Saturday, 19 February 2011

John Boyne Event

John Boyne, author of Noah Barleywater Runs Away and The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas visited Shearer's for a wonderful event on Wednesday February 16th. Don't worry if you couldn't make it, here's what happened!

Barbara introduced John (who a staff member took to be a customer when he first arrived!) by saying how excited she was when she first heard that he was coming to Australia to work on a short film. Never one to miss an opportunity Barbara emailed Random House to see if John would be willing to visit us at Shearer's. She then went on to talk about John's work, mentioning that:
  • The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas has been published in 42 languages, sold over 5 million copies worldwide, been made into an award winning Miramax film and topped the New York Times bestseller list. 
  • John has published over 70 short stories, 2 novellas and 8 novels.
  • John's next novel The Absolutist examines the events of the Great War from the perspective of two young privates and will be available in June.
  • The Irish Times described Mutiny on the Bounty as "a mesmerising tour-de-force...a remarkable and compelling piece of storytelling."
John then took to the "pulpit" where our visiting authors do their speeches. He said "This is a wonderful place to read, I feel like the archbishop. I don't normally get pulpits but I've wanted one." He spoke about being in Australia, how much he loves the country and Sydney in particular. "Irish boys don't usually tan well. We turn the colour of boiled prawns." He also mentioned that when he visits a country he only reads books by authors from that country. That meant that Barbara's gift to him, Journey to the Stone Country by Alex Miller, was perfectly chosen.

John described Noah Barleywater Runs Away as an "intimate story about a little boy." He described it as a modern day fairytale, and said that he had realised how dark fairytales actually were. He then read from Noah Barleywater Runs Away in his lovely Irish lilt.

Unlike traditional fairytales Noah is not cast out but runs away because there is something at home he cannot deal with. Over the course of a day Noah and the old man have a series of conversations in which readers realise that what Noah is running from he cannot escape.

John said that he likes being in a place when he's writing about it, and due to his two month stay in Sydney may set part of his next children's book here. He lived in St. Petersberg for a few months before writing The House of Special Purpose and spent some time in the winter palace, which is now a museum. He then read from the first chapter of The House of Special Purpose.

He said that writing is trying to put yourself in the mind of someone else and when writing The House of Special Purpose he had to be in the mind of an old man (which was difficult as he's never been that age).

An excellent Q&A session followed.

When writing historical fiction do you start with the historical truth and then move sideways or change perspective?

John stated that he's not interested in historical fiction but in certain historical periods. "I try to know as much as I can about the facts before I make the decisions that make up the novel." He also stated that sometimes reality is more interesting than fiction and that all the things he had assumed about Captain Bligh and Mr. Christian were actually wrong.

What was the most interesting thing about the Russian revolution?

He answered that the Czar and Czarina and their children were a close, tight-knit family. They had married for love against the wishes of the Czar's father. He was "intrigued by a family with so much power and responsibility in a land that was changing so much." He was also intrigued by the family connections, all the WW1 rulers were cousins "like a group of children having an argument in the backyard" but people were dying.

You write a lot of short stories...

He said that writing a novel is very difficult whereas a short story can be done in a few days. He wrote short stories for a newspaper in Ireland, writing one 500 word story a week. He said that cutting a story down to 500 words is a great way to improve yourself.

How do you know an idea is worth it?

Instinct. It's like falling in love.

Did you intend the children's books to be children's books?

He never intended to write for children but when he realised the prose was for children he didn't fight it. He really enjoys writing for children and wants his children's books to be about something important.

Were you an avid reader as a child?

"Nobody wrote in my family but they were all great readers." Wednesday was a half day at school and his mother always took them all to the library, it became his favourite part of the week. Reading was very important to him and his "imagination was on fast forward."

Were Bruno and Shmuel (from The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas) based on anyone? How factual is the book?

He said that the characters were not based on anyone, but Rudolf Höss brought his family with him to Auschwitz. He went on to say that children were kept at Auschwitz, some were there for medical experimentation and some had pretended to be older than they were in order to be kept alive. While it's not probable that a boy like Shmuel would have been there, it is possible. He made changes such as moving the commandant's house and de-electrifying the fence but felt it was important that it didn't have a happy ending.

The event ended on that rather depressing note, but John stayed around to sign autographs and meet his readers. Everyone was very interested in what he had to say and as you can see there were some great questions. One lady was browsing in the store before her film started but found John to be so interesting that she stayed for the entire event, bought his books and happily missed the film. It was a really good night, and John dropped us a line later on to let us know that he had a great evening.

 Buy Noah Barleywater Runs Away and other John Boyne titles online at Shearer's Bookshop

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