Novelist John Boyne, whose A History of Loneliness is published this November, and who is Creative Writing Fellow on UEA’s Masters in Creative Writing this autumn, is interviewed by Emma Miller, current MA student.
Emma Miller: Your latest novel, A History of Loneliness considers many difficult topics such as mental health issues, suicide and child abuse. Given the book’s concern with silenced voices, can you elaborate upon why you decided to narrate the story through the voice of Father Odran Yates, who the Irish Times have described as ‘a good priest’?
John Boyne: I never plot a novel in advance but prefer to let the story and characters form on the page as I write it. The only idea I had for A History of Loneliness when I began was that it would not feature a paedophile priest as its main protagonist but a decent man who has given his life to an institution which has failed him. As someone who has spent many years feeling great anger towards the Catholic Church I thought that by doing so I would resist the urge to turn the novel into a diatribe. Diatribes don’t work in fiction; examination does. I wanted to examine the workings of the church and the workings of a priest’s mind from a place of goodness rather than evil. However, as the novel developed I realized that my original plan was changing. Father Yates became not as ‘good’ a character as I had imagined. In fact he is complicit in the terrible things that have gone on. He sees things, he hears things, he suspects things, and he does nothing. He’s a coward. He may not be criminally culpable but there is blame there if he is only willing to see it. This extends not only to his relationship with his friend Tom, but to his sister’s descent into dementia. He’d simply rather not get involved.
EM: The temporal arrangement of the novel is unusual, as the story is not developed chronologically; rather you move with effortless fluidity through the timeline of the narrator’s life, juxtaposing a chapter set in 2006 with one set in 1964, followed by a scene in 1980. Was it important for you to structure it in this way?
JB: It’s a structure that I’ve used before – in The Thief of Time, The Congress of Rough Riders, Crippen, The House of Special Purpose and The Absolutist – so it’s one that I’m comfortable with. I don’t always like to tell a story in a linear fashion, mostly because I don’t know where the story starts and where it ends until I have finished the first draft. And so I simply start with a scene that interests me and I continue writing until I feel I’ve come to a natural end. And then I move somewhere else. In this novel, for example, I felt it should start at the point where the scandals in the church are just about to break and where Odran’s sister first shows signs of dementia. His world is about to change and he doesn’t know it yet. Then we move forward a few years to when he is moved from the school to a parish. And just as the reader is comfortable with the set-up, I take you back to his childhood and see what his family life was like in the 1960s and how the church played in a role in each parish. I knew the novel would end ‘today’ but I wanted to lay clues in different years as to how Odran’s, and particularly Tom’s, stories developed.
EM: Given that your last full length adult fiction was concerned with the supernatural, A History of Loneliness is a significant departure, focused as it with real world problems, actual events and even recognisable political and religious figures. How do you approach writing fiction that is interwoven so closely with current affairs?
JB: I like to move between different types of novels while still feeling that my work can be presented as a unified whole. This House Is Haunted probably harks back a little more to my earlier work, notably Crippen, while A History of Loneliness is an entirely different beast. The big turning point for me as a writer was The Absolutist. That was the first novel – for either adults or young readers – where I felt I had achieved my artistic goals completely and remains the novel I feel most proud of. I explored sexuality in a personal way in that book, which was something I had never done before, but the writing, the story and the promotion rather drained me and I knew I couldn’t take on such a serious subject again immediately. But I have to write and thought it would be fun to try an old-fashioned ghost story, albeit with a contemporary twist. When I started A History of Loneliness I felt ready to take on the big subject of the Church in Ireland – and indeed Ireland itself, which I had never written about – and the fact that it is a contemporary and contentious issue didn’t scare me in the slightest. If anything, it excited me.
EM: Reading A History of Loneliness reminded me of Iris Murdoch, who was also much concerned with ethics in her fictional writing. Would you consider writing book-length work of non-fiction or do you see fiction as a better medium for your ideas?
