First draft of ‘The Boy in Striped Pyjamas’ took me two days
Author John Boyne writes every day, and is ‘not sure what to do with days off’
‘The most important part of my writing day is reading.’ Photograph: Bryan Meade
When I was an aspiring writer in my mid-20s, I had something shocking: a real job. I worked in Waterstones in Dublin and would rise every morning at about 5am in order to write before going to work.
In the two decades since then, I’ve never shaken off that routine, and while I don’t get up quite so early these days, I’m usually at my desk by about 7.30. I’m at my most creative, my most optimistic and my most enthusiastic in the early mornings.
I was fortunate enough to study under Malcolm Bradbury during his final year teaching the creative writing MA at the University of East Anglia and always remember his advice that we should write every day, “even Christmas Day”, and for the most part I stick with that. I’m not quite sure what to do with days off.
First drafts come quite quickly to me. I don’t like to plot a novel out too deeply in advance, preferring to start with a basic idea, a character or a theme and let the story guide me. I generally write a first draft over the course of a month, working eight- or nine-hour days, seven days a week, completely removing myself from the world. I know that if I walk away from it during this time, the novel, like an unsupervised souffle, will simply collapse.
When I wrote The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, the idea came to me on a Tuesday evening, I began writing on Wednesday morning and continued for 60 hours with only short breaks, not sleeping on Wednesday or Thursday nights and finishing the first draft by Friday lunchtime.
It was April 30th, 2004, my 33rd birthday. Coincidentally, the film adaptation started shooting on the exact same date three years later. And, as strange as this might sound, Adolf Hitler, who is not a character in the book but looms over it, killed himself on April 30th, 1945.
My only break from writing comes when I finish the first draft and I take about a month off then as I can’t think straight any more. When I return to the manuscript, I see it in the way that a sculptor views a block of stone: it’s nothing right now but inside, hopefully, there is something beautiful to be found.
The second draft is my favourite; it takes the longest to complete but it’s where the story and the characters begin to take shape. In general, I write about 10 drafts before showing it to my editor. Some writers want feedback earlier, but I prefer to wait before letting a reader in.
Perhaps the most important part of my writing day, however, is reading. I’m a voracious reader and keep a list of all the books that I’ve read on my website. Mostly fiction, but after that I’m indiscriminate. I read a lot of first novels; I’m always excited to discover interesting new voices.
But it frustrates me how often I read interviews with young writers who claim to hate writing and only do it because they have “no choice”. It’s such an offensive and arrogant way of approaching the craft.
There are so many aspiring writers who would shed body parts for the opportunities presented by a publishing deal. If you don’t like writing, then don’t do it. Believe it or not, the world will not grind to a halt if you decide to do something else with your life. Me, I love writing. I feel very fortunate to be able to spend my life with books.
I like to have an author on the go and slowly work my way through their entire body of work. At the moment, it’s W Somerset Maugham. He’s surprisingly funny. And very bitter. I just finished Cakes and Ale, a work of pure literary assassination of other writers.
I’ve been reading about him too and he seems like he was a cantankerous old sod, but I imagine it took some guts to publish that book and that he lost a few friends on account of it. Quite admirable, really. I might write one of those myself someday, but only when I’m on the way out.
The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne is published by Doubleday