John Boyne: How I wrote The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas

The author recounts writing around the clock and cutting out every ‘gimmick’

 John Boyne: ‘I remain immensely proud of the novel.’ Photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times

John Boyne: ‘I remain immensely proud of the novel.’ Photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times

 

I was 15-years-old when a teacher read out a list of books that our class might like to read over the summer break. Eager to immerse myself in adult literature, I pounced on his suggestions. By chance, the first two books I chose were on a similar topic: Elie Wiesel’s Night and Primo Levi’s The Periodic Table.

At the time, my awareness of the Holocaust was fairly basic. These two books introduced me to it at a visceral level. I became absorbed in the subject and, over the years that followed, returned to it repeatedly through dozens of novels, biographies, nonfiction and documentaries.

By my early 20s, I was building a career as a writer, but never expected to write a novel on that theme. I didn’t have a family member caught up in the barbarism, I wasn’t Jewish, and as fascinated by the subject as I was, it felt as though it might prove too expansive for a young writer. But when a powerful idea hits, you have to grab on to it or it will sail on by.

I have always made sure to impress on young readers the fact that this is a work of fiction – a fable

For me, that moment came on Tuesday, April 27th, 2004 when an image came into my head of two little boys sitting on either side of a fence. I knew where the fence was, I knew what each boy represented, and I wanted to write about them.

I began the next morning, not knowing whether I was writing a story, a novel, or something in between. I wrote a lot that day and, by evening, was certain that if I walked away, I would lose my momentum. And so I wrote through Wednesday night and through the 24 hours that followed and on Friday, at lunchtime – my 33rd birthday – I completed a first draft. On a scrap of paper, I scribbled six final words, a title I had come up with early on: The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas.

Without the guidance of my editors, David Fickling and Bella Pearson, it would not have become the book that it did. They encouraged me to take out every “gimmick” in the story – there were quite a few – and focus entirely on the characters and the narrative. It was published in January 2006 and I don’t think a day of my life has gone by since when I haven’t had cause to refer to it in some way.

I remain immensely proud of the novel. While it has its critics, it has become, for a generation of young people around the world, their first introduction to a study of the Holocaust, which holds a responsibility in itself.

I have always made sure to impress on young readers the fact that this is a work of fiction – a fable – and to list the titles I would recommend they read next, just as that teacher did for me. If it has encouraged some of them to explore the subject further and keep those memories alive, then that, for me, is perhaps the novel’s most significant achievement. – Guardian

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