John Boyne: We formed a strong friendship, it developed into an unhealthy situation
Boyne's latest novel A Ladder to the Sky is inspired by the literary world and the writer's experience of an "unhealthy" crush on a fellow writer
John Boyne in his recently renovated home in Rathfarnham, Dublin. The redesign helped him deal with the break-up of his marriage. Photograph: Dave Meehan
John Boyne has a new tattoo. As he sits in the bar of a Dublin hotel with the sleeves of his summer shirt rolled up, the last words of one of Boyne’s favourite novels are etched on his forearm in American Typewriter font: we are all terminal cases. It seems fitting that the quote is from his good friend John Irving’s much loved novel The World According to Garp. The line between fiction and reality blurs when it comes to Boyne, an author whose personal experience is increasingly finding its way into his books.
Last year’s The Heart’s Invisible Furies charted the life of a gay man against a backdrop of seismic change in Irish society from 1945 up to the marriage equality referendum in 2015. His new novel, A Ladder to the Sky, is a roman-à-clef of the literary world where real people and fictional characters collide in various tales of betrayal and backbiting. It is, much like Boyne himself, an absolute riot.
The Dublin author is entertaining company, a consummate storyteller who skips the superficial in favour of delving deep into the human condition. An hour in his company passes in what seems like minutes. Our interview in many ways unfolds like a novel. There is intrigue, desire, the breakdown of an 11-year relationship, the hurt that remains in its wake.
Boyne has funnelled some of these experiences into his new book, which tells the tale of an ambitious young writer who steals other people’s stories in his bid for success. The backdrop is a literary world full of ego and exploitation, from precocious students on a masters writing programme to acclaimed international prize-winners.
How much of it is inspired by real life?
“I suppose quite a lot of it is,” says Boyne. “I’m somewhat nervous about writers reading it but I hope it’s also representative of other careers where people are ambitious and will use others to get ahead. In my experience, the nicest writers tend to be the ones who are already successful. They have readers, prizes, they know who they are. They’re the easiest to share a stage with.”
A look of boyish mischief passes over Boyne’s face, making him seem much younger than his 47 years
A Ladder to the Sky is Boyne’s 11th book for adults, a career that began in 2000 with his debut The Thief of Time and saw him achieve international success with his fifth book, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, in 2006. As a younger writer trying to establish himself, he admits he too was ambitious.
“I would have been pushing myself forward but now I just want to write my books. I tend not to go to parties and I stay out of the Dublin literary crowd which can be very negative and almost bullying at times, especially for new or emerging writers.” How so? “There are those who are in the clique and those who aren’t. You can see it by going into a bookshop and looking at the covers of books by Irish writers and seeing the same names come up in the blurbs. They’ve never read a book they didn’t like.”
The central character of Boyne’s new book, Maurice Swift, is a man who gets himself into the right cliques, including one excellent interlude at Gore Vidal’s Italian villa. Is the character of Maurice also drawn from real life?
A look of boyish mischief passes over Boyne’s face, making him seem much younger than his 47 years. “He came from an experience I had a number of years ago with an aspiring writer who sort of attached himself to me,” he says. “We formed quite a strong friendship and it developed into an unhealthy situation. I was very drawn to this man. I’m no innocent in terms of how it all worked out. We were both maybe using each other slightly. The guy was aware of the fact that I’d a crush on him. I was just charmed to be around him. It eventually reached a point where I had to confront that. Not that I was interested in confronting him about it but confronting myself about why I was allowing myself to be manipulated.”
If the new novel is in part an exploration of those feelings, what did he find out? “If you’d asked me this question six months ago I wouldn’t have had an answer but I think now I know,” he says. “My marriage broke up a few years ago and we’re going through a dissolution of a civil partnership at the moment, after being together for 11 years. Looking back, I think the guy was giving me something that my partner wasn’t.
“My partner wasn’t interested in books. He loathed the literary world and wouldn’t go to anything. It was very hurtful at times. It felt like he wasn’t proud of me. I was lacking some sort of regard in that respect and this guy could make me feel great. There was ego involved here in my part, for sure. I felt he looked up to me.”
It’s important to have a good reputation on the circuit, to behave well. Never turn a reader away. Never refuse to sign a book
Boyne has a reputation as a writer who gives back to his community. A prolific reader, he keeps a list of all the books he’s read on his website, marking favourites in bold. Among the 2018 highlights are Louise O’Neill’s Almost Love, Donal Ryan’s From a Low and Quiet Sea, Anne Tyler’s Clock Dance and Kudos by Rachel Kusk. Boyne also frequently reviews debut authors for The Irish Times and sponsors an annual scholarship for an Irish writer on the prestigious creative writing masters at his alma mater, the University of East Anglia.
