Five minutes with... John Boyne

Published on: 20 June 2012

We caught up with John Boyne, international bestselling author of the The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. John spoke to us about writing for children an adults and tackling difficult subjects in children's literature.

John Boyne

Can you tell us a bit about what we can expect from your book, The Terrible Thing That Happened to Barnaby Brocket?

It's hard to know what to expect from any novel. One always writes the best book that one can write but when it's in the hands of reviewers and readers, there's no possibility of knowing the outcome! However, Barnaby is a novel I feel very passionately about so I really hope that readers enjoy it. I wanted to write a story for children who felt different in some way. Perhaps every child feels different, I know that I did when I was growing up. So when I had the idea for the story - a family who don't like anyone to stand out from the crowd in any way but whose son, Barnaby, defies the law of gravity and floats - I thought it might be a good metaphor for all the insecurities that we feel when we're young. Of course in my novel, it's only the adults who have a problem with the fact that Barnaby is different. The children don't mind at all.

You've written books for both adults and children. How much do you think about your audience when you are writing and do you feel that there is a difference between writing for adults and writing for children?

When I start a novel I know whether I am writing a novel for adults or for younger readers but the only real differences are that the children's books (so far) have featured a boy of either 8 or 9 years old at their centre while the adult novels feature adult protagonists. I don't change the language for the children's books; I feel that if there are words that the readers don't understand, they can look them up! Other than that, the children's books tend to be shorter, around 50,000 words, while my adult novels are often more than twice that length. But regardless of what I am writing, the writing has to be as good, the characters as believable, the story lines as interesting as I can possibly make them. Most of the adult novels are also the types of novels that could be read by young people and I think that my children's books could be read by adults too. There's a fine line between the two!

Are there any children's books or authors that have particularly inspired you as a writer?

Ian Serailler's The Silver Sword had a huge effect on me when I was about nine years old. Reading the story of young children fleeing the Nazis during the Second World War both captivated and scared me. It's a novel that I think every young person should read, a true contemporary classic. I was also a great fan of Watership Down, Richard Adams' wonderful novel about rabbits. It's such an unusual idea but the storytelling is beautiful and it's a powerful and moving book. I loved Dickens' orphan books; any novel that featured a young protagonist who was on his or her own in the world and struggling to survive was always something that appealed to me. And of course my great favourite was Roald Dahl, whose books I still have lined up together on a shelf in my office. The imagination behind those stories is extraordinary.

Both The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas and Noah Barleywater Runs Away are books that deal with complex issues, tragedy and sadness. What motivates you to explore these emotions - and do you feel that there are any issues that aren't suitable for books for children?

I don't think there are any subjects that one can't write about for children as long as one is sensitive in the way that one approaches them. My first children's novel explored the Holocaust; my second, the death of a parent; and now, in Barnaby Brocket, the central idea acts as a metaphor for how it feels to grow up knowing that your sexuality is different to most other people's. These are subjects which must be handled carefully but really, I'm not interested in writing about vampires or other tedious, trivial subjects. Vampires don't exist; prejudice, death and sex do. Having not begun my writing career as a children's author and having known very little about that world when I wrote my first children's book, I am more and more excited about the stories I could potentially tell for young people over the years to come.

What advice would you give to an aspiring writer for children and young people?

The exact same advice that I would give ANY aspiring writer: read a lot, read everything; write a lot, write every day, give work to others to read. Join a writing group. Learn what it means to read other aspiring writers and how to analyze the flaws in order to gain a better understanding of how plot, dialogue, structure and characters work. Know when a novel is simply not good enough to be published, but take everything you've learned from writing it and start the next one. Never finish something and put it in a drawer - give it to someone. Writing exists to be read!

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