John Boyne shares his love of words with YJA
On Friday 10th May, I met novelist John Boyne, author of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. He’d arrived in Lincoln in order to give a reading from his latest novel for adults, The House is Haunted, as part of the Lincoln Inspired festival at the Drill Hall.
In the few minutes we had before he was due to speak, I asked him about his writing career, his experiences with the film industry and his fascination with fear: the reason for his desire to write a ghost story.
Despite the popularity and critical acclaim of his eight adult novels, Boyne’s most famous work is undoubtedly The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. Adapted into a film by director Mark Herman in 2008, starring Asa Butterfield, Vera Farmiga and David Thewlis, the novel is told from the point of a young boy named Bruno, growing up in Nazi Germany. An unusually grim subject for a children’s book, some might argue.
“I think children’s literature has changed since I was a child,” he says. “Writers today for young people are tackling serious subjects, they’re not talking down to children; they’re assuming children will be able to handle these subjects. I go into a lot of schools and I know that young readers want to read good, interesting stories that reflect real life.”
He says that, despite the harrowing themes of his children’s books, he always ends them on a hopeful note; he says that he never tries to frighten the reader. But with his latest novel for adults, This House is Haunted, frightening the reader is the whole point.
“I can remember loving ghost stories since the time I was a kid,” he says. “I think when they’re done right, when it’s psychological rather than just horror, it unsettles us, it disturbs us, but in a very pleasurable way.”
The story is set in 1867, and is told by Boyne’s first female narrator, governess Eliza Caine. In order to get the tone of the novel right, Boyne revisited the ghost-story authors he had loved as a teenager, M. R. James, Henry James and Charles Dickens. Boyne even features Dickens as a character in the first chapter of This House is Haunted, describing Eliza attending one of his readings in London.
This House is Haunted reads, not just as an entertaining ghost story, but also as a kind of love-letter to the genre. Boyne incorporates all of the classic ghost story motifs, like dusty, dark mansions, fog and creepy children, but also makes the story refreshing, using headstrong Eliza Caine to break away from the mould of typical damsel-in-distress type female characters.
Boyne has a fourth children’s book coming out later this year and is already working on his next adult book. Having already been involved in the film industry, I was curious as to whether he saw any more adaptations in his future, perhaps for This House is Haunted.
“To be honest, it’s not really something I think about a lot,” he says. “I don’t write novels thinking about them being adapted into movies. I don’t really think that’s a sensible way to write a novel…I’m not trying to write in a way that would make it easier for a filmmaker.”
Certainly nowadays, some readers regard filmmaking as a kind of award for a book: a book that has been made into a film appears to garner greater credit than one that hasn’t. This view doesn’t appear to take into account the worth of writing as a medium in itself, rather than a kind of stop-off point on the path to movie-making. Regardless of the destinies of his novels in terms of the movie industry therefore, Boyne will always be regarded as a formidable talent, not only for the cinematic success of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas but also for his works that are simply ink on paper.
Ellen Lavelle – Senior YJA Reporter
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