This year I attended an event at the Belfast Book Festival which ran from 10th - 16th June. It was the first time I'd attended such an event and had hoped to attend more of the Festival but work commitments meant the only event I was able to go to was a reading by John Boyne, of his new book ‘This House is Haunted’. There subsequently followed an interview with John Boyne and a book signing.
When I arrived at the venue - The Crescent Arts Centre, I was pleasantly surprised to be lead into a large room with a stage at the front and lots of round tables with black tablecloths and candles. I wasn't sure if I was walking into a book reading or a séance! The atmosphere was fab and perfect for a reading from a ghost story. The event was attended by people of all ages from young kids who were obviously huge fans of John Boyne's children's books, to older adults. It was great to sit and have a chat with fellow book lovers before the reading began.
When John Boyne came onto the stage he began to read an excerpt from the new book. The book is essentially a ghost story and is narrated by a governess, Eliza Caine. The year is 1867. The extract that was read was when Eliza meets, for the first time, the two children who are to be in her charge. The reading certainly piqued my interest in the book as I adore a good atmospheric ghost story.
After the reading came an interview with Hugh Odling Smee, who is himself a writer and theatre producer. So, just what did I, a reader and blogger discover about the book, Mr Boyne himself and the writing process. With Eliza, John Boyne had wanted to create a strong female character, and the story to be told from a female perspective. It is the first time he has written a book this way and he wanted Eliza to be strong-willed and brave. Eliza is essentially a Feminist before Feminism itself became a strong movement. She is described as 'a modern.'
A lot of John Boyne’s children’s books have child characters who are enduring some form of difficulty or hardship. John Boyne himself did not have a difficult childhood. He talked about how it was in fact a great childhood but he is interested in how early childhood experiences can ultimately shape us and how we overcome them.
The interview then turned to how John Boyne writes his books and how he structures his writing. He discussed how he used to have set plots but doesn't tend to do that so much now since he wrote ‘The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas’. He now starts with a general idea / character / theme and simply writes, seeing where the story will take him. As he went on to explain, he feels that he can use this style of writing and plot development as he is now more confident as a writer. When he is close to finishing a book he starts to get his idea for the next book and never seems to take time off from writing. Does John Boyne get writers block or get ‘stuck in a rut’ like some writers do? This was one of the questions posed by an audience member. He replied by saying that he must be very disciplined and write every day. This is certainly what I am hearing from a lot of the writers that I interview for the blog. It’s obviously good advice. He went on to say that he certainly doesn't believe in being struck by inspiration but remains focused on the story he is working on.
Given that the new book is a ghost story we were treated to the writers own experiences and he told the audience a great 'true' ghost story about not just one ghost but an entire pub-full of ghosts. Only in Ireland would the ghosts be enjoying a Guinness! He went on to discuss how he likes ghost stories because he likes being scared and had always wanted to write a good ghost story himself. He always knew that his ghost story would be called ‘This House is Haunted.’ There was further discussion later on in the evening around book titles. A member of the audience enquired as to how he got the ideas for his titles and whether they evolved further along the writing process. He discussed how his latest book ‘Stay Where You are and Then Leave’ came about after he visited Christchurch in New Zealand which unfortunately experienced a serious earthquake a few years ago. He read a safety advice notice about what to do in the event of an earthquake – Stay where you are and then leave! This was apparently a ‘light bulb moment’ for him. He went on to discuss how his biggest regret was the title that he eventually settled on for his book 'Mutiny on The Bounty'. The original title was ‘Bligh and I’ but he was convinced by his publisher to change it.
In order to carry out research for his novels John Boyne tries to read books written in the particular era that his own book will be set. He feels that this is the best way to gain a true sense of language and etiquette of a particular era rather than reading about it in history books or books written about an era in history. In ‘This House is Haunted’, there is a theme of class divide and of the hierarchy even within the classes. John Boyne is a huge Charles Dicken's fan and has read his books many times over. After reading all of Dickens’s 'orphan' books he became obsessed with orphans and boarding schools. He discussed how he would love to see children today read more Dickens but feels that the format of such books puts children off a little.
No-one could of course forget John Boyne's acclaimed book ‘The Boy in The Striped Pyjamas’. He was asked if he was worried whether through the film adaptation of his book, the emotions of the characters and their experiences would be conveyed properly. He said that he didn't give it too much thought and essentially doesn't set out to write a book that he hopes will be adapted. However, at the moment a screen play is being written for his book ‘The Absolutionist’. Despite his books being set in countries all over the world, he hasn't yet written any set in Ireland. His next book will be!
Another question posed to him was around what we can, as readers expect next from him. Well, he has a children’s book due for release soon – 'Stay where You are and Then Leave' which is due to be released on 26th September. He is in the process of writing an adult’s book at the moment which is the book due to be set in Ireland and he is a little nervous about that and whether he will be able to convey and represent the area, the place he grew up, properly.
I found John Boyne to be an extremely interesting and pleasant person and really enjoyed my first experience of such a literary event. Afterwards there was the opportunity to purchase some of his books and he very kindly signed them for me. I was a bit star struck and did stumble a bit when he asked how I spelled my name! The man must think I am a total idiot!