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John Boyne: ‘I always have a novel on the go’

John Boyne

Bond Street Books

John Boyne is the author of more than a dozen novels for adults and younger readers – which have been published in more than 50 languages – including A History of Loneliness, The Terrible Thing That Happened To Barnaby Brocket and The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, which has sold more than nine million copies since it was published in 2006. His new novel, The Heart's Invisible Furies, the story of Ireland told through the life of one man, will be published this month. He lives in Dublin.

Why did you write your new book?

I wanted to examine how Ireland had changed from being such a conservative, Catholic country to the first in the world to vote by public plebiscite for equal rights marriage. When I was in university in the early 1990s, homosexuality was still a criminal offence and yet, within 25 years, gay marriage had been legalized. The central character of The Heart's Invisible Furies, Cyril Avery, is a conduit for an examination of a country's development.

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What's the best advice you've ever received?

When I was a student at the University of East Anglia in 1994-95, my teacher, the novelist Malcolm Bradbury, told us to write every day, "even Christmas Day." It's a mantra that I've tried to follow over the years. I always have a novel on the go, I'm always working on something and that gives my days a certain structure and my life a welcome meaning.

What agreed-upon classic do you despise?

Despise would be too strong a word but I've never had any interest in or understanding of J.R.R. Tolkien's work. I read The Hobbit when I was a teenager and it did nothing for me. When I made an attempt at The Lord of the Rings, I found it too long, too boring and too childish. I know I'm in the minority there but so be it.

Which fictional character do you wish you'd created?

Patricia Highsmith's Tom Ripley. I love the Ripley books and the blend of Tom's desperate longing to belong with his basic psychopathic nature. The books are thrilling, sexually ambiguous and compulsively readable.

Would you rather have the ability to be invisible or time-travel?

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Invisibility, without question. It's easy to time-travel as a writer and as a reader. We get lost in the worlds we create and the worlds we read about. But to be invisible would be a great gift. Although I'd prefer to be able to fly as I loathe airports and everything to do with the business of getting from one place to another. Some sort of Star Trek beaming machine would be useful too.

Which book got you through the darkest period of your life?

This will sound like a self-serving answer but I don't mean it to be. Sadly, my relationship of 11 years ended about 18 months ago so it's been a very difficult and unhappy period for me, although I'm starting to come through to the other side now. So writing The Heart's Invisible Furies during this time has got me through. Being able to focus on something outside of my own personal unhappiness and troubles gave me the strength to carry on.

Which books have you reread most in your life?

I'm not much of a rereader. There are so many books out there that I want to read that it seems wrong to go back to something I've read before. I think there are only a few books I've ever read twice and they are: David Copperfield by Charles Dickens, The Cider House Rules and A Prayer for Owen Meany, both by John Irving, and The Secret History by Donna Tartt.

Which country produces literature that you wish more people read?

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Almost every country whose primary language is not English. It's a travesty that U.S. and British publishers do not commit more time and energy to translations. I want to read writers of my own generation from countries all over the world but it tends to be just the big names and award winners who get published.

Which books haven't you read that you feel you should?

I've never read James Joyce's Ulysses. I suppose I should but I don't feel any great urge to.

What's the best sentence you've ever written?

I'm very happy with the opening sentence of The Heart's Invisible Furies: "Long before we discovered that he had fathered two children by two different women, one in Drimoleague and one in Clonakilty, Fr James Monroe stood on the altar of the Church of Our Lady, Star of the Sea, in the parish of Goleen, West Cork, and denounced my mother as a whore."

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