A photo of author John Boyne against a fence, with the words Shelf Life overlaid in white

John Boyne: the books that shaped my life

The bestselling author of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas and new novel The Echo Chamber on the influence of John Irving, the best book of the 21st Century, and literature-inspired tattoos.

I was a big reader as a child, which probably isn’t unexpected. And Ian Seraillier’s The Silver Sword (1956) is one of the books that really resonated with me as a child and stayed with me. It was my first introduction, I think, to the Second World War, and to the part played by children at different times in the war – which would eventually lead to my book, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. I remember reading it when I was about maybe nine or ten, and feeling quite frightened by it.

I was a quiet child, definitely quite introspective, and I think I was drawn to the to the fact that that those children were very much on their own as well, that they were isolated and having to find some form of heroism and bravery inside themselves. I didn’t really have that myself. I used the library a lot; I think around the age of eight, I was already starting to write stories.

'The Cider House Rules was the first novel that completely took me over'

I read The Cider House Rules (1985) by John Irving a little later, when I was 18. When I did my A-levels, that summer I went to England for the first time. I was working in a hotel as a waiter and it was my first time away from home, living on my own. I bought some books with my wages, including The Cider House Rules. That book was the first, I think, real adult fiction that completely took me over, where I felt, ‘I have never read anything like this story’.

Homer Wells grows up in an orphanage, and the man running the orphanage, Dr Larch, is an abortionist, and he hopes that Homer will take over. Homer decides this isn’t the thing he wants to do, and he goes off to the orchards of Maine. It’s full, as most of John Irving’s books are, of sexual misfits, and being gay I felt very much like one at the time. I found myself relating to those kinds of characters, and to the journeys that they were on.

I became a huge fan of John Irving’s. Later, when I published my first novel, The Thief of Time, I sent a copy and a letter to John saying how much he’d inspired me – in fact, I have a tattoo on my arm: “We are all terminal cases,” from The World According to Garp – and he got back to me, which was incredible. That was 21 years ago, and we’ve become friends since.

I’m not that interested in stories about myself, which is why most of my own novels are not inspired by anything in my own life

The older I get, there seems to be fewer and fewer books that really blow me away the way like when I was young, but The Slap (2009), by Christos Tsiolkas, is definitely my favourite novel of the 21st Century. I love when you can sum up a book’s premise with a clever, simple line, and in this case it’s: “at a suburban barbecue a man slaps a child that isn’t his own”. I just went, “Yeah, I want to read that.” I was going to Australia in 2009 and I heard about this book that wasn't yet published in England; I knew that when I got off the plane, the first thing the next day I was going to a bookshop to buy it.

The book is structured by eight long sections, each narrated by a different person who was at the barbecue, but they're not retelling the story; each time, the next narrator kind of picks up the story from there. When the man does this, to this little boy who's running around screaming like a lunatic, he just slaps him once, but it has this massive effect on this group of friends. And because the family at the centre of it are Greek Australians, there’s a lot about racism and immigration. The guy who slaps the child is a bit rough around the edges, definitely, but he’s a good person, and the minute he does something wrong, society turns on him. It’s so complex; I just think it's a brilliant piece of novel writing.

It occurs to me that this is another book where the catalyst for the action is a child, which I hadn't thought about before; most of these books feature children in very prominent roles, and I guess I feature them in my books, too. I’m not that interested in stories about myself, I suppose, which is why most of my own novels are not set in Ireland and are not really inspired by anything in my own life. Sometimes what books do best is they let you read about these lives other than your own: I’ve never been whaling, but I loved Moby-Dick. Those things outside myself draw me in as a reader, so they compel me as a writer too.

The Echo Chamber by John Boyne is out now.

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