Does having a good reputation matter to him? “Yes,” he says adamantly. “I want my books to be taken seriously. I want people to read and enjoy them. It’s important to have a good reputation on the circuit, to behave well. It’s just professionalism. Never turn a reader away. Never refuse to sign a book. I’ve seen writers do that, or else treat other writers poorly on stage during conversation, or treat the interviewer with disrespect. An audience picks up on those things, and you know what? They’re not going to buy your book at the end of it.”
Some characters in his new novel approach writing as if it’s a popularity contest. Is it important to Boyne that an audience likes him?
“It probably is, to be honest. They’ve given up their time to hear you speak. I want to entertain them. I want to be as interesting and amusing as I can possibly be. Look at somebody like Sebastian Barry who is nice and charming and friendly to everyone. There’s a writer who has a great reputation of treating everybody as his equal. I think that’s important.”
Nobody cares about Leo Varadkar’s sexuality and that’s a really positive thing
Boyne points to a chapter entitled Don’t Be a Dick in Colum McCann’s book Tips for Writers. “I’ve been doing this nearly 20 years and we’ve all seen people who behave like dicks. There are WhatsApp groups where people text each other and say, you’re not going to believe what so-and-so’s done on the stage. You shake your head and think, Christ, it’s so ridiculous.”
Boyne says it’s “open season” when it comes to using real-life experiences in fiction, citing Philip Roth (who himself inspired parts of Lisa Halliday’s recent debut Asymmetry) as an example. “There are those who would have criticised him for it, but we are all formed and shaped by the people who pass through our lives. No matter what they do, they affect us and I think it’s okay to use that. But it is fiction – you can take a basic idea and spin it in a different way. The character isn’t that person, they’re from an original idea and developed from there.”
A feature back in February this year in The Irish Times gave readers across the country a good dose of property envy over Boyne’s newly renovated house in Rathfarnham that includes a library, multiple work spaces and a gym. Boyne sought the change after the break-up of his marriage, which he says he didn’t want to end and has tried unsuccessfully to re-establish. The redesign has helped him to deal with the loss.
“I needed the place to look completely different, to be able to turn a light on and not think of the time [my ex] turned that light on. We changed the orientation of everything and it’s helped me survive the experience, which at one point I wasn’t sure I was going to. Because I work from home, it needed to feel safe. I travel so much, I need somewhere to come back to. I grew up in the same area and my parents and sister and niece live nearby. I need that kind of support network around me, especially after the last two years, which were very painful.”
Where is he with it now? “I go day to day, week to week. I’m nowhere near over it. I don’t know if I’ll ever get over it. I spent 15 years trying to find him and 11 years with him and now I’ve lost him. I’m pushing 50 and I feel like that part of my life is over. I think I would find it very hard to trust anyone again because this was a person I trusted absolutely, with every aspect of my life. For me, after 11 years, you don’t just move on tomorrow.”
But a brighter tomorrow has arrived in a wider sense for the author. Having spoken in the past about how he found the campaign leading up to the marriage referendum difficult, three years on he says the outcome has been wonderful for the country.
“A lot of people who were so negative in advance of it probably realise now that the world hasn’t fallen off its axis, society hasn’t fallen into disrepair. Everything’s fine. All people ever wanted was to be with the people they wanted to be with. Nobody cares about Leo Varadkar’s sexuality and that’s a really positive thing. The country has changed so much in the last few years, with the marriage referendum and repeal the Eighth. I think we’re a forward-thinking country now and it’s a good place to be. I’m happy here.”
As for his personal life, the blurring between reality and fiction looks set to continue. “I imagine the things that have happened in my life, in my relationship, in the last few years will show up in a book at some stage,” he says. “What I’ll do then is confront my life, my part in things rather than demonising someone else. I’ve spent the last few years feeling sorry for myself but at the same time I’m probably a bit of a nightmare to live with in some ways. You have to look at that too and maybe in a future book I will. I’m not ready to do it yet but at some point.”
Speaking with the fervour of a man whose writing is, at the moment, everything to him, there is little doubt Boyne will. After all, according to Garp, writers are just observers – good and ruthless imitators of human behaviour.