’t really planned writing it, and then it took off. I knew this time around that it was going to be different. I was specifically going to be following that book up. I kind of steered away from it for a few years; I was nervous because I didn’t want to just do it for the sake of it.
“I wanted an idea to come to me, not to have to go searching for it. I wanted it to be really, really strong. I’ve had ideas for children’s books over the years, but they just didn’t feel strong enough. This one was different. Nobody is going to read it and think I’m doing Striped Pyjamas Part II. It’s a different type of book, but it also deals with a very serious subject.”
Noah is at once a fantastical fable, peppered with talking dachshunds, secret staircases and conspiring puppets, and a story that sheds its layers to reveal a wrenching tragedy at its core.
“A lot of those fairytales are darker than people remember... [The book] started there and morphed into something different. Rather than a child being abandoned in a forest, like Hansel and Gretel or Snow White, I thought, what about a child running away from a home into a forest?
“I wasn’t sure if I was going to write for children again, but this seemed like a good idea,” he says. “Particularly the serious nature of what Noah is running away from.”
Noah is not a historical novel, though that is the genre Boyne is best known for. Since he published his first book, The Thief of Time, in 2000, his fiction has wandered from Auschwitz to Tsarist Russia, from the Wall Street Crash to Dr Crippen. His next book, he tells me, will be “a very serious story” about the effects of World War I on a young man.
“It surprises me as much as anybody that I have written so many books that are set in the past,” he muses. “I don’t consider myself a historical novelist, although I’m not opposed to the phrase. I enjoy the research, taking periods that already fascinate me and which I enjoy getting lost in. My first novel spans 250 years and goes through eight different periods ... that was the template, I think, for what was to come over the next decade. I realised that I could have a lot of fun.”
Boyne hasn’t studied history (after Terenure College in Dublin, he studied English literature at Trinity). He reads insatiably, however, and his trick for inhabiting past eras is to immerse himself in the fiction of the day, getting a feel for “the detail of life, how people lived, how they dressed, how men and women interacted and so on...
“With The House of Special Purpose, for instance, I went back to the Russian novelists, got into the rhythms of the dialogue and language. A good portion of that book was written in St Petersburg in the Winter Palace itself. So I like to engross myself in the world of it, through fiction, through location, trying to learn as much as possible before deciding what’s important.”
Born in Dublin in 1971, Boyne recalls his mother taking him to the library once a week, and he later spent several years working alongside other aspiring writers like Paul Murray and Sarah Webb in Waterstones on Dawson Street. But what books inspired him as a child?
“I suppose what you’d call classics. We were reading things like Treasure Island and The Man in the Iron Mask. We weren’t reading things like Twilight. I don’t know how often children read those books right now. And they’re better than Twilight, obviously! But it was that kind of adventure novel which inspired Mutiny on the Bounty, for example.”
After Trinity, Boyne studied creative writing at the University of East Anglia. One of the great benefits of taking tuition on writing, he has said, was that it allowed him to decide what kind of writer he wanted to be.
“I’m unashamedly an emotional writer... I admire beautifully-written novels, but as a reader, I want to laugh, cry, be scared; I want to have a human reaction to the book... There are writers who would shake their heads at hearing that, but it is what I want. I’m not trying to manipulate the reader, but I am trying to write something human, something that really moves people.”
Books like The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, Noah Barleywater or The House of Special Purpose, he says, end at a deliberate point: “I want the reader to have a lump in the throat.”
But is there any sense that The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, now published in 42 languages, is an albatross?
“It’s not an albatross because it’s something I’m proud of and something that has changed my life,” he says. “It brought subsequent books to an international audience that they wouldn’t otherwise have. Mutiny on the Bounty and The House of Special Purpose are published in about 20-odd languages each. Noah will be published in even more. The earlier books were not.”
Is he fed up being asked about it? “I don’t get tired answering questions about it, but when I bring out a new book, I do hope that people can move on a little!”
Boyne has taught creative writing at the Irish Writers’ Centre and is a tireless advocate for new Irish fiction overseas (“If my foreign publishers are doing well with me, my first question is always: ‘What other Irish writers do you have on your list?’,” he says.)
“I’m coming up to a big birthday in a few months, 40, and I’m looking at the decade ahead. So I would be interested in broadening my horizons a bit, maybe doing something in publishing, finding new writers, yes. I would be very interested in that.”
“I believe, and I think new writers have to believe, that a quality book will find an agent and a publisher. Yes, it’s a romantic view. But it’s also a view that a new writer has to take. Otherwise, what’s the point? You have to believe that it will happen.”