In John Boyne’s fourth children’s novel, Stay Where You Are and Then Leave, he explores the impact of the First World War on an average English family. As he did in his Irish Book Award-winning The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, Boyne brings the context of this historical conflict through young eyes. When his father, a soldier, stops writing letters home, nine-year-old Alfie sets out to find the truth that the grown-ups desperately try to keep from him. Along the way he encounters poverty, shell shock, and the violent treatment of conscientious objectors. Bookish sat down with Boyne at indie bookstore McNally Jackson last weekend to talk about the challenges of writing for children, his interest in writing about war, and why he thinks celebrities should stop writing children’s books.
Bookish: The book begins with Alfie’s fifth birthday, which doesn’t go nearly as well as a birthday ought to. What’s a birthday memory you have that you really cherish?
John Boyne: My earliest memory in life is actually the day before my fourth birthday. I can remember jumping up and down the stairs saying, “I’m four! I’m four!” My mother saying to me, “You’re not four. You’re not four til tomorrow.” So I remember that one, just as my first memory, for some bizarre reason.
Other than that, probably my 40th birthday. That was a good one because there was a big surprise party thrown for me.
Bookish: When Alfie is nine, his favorite book to read is Robinson Crusoe. What was your favorite book at that age?
JB: Probably Treasure Island, but I use that in Boy in the Striped Pyjamas because Bruno carries that around. All [the] kids in my children’s books tend to be great readers, and they tend to read these classic adventure stories—so there’s a different one featured in each book. But I think Treasure Island is probably the one that I like the best.
Bookish: Last time we spoke, I was interviewing you on your adult novel This House is Haunted. We talked about how Charles Dickens is a favorite of yours and how he appears scattered throughout that novel.
JB: I started reading Dickens when I was about 12, and I particularly liked all of the orphan books. I always liked books about young people who are left on their own with the world, and the four children’s books I’ve written feature that very thing: children that are abandoned by their families or running away from their families or ignored by their families and having to grow up quicker than they should, like David Copperfield—having to be the hero of their own story.
Bookish: What do you most enjoy about writing characters that way?
JB: I remember when I was that age, I liked reading books about kids where there weren’t really many adults, where they didn’t need an adult to come and solve the problems for them. They could use their own ingenuity, use their own talents to solve whatever the issue was. And I like that still. I think that children want to read about heroic children. They don’t want to read about children that have to be saved all the time.
I don’t really plan it as much that way, it’s just my natural tendency in writing for young people—that’s just the way it goes.
Bookish: Were you that independent and adventurous as a child?
JB: Not as much as the kids in my books, I think. But I was a very quiet child, quite introverted, really. Independent, yes; I didn’t need a lot of supervision. Less so than I did when I got older, maybe. But I was a bookish child, not surprisingly. I could sit quite happily in a corner for hours and entertain myself with books.
Bookish: What is your favorite thing that you’re reading right now?
JB: Well I just finished a novel—it was a proof copy of a novel that is coming out in the UK in June—that I thought was amazing. It’s called The Incarnations by a woman called Susan Barker. It’s set over about 1,000 years worth of Chinese history and it’s an absolute page-turner! Beautifully written. Loved it.
Bookish: Why do you think it’s important for children today to read a book like Stay Where You Are and Then Leave?
JB: Children’s literature has become so dominated by series of books and dystopian books and vampire books and all that type of thing and, you know, I like the idea of standalone novels. I always found with series of books, it’s something that publishers love obviously because they can make a lot of money and they build an audience from book to book, but I don’t like that as a writer.
I prefer the idea of just telling a story, completing it within your book, and moving on and not forcing a child to read eight of them. There are other books out there.
I also think that books for young people should have serious and important themes, they shouldn’t be trivial. So the books I write, they would be the kind of stories you would write in an adult novel only they just happen to feature a child at the center of them.
Bookish: I noticed that. Before Stay, I had only ever read This House is Haunted, and reading through Stay, I didn’t expect it to be as honest and graphic as it was, but as a reader I appreciated that. It’s what real children were seeing, hearing, and experiencing at that time.
