John Boyne: ‘It was very, very upsetting to be called names and to have death threats’

Backlash to the author's recent young-adult book inspired a new novel about social media

John Boyne at home in his ‘ego room’, in Rathfarnham, south Dublin. Photograph: Alan Betson

John Boyne at home in his ‘ego room’, in Rathfarnham, south Dublin. Photograph: Alan Betson

 

From the table in the garden where we sit chatting, I have a good view of John Boyne’s “ego room” – the light-filled pale-green annexe to which he comes, at 8.30 every morning, seven days a week, to write, and which is filled with global editions of the 21 books he has produced over the past two decades.

Both the space and the name he’s given it are instructive, revealing: the tag humorously self-deprecating, the shelves a proud reminder of the work he has created; at once sanctuary and display. And his backlist, which includes the bestselling young-adult novel The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, will soon be joined by a new novel for adults, The Echo Chamber.

At the beginning of 2019, the house, in Rathfarnham in south Dublin, won Ireland’s Celebrity Home of the Year; his “proudest achievement to date”, he jokes. A few months later, when he published his YA novel My Brother’s Name Is Jessica, seen through the eyes of a boy experiencing his sibling’s transition, his life took a different, significantly less pleasurable, direction.

I suddenly found myself in the centre of an online drama, a lot of it created by people who hadn’t actually read the book

The online furore – which accused Boyne of misgendering and decentring the novel’s trans character, and of writing too far beyond his own experience – snowballed into newspaper commentary and calls for a boycott. Even more alarmingly, it also led to online harassment, in the form of a man who, over the course of 15 months, tweeted relentlessly and mendaciously about Boyne, publishing close-up pictures of his house and prompting the writer both to involve solicitors and to renew his home security.

It also left him with depression. “To be honest,” he says, “I’d always been pretty much liked and approved of; I hadn’t really rubbed anybody up the wrong way. And when that book came out, I suddenly found myself in the centre of an online drama, a lot [of it created] by people who hadn’t actually read the book and who seemed to make a virtue of the fact that they were criticising a book that they hadn’t read.”

He had felt, he insists, that he was writing “from a place of what I thought was empathy and compassion”; his intention had been to be supportive of trans teenagers. That the book’s opponents didn’t see it that way was, as is evident in how he speaks about it even now, a source of deep distress. “I was really shocked and frightened. It was very, very upsetting to be so misrepresented by people online, and to be called names and to have death threats. And to be represented as somebody who is a bigot, or a hater in some way … That is the absolute opposite of who I am as a person and who I am as a writer.”

But the ordeal also bore fruit. The Echo Chamber introduces us to the Cleverley family: father George, a famous TV presenter and BBC institution; his wife, Beverley, a romantic novelist whose early promise has been somewhat dissipated by her reliance on ghostwriters; and their three more or less grown-up children, Nelson, Elizabeth and Achilles. As the character name Beverley Cleverley suggests, the novel is written in comic mode – there is also a cartoonishly sexy professional from Strictly Come Dancing and his pet tortoise, named after a Ukrainian folk hero – but between its farcical set pieces emerges a darker story.

The family spend much of their time tending to their social-media personae, generally at the expense of their real-life relationships; but when George tweets a performative statement of support for a trans woman he meets (this, in itself, is ambiguous, because their encounter is spiky, and mutually unsatisfactory), he falls foul of what he comes to see as the aggressive world of woke politics. The subsequent attacks – and his own ham-fisted insistence on his liberal credentials – wreck his life, and include particularly vicious and violent criticism from his daughter in disguise, who anonymously tweets bile at anyone with a large enough following to generate the likes, clicks and attention she craves.

Boyne explains that he wanted to explore the kind of behaviour that his Twitter harasser exemplified and to understand his own reaction to it. He appears simultaneously concerned, bemused and angered by online trolls, reckoning that at the heart of their behaviour is need. “I think it’s that people want to matter. They want to feel that their voice matters in the world. And it’s why some people hook on to one subject and it becomes their subject.

“And this is what they use social media for, whether it’s politics, whether it’s trans issues, whether it’s climate change, whatever it is; they pick a subject, and they just go for it hell for leather. I mean, there’s a reason that Twitter was the platform of choice for Donald Trump. It’s a place where you can just be awful, and you don’t get called on it a lot.”

