THE RELUCTANT CONTROVERSIALIST
“I really don’t like the fact that sometimes I’m referred to as kind of a controversial novelist because I don’t feel that I am,” says John Boyne, whose novel The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas has sold 11 million copies and mounting, and has been reimagined as a film, play, ballet and opera.
He has written a sequel – All The Broken Places – imagining life after the Holocaust for some of the characters in the 2006 novel, which saw life in a concentration camp through the eyes of two small boys. That earlier novel is taught in schools, but also attracts criticism.
“I’m not controversial as a person,” he tells Martina Devlin in the latest episode of the City of Books podcast for Dublin UNESCO City of Literature. “I’m not a provocateur at all as a person. And I certainly don’t mean to come across that way either in the books that I write or in my interviews.
“I’m not immune to the fact people have criticised The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas in more recent years – not for the first 14 or so years of its publication. I’m not immune to the arguments I’ve faced over My Brother’s Name is Jessica about a trans teenager. And I’m not immune to the fact that there’s a vocal amount of people who feel I should never be writing a book like All The Broken Places.
“But I also feel what can we do as writers but write the book that feels right to us at the time? The one that is jumping up and down in our heads and saying write me? I think if we say to ourselves, ‘well, no, I’ll only get into trouble for that – it’ll only cause problems’ then maybe we’re in the wrong job.
“But I certainly try to write the books in a sensitive and careful way. I don’t try to write them in a way that will cause trouble. But trouble seems to come my way.”
He says The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas boy has become “almost a touchstone” for people who feel negativity him. But with any writing project, he feels the fear and does it anyway.
- All The Broken Places is published by Penguin Random House. Its author John Boyne is shortlisted for the 2022 Irish Book Awards in the Author of the Year category.