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'Might be the stupidest thing I could possibly do': Irish author John Boyne on his next project

Boyne talks to TheJournal.ie about his latest novel, the backlash to his 2019 novel My Brother’s Name is Jessica.

Image: Penguin

“I AM FULLY aware that when this book comes out and various interviews go online, people will start piling on,” says Irish author John Boyne of his latest novel A Traveller at the Gates of Wisdom. 

Its release comes just a year after the publication of the author’s young adult novel My Brother’s Name is Jessica, which portrays the life of a young trans character through the eyes of a sibling, and which many trans activists criticised for not writing the trans character as the protagonist, and for misgendering and deadnaming, amongst other claims.  

But moving in a different direction this time, his latest work centres around the experiences of the “everyman”, says Boyne.

It depicts the universal human experiences of “grief, ambition, love, desire, lust, [and] all the emotions that we have” through the life of a “traveller” in over 50 locations and across a period of over 2,000 years. 

“The central conceit is that over the course of time, over these last two thousand years, the world has constantly been changing, you know, industry, technology, global boundaries, everything is constantly changing but we as people never change,” he tells TheJournal.ie. 

“Human beings all stay on the same trajectory while the world keeps changing around it. I would describe [the traveller] as an everyman who experiences every positive and negative thing that can happen to you in life… a creator and an optimist, which I am myself; a creator and an optimist.”

And while optimistic that his new release will be well received by readers, Boyne is still acutely aware of the criticisms of his last work upon publication 15 months ago.

That criticism, which was heightened following an op-ed from Boyne in the Irish Times, prompted a surge of sometimes “vicious” messages on Twitter, eventually leading to the 49-year-old deactivating his account, and receding from the social media spotlight. 

In that piece, he rejected the term ‘cis’ – a word used to describe a person whose gender identity is the same as the sex assigned to them at birth.  

Traumatic

One year on, and sat at a wooden bench in the plant-lined back garden of his South Dublin home, he tells TheJournal.ie: “I was getting so much abuse coming my way and I was just so unaccustomed to it. It had just never happened to me.

“I remember sitting in Dublin Airport on a Monday morning and I was going over to England to do a week-long book tour for the book. I was sitting at the gate and I had never seen anything like it, I was in tears and I called my publicist in London and said ‘I don’t think I can get on the plane’, and she kind of talked me off a ledge.

It did have an effect, it was quite a traumatic experience, I’d been publishing novels for 20 years and I had never had really any negativity thrown at me, really.

Boyne acknowledges that he could have written My Brother’s Name is Jessica, as activists claim he should have, through the eyes of the trans character but says he chose to follow the format of his previous international bestseller The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas and create a narrative from the perspective of a character on the outside looking in.

“Well, more people who read the book are not going to be transgender but you might know somebody, you might have a sibling or a friend,” he explains. “I certainly tried to write a book that was about compassion and empathy and understanding.

“Whether I succeeded or failed in that is up to the reader but I just felt I prefer to present the character who is looking at the experience and trying to understand it, rather than presenting a character who is an expert in it.

“But I was in a terrible state,” he says of the impact of the criticism from activists. “I felt misunderstood, I felt people were creating a cartoon character out of me that was not representative of who I am or what I think.”

‘Cancel culture’

Boyne points to a relatively new phenomenon he describes as “cancel culture” through which he suggests there is a growing intolerance among particularly younger generations towards open debate and discussion on social issues. 

He shares a belief held by other bestselling authors including Margaret Atwood, Malcolm Gladwell, and JK Rowling who last month put their names to an open letter published in Harper’s magazine describing “an intolerance of opposing views” and a “vogue for public shaming and ostracism”. 

Rowling has been at the centre of her own controversy, accused of using harmful tropes about trans people in her commentary on Twitter, in an essay on her website and other media outlets. 

And it is from this point of view, Boyne criticises social media as a tool to “attack and attack”. 

“I don’t go after people, I don’t criticise people,” he says. “I don’t criticise other writers and I try to keep it to books most of the time, and I try not to respond to people if they say something mean.

You do wonder how unhealthy it must be to just be constantly tweeting aggressively.

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“I sometimes feel that I can get very anxious about it if, say, you have 20 notifications on Twitter – you think ‘Oh shit’. Nineteen of them might be lovely but one of them is going to be ‘you’re ugly and you’re bald’ or whatever. 

“The people who do this kind of thing don’t care and they’re not interested in the truth. They’re interested in the school-yard thing, they just want to attack and attack.”

Social media

Boyne tells TheJournal.ie that he has growing concerns at the level of ‘trolling’ on social media, citing the experiences of other public figures like Caroline Flack and JK Rowling. 

In fact, the Dubliner is so consumed by this concern that it is the inspiration behind his next novel. 

“I’m actually writing a book about social media,” he explains. “I’m taking the experiences that happened to me and the fact that I then became interested in that whole world of cancel culture. I’m writing a comic novel about it. 

“And I’m also, for the first time, writing a screenplay and I’ve never written a screenplay before. I just decided I want to do something different. Maybe because it’s this landmark of 20 years since my first book came out and wanting to branch out while I’m still relatively young.”

Boyne jokes that it might be the “stupidest thing I could possibly do” following his too-close-for-comfort experiences over the past 15 months but insists it will lend itself to the creative process. 

“I can’t help it,” he laughs, “As a writer you have to jump on the idea that interests you the most.”

A Traveller at the Gates of Wisdom is out now and available to buy in bookshops.  

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