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The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas - John Boyne interview

Interview by Rob Carnevale

AS THE acclaimed adaptation of his novel makes its way into UK cinemas, John Boyne, the author of The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas, talks about the inspiration behind the novel, as well as his thoughts on the Holocaust and Germany’s understanding of it.

Q. What was the inspiration behind the book in the first place?
John Boyne: It wasn’t something I had planned to do. I had finished writing another novel of mine and was just taking a bit of a break at the time. But then the idea came to me, which was originally just the idea of the two boys talking at the fence. For about 15 years I had been quite a student of Holocaust related literature and had read widely on the subject. I think I felt pretty well informed on it. But even though I’d already published three novels at the time, it was not a subject I thought I would ever write about myself. I didn’t think I would ever have any particular story, necessarily.

But the idea came to me and it’s probably the strangest moment in my writing life over 10 years of publishing nearly. It was something that I had to start immediately and couldn’t stop. It just seemed to flow out of me. I felt like a conduit for the story. I get asked so often where it came from, and I’d like to be able to give a better answer than I do, which is that I don’t really know. It was just there and when I got to the end of the first draft, I thought: “What is this book? How am I going to re-write it to make it as powerful and I think it could possibly potentially be and do it right?”

Q. Where do you stand on the Holocaust and the German nation saying they didn’t know what was going on?
John Boyne: Well, I think the most frequent criticism of the book in the years since it’s been published is that Bruno is too naive. People say: “He’s verging on the stupid – how could he not know?” For all the criticisms you can make, I always feel that’s the wrong one because he’s grown up in a house with his father wearing a uniform, so I always think why would be question it? There wouldn’t be any motivation for him to suddenly turn around… if your father came home wearing a doctor’s uniform every day, you wouldn’t turn around one day and ask: “Why are you wearing that?”

So, Bruno is kind of representing that blindness, in a way. When he goes to the fence, and when he asks that question, he is kind of representing the rest of us who are trying to understand the Holocaust and find some answers to it. Also, when the camps were liberated, the world was surprised through 1945 and 1946. The majority of the Holocaust had taken place over four years and, granted, it was a different information age but I still maintain that in those sorts of movies, the naivety is appropriate. It’s based on real life.

Q. Were you quite specific that the ending couldn’t be changed from the book?
John Boyne: Well, in my initial meetings with Mark [Herman, director] I was, but I didn’t need to be because he was as well. The subject came up during our first conversation and when I said about that, he kind of looked at me as if I was crazy… as if there was ever going to be any reason to change it. This was the book he wanted to make and it would be pointless to make it and not have that ending. In my opinion, the book falls apart without that ending and the movie would fall apart too. You’d wonder what the point of it all was unless you had that really emotional punch. But it’s certainly the question that’s been asked since talk of the film came about, they’d always ask: “Are they going to change the ending?”

Q. Do you have any desire to see more of your books adapted into films?
John Boyne: Well, actually I want to direct [laughs]. I don’t! Not even a little bit. It would be nice, but it’s not my focus in life. My focus is novels and I’ve spent years trying to become successful as a novelist and widen my readership, and challenge myself and raise my own game. For sure, if someone came along and said they’d like to make another one and told me how they were going to do it, then of course I’d be interested. But I’m not going to lose any sleep over it. I’m going to stick to what I’m good at.

Q. How did you feel after you’d finished writing the book? Mark [Herman], the director, has said he doesn’t know what he wants to do next, having completed the film, because of what it meant. Did you feel the same after the book?
John Boyne: No, I think we’re kind of different in that sense. I travelled quite a bit with the book between 2006 and 2007 and I have to be writing a book at any one time. If I’m not writing a book, I feel a bit lost. So, I was writing the book about The Bounty, which the narrator was full on mischievous and lively. It was quite a nice balance for me to go back to my hotel room, wherever I was, and write an old-fashioned adventure story while talking about this to quite serious audiences. It continues to follow me around, I suppose, but the whole journey is now coming to an end [with the release of the film] and when it does, as far as I’m concerned that’s it for me. I don’t want to talk about it anymore, because it’s been since 2004. I think I have to move on in my life. I’m very proud of it.

Read our review of The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas

Read our interview with director Mark Herman and producer David Heyman