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John Boyne Transcript

Listen to John Boyne's talk and reading

Good morning everybody and it’s very nice to be here today.  So yeah what I thought I would do is read to you two things: one from my first children’s book which is ‘The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas’ and then read you something from the new one ‘Noah Barleywater Runs Away’ to get a sense of the difference really I suppose between the two books.  And ‘The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas’ wasn’t actually my first novel it was my fifth and before I wrote this book I had only written for adults before that and I had only written books which were set in the past and I had never really thought about writing for young readers before, it wasn’t really part of my plan, but then sometimes one thing that happens to you as a writer is an idea comes to you and it seems so powerful, so interesting, that you can’t walk away from it and that’s the way it was with ‘The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas’. When the idea for that book first came to me, a very simple image at the start of just the two boys sitting on a fence talking to each other, I felt I couldn’t walk away from that story and I felt that because I was going to be writing it from the point of view of a 9 year old boy then it would seem natural that it was going to be written as a book for children, for young readers.  And after it was published of course there are people, there were people, who felt that a subject matter like this such a serious story, such a sad story, tragic story, is not an appropriate one to give to young people to read which of course I didn’t agree with, I mean I do feel that young readers can approach serious subjects like this if the stories are told in the right way and I tried to tell it in the right way. 

So what I’m going to do is read you – at the end of this as well of course I’ll take any of your questions – what I’m going to do is read you a section from the book which is from the centre of the book.  I like reading from this section because it does go back to the very start for me for how this book started.  As I said the first idea was these two boys meeting at the fence even though that idea actually only happens halfway through the book.  So at this point in the story Bruno the son of a German Commandant at the concentration camp has been in this house far away from his old home, far away from his friends, for a long time and he’s very bored, he’s very lonely, he’s got nobody to talk to, he’s got nobody to play with and he wants to be an explorer when he grows up so one day he decides that he’s going to break the rules, he’s not allowed go exploring the camp, he’s not allowed go walking along this fence that runs alongside the house but he’s so bored, he’s so lonely, he’s going to do it anyway and this is what he finds when he does it.

