Irish author John Boyne (The Boy with the Striped Pyjamas) is a graduate of the MA in Creative Writing at UEA. He recently returned to Norwich to speak at the Malcolm Bradbury Memorial Trust fundraising event at the university. Current UEA Creative Writing students Lauren Rose, Sharlene Teo and Colette Sensier recently caught up with John for an illuminating Q&A.
Q: What are some works of art that have influenced you?
My favourite writers include John Irving, Philip Roth, Rose Tremain, Philip Hensher, Colm Toibin, John Banville… the list is endless. Kate Bush has been my favourite singer since I was a teenager. I never grow tired of her albums. My favourite is Aerial, closely followed by Hounds of Love, The Dreaming and 50 Words For Snow. Also, The Silver Sword, by Ian Serraillier. If I’d never read The Silver Sword, I’d never have written The Boy with the Striped Pyjamas. It was my first introduction, at the age of about ten or eleven, to the subject of the Second World War and the Holocaust.
Q: Describe a bad writing day:
A bad writing day would be one where I have to be somewhere in the middle of the day, like at noon, so I can’t focus in the morning because I know I have to go out, or concentrate in the afternoon because I’ve already been somewhere else for two or three hours. That would be bad. Because I like my day to be free. And I don’t meet people for lunch. I can do things afterwards, but I don’t like my day being broken up. No lunches. Drinks in the evening are fine though.
Q: Do you let what others may think affect your writing process?
I have no interest whatsoever in what people think of me. The only thing I’m interested in is the book I’m writing. I’m well past the point of caring about anything else. I think it’s come with the freedom that I was lucky enough to get, where I can write what I want when I want. Obviously I want people to like my books, but I don’t pay a lot of attention to what the response is. I don’t read reviews, ever. I have no idea of sales figures, other than in general. A book comes out, I don’t follow its progress, I just sit down and start writing the next one.
Q: Do you think that’s a defence mechanism?
Maybe. I’m always working on the next book, that’s always my focus. I only write for myself. A shelf is on my desk at home, with a copy of each novel, the English language edition, and my life is working its way across that shelf. And I think when it gets to the end of the shelf– it’s about 40% there– the shelf looks like it will be my life. Each time another one gets up there. And that’s all I’m interested in.
Q: It’s interesting how some authors publish a few books, and some are more prolific.
I don’t do anything except write novels. I don’t write screenplays, I don’t write television. That’s the only thing I do. I’ve published quite a lot of short stories, but usually ony when they are commissioned. What I always try to do is have a few sitting on my computer that exist, and which I can adapt for different things. A lot of writers who achieve a little bit of success turn that into – I can now do this and this and this. And I don’t, I only write novels. I’ve published over 70 short stories but I’ve never published a collection.
Q: Do you have advice for young emerging writers?
I came here eight years ago to teach on the undergrad writing course. And nobody was reading books. The students who wanted to be writers were not reading.Readingis important, obviously. Writing is a very simple thing. You read and you write. It’s not much more complicated than that. You don’t wait for the muse to strike.
Q We hear you have a dog. How does your dog affect your writing practice?
I have a theory that whenever a writer gets a dog, if they’ve never previously had a dog, then dogs appear in their fiction from then on. And it happened with me. When I got my dog I was writing The Absolutist, and a Cavalier King Charles spaniel appears in that book [Boyne has a Cavalier King Charles spaniel named Zaccy]. And then in the next book, which is the children’s book Barnaby Brocket, a dog is hugely important in that book. So you start writing about dogs when you have a dog. In my office, he sits there by my feet. When I finish something, I read it out loud to hear how it sounds, and the first person to hear everything I write is my dog. He just wants to be with me or my partner Con. As long as he’s with us, he’s happy. He goes from room to room, he’ll just follow us.