John Boyne: Fables and fairytales

John Boyne
1 November 2010

John Boyne was born in Ireland in 1971 and is the author of six novels for adults. His first novel for children, The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas, won two Irish Book Awards, was shortlisted for the British Book Award and has been made into a film. His novels are published in over 40 languages. He lives in Dublin.

Noah Barleywater Runs Away is quite a dark book about a boy who runs away from home. The story has parallels with Pinocchio and examines how children deal with the adult world and the unknowing affects they have on their parents. Where did this book come from?


It all started with fairytales. I had been re-reading classic fairytales and I got fascinated by the recurring themes in them, particuarly with children being abandoned in forests by wicked step-parents.

I wanted to write another book for young readers but hadn’t yet had an idea, and as I was reading the fairytales I also picked up Pinocchio which I hadn’t read since I was very young. I was surprised by what I found, how menacing that book is and what a brat Pinocchio is, he’s not a very nice little fellow. I was interested in creating this fairytale type world, and as The Boy in Striped Pyjamas is a fable, I thought wouldn’t it be fun to write a fairytale.

I’d already written about a tragedy of global importance and I knew I wanted to write something important but I didn’t want to compete with this by writing about another historical tragedy. Noah is a story about one person’s tragedy rather than a global one. I wanted to find out what’s this boy running into the forest for? The stories of Noah and Pinocchio started working in parallel and it started from there.

Did it come from any personal experience?


Not directly, my parents are thankfully still alive. But I did experience grief though a classmate when I was Noah’s age which had a lasting impression on me.

I wanted to write about a young person going through this experience, but also to give it a positive feel at the end to say that these things happen but you don’t have to drown, you can survive it, which is why the epilogue is there at the end. It’s important that Noah does run home and confronts his grief.

Both of your books deal with how children react to an adult world, can you tell us a bit about that.


Both Bruno and Noah are old heads on young shoulders. They are both intelligent and curious about the world and don’t want to be talked down to. I was this kind of kid, picking up adult phrases like Bruno does. These are the kind of boys I’ll be writing about in the future. It’s important that readers feel they’re not being spoken down to, that’s it’s pitched at their level of understanding.

Noah is illustrated by Oliver Jeffers. Was that the publisher’s idea?

No, that was me. I’ve been friends with Oliver for about five years and when David Fickling (publisher of Noah) talked to me about illustrating it, I immediately thought of Oliver. I love his work, there is real emotion in his work, plus he’s Irish and we’re friends! I knew he hadn’t illustrated anyone else’s book before but when I gave him the manuscript he said he would do it.

It works really well. He has that fairytale quality that comes through.

It’s a great match. Oliver really understood the level of emotion running through the book which his illustrations convey perfectly.

You write for adults as well as children. Do you set out to write for one or the other?

No. It’s the story that dictates that. When I have a good idea for a story I know immediately if it’s for adults or children. If the theme and setting is very serious, I know it will be for adults. I don’t prefer writing for one over the other, it’s what ever the strongest idea is, what I feel most passsionately about at the time. It feels very instinctive to me.

Have you ever had a day job?

(laughs) I write full time now, but up until 2003 I worked at Waterstones for seven years.

The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas
has been successfully adapted for the screen. What was your experience like working on the film. Did you help write the script?

I didn’t write the screen play, Mark Herman the director did, but he would send me drafts and I would comment on them, and I was there on set throughout filming.

I actually had a really positive experience unlike a lot of writers, I think. I became very good friends with David and Mark (director and producer). The House of Special Purpose was dedicated to both of them, so I’m not making it up!

So you don’t have a problem letting go of your characters?

No not at all. I always thought, if they make a great film I’ll get all the credit, and if they make a terribile film then people will just say the book was good! I wasn’t all that protective about it, as nothing changes the book. You have to learn to trust the director, but they also have to learn to trust you, that you’re not going to be a total pain and question everything. It’s a mutual thing, and I was very aware of that. I knew from the start that if I wanted to have a say in what was going on I’d have to prove myself to be helpful and not troublesome.

I see you have a new film coming out called The Telegraph Man

That’s been made from a short story I wrote. It’s finished now and premiered in Sydney. I produced it, it’s the first time I’ve produced anything. The director’s done a terrific job.

Will you be moving into production?

If I do it will only be a small part of what I do. Writing is my passion, that’s what I want to do. I want to have a shelf of 20 to 30 books I’ve written at the end of my life. That’s my aim.

Did you always know that was what you wanted to do?

I have wanted to be a writer since I was about 10 or 11. I have always been very focused.

And it worked out for you!

I know, I’m very lucky.

John Boyne

John Boyne was born in Ireland in 1971 and is the author of six novels for adults. His first novel for children, The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas, won two Irish Book Awards, was shortlisted for the British Book Award and has been made into a film. His novels are published in over 40 languages. He lives in Dublin.

 

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