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'Some believe Striped Pyjamas is a burden... it's not'

John Boyne, author of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, is venturing into humorous territory with his latest book.

By Hannah Stephenson

John Boyne accepts that he will forever be known as the author of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, no matter how great his novels have been before or since his children's story became an international hit and was made into a movie.

But he doesn't begrudge the fact that his 2006 novel - in which an innocent nine-year-old boy, Bruno, the son of a Nazi commandant in the Second World War, befriends a Jewish boy in a concentration camp, unaware of his terrible plight - may have usurped better novels he has written.

"It sits absolutely fine with me," Boyne insists.

"People think it might be a cross to bear or a burden, but it's not. That book was an incredible gift that changed my life. Who knows if I would be sitting here now talking about my latest book if The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas had never happened?

"It gave me financial freedom, it gave me readers. Very few writers get a book that defines them. You shouldn't be negative about something so positive."

Thanks to that book, which has sold more than six million copies worldwide, Boyne lives in a large detached house in Dublin. "I call it the house that Bruno built," he quips.

"I know when I die, it'll be 'The author of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas has died' and I'll never write a book that sells as many as that. It's not my best book - I think The Absolutist, or my latest book, are my best."

Boyne (45), who has written 10 novels and five children's books, admits some of his work is bleak.

He grew up gay in Catholic Dublin - his last book, A History Of Loneliness, centred on child abuse in the Catholic Church - but he wanted his latest story, The Heart's Invisible Furies, about a gay man finding his way in post-war Ireland, to make people laugh through adversity.

It begins in 1945, when a baby is born out of wedlock to a teenage girl cast out from her rural Irish community. The baby is adopted as Cyril Avery by a middle-class Dublin couple and befriends a more confident, glamorous boy, Julian Woodbead, who provides a dubious anchor through much of his life.

This is Boyne at his best, charting the history of Ireland and beyond, over a period of 70 years, against a backdrop of prejudice and bigotry - both from the Church and from communities indoctrinated by it - which slowly relaxes its vice-like grip as the years roll on.

The drama is tempered with glorious humour, as Cyril blunders constantly from mistake to mistake, living with the eccentricities of his adoptive parents - a philandering, fraudulent banker and his hugely successful, snobbish novelist wife, who hates the fact that her books are read by the masses - and coming to terms with his sexuality and forming heart-warming, if unlikely, relationships with both men and women.

"I didn't want to depress the reader. I didn't want this to be a character whose life has been destroyed by his sexuality. You can find humour in it, too," he says.

Boyne found his comedic voice as he was coming out of an 11-year relationship, he reveals, although he's reluctant to elaborate. He tweeted in 2014 that he married his partner, posting a happy picture of them together, but says now that they split up in April.

"Writing this book was my security cushion," he reflects. "I could switch off all the bad stuff when I turned on my laptop.

"Maybe one of the reasons there are so many jokes in it is that I had to lighten my own mood.

"I tried to make myself laugh to lessen the darkness of what was going on around me. That's been quite difficult, but such is life.

"Whatever went wrong, it wasn't to do with my job. I'm still trying to figure out what went wrong."

There are pockets of Boyne's own early life which echo the prejudices shown towards his fictional hero, Cyril.

"The emotions he has as a younger person in trying to deal with his sexuality and being able to express it to other people is something that any gay person would feel familiar with," he says.

"Even today, although society is more accommodating, there is still that moment of fear and what it will mean for one's life once you've said it. There's no going back. I'm gay and I would have felt that in the Eighties when I was a teenager," he says.

Boyne knew that he was gay when he was eight or nine, he recalls.

"I was frightened by it, thinking that if I was honest with other people - and with myself - that it would have catastrophic consequences for my life."

He went to an all-boys Catholic school run by priests who were, in his words "pretty vicious".

"Some of them were sexual predators and quite violent. That was something I struggled with for a long time afterwards. I felt a lot of anger towards the Church," he says.

He stopped going to Mass at 16 - he had been an altar boy at eight and over the years was humiliated and beaten by various priests and lay teachers, who were aware of the sadistic practices of their religious employers.

He came out to his friends and family when he was in his early-20s.

"My parents were fine. It didn't come as the biggest shock in the history of the universe, but they were worried about whether I'd be happy in life. I don't have any horror stories about my experiences. My friends and family were fine. I wasn't bullied. I didn't feel Catholic guilt."

To this day, Boyne suffers from depression, which he has said he puts down to the fact that his priests and teachers made him feel worthless.

"The depression is ongoing," he says, candidly. "Anybody who suffers from that generally has to take a tablet every day. Sometimes it's just a chemical imbalance. I'm not the strongest human when it comes to traumas. I'm emotionally thin-skinned. I need to take something to keep me balanced.

"Being gay was probably part of it. Dublin was a difficult place to be."

Writing is still the happiest thing in Boyne's life, he reflects. After studying English literature in Dublin, he took creative writing at the University of East Anglia, Norwich, winning the Curtis Brown prize.

Striped Pyjamas wasn't his first book - but it remains the defining one.

So, are there more movies on the cards?

"I always said with Striped Pyjamas that until I'm in a cinema with popcorn in my hand and the curtains are opening, I'm not going to get worked up. My focus is on writing books."

  • The Heart's Invisible Furies by John Boyne is published by Doubleday, £16.99

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