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 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.
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?
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?
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.