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John Boyne, The Absolutist

Writing.ie | Magazine | Historical Fiction | Interviews

By Hazel Gaynor

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As the award winning author of seven novels, published in 40 languages, one of which, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas has sold one million copies, it is hard to believe that John Boyne was once a hopeful author, flicking through the Writer’s and Artist’s Year Book, selecting possible agents to send his work to. But that is exactly how he started out, as he explained when I spoke to him recently.

‘I think one of the most important stages for me in becoming a successful author was getting an agent. Having studied at UEA, on the Malcolm Bradbury MA in Creative Writing, I had written one novel, with a second in progress. I looked through the Writers and Artists Yearbook for agents who represented writers I enjoyed reading, and who I aspired to. I wrote to an agent, he took me on and we have worked together ever since.’

But it wasn’t simply a case of first time lucky for John. Although the agent liked the style of his writing, he wasn’t convinced that the novel John had already written would get published. ‘He emphasised to me that you get one chance to go out the first time as an unpublished author, and to impress the publishers. He liked what he had seen of the second novel I had started work on and he read new chapters as I continued to write them. That book became The Thief of Time which, after rejections from several publishers, was bought by Orion.’

With so much success and literary acclaim behind him, you might think that John wouldn’t remember that moment when he found out he was to be a published author – but he does: ‘I don’t think any writer ever forgets that moment! I was living in London at the time and was sitting in my flat one evening watching Eastenders when the phone rang and my agent told me I’d got a publishing contract. I was on my own and it was quite late at night so I couldn’t ring anyone to tell them!’ The excitement of that moment can still be heard in John’s voice as he recalls it now.

Although The Thief of Time was John’s first published novel, he’d had many short stories published in magazines and anthologies in the years preceding that, and had been shortlisted for a Hennessy award. He feels that having had his work published in this way was a very important stepping stone to the publication of his novel.

But it was with John’s fourth book The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas that he saw a significant change in his writing career. He had been part of the publishing industry for six years at that stage, so feels he was in a good, grounded position from which to move into a new level of publishing success. ‘Selling foreign rights was a new area for me as a writer, and one which started with The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas. Suddenly I was touring overseas and being invited to speak at literary festivals around the world. This definitely changed the focus of my career. Now, I have to divide my time between writing and promoting my books. It is a 50/50 split of my time and I’m lucky in that I enjoy both aspects.’ The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas won two Irish Book Awards and the Penguin Orange Readers’ Group Prize. It was shortlisted for the British Book Award and was made into a Miramax feature film.

Of course, even though John’s dream was to write for a living, he is only human, and admits to there being occasional moments when he finds himself in ‘another’ hotel room, feeling a little exhausted by it all. ‘Whenever I feel like that, I remind myself that this is what I wanted to do – and  I realise that I am incredibly fortunate to be able to do it. This is the dream – and I certainly don’t take it for granted. I love what I do and I have always worked hard on my writing – even in the early days at UEA – so I definitely feel like my success is hard-earned.’

So, has the phenomenal success he has experienced changed him at all? ‘I feel that I grow as a writer with each book. I understand the structure and form of the novel better each time I write one. I don’t feel any pressure because of the success I’ve had – I just get on with the job.’

John approaches his writing career as a true professional, remaining absolutely focused and committed to the job of writing. But success has inevitably led to an increase in John’s confidence as a writer and the belief in his own abilities. ‘I used to plan the entire novel in advance, writing out the plot and chapters and following that through. Now, I just start with a basic idea and see where that goes. I guess I have the confidence now to know that it will figure itself out. There is also an awful lot of extra confidence to be gained by knowing that people are reading and enjoying your books.’

In terms of a writing day, John’s is very much a 9-5 approach. ‘I do all my writing during the day and make a point of not writing at night. Ever. Even if I am tempted to, I won’t, as I would prefer to wake up with the enthusiasm to get started the next day. Writing for me requires complete focus – I work constantly, especially when I am writing the first draft. That is when I feel I really need to just keep on with it, otherwise I will lose the focus of my writing.’

It takes John around six to eight weeks to write his first draft. ‘A common mistake new writer’s make with their first draft is to keep going back over their first couple of chapters, trying to make them as wonderful as possible. But the problem with that is that there may never be a fourth, fifth or sixth chapter written – never mind an entire book!  For me, the business of the first draft is simply about completing the first draft; creating the skeleton of a story. I may not be sure what the main themes or concerns are until the end of the first draft and half of it may not end up in the finished book, but it is important to get that first draft down. Then there is more freedom to add the flavour, the lovely language, the themes and the beautiful words. I enjoy the editing process.

