Melbourne Writers Festival: A conversation with John Boyne

John Boyne, famed author of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, came down to Melbourne for the writer’s festival to discuss his experience and success in writing historical fiction for children and adults.

Describing himself as “the only Irish writer who doesn’t write about Ireland,” John Boyne graciously thanked the crowd for attending the session before sitting down with Pam McIntyre to discuss how he got to be the critically acclaimed author of novels such as The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas.

After completing an English degree in Dublin, Boyne begun to do what he’s always wanted to do – write. But, as most young writers can probably relate, this was not such an easy feat to accomplish.

“When I was younger, in my early 20s, I had started writing novels and, like most people at that age, I was writing very much about myself and the things that were going on in my life – all of which I thought were very interesting,” Boyne said. “But nothing was going on in my life! I was living a very boring and quiet little life in Dublin and was trying to heighten that in some way. It wasn’t taking me anywhere in fiction. I wasn’t doing what all writers should do, which is to use their imagination.”

Thankfully, Boyne persevered through the rejections of his first two novels, and decided to “try something completely different.” That was when he decided to write The Thief of Time, a novel spanning two and a half centuries which became his first published novel.

A few years later, Boyne found himself writing a children’s book for the very first time, although he doesn’t like to think of it like that.

“Nowadays we think of adults books and children’s books but these are publishing terms and these are bookshop terms,” he said. “When Robert Louis Stevenson was writing Treasure Island I don’t believe he thought in those terms. Nowadays, people do because that’s the way we’re trained to think and I think my children’s books can be read my adults and my adults books can be read by young people, and I don’t really care who reads them.”

This ‘children’s book,’ The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, went on to become the most successful book Boyne has ever written. Funnily enough, the troubled story behind its publication suggests that publishers don’t always know best.

“I gave it to my agent and the children’s agent at that agency read it first, and got back to me and said that she’d been representing children’s books her whole adult life, and in all that time she said that this was, without question, the worst book she’d ever read,” he said.

Boyne’s newest novel for adults is The Absolutist, a First World War novel with a thrilling twist. His most recently published book for children, is The Terrible Thing That Happened to Barnaby Brocket.


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