The walk along the fence took Bruno a lot longer than he expected.  It seemed to stretch on and on for several miles.  He walked and walked and when he looked back the house that he was living in became smaller and smaller until it vanished from sight altogether.  During all this time he never saw anyone anywhere close to the fence nor did he find any doors to let him inside and he started to despair that his exploration was going to be entirely unsuccessful.  In fact although the fence continued as far as the eye could see the huts and buildings and smoke stacks were disappearing in the distance behind him and the fence seemed to be separating him from nothing but open space.  After walking for the best part of an hour and starting to feel a little hungry he thought maybe that was enough exploration for one day and it would be a good idea to turn back, however, just at that moment a small dot appeared in the distance and he narrowed his eyes to try to see what it was.  And while he was looking his feet were talking him step by step closer and closer to the dot in the distance which in the meantime had become a spec and then began to show every sign of turning into a blob.  And shortly after that the blob became a figure.  And then as Bruno got even closer he saw that the thing was neither a dot nor a spec nor a blob nor a figure but a person, in fact it was a little boy.  “Hello” said Bruno.  “Hello” said the little boy.  The boy was smaller than Bruno and sitting on the ground with a forlorn expression.  He wore the same striped pyjamas that all the other people on that side of the fence wore and a striped cloth cap on his head.  He wasn’t wearing any shoes or socks and his feet were rather dirty.  On his arm he wore an armband with a star on it.  When Bruno first approached the boy he was sitting cross-legged on the ground staring at the dust beneath him, however, after a moment he looked up and Bruno saw his face, it was quite a strange face too, his skin was almost the colour of grey but not quite like any grey Bruno had ever seen before.  He had very large eyes and they were the colour of caramel sweets, the whites were very white, and when the boy looked at him all Bruno could see was an enormous pair of sad eyes staring back.  Bruno was sure he had never seen a skinnier or a sadder boy in his life but decided he had better talk to him.  “I’ve been exploring,” he said.  “Have you?” said the little boy.  “Yes, for almost 2 hours now.” “Have you found anything?” asked the boy.  “Very little.”  “Nothing at all?”  “Well I found you” said Bruno after a moment.  He stared at the boy and considered asking him why he looked so sad but hesitated because he thought it might sound rude.  He had discovered something during his exploration and now that he was finally talking to one of the people on the other side of the fence it seemed like a good idea to make the most of the opportunity.  He sat down on the ground on his side of the fence and crossed his legs like the little boy and wished he had brought some chocolate with him or maybe a pastry they could share.  “I live in the house on this side of the fence” said Bruno.  “Do you?  I saw the house once from a distance but I didn’t see you.”  “My room is on the first floor,” said Bruno  “I can see right over the fence from there.  I’m Bruno by the way.” “I’m Shmuel”, said the little boy.  Bruno scrunched up his face not sure he’d heard the boy right.  “What did you say your name was?” he asked.  “Shmuel” said the little boy as if it was the natural thing in the world.  “What did you say your name was?”  “Bruno,” said Bruno.  “I’ve never heard of that name,” said Shmuel.  “And I’ve never heard of your name” said Bruno.  “Shmuel, I like the way it sounds when I say it, it sounds like the wind blowing” Bruno said “Shmuel,” nodding his head happily, “ yes I think I like your name too, it sounds like someone who is rubbing their arms to keep warm.”  “I’ve never met anyone called Shmuel before,” said Bruno.  “There are dozens of Shmuels on this side of the fence,” said the little boy, “hundreds probably.  I wish I had a name all of my own.”  “I’ve never met anyone called Bruno,” said Bruno “other than me of course, I think I might be the only one.”  “ Then you’re lucky,” said Shmuel.  “Hmm, I suppose I am.  How old are you?” he asked.  Shmuel thought about it and looked down at his fingers and they wiggled in the air as he tried to calculate. “ I’m 9” he said.  “My birthday is April 15th 1934.”  Bruno’s eyes opened wide and his mouth made a shape of an O, “I don’t believe it,” he said.  “Why not?” asked Shmuel.  “No,” said Bruno shaking his head quickly.  “I don’t mean I don’t believe you I mean I’m surprised that’s all because my birthday is April 15th too and I was born in 1934.  We were born on the same day.”  Shmuel thought about this.  “So you’re 9 too?” he asked.  “Yes, isn’t that strange?  Very strange” said Shmuel “because there may be dozens of Shmuels on this side of the fence but I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone with the same birthday as me before.”  “We’re like twins,” said Bruno.  “Hmm a little bit,” agreed Shmuel.  “Do you have many friends?” asked Bruno cocking his head a little to the side as he waited for an answer.  “Oh yes,” said Shmuel, “well sort of.”  Bruno frowned.  He had hoped that Shmuel would say no as it would give them something else in common. “Close friends?” he asked.  “Well not very close,” said Shmuel “but there are a lot of us, boys our age I mean, you know, this side of the fence.  We fight a lot of the time thought that’s why I come out here, to be on my own.”  “It’s so unfair,” said Bruno “I don’t see why I have to be stuck over here on this side of the fence where there’s no-one to talk to and no-one to play with and you get to have dozens of friends and are probably playing for hours every day.”  “Where did you come from?” asked Shmuel.  “Berlin.”  “I’ve never been to Berlin,” said Shmuel.  “Well it’s certainly not as nice here as it is there,” said Bruno, “although it was much nicer before things changed.”  “How do you mean?” asked Shmuel.  “Well it used to be very quiet there,” explained Bruno who didn’t like to talk about how things had changed, “and I was able to read in bed at night but now it’s quite noisy sometimes and scary we have to turn all the lights off when it gets dark.  Do you like exploring?” he added after a moment.  “I’ve never really done any,” admitted Shmuel.  “I’m going to be an explorer when I grow up,” said Bruno “at the moment I can’t do very much more than read about explorers but at least that means that when I’m one myself I won’t make the same mistakes they made.”  Shmuel frowned.  “What kind of mistakes,” he asked.  “Oh countless ones,” explained Bruno “the thing about exploring is you have to know whether the thing you found is worth finding, some things are just sitting there minding their own business waiting to be discovered like America, and other things are probably best left alone like a dead mouse at the back of a cupboard.”  “I think I belong to the first category,” said Shmuel.  “Yes,” replied Bruno “I think you do.  Can I ask you something?” he added after a moment.  “Yes,” said Shmuel.  Bruno thought about it, he wanted to phrase this question just right.  “Why are there so many people on that side of the fence he asked and what are you all doing there?” 

