By Anthony De Sa
About a month ago, my 12-year-old son, Simon, came home from school with a new book he had selected from his school library. It was John Boyne’s The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. He read the first few pages at school, and when he came home, he stole himself in his room to continue reading. I had never seen this behavior from him. My three sons have always been terrific readers—something I’m very grateful for—but Simon had never immersed himself in a book quite like this. He gobbled it up and a day later asked if I could bring him another book, one that dealt with the Holocaust or WWII.
Yesterday, I realized I was covering an Artist Talk for IFOA with Irish author John Boyne as the guest artist. He is the author of nine novels for adults and four for children, but I didn’t know this. I must admit, other than Boyne’s big hit, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, which sold over 6 million copies worldwide and was recently made into a feature film, I knew little about him as a writer. What I learned from him deeply affected me as a writer, a teacher, a father, and it has remained with me still.
John Boyne is fascinated with “telling stories about people that never existed,” and writing for him is “an ‘active release’—part of my writing process.” That’s how any other author might answer the question posed about the creative process. But what made John’s response more interesting was his lack of distinction between the ways he treats a novel geared for a young reader and his other novels, those that are written for an adult audience. In fact, in his experience he sees the distinction between the two treatments as greatly diminished. The forms share the same process: “my process is simply to write the book I feel most passionately about.” It is incredibly refreshing for an author, working in both YA and literary fiction, to make such a candid admission. It speaks to him as person, first, and it resonated with me as a high school teacher, as a father of three young boys and as a writer, who at times feels the pressure to be everything to everyone. I think Steven Beattie, the moderator of the event, said it well when he suggested one of the reasons his books work so well with children, books that are often centered around difficult topics, like the Holocaust or gender and sexuality, is that he doesn’t condescend to children. Boyne recognizes how sensitive and smart his readers are; they understand things that adults are often too jaded to fully realize. More about this point later.
The discussion then turned to religion, in particular, Catholicism. Now, most authors would shy away from questions of faith or ideology of a spiritual nature. These questions are always answered with the preamble, “Now this is just my belief,” or the apologetic, “I don’t want to offend anyone, but…” When Steven Beattie asked if he was Catholic, Boyne responded that he was not, and then went on to explain his personal stories, many of which could not be told fully because we simply did not have the time. “In Ireland the Catholic Church destroyed itself—they didn’t believe in their own tenets.” Although he recognized there were good people in the church now, the kind of young boys who had been groomed to become priests in Ireland didn’t have the opportunity to develop and mature fully. It is no wonder there were so many issues of abuse. This will be the focus of his upcoming adult novel, The History of Loneliness (February 3, 2015 from Doubleday Canada). It has taken Boyne 15 years and 12 novels to write about his home country of Ireland, but he has done so now in what many say is his most powerful novel to date, a novel about blind dogma and moral courage, and about the dark places where the two can meet.
Pressed further, Boyne went on to say, “Even in silence, there is criminality.” He didn’t hold back. There was nothing “safe” about what Boyne said. It was unflinching—a word reviewers use far too often and badly—and honest.
So I asked my son Simon, what he liked most about The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. Here’s what I got. First response: “I don’t know.” Typical. I thought about what Boyne said, how he tries to get children to think, tries to get them to read and move them. He said, “I write about the most extreme violent event in the world, without the violence.” Using this as my springboard, I asked Simon how he felt about the violence in the novel, and this is what he said: “I liked it because he [the author] didn’t hide anything. He just wrote it like it was.” It’s real life. It’s what John Boyne wants to write about, and for me and my 12-year-old son, it doesn’t get better than that.
Anthony De Sa grew up in Toronto’s Portuguese community. His critically acclaimed debut, Barnacle Love, was a finalist for the Scotiabank Giller Prize and a Toronto Book Award. His most recent novel, Kicking the Sky, was also a finalist for a Toronto Book Award and a national bestseller. He attended the Humber School for Writers and currently heads a high school English department and creative writing programme. De Sa is also an IFOA Delegate.