John Boyne believes some spirits dwell in an unsettled afterlife and isn’t opposed to meeting them—just as long as they aren’t as destructive as the ghost he’s crafted in This House is Haunted.
Zola: Your novels have covered mysteries and murder before. What brought about the decision to branch into horror and ghostly spirits with this book? Were there challenges in writing it that you hadn’t experienced with your other stories?
John Boyne: I’ve always loved ghost stories more than horror. Ghost stories rely more on the imagination and the suggestion of terror than horror does. For a long time I thought that I would like to write one but of course the thing about a ghost story is that you don’t need to explain to readers the existence of ghosts, but you do need to explain the existence of your ghost. By this I mean that when the explanation comes for why a presence is lingering in the afterlife, it has to be credible and original. So I waited until I had a good reason and when I did, I thought it was time to tackle my own ghost story. Some of my early novels also have a rather gothic feeling to them but I moved away from that over recent years; it was interesting to go back to it again.
Zola: Eliza enjoys reading a variety of works, but the tales of Charles Dickens are mentioned in the novel far more than any other writer’s. Why is he so prominently featured? Did Dickens inspire this story?
JB: Charles Dickens is my favourite novelist and I read most of his novels for the first time when I was a teenager and of course he wrote many ghost stories of his own, most famously A Christmas Carol. But before beginning This House Is Haunted I went back to many classic ghost stories of the 19th century to consider their structure, their language, the manner in which revelations appear throughout the story. I particularly enjoyed The Signal-Man, Dickens’ ghost story, and immediately knew that I wanted to open the story with a literary reading, Dickens himself reading to the audience – and to the readers of this novel – from his work and sending a chill down their spine. It’s almost a signal to the reader that this is what they can expect from what they are about to read.
Zola: Eliza and her father have the pleasure of hearing Charles Dickens speak. Who is the author you’d most love to see give a reading?
JB: I’d love to hear Philip Roth read from his work and answer questions about his extraordinary novels. And I’ve love an opportunity to ask him to reconsider his decision to retire.
Zola: No matter what the time period, a character claiming a house is haunted will be given skeptical looks. But in 1867, Eliza is judged harshly as a ‘hysterical’ member of the ‘fairer’ sex. What are the advantages of setting a ghost story in that time period?
JB: The great advantage of setting a ghost story in the mid-19th century is that there is no electricity and so the characters have to carry candles with them, which allows the novelist to play with shadow and light a lot more. I’ve never written a novel with a female protagonist – or a female narrator – before this and I wanted Eliza to seem slightly out of her time. She’s a feminist without realising that she is. She’s brave, she’s strong willed, she’s independently minded and does not need a man to save her or the children; she’s perfectly capable of taking care of herself.
Zola: In an interview with Liverpool Daily Post, you’ve said you believe in ghosts yet haven’t ever had a supernatural encounter. Do you think you’d like to have one—provided it wasn’t as dangerous as Eliza’s?
JB: I’d love to have one. None of us understands the mysteries of the universe so it’s perfectly possible that are some who dwell in an unsettled afterlife.
Zola: What is your favorite ghost story?
JB: The Turn of the Screw by Henry James and, more recently, The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters.
This article originally appeared on Zola Books.