author of The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas and Noah Barleywater Runs Away and more…
Ten Terrifying Questions
1. To begin with why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself – where were you born? Raised? Schooled?
I was born in Dublin, Ireland, in 1971 and went to school here. I’ve spent most of my life living in Dublin although I studied creative writing in the University of East Anglia, England, and spent a year living in London at the end of my twenties.
2. What did you want to be when you were twelve, eighteen and thirty? And why?
At twelve I wanted to be a writer. I wrote all the time, read constantly, and dreamed of being a novelist when I grew up. At eighteen this ambition hadn’t changed but I had ambitions towards being an actor too, although at that age I didn’t have the confidence to pursue this. At thirty I had just published my first novel, The Thief of Time, and was very content with the idea that I would spend my life writing books.
3. What strongly held belief did you have at eighteen that you do not have now?
Honestly, at eighteen I was very unfocussed and undisciplined and had very few strong beliefs about anything. Outside of literature, I felt quite lost in life at the time. The difference between then and now is that now I do hold strong opinions and beliefs, although many of them may be quite wrong!
4. What were three works of art – book or painting or piece of music, etc – you can now say, had a great effect on you and influenced your own development as a writer?
John Irving’s novel The Cider House Rules. Kate Bush’s album Hounds of Love, particularly the second side which is one long connected series of songs. Roddy Doyle’s explosion into the Irish consciousness with his Barrytown novels and films and his Booker Prize for Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha.
5. Considering the innumerable artistic avenues open to you, why did you choose to write a novel?
I was too shy to be an actor, didn’t have the talent to be a painter, my guitar playing skills are only at party level, and besides, nothing gives me more pleasure than crafting a story, writing and re-writing it.
6. Please tell us about your latest novel…
Noah Barleywater Runs Away is my eighth novel, but my second for younger readers. It’s a fairytale, the story of an eight year-old boy who runs away from home into a forest where he discovers a puppet shop at the centre and an old man with a series of stories to tell. It has a serious underlying theme concerning a very difficult experience that some children go through.
(BBGuru: Here’s how the publisher sells it – Noah Barleywater left home in the early morning, before the sun rose, before the dogs woke, before the dew stopped falling on the fields. Eight-year-old Noah’s problems seem easier to deal with if he doesn’t think about them. So he runs away, taking an untrodden path through the forest. Before long he come across a shop. But this is no ordinary shop. It is a toyshop, full of the most amazing toys, and brimming with the most wonderful magic. And here Noah meets a very unusual toymaker.
The toymaker has a story to tell, and it’s a story of adventure and wonder and broken promises. He takes Noah on a journey. A journey that will change his life. And it could change yours too.)
7. What do you hope people take away with them after reading your work?
I’m passionate about telling a good story. Sometimes the art of storytelling is overlooked in fiction but if the writer does not engage the reader there seems little point in continuing.
It’s hard to name one particular person as it changes all the time but I have enormous respect for David Mitchell, who writes the most intriguing stories with complex characters, employing language that always intrigues the reader. I also greatly admire Colm Toibin, Rose Tremain and Jonathan Coe. And my favourite book of the last few years is The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas.
9. Many artists set themselves very ambitious goals. What are yours?
Although I don’t think that The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas is my best book – although I am very proud of it – it’s certainly the one that people know me best for. I’d like it to have a little competition on that front in the future!
10. What advice do you give aspiring writers?
Write every day. Rewrite. Read everything. Rewrite. Read your own work aloud to hear the rhythm of the language. Rewrite. Then rewrite.
John, thank you for playing.