In his epic new tome that spans 70 years, John Boyne examines growing up gay in Ireland and the associated trials and tribulations. He talks to Sue Leonard
WHEN John Boyne started writing The Heart’s Invisible Furies, the debate that preceded the marriage equality referendum was in full flow.
And, listening to the naysayers , it seemed unfair to him that the whole country was making a choice on behalf of the small minority that makes up the gay community.
“People were making statements based on nothing but prejudice and I found it very upsetting,” he says over coffee in a Dublin hotel.
“Are their marriages so unstable that the action of a complete stranger could threaten it?” He sighs.
“I made the mistake of engaging on Twitter with people who felt differently to me, and you can’t win those arguments. It’s like engaging with Trump people.”
Growing up gay in Ireland was a terrible trial for Boyne. He spoke of the struggle through his teens and 20s while publicising his last novel, The History of Loneliness, which looked at the issue of clerical abuse through the life of a ‘good’ priest.
This new book, an epic history of Ireland showing the changes of the last of 70 years through the growing acceptance of one gay man, started life as an equally sad project.
At the start he thought that his new narrator, Cyril Avery, would live as lonely a life as the priest in that book.
“I remember an RTÉ report on the news on the day of the referendum.
"This guy of about 90 was coming out of the polling booth and a journalist asked why he was crying. And he said, ‘Because it’s too late for me, but it’s not for others’.”
The book starts in 1945 with Avery’s mother, a pregnant teenager, being denounced as a whore by a priest who, it was later discovered, had fathered two children by two different women.
She gives the baby up for adoption, and it’s here, in the second chapter, that Boyne found his writing style start to change.
“It just took on a different tone,” he says.
“I’d been thinking of the 90-year-old guy, and of writing a condemnation of Ireland for allowing a life like that to happen, but when I introduced Cyril’s adoptive parents, Charles and Maud, it seemed right to add humour.
"I thought, if I could make it funny, and still make the characters real, still make it moving and sad, well why not?”
I have always enjoyed Boyne’s writing. I read the historical fiction he wrote, before The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas made him a household name.
I love his sensitivity, humility, and ability to express emotion, but this book marks a shift into sheer brilliance.
It’s more than 600 pages long, but I wished it was longer. Indeed, I was so engrossed in the tale that I didn’t want to leave the company of all the superbly drawn characters; their dialogue is to die for. I doubt I will read a better book all year.
The novel is dedicated to John Irving, a friend of Boyne’s, and there are similarities between the two authors, both in their chosen themes and writing style.
Yet to me, the book was reminiscent of the storytelling of William Boyd combined with the hilarious satire of the early works of Evelyn Waugh — like Decline and Fall and Scoop.
Boyne likens his hero to Lucky Jim.
“He’s that slightly bumbling character who keeps getting himself into scrapes,” he says.
And certainly, like Amis’s Jim, Cyril Avery has trouble fitting in to a traditional lifestyle. His kind but remote adoptive parents constantly remind him that he’s not a ‘real’ Avery.
At boarding school he falls secretly in love with his best friend but could never admit to his sexuality, and ends up leaving Ireland under a cloud.
The story follows him to Amsterdam where he finds happiness, then to New York where the Aids crisis is spreading panic and homophobia.
“I think we forget the fear of that time,” says Boyne.
“I was 16 in 1987. I can remember one particular day coming home from school and a news report said Aids was like the plague and was going to kill everybody.
"I discovered that corpses of Aids victims could not be kept with the corpses of non-Aids, which makes no sense. Apparently the families insisted on it.”
Characters, both major and minor make unexpected appearances, weaving throughout the narrative in a series of coincidences.
“I enjoyed writing those, but was also nervous that people would think there were too many. I decided the best way was to have so many coincidences, that clearly, I had intended them. It felt right to me.”
There are a lot of literary references and jokes between the pages, and opinions dotted around which are, I suspect, Boyne’s own.
And particularly in his depiction of Maud Avery, a writer who is never likely to be praised like her male counterparts. Indeed, this is as much a feminist book as it is a gay one.
“It very much is. But I think there is a connection in the way gay people are treated and the way women are. Some female writers are automatically part of the literati, and some aren’t.
"Why is that the case, and who gets to make that decision? Is it the media or the writers themselves?”
We talk about reviews, both of receiving and writing them, and I’ve clearly hit a nerve.
“If you give an honest good review you’re accused of back-slapping and if you give an honest bad one, a pack of eight or nine people who think as one will vilify you, and give out all over Twitter. It’s pointless.”
So much so, that he no longer reviews Irish books.
“I had an Irish writer tell me because I felt not every Irish book was good that I was jealous. Can I not have an opinion? I’ve been doing this for nearly 20 years, and these people write a book.
We may not hear from them again. Yet there is a tendency to praise everything and celebrate mediocrity.
“I remember Malcolm Bradbury telling us, when I was at the University of East Anglia, never believe a review when it’s good, and never believe it when it’s bad. The hardest thing is to read a negative review and you know they are right.”
Boyne is glad that his career has built slowly, and gained momentum. Highly respected abroad, he loves his writing life, and can’t stand reading interviews of young writers who claim to hate it.
“That seems so ungrateful. The world will not stop turning if you don’t write a book. If you don’t like it, don’t do it.
“I love writing as much as I ever did. I always wake up feeling excited. We all know that only 10% of writers make a living out of it. So yes, the money does make a difference.
"I am able to write full-time, and I can go off to festivals whenever I want, and I can be an international writer and not have to ask anybody for time off.
“I don’t have indulgences. I have a house and a car. I stay in nice hotels, and I buy hardback books. I don’t want much. I’m content.”
The other week, in London for publicity around the book, Boyne spotted Sebastian Barry being interviewed about his overall Costa Prize win.
“I went over to congratulate him and he was so excited. He was happy, and so full of joy and life. After all his awards and all his wonderful books, it was lovely to see people still giving him a pat on the back.
“And it still matters, even to a man of that stature.”
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved