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A History of Loneliness: John Boyne

Writing.ie | Magazine | Interviews | Literary Fiction

By Vanessa Fox O'Loughlin

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After his sweeping international success with the stunning The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, John Boyne has become a household name. With the recent publication of his ninth novel for adults, A History of Loneliness, and with four novels for children now under his belt, John Boyne is without doubt one of Ireland’s most versatile and innovative writers, and, as Joseph O’Connor says, ‘a master storyteller’.
Born  in Dublin in 1971, John studied English Literature at Trinity College, Dublin, and creative writing at the University of East Anglia, Norwich, where he was awarded the Curtis Brown prize. His early writing consisted mostly of short stories and the first one published, The Entertainments Jar, was shortlisted for the Hennessy Literary Award. Since then, many of his stories have appeared in magazines and anthologies and John is a regular book reviewer for The Irish Times. He has been a judge for both the Hennessy Literary Awards and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award.
A History of Loneliness is the first book John has written that is set in Ireland, so my first question to him was – why? John explained, “I always said that I wouldn’t write about Ireland until I had a story that I wanted to tell. I don’t believe that just because a person is from a country that they are obliged to write about it and in my case, my imagination brought me to countries outside of my own. However, I always hoped that I would find that story and when the idea began to take shape in my mind, I was surprised that it had been almost ignored by Irish fiction. I knew instinctively that this was something that I wanted to write about.”
A History of Loneliness tells the story of Odran Yates who enters Clonliffe Seminary in 1972 after his mother informs him that he has a vocation to the priesthood. He goes in full of ambition and hope, dedicated to his studies and keen to make friends. But forty years later, Odran’s devotion has been challenged by the revelations that have shattered the Irish people’s faith in the church. He has seen friends stand trial, colleagues jailed, the lives of young parishioners destroyed, and has become nervous of venturing out in public for fear of disapproving stares and insulting remarks. But when a family tragedy opens wounds from his past, he is forced to confront the demons that have raged within a once respected institution and recognise his own complicity in their propagation.John Irving describes the book thusly (to borrow a phrase from author Declan Burke): “The complex architecture of this haunting novel is seamlessly constructed. No writer today handles guilt with as much depth and sadness as John Boyne. This is John Boyne’s most important novel, and of vital importance to Irish history; it is also a gripping story, one no reader can put down until its devastating ending.”john_boyne_headshot140x210As the blurb says,  A History of Loneliness is John’s ‘most powerful adult novel to date, a novel about blind dogma and moral courage, and about the dark places where the two can meet. At once courageous and intensely personal.’ A History of Loneliness is a unique book that will resonate with the reader long after they have put it down. A History of Loneliness is a story is that is both incredibly emotive and hauntingly powerful – I asked John to  tell me a little about the inspiration for the book and how his  own experience had shaped it. John revealed, “There’s a scene in the opening chapter where the narrator, Fr Odran Yates, stops in to the grotto at Inchicore Church late at night to say a prayer and is confronted by the image of a priest lying facedown on the ground, weeping, clearly in pain, while a woman (who he takes to be the priest’s mother) sits nearby also deeply in grief.
‘This is based on a story that a relative told me of seeing this exact thing taking place and when I heard it I knew that was where I would start.
‘I grew up in a Catholic household, I was an altar-boy, my next door neighbour on one side was the parish priest and on the other side were 8 nuns… So I grew up quite connected to the church and involved in church life. And of course I went to a school run by a religious order, the Carmelites. As I started to write the novel, all the memories of growing up – both good and bad – came flooding back to me and I found it exciting to mine these memories which, as you point out in your first question, I had ignored over 15 years of novel-writing. I don’t think I’ve ever felt as connected to a novel during the writing of it as I did towards this one.”
In his recent article for The Guardian, John explains some of the personal experiences that shaped A History of Loneliness, and it is testimony to his incredible talent as a writer that these autobiographical elements took so long to emerge, testament too, to the impact that his experiences at the hands of teachers and the Catholic Church, had, and how deeply they effected him. As John says in that article, “I’ve spent the past two years recalling experiences from my childhood and teenage years that I would rather forget, reliving events that should never have taken place and recreating through fiction, moments that seemed small at the time but that I’ve come to realise caused me great damage. Which makes me think that the real reason I never wrote about Ireland until now is explained in the opening sentence of my novel: ‘I did not become ashamed of being Irish until I was well into the middle years of my life.’ “
With such a personal aspect to A History of Loneliness I asked John if he had had a clear idea of the full story when he started writing, or if he had begun with a key character and just started writing.  He told me, “No, I don’t like to know too much in advance. I started with Odran, the narrator, a man who I saw as a decent and kindly person who, in his 60s, feels betrayed by the institution to which he has devoted his life. I wanted to be clear that he had engaged in no criminal behaviour, would never have dreamed of doing so, and yet was being tarred with the same brush as those who did. And yet as the novel (and the character) progressed, what I found was that I was questioning how complicit he was in the events that were taking place around him. How much did he know? How many things does he turn a blind eye to? This is up to the reader to decide. But I wanted to make him a slightly tragic figure too. There are moments when I’m sure the reader feels terrible for him – the Brown Thomas scene – but there are also moments when we know that he has not acted when he should – the scene with the young character Brian Kilduff is a perfect example of this.”