Although John’s trademark style is setting his novels in different periods of history, this was not a conscious decision he made at the start. ‘I really enjoyed the historical aspect of the first book I wrote and found that I took to it well. It’s just the way it’s all worked out.

Of course, with history, comes research and John takes a different approach to researching each book. For his latest novel The Absolutist, which is set around the events of the Great War, John spent time at the Imperial War Museum in London reading letters from soldiers on the Front and letters sent from family back home. ‘I read hundreds of the letters to try to understand the emotions of the soldiers and their families and to catch an authentic voice for my characters.’

For previous novels, John has taken what he terms a ‘method’ approach to research. ‘With The House of Special Purpose I lived in St Petersburg for a period and actually wrote the book in the rooms of the Winter Palace where the novel was set. I really wanted to get the spirit of the place into the story; to feel what winter in the city was really like. I like to try to recreate as much authenticity as I can – and of course, I also rely heavily on my imagination.’

With The Absolutist John knew that he wanted to write a story about the Great War, about conscientious objectors and about two young men in the trenches, but allowed the story to unfold as he wrote. ‘Initially, I thought Will and Tristan’s would be more of a love story than it turned out to be and that there would be more equality in their relationship than there is in the finished novel. But as it developed, and as I wrote it, I discovered that wasn’t the case.’ For John, it is really a case of letting the story go where it goes.

His next book is a children’s book The Terrible Thing That Happened to Barnaby Brocket and will be published this August. ‘I tend to alternate between writing for adults and writing for children. Writing The Absolutist was a very intense and emotionally draining experience, so I enjoyed the opportunity to write jokes and humour in Barnaby Brocket. I take my writing of books for children just as seriously as my writing of books for adults. I enjoy the change of style and tone between them.’ As with his previous children’s books, John has, again, enjoyed working with Oliver Jeffers, who has provided the illustrations for Barnaby Brocket.

In terms of passing on good advice to aspiring writers, John’s is quite simple. ‘Write every single day – even Christmas Day. If you write a little bit every day, it is surprising how it all adds up. My advice is, don’t take time off. Keep at it, stick with it and get the job done. I would also advise joining writing groups – we all need good, honest people from people outside our immediate family.’

Despite all his success, John remains reassuringly humble, practical and driven. He speaks about his writing with such passion – with the sense of a man who has mastered his craft – that he cannot fail to inspire those of us who wish, one day, to walk in his shoes.

The Absolutist

September 1919: 20 year-old Tristan Sadler takes a train from London to Norwich to deliver some letters to Marian Bancroft. Tristan fought alongside Marian’s brother Will during the Great War but in 1917 Will laid down his guns on the battlefield, declared himself a conscientious objector and was shot as a traitor, an act which has brought shame and dishonour on the Bancroft family.

But the letters are not the real reason for Tristan’s visit. He holds a secret deep in his soul. One that he is desperate to unburden himself of to Marian, if only he can find the courage.

As they stroll through the streets of a city still coming to terms with the end of the war, he recalls his friendship with Will, from the training ground at Aldershot to the trenches of Northern France, and speaks of how the intensity of their friendship brought him from brief moments of happiness and self-discovery to long periods of despair and pain.

The Absolutist is a novel that examines the events of the Great War from the perspective of two young privates, both struggling with the complexity of their emotions and the confusion of their friendship.

About the author

(c) Hazel Gaynor May 2012

Hazel Gaynor is an author and freelance journalist, writing regularly for the national press, magazines and websites in the UK and Ireland.

After attending an Inkwell writing workshop in March 2009, Hazel launched her writing career with her award winning parenting and lifestyle blog ‘Hot Cross Mum’, which she went on to publish as an ebook in 2010.

Now concentrating on her passion for historical fiction, Hazel self-published her debut novel ‘The Girl Who Came Home – A Titanic Novel in March 2012, which has been a no.1 bestseller on the Kindle Historical Fiction charts. She is now working on her second novel.

In addition to guest blogging for writing.ie, Hazel has her own writing blog Whims & Tonic, and also writes a book review blog ‘Off The Shelf’ for hellomagazine.com

Originally from North Yorkshire, England, Hazel now lives in Kildare with her husband, two young children, an accident-prone cat and her best friends Hendricks and Tanqueray. She is represented by Sheila Crowley of Curtis Brown, London. Follow Hazel on Twitter @HazelGaynor


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