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Book Talk: Irish writer John Boyne tackles Russian tsars

By Belinda Goldsmith
/ Source: Reuters

By Belinda Goldsmith

CANBERRA (Reuters Life!) - Irish writer John Boyne set out to write contemporary novels, but his fascination with history kept taking him back in time to produce seven novels including best-seller "The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas".

Boyne's latest novel, "The House of Special Purpose", is centered around Nicholas and Alexandra Romanov, the last royals of Russia, and the events that led to the collapse of autocracy.

Boyne, who was born in Ireland in 1971 and studied English literature and creative writing, spoke to Reuters:

Q: Did "The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas" change your life?

A: "Considerably. Before that book came out I had been published for a number of years and been a writer since I was a teenager but my books had not been successful in a commercial sense. All those years I had wanted to reach a readership and wanted to prove myself and this gave me some authorization. So many readers were moved by it and had an emotional response to it and it made me more ambitious."

Q: Are you now writing fulltime?

A: "Yes, there is also the freedom that a book like that gives you, being able to devote yourself entirely to writing so that you can become a focused writer. I worked in a bookshop for seven years when I used to write in the morning before going to work. About a year before "The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas" came out, I decided to go fulltime as a writer as I needed to focus and take my chances. I moved out of Dublin to a small village on the coast of Ireland where it was cheaper to live."

Q: Are you back in Dublin now?

A: "Yes. I am a bit of a home-body."

Q: Did you like the film of "The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas"?

A: "I liked it very much. They involved me all the way through, which I think is very unusual... The novel is from the boy's point of view and the movie from the family's. I think that was a good idea as an adaptation cannot be literal."

Q: Writing about the Holocaust can be controversial. Have you had a lot of feedback?

A: "Sure. It is not a universally loved book. It seems to be a book that divides people, which I don't mind because a good book should make you think. I've had my share of aggressive letters, with most of the criticism focusing on historical inaccuracies. But in a work of fiction that is subtitled a fable I am not suggesting that specific events have taken place."

Q: "The House of Special Purpose" deals with the Romanovs. What got you writing about this time in history?

A: "A fascination with the Romanovs and the way it all ended so dramatically in a hail of fire. Russia is a fascinating country and we know so little about it. I always knew it was something I'd like to write about. When you are writing historical novels you spend a long time reading and researching. It has to be a place you want to know about yourself."

Q: Did you set out to write historical novels?

A: "No, it is something that I seem to have fallen into by chance. When I was younger I never imagined I would write seven books set in different times of history but just because you are writing a book set in the past doesn't mean you can't write about contemporary themes. I find, to my surprise, that I love the color and the drama of the past, and reading and writing about it and trying to understand it and its effect on the present."

Q: How long does the research take?

A: "I read for about six months. I start with fiction, to get into the style and voice of that time and then with non-fiction. For this book I went to St. Petersburg and I wrote a large portion of the novel there. The Winter Palace is open to the public and I would go down every day with my laptop and sit in the corner of a room to try to get the ghosts of those time onto the pages."

Q: What are you working on now?

A: "I'm working on a new children's book. It is sort of an old fashioned fairy tale not set in any place or time but in a forest. It was a story, a funny idea that I had, and I thought it would make an interesting novel. We will see what happens."

Q: Any advice for aspiring writers?

A: "Join a writers' group. Writing classes give you an audience and that is what you really need. You have to be strong going into them and listen, and take on board what people say. You have to be able to take criticism."