Irish author John Boyne speaks to Linda McGee about the success of his novel 'The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas', how it was brought to the big screen and the thrill of attending the world premiere of the movie at the Savoy in Dublin.
Linda McGee: Going back to the beginning, can you talk to us a bit about when the idea for the book struck you?
John Boyne: Well, it was back in April of 2004, so in the real scheme of things not that long ago. And you know, you never really know where ideas come from. For years I had read quite widely on the subject of the Holocaust. I was fascinated by it. And the idea I had was just the initial idea of the boys at the fence, which is the poster as well by chance, and I knew three things at the start. I knew it would start with a kid being taken away from a place of safety, I knew there would be the meeting at the fence and I knew how the book would end, and it was a question of sort of joining the dots between and writing the story. And that's what I did. The idea just seemed so clear to me at the start. I just sat down and started writing it.
LM: Did you find the process of writing it easy because the idea was so clear in your head?
JB: I wouldn't say easy but the first draft seemed to flow very easily. But then when I had a mass of pages there and I had to find my story in it and figure it out that was much more complicated because the narrative voice was difficult to get right. And exploring such a serious subject I wanted to be very careful, to be sensitive and not trivialise it.
LM: As you were writing the book, was it always at the back of your mind that people might pick up on historical elements of your story and criticise the way you chose to present certain facts and happenings?
JB: Yeah. Because I knew that when it was published that it was the kind of book that was going to attract criticism, probably, as well as praise. You know, you get a bit of both. So I wanted to be sure in my mind. I talked a lot with my editor at the time, David Fickling, about this - about almost going through every line of the book and having an absolute reason for that line to be there. Any decision I made in terms of changing something to serve the story had to have a valid reason behind it.
LM: In terms of adapting the movie for the big screen, when were you first approached about the idea of Mark Herman (director and screenwriter) working on a screenplay for your story?
JB: It was actually before the novel was published. It was published in January 06 and in late 05, when it was in proof form, Mark had read a copy because his agent was in the same agency as my agent and I think his agent gave him a copy and said: 'You should have a read of this'. And Mark read it and I think he felt it was something that he'd be willing to do. At the same time David Heyman, the producer, had also got a copy and he invited me to meet with him in his 'Hogwarts' office. So I met with them both. We talked about it and they told me their vision for it and how to adapt it. And we talked about some specific scenes and what should stay in and what should go out. You know, I felt they both really understood the book. I knew Mark's films. I'd seen most of Mark's films. And of course, I knew David through his work with JK Rowling and she trusted him. And it just seemed to be a good match, so Mark and David then joined forces and brought the book to Miramax and I agreed to let them make it.
LM: How much involvement did you have in the project after that? Were you in touch with Mark a lot as he was writing the screenplay?
JB: Yeah, quite a bit. You know, he sent me drafts of the script to read and I would send back notes and that and he would take some of those on board, and some not, which is perfectly fine. It felt pretty collaborative, but I mean it's his screenplay and his film. You know, I felt that they welcomed my presence, involving me in everything really to do with the film. I spent a bit of time out on the set in Budapest and got to know the crew and the actors. I felt really part of it, which was good because I did feel at the start, it is fun and it's a once-in-a-lifetime experience. You know, I understand the world of books and publishing and I've done a lot of literary tours and things, but this might be the only time to do a film. So I wanted to have fun with it and enjoy it and so I'm just glad that they let me do that.
LM: When you finished your final draft of the book did you have any sense of how huge it would eventually become (being translated into 35 languages worldwide)?
JB: I think when I finished the first draft I felt I potentially had something big if, in my rewrite, I got it right, you know, if I could fix it. I felt there was the potential for something good. And when it was ready, when it was coming out, I did think it was going to be bigger than any of my other books. And I felt, if this doesn't reach a wide readership I'm never going to. But I didn't expect all this. I didn't expect all those languages and I didn't expect as many books to be sold and I didn't expect to be sitting here the morning after the world premiere. So that's all been a very welcome surprise.
LM: Was the premiere surreal for you?
JB: I think last night was, going up to the Savoy, you know, having seen so many premieres at the Savoy, seeing it in The Irish Times and seeing it on RTÉ. To be part of one of those is fun. It's a sense of achievement out of it.
LM: You've won, and been shortlisted for, a number of awards, but do you feel a bigger sense of pride and accomplishment when you see people reading your book, maybe in an airport or on a train?
JB: Yeah, yeah. I think when I see people reading that, and reading any of my other books, you know on the Luas or something, that's a great feeling. I won a couple of Irish book awards and that meant a lot to me because I'm an Irish writer and I felt like the Irish literary establishment, to be part of that and, to have them say well done meant a lot to me. There are so many Irish writers, whom I have admired and who have influenced me in my life, so that was a good feeling as well. But anytime I see someone reading or someone comes up to me - I guess I've done quite a bit of media stuff so people would recognise me - and tell me that they've read the book, and usually say nice things about it, that's nice. You can't help but feel happy about it.
LM: You're working on a new novel at the moment, can you tell us a bit about that?
JB: I have a new novel actually coming out next May called 'The House of Special Purpose', which is a big love story, partly set during the Russian Revolution and partly set outside of that. And I'm just putting the final touches to that at the moment so that's the next novel. I'm satisfied with how the novel has worked out.
LM: Would you say that you are quite disciplined as a writer?
JB: I am quite disciplined. You know, I love writing and I just want to keep publishing novels. So that's the next plateau and when that's done I'll write another one... as long as they let me!