John Boyne Explores the Dark Side of Literary Ambition

Posted by Goodreads on October 30, 2018
Graham Greene wrote that "there is a splinter of ice in the heart of a writer." By that measure, the novelist antihero of John Boyne's gripping new book, A Ladder to the Sky, must have an entire ice rink at his core.

Maurice Swift is gorgeous, charming, and hell-bent on literary fame. His only problem? He can't think of a thing to write about. After beguiling aging German novelist Erich Ackermann, however, Swift extracts from Ackermann a devastating wartime confession of love and betrayal. He steals it for his own bestselling debut, ruining what's left of Ackermann's life. Soon it's clear that "literary larceny" is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Swift's dark ambition.

Part psychological thriller, part satire of literary life, A Ladder to the Sky is Dublin-based Boyne's 11th novel for adults. It follows 2017's The Heart's Invisible Furies, his sweeping story of a gay man who grows up in postwar Ireland, and 2014's A History of Loneliness, about child sexual abuse by Catholic priests. Boyne has also written five novels for young adults, most famously The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, which explores the Holocaust through the eyes of a nine-year-old boy. Boyne talked to Goodreads interviewer Catherine Elsworth about creating the sociopathic Swift and a wittily convincing Gore Vidal, who also appears in the book, and how Boyne's novels are taking a more personal turn.

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Goodreads: Tell us about your starting point for this book. Was it the character of Maurice Swift or did you want to set a novel in the literary world?

John Boyne: I wanted to write about ambition, and having been around the publishing trade a long time and having been around writers (new writers, old writers, and mid-career writers), I was just interested in the idea of what we would do to achieve our goals. I can remember what it was like to be young and ambitious, and I liked the idea of a writer who had some talent but no imagination. How would they achieve their goal if they knew that they couldn't achieve it completely on their own? I was also interested in the idea of manipulation, how we allow ourselves to be manipulated. Erich in the first section of the book does allow himself to be manipulated by Maurice, who is simply writing down his story, and that leads to questions about literary ownership and who owns these stories. So, it was a combination of those things.

GR: Maurice is, in his own words, "a person with absolutely no conscience, someone who would use anyone to get ahead." How did you come up with his character?

JB: Probably a little from a couple of people I've known over the years. From seeing how people would sometimes try to attach themselves to you and build a false friendship in order to make a connection to editors or agents or so on. In any industry, if you achieve some degree of success, you have to be a little wary of that, that not everybody who latches on to you is necessarily doing it for the right reasons.

So, it started with that, but then I made him a lot more malevolent than I had expected as the novel progressed. One of the things that I was thinking about, that was inspiring me a little, was The Talented Mr. Ripley [by Patricia Highsmith], which is one of my favorite books, the idea of the sociopath who will do whatever it takes to increase his prevalence in the world and climb the ladder.

GR: At the start did you envision the book as more of a thriller or a satire?

JB: Because I don't really plot books in advance—I start with an idea and see where it takes me—I don't really think in terms of the genre, is it a thriller, is it a satire, etc. I just write the story and write the characters and see where it takes me. In the rewriting, I liked the idea of combining various aspects of that. There are some thriller-like elements to it, which I've never done, but mostly it's a bit of a satire. But I wanted to make Maurice somebody that the reader would keep turning the pages for, to see how far this guy is going to go.

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GR: I sensed you had fun writing the interlude in which Maurice and his latest mentor, an older American writer called Dash who's clearly smitten with Maurice, go to stay with Gore Vidal on the Amalfi Coast.

JB: I did, actually. People seem to really enjoy that part.

GR: How did you go about re-creating Vidal on the page?

JB: I've always been a fan of Gore Vidal and read a lot of his books, but when I was writing this, I watched as many documentaries as I could. I wanted to capture his voice, and I felt that with somebody like that, because he was so sharp, so funny, and so clever, you've really got to raise your game. I felt very sure that Vidal would be the only person in the book who would see through Maurice and not be taken in by him. I worked very, very hard on that section and all of his lines to make sure that they sounded right, that if he was still with us and if he read it, he would feel that I haven't let him down.

GR: Can you talk about how you satirize the literary world? In the New York interlude we encounter Henry Etta James and her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel I Am Dissatisfied with my Boyfriend, My Body, and My Career. There are also the precocious writers on the creative writing course where Maurice's wife teaches.