So that’s a scene from the centre of the story it’s the moment where Bruno and Shmuel first meet and the rest of the novel really is taken up with the two boys trying to answer that question, why are there so many people on that side of the fence? and what are they doing there? and, you know, the thing that Bruno and Shmuel have in common is that they’ve both been taken away from their homes, from their places of safety, they both miss where they come from and they both don’t know what they’re doing in this place.  Now of course Shmuel is going through a much more difficult experience on his side of the fence than Bruno is but the one thing that they do have is they have each other, you know, their friendship, the way that they can go to the fence every day and talk to each other and pretend for a little while that they’re not in this terrible place, is what keeps them both, you know, cheerful at moments when they would otherwise be quite unhappy.  And it was quite important to me when I wrote this book that the two boys at the centre of this book would be the real heroes of the story, they wouldn’t have the same hatreds and prejudices that the adults in the book have, it is a book where the kids are all the good guys and the adults are the bad guys.  And even though it’s a sad story, even though it’s a novel with a very sad ending, I did always feel that it was a novel that young people would be able to come to and hopefully if you have read it and if you were moved by the story of Bruno and Shmuel and what happens to them then you would know that there are a wealth of other books out there by people who actually went through these experiences which you can then go and read because my book, of course, is just a made up story and a lot of the events in the book and the way the story is described aren’t exactly the way they would have been during the Holocaust or at those camps but it’s more of a ... I subtitled the book a fable, a work of fiction with a moral at the centre, so it’s supposed to be an introduction to a study of the subject and hopefully that the story of these two boys would move you enough that you would want to learn more about it. 

Now after writing this book I went back to writing a couple of more adult books and I wondered would I come back to writing for young people again and I really wanted to but as you can imagine this was kind of a tough act to follow in terms of writing for young people.  And I knew one thing; I knew I didn’t want to write a historical novel for children again.  I didn’t want to write a book which would explore such a serious global tragedy as the Holocaust because I thought if I did that it would be ... I thought it would be kind of a cynical thing to do because I’d be trying to replicate the success of ‘The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas’ and I had written this book in a very uncynical way, I’ve written this book because of the story, so I didn’t want to go searching for another worldwide tragedy to write about but I did know that if I wrote for children again I wanted to write about something serious at the same time.  So when I came to write this new book, ‘Noah Barleywater Runs Away’, it’s very different.  It’s not a fable it’s a fairytale, it goes back to the idea of traditional fairytales.  I read a lot of Grimm Brothers stories and Hans Christian Andersen and found these running themes through them of most of those stories begin with the child being abandoned in the centre of a forest.  If you think of Hansel and Gretel, Hansel and Gretel were abandoned by their parents in a forest because there’s a famine going on in the land and they can’t afford to feed them.  Snow White is abandoned in the forest.  Pinocchio runs away into a forest.  There’s this running theme of children being abandoned and the more I read these fairytales the more this idea intrigued me but I knew that I didn’t want to write about that, what I thought I would start with was a boy who was running away from home into a forest but not being abandoned, he’s running away from home himself, but we very quickly learn that his family life ... he has a very happy family, he loves his parents, his parents love him, so why is he running away?  And this is what the reader has to discover as the story develops and even though there’s a lot more jokes in this book and even though it’s a lot lighter in tone and funnier there is still quite a serious story going on at the centre of it and the deeper you get into the forest the deeper you get into the book the more you realise that there’s actually something quite sad and quite unhappy, quite tragic taking place here but it’s one person’s sad story rather than the world’s sad story.  So I’m going to read you a section from the opening of the book, from chapter one, because this doesn’t really need any introduction it tells you exactly who Noah is and how his adventure on this one day in his life is going to take place.  So this is chapter one and it’s called ‘The First Village.’