John Boyne: ‘I do think that it’s important that your work should be strong enough that it inspires some kind of debate.’ Photograph Nick Bradshaw
John Boyne: ‘I do think that it’s important that your work should be strong enough that it inspires some kind of debate.’ Photograph Nick Bradshaw

Post-Jessica, he says, he had numerous private messages of support “from Nobel-prize winners down” but was disturbed by attacks from those he sees as piggybacking on his troubles. “I found that more upsetting than the crazies ... I thought, That’s just mean, you know, and what have I ever done to you? But look, that’s people for you.”

He is adamant that he’d write My Brother’s Name Is Jessica again, and equally sure that he will never again respond to online negativity. But it’s clear that this is a highly specific form of self-imposed silence; in other areas, he is determined to give voice to his experiences.

In February 2021, the former teacher and rugby coach John McClean, now 76, was convicted of abusing 23 boys at Terenure College, the fee-paying Dublin school, between 1973 and 1990; he was sentenced to eight years in prison. In the aftermath of a trial that continues to have repercussions, Boyne, who was a pupil at Terenure, wrote a piece for The Irish Times.

He had attended court in support of a friend who had been abused by McClean, although he himself hadn’t; in fact, the teacher had always encouraged him in his literary ambitions, and when Boyne’s debut novel came out, in 2000, he sent him a copy. But, Boyne wrote in February, he too had been abused at Terenure: severely beaten by a priest, who taped a metal weight to a stick and called it Excalibur; and, later, by a lay teacher who would lean over him, put his hand in Boyne’s trousers and masturbate him.

Attending McClean’s trial prompted Boyne to give his testimony to the Garda; he can’t say much more about it at the moment, because it is still in their hands. But what was especially striking was the way that Boyne wrote about it, going beyond the horrific nature of the abuse itself to meditate on the effects it has had on his emotional, romantic and sexual life. Recalling relationships that didn’t work and the break-up of his marriage, which he describes to me as the worst thing that’s ever happened to him, he wrote: “The truth is, I’ve failed in every romantic relationship I’ve ever pursued.”

I want to think about the world we live in and to challenge it. And if that means upsetting some people, well, that’s what literature is supposed to do

In the conversation we have, he talks candidly about how the loss of his husband, with whom he had been in a relationship for 11 years, has “left a scar within me that will never heal”, not least because it was entirely unexpected to him; and about how much he longs for a loving partner to share the life he has made.

It’s the concept of “failing” that feels so poignant. His experiences at school, combined with the fact that homosexuality wasn’t decriminalised until Boyne was in his third year of university and that, by that time, the Aids crisis was in full spate, feel like so much to contend with that self-reproach is simply too cruel. In other parts of his life, after all, Boyne seems like a measure of success: not only in career terms but also in his closeness to family and friends and in his enjoyment of his daily life. “I’m not spending all my day crying about it,” he reassures me. “I work hard. And I like my life a lot. And maybe you just can’t have everything.”

He expects The Echo Chamber to provoke something of a reaction but is braced for it. “I just turned 50. And as much as I don’t like drama, and I don’t like trouble, I do think that it’s important that your work should be strong enough that it inspires some kind of debate. And antipathy towards it is not necessarily a negative. At the end of this book I mention Kingsley Amis’s line that if you’re not annoying somebody with your writing, you’re not doing anything right. And it’s not that I set out to annoy people, but I do want my work to be more interesting in that way than perhaps it once was. I want to think about the world we live in and to challenge it. And if that means upsetting some people, well, that’s what literature is supposed to do.” – Guardian

The Echo Chamber is published by Doubleday on August 5th

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
GO BACK
Error Image
The account details entered are not currently associated with an Irish Times subscription. Please subscribe to sign in to comment.
Comment Sign In

Forgot password?
The Irish Times Logo
Thank you
You should receive instructions for resetting your password. When you have reset your password, you can Sign In.
The Irish Times Logo
Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.
Screen Name Selection

Hello

Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
Forgot Password
Please enter your email address so we can send you a link to reset your password.

Sign In

Your Comments
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Standards. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or by filling out this form. New comments are only accepted for 3 days from the date of publication.