Interview with John Boyne


Photo Credit: Rich Gilligan

As The Plot Thins (ATPT): You’ve written a handful of novels, why is this the first time you’ve chosen to write about your home country? 

John Boyne (JB): When a writer comes from a small country like Ireland, there seems to be an expectation that they will always write about that country. It’s an expectation which is not placed upon the shoulders of novelists from, say, the United States, who are given the freedom to write about anywhere they like without anyone raising an eyebrow. I made a decision at the start of my writing career that I would only write about Ireland when I felt I had a story that I wanted to tell and in the meantime my imagination brought me to other places: to Edwardian London, to a concentration camp during the Second World War and the trenches of the First, to the Wild West and the dying days of the Romanov dynasty in Russia. I always hoped that a story set in Ireland would come to me and, when the idea for A HISTORY OF LONELINESS began to form, I knew that it had.

ATPT: A History of Loneliness is a story about a priest who unwillingly gets caught up in the abuse trials in Ireland. When you set out to write this story, did you want to write about the trials or just about Odran’s life?

JB: I wanted to write about Odran’s life more than anything else. I was interested in the journey that would bring a naïve and innocent teenage boy from seminary life to old age while watching the changing relationship that the  Catholic Church had with Ireland during that time. I didn’t particularly want to enter any courtrooms and describe the trials themselves, and in fact in the novel there is only one brief courtroom scene, but it’s Odran’s response to the very existence of that case which is of interest to me, as well as the responses of the crowds gathered outside.

ATPT: To bookend off the last question, why did you make the decision to follow an outside character and not the priest being accused of the abuse?

JB: I knew from early on that to write the story of the abuser would be the easy way and I wanted to challenge myself. I grew up in a Catholic household and turned as far away from the church as it is possible to be in my late teens and early twenties. For a long time I felt great anger and even hatred towards the church, emotions that only grew as the extent of the abuses became known and the revelations of cover-ups became public knowledge. However as I thought about this book I knew that it would be unfair and a little cliché’d to think that everyone who had devoted their lives to the church was evil and I thought that if I wrote about an ostensibly good man, then I would be forced to challenge some of my own prejudices and perhaps understand the character a little better. It made for a much more interesting writing experience and I hope it gives the reader a much more rounded central character.

ATPT: To see Odran go from such a place of honor and respect, to being accused of trying to kidnap a child when he was only trying to help was really almost heartbreaking. Was this mob mentality something very real; a way in which people really behaved when all this abuse was being made public?

JB: I interviewed a lot of priests while writing the novel and heard first-hand stories about the relationship they have with the public at large today. Some told me that they dared not go into town wearing their priest’s habit for to do so would lead to odd looks or people muttering abusive comments at them as they passed. One priest told me how he had been spat at on the street. Another, how he lived in fear of being ever left alone with a child in case an accusation was made. The tragedy of this, of course, is that most priests are not sexual predators and they have been cast into this light by the actions of their criminal colleagues and the actions of the authorities in Rome who sought to cover-up the crimes in order to protect the church itself. I think it must be a very difficult thing to enter the priesthood hoping to do good and to be automatically considered a person of suspicion.

ATPT: From an American’s perspective the trials were quite a big deal here, at least in religious circles. Can you speak a bit about how it affected life in Ireland, specifically your life?

JB: It changed the face of Ireland completely. Twenty years ago, the Irish singer-songwriter Sinéad O’Connor was vilified in the States for tearing up a picture of Pope John Paul II on Saturday Night Live and declaring ‘Fight The Real Enemy’. Now, in Dublin, there’s a mural in the city centre of Sinéad, featuring the words ‘Sorry, Sinéad, you were right all along.’ Ireland was one of the most Catholic countries in the world and almost everyone went to mass. I don’t know a single person in my generation that goes to mass now. The church destroyed their own place in society by covering up the crimes of the abusers and they sacrificed all the trust and respect that had existed for centuries. That will be almost impossible to win back. Ireland has become a much more progressive country for the breakdown of the church. The Archbishop of Dublin used to be more powerful than our Prime Minister; now there is absolute separation of church and state. Of course there are still those who will defend the church to the hilt and claim that all the accusations are the work of a liberal media but this is just the usual blinkered rubbish spoken by those who know their time is up.

ATPT: From a readers perspective, I found the parts about Odran in the Vatican City to be very interesting. Did you have to do any research to get some of those parts more fine tuned?

JB: Yes, a lot. I’ve been to Rome many times but spent a few weeks there specifically while I was writing those chapters. I read a lot of works about the various conspiracy theories that surrounded the death of Pope John Paul I, and the scandals surrounding the Vatican bank, and wanted to use those in the story without allowing them to overshadow the rest of the novel. A case could be made that John Paul I would have been a progressive pope; he certainly gave that indication over the month that he presided over the church. One would like to think that he would not have enabled the abusers in the same way that John Paul II did (or, for that matter, Benedict XVI). But there are so many dramas and scandals surrounding the Curia, the Vatican and the election of new popes that one could write an entire series of novels about it.

ATPT: Because of the subject matter, do you have any concern with A History of Loneliness being subjected to any sort of scrutiny or unjust criticism?

JB: All criticism is valid if it is well thought-out and intelligently expressed. There will be those who feel I have been too damning of the church and there will be those who think I have been too lenient. But I wrote the novel I wanted to write and my central character, Fr Odran Yates, is one who I hope readers will feel challenged by. He believes he is a good man but is he perhaps too quiet a man? Someone who says nothing despite the things that he sees? I hope those who blindly defend the church against all criticism will see that I have tried to be balanced in my presentation and those who despise the church might see an ounce of humanity in Odran that surprises them. Other than that, I cannot control what readers or critics will think!

ATPT: Your young adult novel from 2006, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, was adapted into a film  which received some pretty great reviews. Are there any plans to turn any of your other works into film?

JB: My novel THE ABSOLUTIST has been optioned and a screenplay has been written. And A HISTORY OF LONELINESS has recently been optioned by an Irish screenwriter who is working on an adaptation at the moment.

ATPT: Are there any novels releasing in 2015 that you are particularly looking forward to reading?

JB: I’m a great fan of Anne Tyler and look forward to her new novel. And of course Kazuo Ishiguro has a new novel this year which will surely be one of the year’s best. Also, my great friend Paul Murray, another Irish writer, publishes his 3rd novel, THE MARK AND THE VOID, this summer and I look forward to reading that. Other than these, most of my reading this year will be devoted to Canadian literature as I’m chairing the jury for the 2015 Giller Prize, Canada’s premier literary award, and I believe I will have around 150 new Canadian novels to read over the next 9 months! Intimidating, for sure, but I can’t wait to immerse myself in them!

ATPT: Can you give us any insight into your next project? 

JB: I move back and forth between writing novels for adults and novels for younger readers so the next book I publish will be one for young readers, THE BOY AT THE TOP OF THE MOUNTAIN. The novel will be published by Doubleday in the UK in September and by Henry Holt in the States soon after that. Here’s the summary:

When Pierrot becomes an orphan, he must leave his home in Paris for a new life with his Aunt Beatrix, a servant in a wealthy household at the top of the German mountains. But this is no ordinary time, for it is 1935 and the Second World War is fast approaching; and this is no ordinary house, for this is the Berghof, the home of Adolf Hitler. Quickly, Pierrot is taken under Hitler’s wing, and is thrown into an increasingly dangerous new world: a world of terror, secrets and betrayal, from which he may never be able to escape.


A History of Loneliness will be released on February 3rd. You can purchase it here.

Check back on the release day for our review of John Boyne’s newest novel.

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