On the final day of the Birmingham Literature Festival, John Boyne was in conversation with the city’s own Kit de Waal, discussing his latest novel A Ladder to the Sky and his life as an author.
The event began with Boyne briefly outlining the novel, the tale of wannabe writer Maurice Swift who will do anything to make himself a famous writer including begging, borrowing and stealing stories. This was then followed by a brilliant reading from the book by the author himself which drew me in and made me want to read the book all the more.
Kit told John that she had greatly enjoyed A Ladder to the Sky, listening to the audiobook, narrated by Richard E. Grant, she was so gripped she didn’t want to get out the car to do her food shopping.
John and Kit’s clear friendship made this event all the more brilliant. When discussing how Boyne now supports new writers, de Waal told a tale from the beginning of her career. She was being interviewed, alongside Boyne, and the interviewer was, of course, more interested in hearing from the more established author. John, however, kept redirecting the conversation back to Kit allowing her more space and time to talk about her own work.
During the conversation, Boyne spoke to Kit about how he writes in general. Imparting the amazing fact that The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas was written in just 4 days. The first idea came to him Tuesday, he wrote all through Wednesday and Thursday night (not wanting to lose his drive and thread), and by Friday he had the finished first draft.
Where Kit de Waal is a plot planner, John prefers to just start the book and see where it goes for the first draft, then tidying up plot in a later draft. With the character of Maurice, he always had an idea in mind though, he wanted a Talented Mr Ripley or Hannibal style character, an anti-hero who is not necessarily lovable but interesting. The structure of A Ladder to the Sky means we hear from lots of other characters before Maurice. Indeed, Boyne’s editor thought perhaps we never needed to hear from him. Boyne, however, decided that his readers would want to hear him and what’s more, he wanted to write Maurice’s voice.
Boyne is not just a fantastic writer but also a prolific reader, stating that he reads around 120 books a year. He explained that he does not believe you can be a writer without being a reader. Reading is part of his job but also a pleasure.
In the Q&A in the last 10 minutes of the event, Boyne’s love of reading was explored further. Kit asked which book Boyne had wished he’d written, to which John replied The Slap. Another question came from an audience member who explained that her Grandson had arrived home from school announcing that Boyne’s The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas was brilliant and that everyone should read it. This lovely story was then turned on Kit and John, asking which book they think everyone should read. Kit answered The Road by Cormac McCarthy. John answered The Go-Between by L.P. Hartley.
As the Q&A came to an end, so did the event. But not before the final stop, shopping at Foyles pop-up shop and a signing with both John Boyne and Kit de Waal.