Last weekend I attended the Marlborough Literature Festival – you may read about my first day experiences here. Day Two was more straightforward as traffic had returned to manageable levels in the town. I was also familiar with the venues, knowledge that helps anyone prone to unnecessary anxiety.
Unless an author is of particular personal interest – Margaret Atwood and Hilary Mantel come to mind – I tend to eschew larger events, prefering the intimacy of a bookshop venue. However, having so much enjoyed his latest work – The Heart’s Invisible Furies (you may click on the title to read my review) – I couldn’t miss the opportunity to listen to John Boyne speak. Plus he is Irish. I do like to support writers from my home country, even those as successful as him.
Held upstairs in the town hall, this event was chaired by Tony Mulliken who has worked with the National Book Awards and The London Book Fair. He appeared to be enjoying the ensuing discussion as much as the audience.
Following introductions, John was asked about the impact of the success of his fifth novel, The Boy In Striped Pyjamas, and what he thought of the popular film adaptation. John admitted that it changed his life, enabling him to do what he had always dreamed of and become a full time writer. He told us that he liked the movie, that he had worked on it himself. He also pointed out that a film doesn’t change a book, but it does bring more readers to the author’s works.
Moving on to The Heart’s Invisible Furies, John explained that this was a story about love, invisibility and anger at how his protagonist, Cyril Avery, is treated. Set over seventy years – ten chapters in seven year leaps – it opens when Cyril is still in the womb. John did not wish to portray Cyril’s pregnant and unmarried mother, Catherine, as a victim but rather as a strong, independent woman. He prefers to write his female characters in this way.
John then read from the book. This was one of several readings, each of which had the audience in stitches. The story weaves humour and pathos with a warm, impressive adroitness. Its author proved himself a fine, live entertainer.
John explained that although he plots his novels in advance he then allows them to develop. His plan for this book was to tell the story of a seventy year old man looking back on his life. After he had written Catherine’s denouncement by the church, he found the tone of his writing changed. A particular type of humour evolved with Cyril’s adoptive parents. John enjoyed writing in this way, deciding that readers did not need six hundred pages of misery. He hadn’t really done humour before but the change of direction opened a floodgate in his head and he enjoyed the process.
Irish people will know of the teatowels and bar towels and other touristy paraphenalia featuring the eight great Irish writers, all men. He decided that Cyril’s adoptive mother would be an author horrified by the thought of popular success, whose latest novel would suddenly threaten to put her face on such ephemera. Her husband is a dodgy banker whose foolish actions upset the family equilibrium. Both these characters provide much humour despite their sometimes casually cruel behaviour.
The book is historically accurate featuring an emerging homosexual growing up in a country where being gay is still illegal. John was asked what personal echoes exist in the book. He pointed out that all writers feature shadows of themselves. He wanted to write about how terrifying and misunderstood the AIDs crisis was having experienced the fear of it as a teenager in the 1980s. He also talked of the fear of the twenty foot walk, from bedroom to sitting room to come out to parents, and the huge repercussions on all their lives from there. John mentioned the pressure put on gay men to ‘try’ sex with a woman, the suggestion that maybe they might enjoy being married. Few considered how cruel this would be to the woman.
To develop Cyril’s character, to allow him to grow up, Cyril had to be taken out of the claustrophobic atmosphere of Ireland. When he eventually returns, having finally experienced love, the country has changed. The decriminilisation of homosexuality along with the revelations of the extent of abuses within the church allowed more liberal attitudes to develop. There was mirth from the audience when John mentioned the ongoing support of his country’s European friends.
In discussing endings, John does not feel a need for happiness so much as authenticity. He does though enjoy placing well known real public figures in his books and representing them in a certain way.
John was asked about his influences and mentioned John Irving, for his sexual misfits, and Dickens, for his orphans. John enjoys writing children without adults to solve their problems.
Another question asked was why Julian, Cyril’s best friend on whom he had a crush, could not see that Cyril was in love with him. This was because everyone loved Julian, he was used to being adored. Also, it was the 1950s when such behaviour would not be expected. Cyril did not feel he could be honest with Julian which demonstrated a lack of trust in their friendship.
John was asked about how he treats priests in the book. He wanted to start with the hypocrisy. He didn’t want it to be another church book but it is set in decades when the church was still a major social force. John grew up living next door to priests and nuns. He was an alter boy. These were not good memories.
Asked about the notable Irish voice throughout the story John was asked about translations and how this voice could be retained. He talked of the skill of the translator in capturing nuances. He also pointed out that he could not read the translations so would never know.
Did John set out to write a social history of Ireland or to write about Cyril? Both. He wanted to highlight the massive changes in attitudes in Ireland through the eyes of a particular person.
Has John been approached for film rights for this book? Yes, in a way. They have been sold to Ridley Scott as a ten part series. Of course this is no guarantee that the project will be taken further.
I found this a fascinating talk as well as being a highly entertaining event. If you haven’t already read The Heart’s Invisible Furies, I wholeheartedly recommend it.
The Heart’s Invisible Furies is published by Doubleday.
I will be writing about the final event I attended at the Marlborough Literature Festival in the next few days.