With a priest as the central character, I wondered if it had been  difficult for John to get inside Odran’s head? Did he have to do a lot of research to avoid the stereotypes and to understand the mindset of a Catholic Priest? John explained, “I did a lot of research. I spoke to priests, I spoke to victims. I heard how the actions of the criminals have affected the lives of both. However it was no more or less difficult to get inside the head of a priest than it was to get inside the heads of a Russian emigree at the start of the 20th century (THE HOUSE OF SPECIAL PURPOSE), a First World War soldier (THE ABSOLUTIST) or a 19th Century English governess (THIS HOUSE IS HAUNTED). All these novels require a certain reinvention on the part of the writer, almost like an actor delving into the character they are going to portray. To avoid stereotypes, it was important to me that the central character was not himself an abuser but a kind and mostly thoughtful man. It’s easy to create evil characters; it’s a lot more difficult to create decent ones.”

A History of Loneliness is a true page turner – the writing just flows from beginning to end. But as any writer knows, writing is re-writing, so I asked John how many drafts it had taken to reach this point. “Usually around a dozen drafts. When I start a novel I write the entire first draft from start to finish without ever re-writing or looking backwards. What I find is that I don’t really know what the novel is about until I have finished that first draft, so it’s better for me to just get there and then spend a lot of time thinking about it and rewriting it. I love the editing process; first drafts are difficult though! They require a lot of focussed free time, months of it, day after day of writing. And I don’t show anyone anything until I feel it’s as good as I can make it.”

With his massive international success, John travels a huge amount, (check his Facebook page to see!) so I asked him, where and when do you write? John is the ultimate professional, as he explained, “Everywhere! I’m typing these answers on a train coming from London to Norwich after doing interviews for the THE BOY IN THE STRIPED PYJAMAS stage play. I can write in airports, hotel rooms, buses… wherever I happen to be. I’ve been very lucky in my writing life that I’ve found readers around the world and this has led, as you say, to a lot of travelling and a lot of festivals and book tours. I don’t take them for granted, I feel very fortunate to be in that position. But a day without writing, no matter where I am or how I’m travelling, is a day wasted.”
If you aspire to anything close to this level of success, hold that thought.
At writing.ie we are always keen to get tips from successful authors, so what are John’s tips? He says, “Writing groups are brilliant. Any environment where you have people reading your work and commenting on it is so helpful. And you learn so much from reading the work of others and analysing it so you have something to say in class. So join a writing group! And send your short stories out, don’t just put them in a drawer. Even if they come back rejected there might be helpful advice from editors. And never ever apologise for your work, never give something to someone and tell them it’s no good – which a surprising amount of people do – it’s just fishing for compliments. Stand by what you do, believe in it. And while people are reading it, start the next thing!
A History of Loneliness is in all bookshops, or pick up your copy online here. You will have to read it to find out why the stunning cover is just so heart-wrenching…as Helen Dunmore said in The Guardian: “This is a harsh, unsparing novel… The portrait of Irish society is equally lacerating. John Boyne writes with compelling anger about the abuses of power and the dangers of submission.”
You need to read this book. Go buy it.
(c) Vanessa Fox O’Loughlin
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