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About a Boyne: Best-selling Irish writer John Boyne on his prolific career

John Boyne. Photo/Chris Close/Supplied; background/Getty Images

John Boyne heads to writers festivals here with two new works – a satirical thriller about the publishing world and a controversial YA novel about a transgender teen.

It’s beyond lazy to ask writers where they get their ideas, but sometimes they give you a little licence. Irish novelist John Boyne’s A Ladder to the Sky is centred on Maurice Swift, a “very beautiful” young man, who aspires to be a famous author.

The trouble is, Maurice can write quite well but, as he admits early on, “I’m not very good at thinking up plots.”

So, he attaches himself to writer-mentors seduced by his looks – male, female, he doesn’t care – and steals their material. But Maurice is not just a plagiarist. He’s a psychopath thriving in a literary milieu of competition, ruthless ambition and backstabbing. The title comes from an American proverb: “Ambition is putting a ladder against the sky.” The higher you climb, the greater the risk.

At one point, Maurice sits in a London pub, reading author interviews on his laptop, researching “that most tedious but prolific of questions”, where do you get your ideas?

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So, John Boyne, where did the idea for this thrilling, chilling drama come from?

“I thought it would be fun to write about that industry, about ambition within it and about a sociopathic character, which isn’t the kind of character I’ve written about before.”

Boyne, 48, is speaking from Dublin, where he grew up Catholic and gay and which informed previous works such as A History of Loneliness (2014) and The Heart’s Invisible Furies (2017). His biggest-selling book remains his Holocaust novel for young adults, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, which has sold 10 million copies since it was published in 2006 and been adapted for film.

Ladder does have something in common – Nazi evil – with Pyjamas. Although it’s both publishing-world satire and psychological thriller, Boyne says the story is still personal.

“It’s about a world I live in, but it was also fun to write, to see how bad I could make this guy, wanting to know how much further he would go. Young male writers tend to be more insecure, especially if they haven’t reached the level of success they feel entitled to.

“I find the more successful a writer is, the nicer they are. They don’t have a chip on their shoulder. They are much more professional: they come in, they do the job, they go home.”

Boyne has been writing full-time since 2003, so can we assume he fits that job description? “I like to think I am professional, yeah. I don’t go to parties and book launches. The public world of being a writer is not something I’m comfortable with. Standing around with a glass of wine doesn’t appeal to me. I kind of dread those events.”

Still, Boyne is headed to New Zealand this month for book-festival events in the four main centres. He’s got another book to plug. Ladder is his 11th novel for adults, but he has also just published his sixth YA book, My Brother’s Name Is Jessica. It’s narrated by a young boy whose older brother, Jason, reveals he is transgender. The family reaction is confusion, embarrassment and anger.

“I am hoping it will help younger people recognise that trans people are nothing to be frightened of, or embarrassed by, with compassion and understanding being the proper approach,” he says.

“It’s reasonable that the narrator is so young, confused and upset by what’s happening. He loves his brother and doesn’t want that to change. It’s the journey he goes on, to recognise that the person inside is still the same person, in fact, a truer person when she becomes Jessica.”

During fraught counselling sessions, Jessica’s father suggests conversion therapy. “I put that in to have it debunked,” says Boyne. “You have a character there ignorant of reality who needs to be educated.”

However, the book and Boyne have sparked outrage among some transgender activists in Britain and Ireland after a piece he penned for the Irish Times, in which he rejected the term “cisgender” (as in non-transgender) and wrote: “I don’t consider myself a ‘cis’, I consider myself a man.”

The Twitter pile-on became so strident and threatening that Boyne deleted his account. Many came to Boyne’s defence, reminding his attackers of his past pro-LGBT advocacy.

Another complaint was that he has written from the sibling’s point of view rather than the transgender titular character. In his interview with the Listener before the storm broke, Boyne says: “I felt I had to do it that way. If I narrated it from the point of view of the trans character, you fall into that thing of cultural appropriation. I don’t have that personal experience.”

But his experience of the book world helps give A Ladder to the Sky its sly wit. Boyne’s darkening narrative comes from several perspectives, opening with Erich Ackermann, an ascetic elderly expat German teaching at Cambridge and resting on his laurels, having won a major book prize in 1988.

He becomes smitten with young bartender Maurice during a book tour of Europe.

Hired as Erich’s “personal assistant”, Maurice teases a story from the older man’s past – an atrocity he committed as a teenager in the Hitler Youth. That forms the basis for Maurice’s debut novel, which becomes a huge hit and ruins Ackermann.

“They are both using each other – Maurice is using Erich to get those introductions and draw the story from him. Erich is also using Maurice. He has spent his entire life with this story boxed up inside, and cut himself off from emotion and love. There’s something about this boy that’s the catalyst for getting it all out.

“Of course, if Maurice looked like something that crawled out of a ditch, he wouldn’t be quite as interested in him.”

Through Erich, Maurice meets his next target, also an elderly gay writer, Dash Hardy, an old friend of Gore Vidal. The Vidal chapter, told from the acerbic American writer’s viewpoint when Dash and Maurice stay overnight at his Amalfi Coast villa, is deliciously bitchy.

“I wanted one person to really see through Maurice. Gore is the only real-life character in the book. I’ve read many of his books, but when you watch him in documentaries or on TV, that dry, caustic wit, that feeling that he would never be taken in by anybody, is very much to the fore.

“I really, really had to up my game. I had to make him sound like the things that Gore Vidal would have said.”

Right from the start, Boyne presents Maurice as obsessed with having a child, alarming for such a narcissist. That dream comes true, for a while, when he’s living in New York, editing a magazine.

“I wanted something that he would want that wasn’t related to worldly success, and because he is so asexual. He doesn’t feel love, for men or women, so that’s a part of him that feels, ‘If I have a child, maybe I will find a part of my brain that other people seem to have.’ He does his best for a time, but it’s not what he expected.”

My Brother’s Name is Jessica (Penguin, $21) is out now.

John Boyne appears at the Dunedin Writers & Readers Festival, May 10-11; Word Christchurch autumn series, May 13; National Library of NZ, Wellington, May 14; Auckland Writers Festival, May 16-18.

This article was first published in the May 11, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.