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JB: I liked having a bit of fun with it, I must admit. I was a student on a creative writing course many years ago, and I've taught on creative writing courses, and I think they're very valuable actually. They're very good for young writers, and if you go in with the right attitude—where you're open to criticism and want support and help—it can be a really good thing. If you go in with the attitude that you just want praise and you're a genius, then you're wasting your time. But yeah, there are lots of places in [the book] where I'm generally just having a little bit of fun with the world that I live in.

GR: Were you nervous about writers reading this book?

JB: No, not really. I thought they'd get a laugh out of it and get the jokes. I don't think anything would make me nervous. I tackled much more explosive issues, like the church and the Holocaust, to worry too much about a satire about writing. But I hope that they would recognize that I actually love the writing world as well, I love being part of it, and that this is also written with a lot of affection.

GR: Were you also trying to address the bigger picture of being a writer, that as well as adulation and success there can be periods of loneliness and depression?

JB: Yes. I think that there are things that you have no control over, that the literary world puts us under too much pressure. The awards system and so on, which really has very little to do with books or art in any way, and the desperation people feel to win prizes and to be recognized in that way. On one hand winning a prize does bring a lot of attention to a book, but it can also be very detrimental to the system of it.

Of every ten new writers published in a year, maybe one will be almost chosen by the media, by the literary world, as the one, and they're given all the attention and it's not always down to the quality of the book. That can be very frustrating for new writers coming on to the scene because, as we know, as difficult as it is to get published, it's also very difficult to get a fourth or a fifth novel published. To maintain a career if you haven't had a success or found a readership is a difficult thing. And it's not always done in a very fair way, I think.

GR: In the book Maurice says that the most annoying question a writer can be asked is "Where do you get your ideas?" Is that true?

JB: It's one of them, along with "Do you write by hand or on a computer?" Because there's no answer to that question. Most writers don't know or don't want to know. I think it's partly that if you're reading all the time and you're writing all the time, your brain is just naturally more attuned to ideas and to stories than people who aren't doing that. It's a little different from any other job in some ways. Whatever job you're doing, if you're constantly doing it, you become better at it. So, it's not like there's a shop where you buy the ideas; your brain is just much more open to them. So, there's never really an answer to it.

GR: Do you have a favorite book about a novelist or that features a novelist as a character?

JB: Because I'm a huge fan of John Irving, and he's often written about novelists, The World According to Garp is the one that springs to mind.

GR: What's your writing process like? Do you show anyone your work as you're writing?

JB: Never. When I'm writing a novel, I write many, many drafts, and I wait until it's as good as I feel I can make it without somebody else looking at it. Then I give it to my editor and my agent. And what I usually find with my editor is that the things he'll see as problematic in the book are the things I already know; I just need somebody to tell me to fix them. But I don't like showing people work. I prefer to give them an actual book. I think the reading experience is better too when you're reading a book rather than a manuscript.

GR: How long does it usually take for you to write a book?

JB: About 18 months to two years. With the books I write for young readers, it's about a year. I would do a first draft reasonably quickly, within about four to five months of [working] all day, every day. I never go backward. I just try to get some kind of story down on the page and figure it all out once I have that there. Once I have those several hundred pages of a manuscript, the story's in there somewhere and I feel a sense of relief when I've got a first draft and I can just enjoy the process of digging a story out of the manuscript.

GR: I read that you wrote the first draft of The Boy in the Striped Pajamas in just a few days.

JB: Yes, that's true. I wrote the first draft in three days. It was one of those very strange experiences where an idea just took me over and I couldn't walk away from it, and if I'd walked away from it, I would have lost it. So, I just stuck with it, and it seemed to pour out of me. It was a very strange but wonderful kind of writing experience.

GR: Has that happened with other books?

JB: No, it's never happened to me before or since. It's just one of those moments that can happen, and I guess I was just in the right place of mind and at the right place in my life to write it.

GR: Did you sense that it might be as successful as it went on to be?

JB: No, because I don't think you're thinking in those terms when you're writing. You're just trying to write the very best book you could possibly write. I think what I did feel in the months leading up to it being published, because it was my fifth book, was that it was going to be more successful than my previous four, which wouldn't have been too difficult, and I felt there was a power to that story that hopefully readers were going to get. But these things are so in the lap of the gods. You just never know what's going to happen.

GR: How did the success of that book change things for you?

JB: It changed everything because it gave me readers, which I really hadn't had before. And it gave me financial freedom, which, as a writer, is really important, not to have to do another job but to be able to write full-time. It laid the basis for the whole career that I've built up over the 12 years between then and now.