Noah Barleywater left home in the early morning before the sun rose, before the dogs woke, before the dew stopped falling on the fields.  He climbed out of bed and shuffled into the clothes he’d laid out the night before before holding his breath as he kept quietly downstairs.  In the hallway he took his coat off the hook but didn’t put his shoes on until he’d already left the house.  He walked down the laneway, opened the gate, went through it, closed it again treading as lightly as he could in case his parents heard the sound of the gravel crunching beneath his feet and came downstairs to investigate.  It was still dark at this hour and Noah had to squint to make out the road that twisted and turned up ahead.  When he got to the end of the first quarter mile at just that point where he could turn around one last time and still make out his home in the distance he stared at the smoke rising from the chimney that stretched upwards from the kitchen fireplace and thought of his family inside all safely tucked up in their beds unaware that he was leaving them forever, and despite himself he felt a little sad.  Am I doing the right thing he wondered, a great blanket of happy memories trying to breakthrough and smother the fresher sadder ones but he had no choice, he couldn’t bear to stay any longer.  Anyway it was probably best that he went out to make his own way in the world after all he was already 8 years old and the truth was he hadn’t really done anything with his life so far.  Why only a few days before he tried to make a list of all his achievements and this is what he’d come up with:  1) I have read 14 books from cover to cover.  2) I won the bronze medal in the 500 metres at Sports Day last year and would have won silver if Breffni O’Neill hadn’t jumped the gun and got a head start.  3) I know the capital of Portugal, it’s Lisbon.  4) I may be small for my age but I’m the 7th cleverest boy in my class.  5)  I am an excellent speller.  Five achievements at 8 years of age he thought, not very impressive at all. 

And so here he was out on his own a young soldier on his way to battle.  It wasn’t long before he reached the first village and by the time he got there he was starting to feel a little hungry as he hadn’t had anything to eat since the night before.  The smell of eggs and bacon spilled out from the open windows of the houses that ran up and down the streets.  He licked his lips and looked up at the window sills.  In the books he had read grown-ups often left pies and cakes there with steam rising out of their peak pastry hats just so ravenous boys like him could come along and steal them away but no-one seemed to be that stupid in the first village or maybe they just hadn’t read the same books as he had.  But then a stroke of good luck, an apple tree appeared before him, it hadn’t been there a moment before or at least he hadn’t noticed it, but here it was now standing tall and proud in the early morning breeze its branches weighed down with shiny green apples.  “Breakfast,” he thought running forward but as he did so one of the branches of the tree, the one that had been leaning most towards him, seemed to rise up a little and press itself closer to the trunk as if somehow it knew that he’d been planning on stealing away one of its treasures.  “How extraordinary,” said Noah, hesitating for a moment before stepping forward again, this time the tree made a great grunting sound and if he hadn’t known any better he would have sworn that it was edging its way to the left moving away from him, its apples trembling a little in fright.  But it can’t be he decided shaking his head, trees don’t move and apples certainly don’t tremble.  And yet it was moving.  It was most certainly moving.   Well that’s enough nonsense for this time of the morning Noah decided throwing himself against the tree which immediately froze as wrapped his arms around it and plucked three apples, one, two, three, off the branches before jumping away again popping one in his left hand pocket, one in his right and taking a great bite out of the third in triumph.  The tree wasn’t moving at all now.  If anything it seemed to be drooping a little.  “Well I was hungry,” he cried aloud as if he had to explain himself to a tree.  “What was I to do?”  The tree didn’t respond and Noah shrugged his shoulders and walked away but just at that moment a voice called out from behind him, “hey you,” and he turned to see a man marching his direction.  “I saw you,” the man cried, stabbing his finger in the air,  “What do you think you’re doing eh?”  Noah froze then turned on his heel and started running, he couldn’t be caught this quickly, he couldn’t allow himself to be sent back.  In fact it wasn’t until he was sure he was no longer being chased that he slowed down and this was when he realised that the apple in his left hand pocket had fallen out while he was running.  Never mind, he thought, I still have the one in my right, but no that was gone too and he hadn’t even heard it fall.  Ahh, annoying, he thought, but at least I have the one in my hand but no somewhere along the way that had vanished too and he hadn’t even noticed.  How extraordinary, he thought continuing on his way a little more disheartened here and trying not to think about how hungry he still was.  One bite of an apple after all is hardly a satisfying breakfast for an 8 year old boy especially one who is on his way to see the world and have a great adventure.

So that’s how that story begins with Noah running into the forest and very shortly after this he comes across a toy shop in the centre of the forest and an old man living in the centre of this, living in this toy shop, carving puppets all day and over the course of the day Noah starts to tell the old man stories about the months leading up to his decision to run away and the old man tells stories about when he was a boy and how he ran away from home.  And as we hear these two stories we start to realise how much these two characters have in common and why Noah shouldn’t be running away from home at all, what he really needs is to run straight back home before it’s too late.  So maybe at this point what I’ll do is open it up to you and you can ask me questions about writing or about these books or the movie or the books or anything you want really.  Before you do let me ask you a question, how many people here think they would like to be writers when they’re older?  Lots.  A good few.  Great, okay well that’s good.  Okay, so you may want to ask questions about writing along the way. 

