John Boyne: ‘I am not a provocateur. I don’t seek to hurt people’

John Boyne says pushed himself to his limits with his new novel, while he continues to reflect on his own public and personal struggles. He talks heartache, looming 50th, criticism, compassion and trans issues

John Boyne has made me lunch. It’s Caesar salad with prawns and a lightly poached egg. We’re in the kitchen/sitting room area of the author’s cleverly designed house in Rathfarnham, which was named Celebrity Home of the Year in January 2019. It features a gym and an outside office full of his own books which he calls the “ego room”. He brings our lunch out to the garden while I try to tell him what I thought of his new book, A Traveller at the Gates of Wisdom.

“What an achievement...” I begin. “It’s very unusual,” I say truthfully, adding, “it took me a while to get into it”.

Fans of John Boyne’s writing – full disclaimer, I am one – should be aware that this sprawling and intensely researched novel is nothing like any of his other books. Nor, I’m fairly sure, is it like any book you’ve ever read. The challenging curveballs he throws readers in a story that spans 2,000 years were deliberate, the author explains, as we eat our salads in the sunshine.

He felt a need, he says, to push himself to his limits as a writer. There were a few milestones approaching in his life. It’s coming up to 20 years since he published his first novel, The Thief of Time. He also turns 50 next year. The last few books he published, including The Heart’s Invisible Furies and A Ladder to the Sky, sold well and were critically acclaimed. The phenomenal popularity in 2006 of The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas, and the subsequent film adaptation, afforded Boyne the kind of commercial success and financial security the vast majority of writers can only fantasise about.

“I wanted to see if I could try something different,” he says.

The book is “different” alright. It’s narrated by a likable, unnamed creative artist whose family dramas we follow from the first gruesome chapter, set in AD 1 Palestine, in which a dozen baby boys are slaughtered in the first paragraph by our hero’s brute of a father. The epilogue, 400-odd pages later, is set on a space station in 2080. The world described in that starry place is crime-free and fully gender-fluid, offering a Boyne’s-eye-view of utopia. (Planet Earth is no longer habitable, in case it’s necessary to point that out.)

Time leaps

The 50 chapters in between are located in different countries, from Mozambique to Ireland, Norway to Peru, Mexico to Afghanistan, at intervals of roughly half a century. The protagonist’s eventful life story includes dead wives, a missing brother, a Princess Bride-style revenge plot and plenty of brushes with colourful historical characters, from Michaelangelo to Shakespeare to Ned Kelly. It follows the same narrative arc with the same characters, their names changing slightly in each locations.

Do all the dizzying leaps of time and geography sound confusing? To this reader they most definitely were. But Boyne had a very clear motive for attempting such a unique work.

“It occurred to me that while the world keeps changing, and has changed over and over since the start . . . changes like technology, culture and industry, we don’t [change]. We’re all such emotional people and we also have so many dramas in our lives that we think nobody else has had . . . we think our dramas are so important but they’re exactly the same dramas everybody else has experienced since the dawn of time, no matter what country they’re in. So I started there.”

I think I’ve always been quite a feminist writer

The universality of life experiences, then, is the overarching theme. But another theme that emerges is the relentlessly cruel dominance of men over women throughout history and the discrimination against minorities, whether it’s people with disabilities or the LGBTQI community. The abuse – sexual, physical or societal – inflicted on women and children globally over the last 2,000 years, is a constant in a novel that throbs with enduring love, warmth and passion but also with everyday rape, subjugation, domestic violence and all imaginable forms of gender-based violence and child cruelty.

“Well, I think I’ve always been quite a feminist writer,” Boyne says when I bring this up. “And it’s something I’ve worked quite hard in my books to do. I’ve always supported women writers and minorities in general, I think.”

“We’ll get back to that,” I say, almost choking on a mouthful of salad.

“I thought we would,” Boyne replies in a nod to the criticism on social media of his YA novel on trans issues, My Brother’s Name Is Jessica.

If A Traveller at the Gates of Wisdom is influenced by anyone, he says, it is David Mitchell, that accomplished purveyor of ambitious, imaginatively rich, storytelling.

‘Epic storytelling’

“I suppose I was thinking about people like David Mitchell when I was writing. . . that very complex kind of epic storytelling where a reader does have to give something of themselves in order to understand it.

“Look, it’s the biggest challenge I think I’ve ever set myself . . . to kind of tell the history of the world through emotion. It’s as ambitious a novel as I can possibly write. And it’s probably no surprise that the novel I’m writing at the moment is as clean and simple and to the point as possible.” (It’s about cancel culture, Boyne says. Imagine the Twitter storms when that one comes out.)

