Read a thousand books and then write

The Irish novelist John Boyne has written seventeen novels, and most recently he was shortlisted for the Irish Book of the Year award at Listowel in County Cork, Ireland. He came to Hay Festival to discuss My Brother’s Name Is Jessica and voiced his views on Creative Writing Masters, offering some words of wisdom to aspiring authors.   

The best thing about Hay Festival is …?

The opportunity to meet readers. We spend so much time on our own as writers in rooms, writing the books and its kind of a strange dichotomy in a way. You spend a lot of time alone and then you spend a lot of time in front of the audiences. I enjoy that, I like the break in my routine and getting to talk to people about books and meeting other writers. Anything that gets books in the papers and gets people behind books is worthwhile.

Meeting writers enriches your life – it makes you realise that you’re not just writing in to a void. When people come up to you in a signing queue and tells you about one of your books which made an impression on them, it’s always a lovely feeling. I don’t think that ever goes away whether you’re J. K. Rowling or a debut author. There’s always that thrill. You tend to go away from the festival feeling good about yourself as a writer.

When did you first decide you wanted to be a writer?

I was writing stories since I was a teenager and then I did an English degree in Trinity and then the Creative Writing Masters at University of East Anglia in Norwich. I published my first novel in 2000, almost twenty years ago. It was always my goal to get published and I hoped I would have the life that I turned out to have, to be able to write full-time.

What are your thoughts on Creative Writing Masters?

It’s a year of your life where you can devote yourself completely to writing. You’re in a small group with other writers and you actually learn more from reading the other people’s work and critiquing it for class than you do from them talking about your work. It’s a year of reading and being able to analyse what does and doesn’t work and, when you see things that don’t work, thinking to yourself, ‘oh, maybe I’m making that mistake’. Nobody comes out of a writing degree with a guarantee of being published, but also no one comes out a worse writer than when they went in. You inevitably just get better. The current Nobel Laureate for Literature is a University of East Anglia graduate in Creative Writing.

Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?

Join a writing group. Then simple things like reading more than you write. So many people want to write but they’re not reading. Also, not waiting for inspiration to strike. Writing has to be disciplined. Sit down every day and try to get a piece down. If you’re just waiting for inspiration to strike, it’s probably not going to. They say something like, you should read a thousand books before you try writing.

What’s the most formative book you have read?

The Cider House Rules by John Irving which I read when I was about seventeen. It opened me up to contemporary adult literature. It’s a very political book and John Irving also writes about what he calls, ‘sexual misfits’ which I felt like at the time. I found his Dickensian style stories very different from anything I’d read before.


John Boyne spoke to Daniel Hahn at Hay Festival about his new book My Brother's Name Is Jessica on Thursday 30th May. Listen to highlights of the Festival on Hay Player.