Questions
John: So who’d like to start?  Yes.

Participant 1: Like how old were you when you decided that you wanted to become a writer when you were old?

John: I think I was about 10 or 11 years old.

Participant 1: And did you start writing books there like when you were that age?

John: I did because I mean I loved reading when I was a kid and my parents used to bring me to the library all the time, we had a library like this down the road from my house, and I loved books, I loved getting lost in books and remember when I was a kid, when I was your age, you know, we didn’t have computers or DVDs or PlayStations or anything like that, we had nothing.  So we just had books and I loved books and I knew that the stories that I was reading I wanted to be able to write stories too, I wanted to ... the books that made me laugh or made me sad or made me scared I wanted to write stories that would do the same thing.  So I started writing when I was about 10 or 11 and I would take characters from the books that I liked and I would write new stories for them and then when I got a bit older, you know, I stopped stealing other people’s characters and started making up my own characters and to be honest I think from the time I was about 10 or 11 ‘til, you know, this morning I haven’t really stopped writing because I love it so much.  And I mean one of the tricks to writing is being very disciplined about it, it’s writing every day, it’s never walking away from it.  So I just felt inside me always from the time I was very, very young that this is what I wanted to do.

Participant 2: Did anyone persuade you to write books?

John: No, not persuade me but encourage me, you know, because even when I was younger I would give stories to my parents, to my brother and sisters to read and they seemed to enjoy them, you know.  I wrote a lot of funny stories I suppose like you do when you’re young and they seemed to think they were funny and interesting so they gave me a lot of encouragement.  And in school as well I was writing a lot and I always seemed to get a good response to what I was writing, you know, people seemed to think they were good and that was encouraging.  You always need a bit of a clap on the back sometimes, you know.  Yeah.

Participant 3: How long did it take you to write ‘The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas’?

John: Well that was a very strange writing experience because most of the books I’ve written have taken about a year and a half to write but ‘The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas’ came about in a very different way.  Usually I have an idea for a book and I think about it for a long time before starting to write it but when I had that idea I started writing it the next day and I didn’t know if it was going to be a short story, a novel, what it was going to be.  I just started writing and the story seemed to take me over and I couldn’t walk away from it and I wrote all the way through one day and I felt at the end of the day if I walk away from this now I’m going to lose this story, I have to keep writing, so I wrote through the night and the next day I wrote all day, I wrote all night, and on the third day at lunch time I finished the first draft and I hadn’t slept.  I wrote for 60 solid hours but only taking a break between chapters for a cup of tea or a sandwich or whatever and the one thing I remember about that experience was when I would stop, when I would, you know, be sitting having a cup of tea thinking to myself don’t think about this too much, don’t analyse it, just keep writing it because if you think about it, if you intellectualise it in some way this story which seems really interesting is going to run away from you.  So I didn’t.  So after two and a half days I had a draft of the book, 50,000 words, now it’s not the same book that you see here today, it then took maybe about 8 months to re-write it, to get it into the shape it is.  Because again for all the people who want to be writers one of the tricks of writing is knowing how to re-write.  The first draft is only the first draft and you have to write it again and again and again until it’s right.  Yeah at the back there?

Participant 4: What was the first book you wrote?

John: The first book was a novel called the ‘Thief of Time’ which was published just over 10 years ago and it was a story of a man who lives for 256 years because his body stops ageing when he’s in his 40s and he’s born in 1743 and he tells his story from on the night when 1999 becomes 2000.  And he tells all these stories, he’s been through all these different historical periods and, you know, met lots of famous people along the way and it’s a big sort of adventure story.  Yes?

Participant 5: If you weren’t a writer what would you have wanted to be?

John: I think I probably would have liked to have been an actor.

Participant 5: Would you say you would have made it?  (Laughter)

John: (Laughs) I don’t know but what I would say is that knowing I wanted to be a writer and again for all of you who want to be writers I pursued it absolutely, you know, I was focused on it.  I didn’t just think in my head I want to be a writer I wrote and that’s what matters, you know.  There’s no point just wanting to be something you have to actually work to get it and I think if I had wanted something different I would have probably worked to the same extent and hopefully, who knows, but I’m happy with where I am.  Yeah?

Participant 6: Would you ever want to write an autobiography?