To kind of tell the history of the world through emotion. It’s as ambitious a novel as I can possibly write

Lunch bowls pushed aside, the time seems right to broach the criticism Boyne received for My Brother’s Name Is Jessica. The book for teens, published in spring 2019, is about a boy called Sam whose older brother Jason comes out as a young transgender woman, Jessica.

For those who haven’t followed the controversy, Boyne has been accused, by trans rights activists and others, of transphobia, including but not limited to misgendering, deadnaming and perpetuating stereotypes. The book, according to these critics, is exploitative of trans people, lacks authenticity and was not properly researched.

In addition, Boyne was excoriated for an article he wrote in this newspaper in which he rejected the word “cis”, a term used to describe people whose gender identity matches the sex assigned to them at birth. At one point he also felt the need to apologise to Graham Linehan – the Father Ted writer and prominent critic of trans women and trans rights activists – for offending him during the publicity for the book. This did not go down well in some quarters.

Last week, Boyne expressed his gratitude on Twitter after one of his most virulent critics on the social media platform, the writer and comedian Aidan Comerford, issued a retraction and an apology for “relentless harassment” of the author. Soon afterwards the hashtag #JohnBoyneIsTransphobic was trending on Twitter, as some users rushed to defend Comerford.

Not surprisingly, the writer has a lot to say about all of this starting with “do I believe trans women are women? Yes, I do. Simple answer to a simple question. Yes, I do. I support trans people’s rights 100 per cent.”

In relation to a recent article by JK Rowling on the subject, he supports both the Harry Potter author and the Harper’s Magazine letter she co-signed defending free speech.

When you lie about people, as I’ve been lied about, I will always defend myself

“Do I also believe that women have the right to at least hold a conversation about defending their own spaces? Yes, I do. But really, do I think as a man, that I have any right to have any involvement in this subject at all? No, I don’t, to be honest. It’s not for me to define what a woman is. It’s not for me to tell women online what a woman is.

“There are an awful lot of people online who just scream at women and when they are issuing their death threats and rape threats, we are supposed to think that these people are decent because they put their pronouns in their Twitter bios. And, I’m sorry, I don’t care what the subject is, when you start getting violent, when you start issuing death threats and rape threats and . . . when you try to destroy people’s lives, their livelihoods, their reputations, that does not make you a good person.

“And when you lie about people, as I’ve been lied about, I will always defend myself . . . I would advise everybody else to defend themselves too.”

John Boyne: His book My Brother’s Name is Jessica is full of “compassion and empathy”. He says trans sector criticism of it is an online-only issue. Photograph Nick Bradshaw
John Boyne: His book My Brother’s Name is Jessica is full of “compassion and empathy”. He says trans sector criticism of it is an online-only issue. Photograph Nick Bradshaw

On the issue of not wanting to be defined as “cis”, he is unapologetic.

“We are being told consistently by everybody that we are all allowed to self-identify, right? No matter who you are . . . Why is that any different for me than anybody else? I do not see myself as a subset of men. I don’t call myself a gay man. I don’t call myself a white man. If I was to call myself a cis man, I am defining myself in opposition to transgender people. I think the word is quite transphobic.  If you tell me what you want me to call you, I will call you that. But by the same token, I expect to be called what I want to be called.”

In Boyne’s view, with My Brother’s Name Is Jessica he wrote a helpful novel full of “compassion and empathy”. He reiterates that he has always “been a supporter of trans rights, everybody’s rights . . . I wish trans people only good things, positive things, good health.”

He also believes this is an online-only issue.

“I have never had one single person come up to me at an event, on the street, in a bar or at a festival to say anything critical about that book. I have only had people come up to me, including members of the trans community, many of whom hosted events for me when I was doing the books or in England . . . telling me how appreciative they were of it.”

I have never had one single person come up to me at an event, on the street, in a bar or at a festival to say anything critical about My Brother’s Name Is Jessica 

He says he has “no problem with criticism” but adds that some of it, for example complaints about the part in the book where the young brother cuts off Jessica’s ponytail, rankles.

“People accused me of writing an act of violence. It’s a novel for Christ’s sake. Something has to happen in it for the story to develop. And I’m not going around cutting off people’s ponytails. To me, it shows just a basic lack of understanding of what a book is.”

How much did it all bother him?

“Outside of about two or three weeks last April . . . I really don’t care.”

