At library luncheon, author Boyne recounts journey to literary success
By JO-ANN GREENE, Books Editor
Surveying his audience Monday at the 13th annual Friends Author Luncheon, John Boyne was quick to express appreciation, borrowing words from fellow novelist Ian McEwan.
"When women stop reading, the novel will die," he told the 485 readers -- overwhelmingly female -- assembled at Calvary Church in Manheim Township.
If that didn't win them over, the Irish writer's shy charm, humorous asides and inside stories about writing and publishing -- all delivered in the faintest of brogues -- did.
Best known for "The Boy in the Striped Pajamas," a Holocaust novel made into a movie, the Dublin resident is on a two-week, six-city American tour. (Make that five cities, as his Boston date was canceled when the city was locked down because of the Patriot Day bombings.)
Boyne began by talking about how he, his sisters and his parents were all great readers, living just a short jaunt from an oft-visited Carnegie library in Dublin. Barely perceptible nods of approval could be noted round the room at this event sponsored by the Council of Friends of Lancaster County Public Libraries and the Library System of Lancaster County.
From boyhood, Boyne said, he was determined to be a novelist. The adults in his life would say, " 'Cute,' and pat me on the head."
Studying English at Trinity College, Dublin, and creative writing at University of East Anglia in Norwich, England, he started out "writing about my own life," but "did not realize my life was not very interesting." Consequently, he couldn't find a publisher for his novels.
Around 1999, he said, he made the conscious decision to stop writing for himself, his friends and family and "make it all up." That led to publication "The Thief of Time" and then "The Congress of Rough Riders."
But if getting a first novel published is hard, getting a third published is even harder when the previous two books "sold a total of eight copies, combined," he joked.
At this time he was full-time manager of a large bookstore. He quit abruptly and retreated to Wexford, a seaside Irish town of happy childhood memories, and put all his thoughts and energy into writing. That's how his third novel, "Crippen," was published.
His breakout novel came soon after.
Fascinated with the Holocaust from a young age, Boyne didn't really think he had a story to tell since he's not Jewish and Ireland remained neutral in World War II, he explained.
Then "out of the blue, an idea comes to you," and he envisioned "two boys, on either side of a fence, talking," he said.
He wrote it down, nonstop for 21-w days without sleeping. Though he never planned on writing for children, his agent submitted it to a children's book editor who reacted viscerally, saying, "It was the worst book she'd ever read."
Surprisingly, this encouraged him.
"I'd never had such a passionate response," he said. He figured as much as she hated it, someone might love it.
"I definitely write from the heart," Boyne said, calling himself "shameless about that." He's always seeking "an emotional response," he said -- but generally of the positive kind.
Boyne was right, though: Another editor and many readers loved the book. It became a best-seller, won a raft of international awards and was made into an award-winning Miramax film.
As testimony to its popularity, Manor Middle School English teacher Sandy Brown and her students, who read the book in class, occupied an entire table at the luncheon.
By now, Boyne has written several other novels for children, as well as more for adults.
Those in attendance Monday received a paperback copy of his novel about the Russian revolution, "The House of Special Purpose," which has just been released in the U.S. Boyne briefly read from it, to applause.
On Thursday, his novel "This House Is Haunted" is being released in the United Kingdom, to be published here in the fall. "Stay Where You Are and Then Leave," another novel of World War I following his highly acclaimed "The Absolutist,'' set in the same period, arrives in the U.K. at year's end.
No doubt many local readers will be waiting for them.