John: An autobiography?  I don’t know, you know, nobody has ever asked me that before.  Do you know what’s strange is, you know, I’ve been talking about books for ... I’ve published books for about 10 years and I’ve certainly talked about ‘The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas’ for about 5 and very occasionally somebody asks you something like that that no-one has asked you before.  I don’t ... I’m too young, you know, I’m still in my 30s.  Maybe when I’m in my 80s.  I don’t know how interesting my life is, you know, I mean I just write the books.  I don’t really lead that interesting a life, people might think it’s very interesting to be a writer; it’s not all that interesting.  You know, I mean it’s enjoyable, you know, I write my books, I go out and I talk about my books and then I go home and like, you know, walk the dog (laughter) and think about, you know.  You want to know about a writer’s day?  This morning, first thing, walked the dog.  Second thing put the laundry on.  You know, third thing answer some emails.  Fourth thing come here.  So it’s chapter four, you know, separating the whites from the coloureds in the wash, you know, maybe when I’m 80 I’ll write an autobiography.

Participant 6: Yeah.

John: Yeah?

Participant 7: Can it be a bit lonely at times?  I’m thinking of your hours writing on your own and do you have to write every day?  Like it could be a bit lonely couldn’t it?

John: It’s actually not lonely.

Participant: 7 No?  Oh right.

John: And I think people think that working on your own and working from home, you know, can be lonely ...

Participant 7: Yeah, to write from there.

John: ... but it’s not because I get so enthusiastic about what I’m writing and if I’m working on a new novel I get so lost in it and I enjoy it so much that it’s company like, you know, during the work day.

Participant 7: Right yeah.

John: And I couldn’t work with other people around me anymore, you know, I need the silence, you know, the only person during the day time who is bothering me is the dog, you know, running around my feet.

Participant 7: A way of life now, yeah.

John: Yeah, but actually I don’t find it lonely and there is this strange split in a writer’s life because you do spend half your time at home writing quietly on your home and then you spend the other half maybe in different countries talking about the books as they come out and talking to audiences so it’s either very quiet or it’s very busy and it’s always enjoyable going out touring and stuff and then at the end of a tour it’s always enjoyable going home.  Yeah at the back?

Participant 8: What type of dog do you have?

John: (Laughs) I have a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, it’s a little King Charles, he’s only a little fella, he’s only a year old.  Yeah?

Participant 9: See when you wrote ‘The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas’ did you go over to Germany and like see all the concentration camps and did it give you the idea about it?
John Well that’s a good question.  When I wrote the book, right, firstly if I go back in time, when I was about 15 my English teacher in school one day came in on the last day before our summer holidays and he gave us a list of about 40 books and he said if he get a chance over the summer read some of these books, you won’t be tested on them but just read some.  And the first book I read was a book called ‘Periodic Table’ by a man called Primo Levi who had been in a concentration camp and survived the camp and wrote about his experiences but he hadn’t really survived because the experiences were so difficult for him to cope with that he was never able to really get over them.  His life was very tragic.  And it sparked an interest in me in the subject and over the years that followed I read an awful lot of books about the Holocaust and about the concentration camps because I was always interested to know, like I said there, what are all those people doing there, you know, why are they there.  So I had studied a lot about the camps and when I came to write the book all of that knowledge came into it but I hadn’t yet been to visit a camp when I wrote the book and because, as I said, I wrote the first draft in such a short space of time the book was written before I could do that.  So subsequently, afterwards, I then went and visited Auschwitz and saw that for myself which was a very, you know, interesting experience, it’s a sad experience.  I’m sure a lot of you when you’re older will be travelling around Europe, it’s a very worthwhile place to visit because it’s now set up as a museum and you can learn a lot more about it and there’s lots of photographs and lots of information.  So I hadn’t gone before I wrote it but I went afterwards.  Yeah?

Participant 10: Have you ever got like an idea in your head and like when you go to write the book you forget it?

John: No because again for all of you who put your hands up and said you want to be ... do you want to put your hands down between questions it’s probably easier ... for all of those of you who said you’d like to be writers another thing you have to do is always carry a notebook with you and you never know when you’re going to get some great idea and just write it down or put it into your phone or something, you know, and keep them somewhere and 99 out of 100 of those ideas might go nowhere, they might not be any good, but 1 out of 100 is going to be really good and it could be a great story.  So once you think of something scribble it down somewhere, find some place and keep all those ideas together, because at some point maybe you’ll be thinking what will I write, I can’t think of anything, and you’ll read through these and something will jump out at you and say write me.  Yeah, the corner?