JB: I always hope—with a book like this, for example—I like the idea that this could be a child’s first introduction to the First World War. And if they’re interested enough in the story, interested enough in the character, it might lead them to reading more about it: reading nonfiction, reading other novels, and developing an interest in something that actually matters.
Bookish: You’ve written about World Wars I and II, and the Russian Revolution. As a writer, what is it that draws you to these historical, yet conflicted, times?
JB: I’m sort of surprised myself that I’ve written so many books like that in the past, but I do enjoy the research element. There are so many stories from the past that interest me, that I want to learn more about, just as an interested person. And if I’m going to learn, if I’m going to research, it’s probably going to lead me to writing a novel. My next book is actually a fully contemporary story, which is the first time, I think; but the rest, it’s just all of these different periods of history that have interested me from the start.
Bookish: Do you have a favorite novel about the First World War?
Bookish: You wrote the first draft of Boy in the Striped Pyjamas in two and a half days. How long did this book take?
JB: Slower than that. I do tend to write a first draft quite quickly, over the course of about a month. Just all day long, every day for a month getting a first draft out ‘cause I don’t go backwards on it.
And I make them up as I go along; I don’t plan what they’re going to be. I know what the general theme is, but I don’t know what’s going to happen on a daily basis. I just feel for me, I need to just get to the end of it and then have an idea of what the book is actually about and then start working. So it took about a year from start to finish, but the first draft came quite quickly.
Bookish: A lot of writers use outlines, but it sounds like your planning and plotting process is more the actual writing itself.
JB: The draft I like the most is the second draft because—the first draft, it’s hard, you’ve really got to be disciplined to sit down every day to write it. Second draft is so fun because now you know what your book is really about. You can really focus on very small sections and with each draft subsequently you’re just tidying up and fixing the language. But the second draft, that’s where the book really takes shape.
Bookish: That must be a great moment.
JB: It is. When you finish that first draft it’s great. You think, Oh, thank God, now I’ve got something to work off.
Bookish: What’s the biggest difference in your writing process when you’re working on a children’s book rather than an adult novel?
JB: You know, I’ve thought about this. The only main differences I can see—and they seem like quite small differences in some way—is that the adult novels are always first-person and the children’s books are always third person. And I instinctively do that; I don’t even question myself on it. Because with the adult ones, I feel I need to get as deep inside the psychology of a character as I can, and that needs to be first-person. In the children’s books, I feel I need some distance. I don’t want to be the nine-year-old at the center of the story. I need to have some type of narrative voice.
Other than that, I don’t change the language. I don’t make the language simpler. I use words that they might have to look up in the dictionary. The books are shorter, but there’s just not that much difference other than that to be honest. And the funny thing is, I have adult writer friends [to whom I would say], “Would you think of writing a children’s book?” and they go, “No, God, I wouldn’t know how.” They’re quite intimidated by the concept of it. And when I say to children’s books writers, would they write an adult book, they say no because they think they’re too good for it.
JB: Yeah! Children’s book writers tend to feel quite superior, and adult writers tend to feel they wouldn’t know how to write a children’s book—which might surprise you because I think a lot of people think it’s the other way around.
Bookish: Well, I know you’ve spoken in interviews before about how you are frustrated by celebrities who decide to write children’s books because they think it’s easy.
JB: Oh yeah. That drives me crazy. It is really frustrating, it’s frustrating because it’s unfair to children. Because they’ll get a lot of attention, they’ll get a lot of marketing budget and so on just because they’re a celebrity—the Madonnas, the Ricky Gervaises, the Russell Brands.
Bookish: Oh yeah, he just announced his series.
JB: They’re just writing nonsense, rubbish. And this is what children, when they go into the children’s section of the bookshop, are confronted by. And it’s because celebrities just think, “Oh, I can knock off a children’s book.” It’s terrible.
Bookish: While some people think it’s easy, what do you think the hardest thing about writing for children is?
JB: Not patronizing them. Not talking down to them. Treating them like adults.
John Boyne was born in Ireland in 1971 and is the author of seven novels. The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas has sold over 5 million copies worldwide and won two Irish Book Awards. It was also shortlisted for the British Book Award and has recently been made into a Miramax feature film. Boyne’s novels are published in over 40 languages. He lives in Dublin.