I was left feeling that those 14 years of sincere, honest work had been entirely in vain, and yes, that hurt

Boyne later admits that this is not true, revealing the criticism cut much more deeply. It was not, as he initially claims, “all water off a duck’s back”. He also says comments on a separate issue, by the Auschwitz-Birkenau Holocaust memorial museum, were “hurtful”. After Boyne was critical of the flurry of recent novels set in the concentration camp, the museum tweeted that The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas “should be avoided by anyone who studies or teaches the history of the Holocaust”.

“It did upset me. I’ve spent more than 14 years going into schools across the world and helping to educate young people about the Holocaust. I’ve probably devoted more of my time to this than any other living novelist and have always ensured that kids realised my book is a novel, not a work of non-fiction, and directed those who are interested to the books they should read next. So while I, of course, have nothing but respect for the Auschwitz Memorial, I was left feeling that those 14 years of sincere, honest work had been entirely in vain, and yes, that hurt.”

It’s clear from talking to Boyne, even stripping away the external criticism of recent times, that for some years now hurt has been a constant feature of his life. Four years ago his marriage ended and he’s come to accept that the pain of that will never leave him.

“People deal with these things in different ways and what I’ve realised four years down the line is I’m stuck with it. It’s an open wound and it’s just terrible and some of the scar tissue is more sensitive than others. But I’ve almost made my peace with the fact that I’m just never going to get over it. And that being the case, you know, you just have to get on with life. But it’s still on my mind. From the minute I wake up to the minute I go to sleep every day.”

Time hasn’t, as they say, helped heal the wound?

“It just hasn’t for me, because, you know, I am still missing him, painfully, every minute of the day. I feel very hurt by the things that happened. But also I absolutely believed, still believe, we should have grown old together and I put everything of my life into those 11 years, everything, and to have it suddenly cut off one day with no explanation and pretty much never see him again . . .

“It’s just a wound that I’ve grown accustomed to living with. And it doesn’t weigh me down and I’m not like, you know, suicidal or something now but yeah, I have this one pain in my life. Everybody has something, that’s mine.”

No one’s ever . . . no one’s ever loved me

The last time we met, over a year ago, he told me he was trying dating apps but now he says he will never date again. “I’ve decided to shut down that part of my life . . . I’ve never been successful in that part of my life at all. I’ve just never been lucky in that. I don’t want to sound like a total misery guts but no one’s ever . . . no one’s ever loved me.”

Your husband must have loved you?

“He didn’t. He told me didn’t . . . so I don’t know what that’s like.

“And I think if I was, you know 35, I would put all this aside, I would just move on, but I’m not and I want to be happy. I think the best way for me to be happy is to just give up on that. Because otherwise, I mean, I’m chasing something for what purpose? I don’t want anybody now. Every serious relationship I’ve had in my life has been just horrendous. I haven’t started a new relationship since 2005 and I’m just too long in the tooth now to start another one.”

Defence of writing

As with many of us, lockdown has given Boyne time to reflect. The travelling opportunities afforded by his writing career were scuppered, his parents – he lives practically down the road from them and they are a close-knit family – went to live with his sister in Cavan. He now finds himself wanting to spend time in Antartica or a list of other places his sister pointed out to him recently share the common thread of being “very far away”. The former bookseller wants to uncover more strings to his bow in the next phase of his life and not just to do with writing.

Towards the end of our conversation Boyne returns to the trans issue, saying he wants to “put the issue to bed once and for all”.

“I didn’t expect to be saying this, but I will. I think it’s perfectly possible that over the course of engaging with this subject since that novel came out I have probably at times, gone too far in what I’ve said, and spoken before thinking and possibly hurt people without intending to. And for that, I certainly apologise.

“And that would never have been my intention,” he continues. “I am not a provocateur, in 20 years of a career I’ve never been, I don’t seek to hurt people. But I still come back to the fact that I do have the right to defend my work. And just because somebody is a part of a minority, that does not give them the right to defame somebody or to be nasty about them or to be cruel.

That goes for the other side too . . . unfortunately in Graham Linehan’s case, I think at times he has been cruel. Which JK Rowling is not. JK Rowling is a supporter of trans rights. And she’s also a supporter of women’s rights. And she should be heard. Everybody should be heard without immediate vilification. We just need people to be more respectful of each other, and certainly to educate each other more.”

And after the apology, an admission: “It’s perfectly possible I should have educated myself more before writing that book.”

A Traveller at the Gates of Wisdom by John Boyne is published by Penguin