GR: How do you think your writing has changed since you first began?

JB: In the early days and up until about six years ago, I wrote a lot of historically based books. I enjoyed writing them, but I kept myself very much out of the stories. They were based often on real-life events in history, like the Bounty (Mutiny on the Bounty), Buffalo Bill (The Congress of Rough Riders), or Dr. Crippen (Crippen), and I've stopped doing that. I've made the books more personal.

A History of Loneliness was about the child abuse scandals in the Catholic church, and then The Heart's Invisible Furies was 75 years of what it was like to be gay in Ireland from when it was illegal leading up to [2015's marriage-equality] referendum, and suddenly the work has got much more personal.

I feel that I can almost put myself into the text more rather than just making it a pure story. I want to express my own thoughts and opinions more than I did when I was a younger writer. Maybe it's because I feel more confident as a writer, I'm not sure. But I think my big historical phase in a way is done and this is where I am now.

GR: What's your average writing day like?

JB: There isn't really an average day, but I usually try to be at my desk by 8 a.m. or 8:30 a.m., and if I don't have other things to do, then I divide the day between writing and reading. I'll work for maybe an hour, an hour and a half, then I'll stop, then I'll read maybe for an hour, and I'll just kind of bounce back and forth between the two. I really enjoy those days when I have nothing on my calendar and I can just devote myself to that. I can get so much done, and I do feel that reading and writing are very much connected in that way, that I have to be reading all the time as well as writing. It's just a very important part of my life.

GR: I read that when you feel the need to be inspired, you read the short stories of Tobias Wolff.

JB: That would be one of them. He's a great writer, but I've got about 3,000 books in my house and I always have a pretty decent "to be read" pile. And then every so often I go back to the big classics that you never read; I recently read Moby-Dick. And yesterday I started A Place for Us by Fatima Farheen Mirza, and it's very good. I've also recently read the new Patrick Gale novel, Take Nothing with You, which I liked very much, and Louise O'Neill's new novel, Almost Love, was very good.

GR: What were your favorite books growing up?

JB: As a teenager, as I mentioned, I got really into John Irving and Anne Tyler. I still like her very much. I read a lot of the Irish writers who were coming to great success around that time, people like John Banville, Roddy Doyle, and Colm Tóibín, which was very inspiring for a teenager who wanted to be a writer. I got very into Dickens as well when I was 13 or 14. I've always had very eclectic taste; whatever sounds interesting to me, I'll read it. I can read a thriller as much as I can read Moby-Dick. If it's out there and people are talking about it, I'm interested to know what it's about.

GR: Are there any genres that you'd like to tackle that you haven't in terms of writing?

JB: I don't think so. Again, I don't really think in terms of genre; it's more story. There are things I could never imagine writing, like science fiction or horror; it just doesn't appeal to me, and they aren't books I've read. But anything that I really want to do, I'll just get to it and start.

Comments Showing 1-31 of 31 (31 new)

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message 1: by Randi (new)

Randi Happy to say that I am a John Boyne reader and I look forward to reading A Ladder to the Sky :-)

message 2: by David (new)

David After reading The Heart's Invisible Furies I found myself a new favorite author! I had a friend in the UK send me A Ladder to the Sky because there was no way I could wait until November!! It does not disappoint!

message 3: by Robin (new)

Robin No wonder I love John Boyne...I love Tyler and Irving too. Very cool to know he loves them as well. I loved THIF and AHoL and can’t wait to read Ladder.

message 4: by Ashwini (new)

Ashwini Abhyankar Absolutely loved The Heart's Invisible Furies as well as had the wonderful opportunity to read A Ladder to the Sky in advance and loved that one as well.

message 5: by Anne (new)

Anne Hätinen Really good and informative interview.
I've read all Boyne's adult novels except The Ladder to the Sky and my favourite ones are THIF, THoL and THoSP.
The love for his books started from Kapina Laivalla (Finnish translation of The Mutiny on the Bounty), which I got as a christmas present. Can't wait to read this new one.

message 6: by Libbyryans (new)

Libbyryans Great interview - “ A History of Loneliness is in my top 5 favourite books of all time - it is so poignant and perception changing - can’t wait for this one

message 7: by Lyn (new)

Lyn Stevens Have "A Ladder to the Sky" on my bookshelf and am chomping at the bit!! Moving into our new house in a week's time so saving it for when I can relax and savour every word.!! John Boyne has a direct line to my heart and mind!! xx

message 8: by Celia (new)