JB: I don’t think I would ever say that I wouldn’t do something, as all it takes is one good idea to make a writer change his or her mind, but I can’t imagine ever writing a non-fiction work. It simply doesn’t interest me in the way that novels do. I couldn’t bear to get overwhelmed by research! As it is, I move between writing novels about adults and novels about young people and this seems enough of a job without adding to my workload. And as the novels build – there’s 13 of them now – I grow more determined to write a better one each time, to understand the novel structure better and to challenge myself to take risks with it. So no, right now I don’t think so.
EM: E. M. Forster provides the epigraph to A History of Loneliness and his work is referenced throughout the novel. Has Forster been a significant influence upon your writing and which other writers would you say have made an impression on your work to date?
JB: I’m always a little wary of saying that any particular writer has influenced me. I can say which writers I admire, and whose work has moved me, but I feel that I am my own person as a writer and I’m not trying to live up to someone else’s ideal or to replicate their style. However yes, Forster is a writer whose novels have always been among my favourites. His elegance as a writer impresses me, his humour, and the repressed sexuality that lurks among his pages. LP Hartley’s The Go-Between is my favourite novel of all time. Of more contemporary writers, certainly I have cited John Irving on more than one occasion as a novelist whose work speaks greatly to me and whose novels convinced me as a teenager that I wanted to write too. Among younger writers I admire Damon Galgut, Philip Hensher, Christos Tsiolkas, Sarah Waters, Tim Winton… there’s so many. Too many to name. And of course the writer who is, in my opinion, the greatest of them all: John Banville.
EM: You are currently a Creative Writing Fellow at the University of East Anglia, leading workshops for the MA in Creative Writing (Prose), a course on which you were once a student. How has it affected you as an author to return to Norwich in this capacity?
JB: I’ve had three experiences at UEA: once as a student during the ‘94/’95 academic year. Once as Writing Fellow ten years later during ‘04/’05. And now a third time, ten years later again, as a tutor on the MA in Creative Writing. Of the three experiences this most recent one has been the most positive for me. I struggled as a student, mostly because I was too young to be on the course and my writing was not sufficiently developed. Also, I was not, at 22 years of age, emotionally equipped to deal with the personalities and dramas that seemed to surround the course at that time. The Writing Fellow job was enjoyable but didn’t require me to ‘give’ a lot of myself. But this time around I feel most excited by the course and the students and the writing that is produced week after week. I’ve been blessed by having nine students who are talented, who come to class well-prepared, who don’t try to tear each other down, and yet are unafraid to make strong critical comments. And going through their work each week has made me a better writer, identifying things that are working and things that aren’t has helped me consider similar issues with my own work.
EM: You have been a published author for much of your adult life and you have garnered much praise and a great number of readers. Can you describe how your relationship with writing has developed since you signed your first book contract and what advice would you give new authors hoping for career longevity?
JB: I recall the 27 year-old who got his first book deal in the late 1990s and I almost don’t recognise him. Back then young writers were not as clued in to the publishing industry, to marketing trends, to bookshop trends, to the media as they are today. There was a feeling that you could just write a book and if it was published all good things would come from there. But of course it doesn’t work like that and there are many young writers – I knew a lot of them – who received two book deals and, having failed to set the bestseller lists on fire, were never published again. Now, however, in my early 40s I feel I understand the publishing industry inside and out. And I genuinely admire it. Yes, there are casualties along the way but agents, editors, publishers, publicists, sales teams, marketing teams, are all passionate books people and are determined to make every writer’s book a success, even if we know that not every book will ultimately succeed. There’s an element of luck involved with these things too. I understand the novel form much better than I ever did before, but that is simply because I have written so many of them. And I wonder sometimes what I’ll be writing ten years hence because hopefully I will be a better novelist then than I am now, just like I am certainly better now than I was in 2004. New authors need to understand that they have a responsibility to get out there and help sell their books. They need to be willing to attend festivals, give talks, do whatever needs to be done, even if it goes against their character to be a promotional machine. The only thing you can’t do is be arrogant about it. Publishing is a small industry in many ways and we all know the writers, particularly the new writers, who behave badly, disrespect others and boast too much. Those writers usually disappear quite quickly. Ultimately the only thing that matters is the book itself. An author who writes a wonderful novel and is able to represent that novel publicly in a sensible and considered way will generally succeed.