The Spring Literary festival most recently saw Jean McNeil in conversation with John Boyne, the award winning writer known for novels such as The Boy in Stripped Pyjamas and The Heart’s Invisible Furies. Director of the festival, Philip Langeskov, starts off the event by giving a warm welcome to Boyne, who returns to UEA after previously being both a student and teacher on UEA’S MA Creative Writing course. Alongside this, he has an honorary doctorate from UEA and a scholarship scheme.
McNeil starts by introducing Boyne’s latest novel A Ladder to the Sky, which has been described by The Guardian as a ‘first class page turner’, before asking Boyne about the process behind making the book happen. Boyne mentions he rarely starts writing knowing exactly what will happen – instead he starts ‘with an idea, a theme, a character’ and builds around that. The author claims that although he knew what he wanted A Ladder to the Sky to be about ‘how people can use each other’, he ‘wasn’t sure who was the villain, or who was the hero’ when he first began writing.
The discussion moves on to highlight Boyne’s novel as a story about writing, and Boyne claims that, ‘writing is often about who we are as people,’ and discusses how, when spending many years writing, he would inevitably want to write about the experience of being an author. Whilst Boyne jokes it was a ‘fun’ process and that he enjoyed writing about this topic, he also admits that ‘I wouldn’t write too many books about it.’
Boyne reads out an extract of his novel, selecting one of the more humorous passages from the story, which gets laughter from the audience. McNeil questions the character Gore, arguing he is the one character that sees Maurice for who he really is. Boyne explains how this is because Gore is the only character who is a real person, based on Gore Vidal. To portray the character accurately, Boyne says he watched a great deal of documentaries, as he wanted to reflect how intelligent Gore Vidal was and mirror his level of wit. Around the conversation on character, Boyne mentions he thought of the characters Tom Ripley and Hannibal Lecter when writing Maurice, and was inspired by the idea of a character being so charming that you are seduced into wanting them to continue what they do, even if they are killing or exploiting people.
On the topic of the process of literary production, Boyne says he think its developed and grown due to social media and literary festivals making it more accessible. However, he claims ‘people often have unrealistic expectations of the literary world.’ He uses his own experience of being dropped by his published after his first two works to explain that it is a difficult process that involves hard work and determination, and that in order to be a successful writer, you’ll have to ‘write novels before you find a publishable one’. Boyne makes the important point that being a ‘great success’ is not an overnight process – it requires luck alongside hard work, and sometimes it can simply be a matter of ‘a book landing on the right desk’.
McNeil then moves on to ask about the literary scene in Ireland, deeming this a ‘golden age’ of Irish writing. Boyne responds by claiming that ‘one thing we are good at is praising each other’, but that this is a negative part of the Irish literary world. He calls it problematic that there is such a large number of quotes on the front of novels, all of which give exceptionally high praise. ‘I can’t review my juniors, because if you suggest their novel isn’t the next Ulysses, you are villainised,’ Boyne explains. He makes the really important point on how nowadays, it seems like ‘every new book is the greatest book ever… instant classic,’ when in reality ‘there are no instant classics, it takes time’. Boyne claims ‘we should be more considerate’ in critiquing so that the praise printed on books becomes more meaningful. ‘Other than that we have some pretty good writers in Dublin’, Boyne rounds off, drawing yet another laugh from the audience.
McNeil opens the conversation up to a Q&A session with the audience. The first question targets Boyne’s experience at UEA. UEA features in a segment of A Ladder to the Sky, and Boyne reflects on his study and teaching periods at UEA as ‘fantastic’, claiming ‘I’ve never had any negatives, that’s why I keep coming back.’ The Q&A is where Boyne’s humorous personality really shines through and evokes a lot of laughter from the audience. The final question asks to what extent Boyne cares about literary awards and prizes. Boyne explains that from a practical and realistic point of view, prizes can be helpful in promoting the novel and gaining new contacts, and that ‘it’s nice always nice to get a pat on the back.’ However, I also argues that nobody ‘should be writing a book thinking they’ll be winning a prize.’ Boyne ends by stating that the most important thing to him is achieving the dream of being a writer and getting to do something he loves; prizes and awards are simply added bonuses.