Celia I loved Ladder to the Sky. I wrote it in as Goodreads Choice Awards Best Fiction of 2018.

message 9: by Prachi (new)

Prachi Pati The heart’s invisible furies was my first John Boyne book and I absolutely loved it. Looking forward to reading his latest now, it sounds quite interesting. Thank you for sharing your tips on writing with us, John 😊

message 10: by Rita Stillman (new)

Rita Stillman A wonderful interview!!! Cannot wait to read new book. He is an outstanding writer!!!!!

message 11: by M.J. (new)

M.J. Payne Terrific interview! I loved 'The Boy in the Striped Pajamas'. It was on the list for a literature class and I had a student I tutored who took the class. I have some more books on my 'to read' list now!

message 12: by Pri (new)

Pri An absolute yes... This goes right now on my 'to read' list.

message 13: by Syeila (new)

Syeila I really enjoyed this interview. A Ladder to the Sky was the best book I’ve read this year!

message 14: by Barbara (new)

Barbara John Boyne is one of my favorite writers and I’m equally impressed by the books he reads. John’s 5 Star reads are highly recommendable, and I agree with his assessments. We are fortunate to have his creative novels and his knowledge.

message 15: by Kristopher (new)

Kristopher Kaun I enjoy hearing how writers go about their days; I'd want to adapt my writing schedule that way, if I only could, but Life always seems to get in the way somehow and always. Domestic Partners don't like the fact I wish to be a writer, and that Writing came along well before they did. Anyway...I wish to read this gentleman's work now; very intriguing!!

message 16: by Robin (new)

Robin Looking forward to receiving this one and feel sure it will be every bit as enjoyable as his others! Nice interview!

message 17: by Jacquie (new)

Jacquie Hurrah, a new John Boyne book! I love his stories.
Thanks for a great interview!!

message 18: by Alicen (new)

Alicen Great interview!

message 19: by Joan (new)

Joan Mansbach I purchased the new John Boyne book as soon as I read about it. Can't wait until it is released. I've read all of his books and love the way he weaves a story. Such a talent. This was a great interview!

message 20: by Lyne (new)

Lyne I am so looking forward to John Boyne's next book!

message 21: by Nichole (new)

Nichole This book has been on my to-read list for a while. I fully intend to read it!

message 22: by Rudolph (new)

Rudolph Furtado As a travel blogger writer thanks for the personal insights into writing a book and the nitty gritty of " PUBLISHING POLITICS " in being noticed as a writer.

message 23: by Anna Carolina (new)

Anna Carolina oh my, oh my... Let's break my heart again in a John Boyne's book...

message 24: by Amadasun (new)

Amadasun Emily I haven't read it. Where can I get it?

message 25: by Gary Ferguson (new)

Gary Ferguson I liked the 'earthiness' of this interview with John Boyne and particularly his comments around creative writing courses and seeking praise, of which I've been guilty. I only started reading John Boyne recently when I came across The Heart's Invisible Furies on a LGBTIQ reading list. Now I'm hooked!

message 26: by Betty (new)

Betty I read it and added the books he recommended to my want-to-read list. Thanks for sharing it.

message 27: by Jim (new)

Jim Bates Thank you for such a wonderful interview. I love how naturally and honestly John answered the questions. I've not read him before but have put A Ladder To The Sky on the top of my must read books. Thanks, again.

message 28: by Carofish (new)

Carofish Loved this interview. I had always felt there was a connection between John Boyne and John Irving. No wonder they are 2 of my favourite authors.

message 29: by Kats (new)

Kats Just finished "Ladder to the Sky" and it's a phenomenal read. Already thinking about people I can give this to for Christmas.
JB is a brilliant writer - this is a really good interview. Thank you!

message 30: by Lyn (new)

Lyn Stevens Am about to start A Ladder to the Sky - can't wait. My 2nd hand book dealer has a copy of Mutiny on the Bounty for me to collect - that'll bring my John Boyne collection to ELEVEN!! Certainly my most favourite author :)

message 31: by Paula (new)

Paula Thank you for posting this interview, I just finished reading The Heart's Invisible Furies (love the title) and I now look forward to reading the rest of John Boyne's books. The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas was a wonderful, devastating read and I have also found a new favourite writer to follow. I appreciate having some insight into his writing personality and also seeing the books he likes to read himself and those which inspired him. Thank you for doing the interview.

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