Exclusive: The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas author, John Boyne, discuses his new book
In some recent publicity material for my new young adult novel The Boy at the Top of the Mountain, my UK publishers described me as ‘the voice of wartime childhood’. While I don’t think I’ve quite earned that title yet, and certainly have a long way to go before I make as significant a mark in the field as Michael Morpurgo, it was a description that both gratified and startled me in equal measure.
I’ve been publishing novels for both adults and young people for more than fifteen years and it surprises me that I’ve devoted so much of my creative energy to war, which was not a subject I expected to write about when I was younger. (It wasn’t even a subject that I read very much about.) And yet it’s there throughout my First World War novel The Absolutist and its companion story for younger readers Stay Where you are and Then Leave and of course it’s at the heart of my two Second World War novels, The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas and The Boy at the Top of the Mountain not to mention several short stories along the way too. The role of children in wartime and the effect that it has on them is something that fascinates me. A large part of our success or failure in life as adults depends on the happiness and security that we experience as children and to be thrust into such terrible experiences at a young age surely has a malignant effect on even the toughest souls.
For the most part I keep my young protagonists away from the action itself as they try to understand what is going on and what the adults won’t explain to them through a combination of resourcefulness and observation. In The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas, Bruno slowly gains an understanding of the horrors of the death camps through his conversations with Shmuel, the Jewish inmate on the other side of the fence. In Stay Where you are and Then Leave, Alfie Summerfield shines shoes at King’s Cross Station and in doing so hears the excitement of young soldiers as they make their war to Northern France for the first time and the stories of those traumatised souls who have just returned. And in The Boy at the Top of the Mountain, I wanted to examine the idea of brainwashing, of how easy it is to be swept up in something bigger than oneself and lose one’s sense of right and wrong through a desire to belong and to be accepted.
It’s a subject I touched on a little in The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas, when Bruno’s sister Gretel abandons her dolls to follow the journey of the German armies across Europe for no other reason than her crush on the handsome young Lt Kotler. But in the new book, it’s the dominant theme and I finally allow one of my protagonists, Pierrot, to show a dark side to his otherwise jovial character. The question is often asked as to how the German nation allowed itself to get so swept up and overwhelmed by Adolf Hitler. We look back now and insist that we would never have become so brainwashed, but can we really be sure of that? Pierrot, an orphan who goes to live with his aunt in Hitler’s Berghof retreat, begins the novel as a cheerful and good-hearted little boy but his need for a father figure, his desperation to belong to something bigger than himself and his gradual realisation that he would prefer to be the bully than the bullied is what allows him to be so easily corrupted. The question as to whether readers will still feel sympathy for him when he engages in some terrible acts is one that remains to be answered but I was rooting for him throughout, even while allowing him to do some heinous things.
I feel there are a lot more war stories left in me yet and it’s a subject that will almost certainly feature in future novels for both adults and young people. And maybe one day, through my writing, I’ll be able to understand it better.