John Boyne on Two New Books and Writing for Every Age

In theory, John Boyne writes some books aimed at adults and others for young readers. Books like The Absolutist, the gripping story of World War I loss, or his most recent novel, This House is Haunted, an homage to great Victorian era ghost stories, are marketed to adults. Meanwhile, Boyne’s searing Holocaust drama, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, and his upcoming tale, Stay Where You Are and Then Leave, are published with young readers in mind.

But for Boyne, the effort to categorize and label doesn’t easily apply, as his books have shown amazing crossover appeal, in both directions, for readers of all ages. “The terms are really publishing terms, they’re book shop terms,” Boyne explained in this interview recorded at Politics & Prose bookstore in Washington, D.C.

“When you go back to say, something like Treasure Island, Robert Louis Stevenson wasn’t writing that thinking that I’m writing a children’s book or I’m writing an adult book. It’s just a book…I don’t want to exclude readers from any of them. If a child wants to read my adult books or if an adult wants to read my young people’s books, they’re very welcome.”

Boyne began his career considering himself an adult novelist. But after The Boy in The Striped Pajamas became a crossover hit, appealing to both young readers and adult book clubs alike, he discovered a love for young characters that attracted young readers, as well. Since then, Boyne has typically alternated between books that are “theoretically aimed” at young reader or adult audiences.

“I don’t think a writer can really write with a particular audience in mind.,” he said. “If you do, it’s kind of a cynical exercise in a way, I think would damage the book. So the only person I’m thinking about is myself. Is this the story I want to tell, is it progressing the way I want it to progress, am I exploring the themes I set out to explore. That’s what I want to feel as I move through the drafts.”

In This House is Haunted, Boyne pays homage to the classic Victorian-era ghost story with Eliza Caine, a governess who has moved to Norfolk after the death of her father into the wonderfully creepy—and haunted—Gaudlin Hall to care for two children. With shades of Dickens and Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, the book appeals to anyone with a penchant for ghost stories.

Stay Where You Are And Then Leave, already available in the UK and releasing March 25 in the US and Canada, is Boyne’s third novel with a wartime setting, and fourth book to be shelved in the Young Readers section. In Stay, we follow the story of Alfie Summerfield, just five-years-old when his father leaves to fight in World War I. Several years later, the letters from the front stop coming. Fearing the worst for his father, Alfie decides to discover the truth about what’s happened to him.

“With the young people’s books, I don’t try to write down, I don’t make the language simpler in any way, I don’t make the themes softer. I try to write as serious books as the adult books are. I just try to write the best story I can each time,” Boyne said.

“All of my children’s books so far have had an eight- or nine-year-old boy at the center of them—which is a wonderful age to write about. There is an innocence there, a wonder about the world, a natural curiosity.”

None of Boyne’s books have yet been set in his home country of Ireland, a fact that is often pointed out to Boyne on his book tours in the United States and around the world. “I feel it’s a little annoying at times that just because you come from a small country you should just write about that country, that that’s the only thing that interests you. It isn’t, my interests lie further afield and I’m out of Ireland a lot. There’s a lot of stories I want to tell from around the world…I just have found that there hasn’t been a particular story that I want to tell yet. Other nationalities, in Britain and America, those novelists tend to have the freedom to write about anywhere without anybody asking them any questions about that. But smaller countries, it just seems to be that people are obsessed with the idea that you should just write about yourself.”

This House is Haunted is available now from Other Press. Stay Where You Are and Then Leave releases March 25 through Henry Holt and Co.

 

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