Participant 11: Where you there when they were like making the film?

John: I was indeed.  We shot the film in Budapest.  Does anybody know where Budapest.

All: (Shout out) In Hungary.

John: Wow!  Brilliant.  Yes indeed, Hungary.  Yeah and so we shot the thing, it took about 9 weeks to shoot and I was there on set during it and watching it all take place before me which was very interesting.  Yeah?
Participant 12 Did you get to write the script and all?
John I didn’t write the script.  The Director, Mark Herman, wrote the script but what he did was every draft of the script he would email to me and I would read it and give back my notes, you know, say you know this is working well, this one I’m not so sure about and we became very good friends and so we worked quite closely on it and talked about it a lot about my ideas of the characters and his.  At some point you have to kind of let it go as the writer because the film maker is the guy who is making the film and you have to let him do that without too much interference but if you have a good relationship with the person who is making it, if you get on well, then at least you can have a say in what’s going on.  Yeah?

Participant 13: Were you there when they hired the actors for the film?

John: Was I there when they hired the actors?  No I wasn’t there.  We talked a lot about the adult actors and we went through lots of different names of people that we wanted to ask to do it and some people that like I would suggest the Director would say no I can’t stand him or (laughter) somebody that the Director would say and I’d say nah I can’t stand her she’s hopeless.  So, you know, I had a say on the actors, well not really a say but I had an involvement in the adults not for the kids though.  The kids ... there was like a special casting agent who went through all these different videos of kids that were auditioning with the Director and actually Asa who played Bruno in the movie believe it or not was the second person who she saw out of I don’t know hundreds and he got the part so.  Oh okay?

Participant 14: Were you happy that you were there?  Why is the two boys 8 in the film and 9 in the book?

John: That’s another good question.  I think the Director felt that ... I know it’s a small gap between 8 and 9 but he felt that a little bit younger would explain the naivety of the characters a little bit better, you know, I mean I wouldn’t change it in the book I still think 9 is fine but he just felt a little bit younger was better to tell the story so.  At the back?

Participant 15: Yeah when we do like a story in school, right, we do a brainstorm.  Would you do a brainstorm or would you just like think of something and then write it down?

John: I would just think of things myself and I don’t tend to ... it’s a very good way of starting out and getting into writing, it’s very helpful, but when you get older and when you get more experienced at it I guess I prefer to just keep it all in my head I don’t even tell people what I’m working on.  I’ll say yeah I’m working on a new book but I prefer to just keep it all inside until I can give it to somebody to read.  Yeah?

Participant 16: Do you make your title before your story or do you have to do the story first?

John: Excellent question.  It differs, you know, it depends.  Some books you get it, you have a title very early on.  My most recent novel for adults was a book called ‘The House Of Special Purpose’ and it was set around the Russian Revolution and when I was researching the book I found that the characters ... I knew that the characters in it, because they’re real life figures, the last Russian Royal family were assassinated, and the house that they were assassinated in was called by the Bolsheviks the House Of Special Purpose and when I read this ... do you want to put your hands down between ... when I read this phrase immediately I knew that was what the novel was going to be called.  ‘The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas’ about five chapters in or something Bruno looks out the window he sees these people in the distance walking around and he asks his sister Gretel why are they wearing striped pyjamas and I knew Bruno was going to end up putting on a pair of these striped pyjamas and I can remember scribbling on a piece of paper ‘The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas’, it seemed like a good title.  And others you get to the end of the book and you still don’t have a title and you’re struggling and you show it to you publisher and you’re kind of brainstorming like you asked about, you know, what will we call it, I can’t think of something.  So it changes from one to one.

Participant 17: Is there any of your other books that were made into films?

John: Not yet but a short film has just been made in Australia from a short story that I wrote and it’s a 15 minute long film which is going to be in film festivals and it’s about a man, also set during the second world war but on a farm in New South Wales and it’s about a man who is the man in town who delivers telegrams to people to tell that their sons have been killed in the war and it’s how the reaction of people in the town every time they see him coming on his bike about how frightened of him they are.  Yeah?

Participant 18: Is it easier to write children’s books or adult’s books

John: It’s not easier to make either, writing is hard work.  It can be easier when you’re really loving it and involved in it.  It’s about the story itself.  You don’t write a children’s book thinking this is going to be much easier.  And I’ll tell you something, you know, like pop stars and movie stars tend to write children’s books because they think that it’s easier to write children’s books and it’s not and it’s very insulting to both young readers and to writers who write for young readers.  It’s not easier at all it’s just as difficult.

Participant 19: Do you know like when you’re writing a story ...

John: I do.

Participant 20: ... do you write it on a page and it takes ages or do you write it on the computer?

John: What I do is the first draft I write it on a computer because, you know, I can type as quickly as I think so I write the story without really editing myself in my head, you know, I just let it all flow out I don’t worry about does this make a lot of sense of this, you know, because it’s just a first draft.  I type it all out and then what I do is I print it out with big gaps like this between all the lines, print it all out, get my pen and I cross loads of things out, I re-write lots of the things so it’s full marks and then I feed all that stuff back into my computer and I print it all out again, the same way with big gaps, keep doing that over and over and over again, it could be fifteen/sixteen times you’ll end up doing it, keep doing it until one time you print it out and you have nothing left to make any changes on and that’s when I give it to someone to read.  We’ll take two or three more.  Yeah, the man at the back there?

Participant 21: Yeah I enjoyed your readings very much and I also enjoyed the questions from the floor. I just have sort of a specific question.  You said there at the start about you had the image of the two boys at the fence was the setting actually in a concentration camp?

John: Yeah when I had that image I knew where the fence was.

Participant 21: Right.

John:  And I mean I could see them in a ... I could see Shmuel in his striped pyjamas as such and Bruno in like a little pair of shorts and a shirt, you know, so I knew that immediately.

Participant 21: And then when you said you actually went right into the book and you wrote for 3 days or whatever ...

John: Yeah.

Participant 21: ... did you on reflection at another time say, you know, where did all that come from?

John: Yeah I’ve asked myself that many times actually and I think it’s partly from all that reading I had done over the years and my fascination, my interest in the subject.  You know, one thing I sort of believe about the book and this is not something I normally believe about anything but I believe it about this is that sometimes I think you’re supposed to write something, you’re supposed to write a story, you know, and my mind, my whole person, was just in the right place at the right time that when I had this idea it was just supposed to happen for me to do that and to write a story that could reach so many people, you know.  Like I didn’t ... when I finished it on that Friday, that first draft, you know, I did look at it and think, you know, what is this and how did I write this and this is very different to what I’ve done before.  So I don’t really have any answers on it other than I just sort of feel it was in my life that I was going to do this, you know.  Maybe somebody who hasn’t asked a question, yeah?

Participant 22: I first heard your interview and you talk about your book on the Tubridy Show and then I went and got the book and I saw the film when it came out. 

John: Okay.

Participant 22: Could you tell me what page you read that excerpt from please?

John: Yeah it’s from the centre, it’s chapter ten, it’s from the beginning of chapter ten, which in my book which is the hard back is page 104 but easy to stop at.

Participant 22: I really enjoyed your talk, thank you.

John: Thank you.

Participant 23: Have you ever wrote anything like in a story that happened to you?

John: Yeah when I was much younger I did.  I mean when you’re starting writing first it’s not unusual that you write a lot about your own life and things that have happened to you and you turn those into stories and I got to a point though in my sort of mid to late 20s where I felt that wasn’t really working for me, you know, that works very well for some writers it wasn’t working for me and I wanted to just make it all up, you know, I wanted to use my imagination much more and so I focused on that really and in the books I’ve written I haven’t really written anything too personal.  One thing I have done is in Striped Pyjamas, I mentioned in that section I read the two boys say they were born on the 15th of April 1934 and I chose that date and that month and that year because that’s the day, month and year on which my own father was born and my father happily is alive but I use that date because I wanted to be able to look at my dad and think alright this is the life that these boys and boys like them could have lead, their children, their grandchildren, the jobs, the whole thing that makes up your experience of life, this is where they would have been now had their story ended differently so I tried to personalise a story which, you know, I don’t have a personal relationship to in a way.  I tried to do it like that.  So I don’t bring an awful lot of personal stuff in but maybe subconsciously things go in but I try to just really kind of make it all up.

And on that note I think maybe we’ll have to ... sorry I’m going to have to call it a halt there I think.

Thank you very much. Well thank you all.  (Clapping)
 

What was the inspiration to

What was the inspiration to write this book? Why not something more contemporary? Did you have a good knowledge or interest in concentration camps?
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