From the garden table where we chat, I have a good view of John Boyne’s “ego room” – the pale green, light-drenched annex he comes to, at 8:30 am every morning, seven days. out of seven, to write, and which is filled with global editions of the 21 books he has produced over the past two decades.
The space and the name he gave it are instructive, revealing: the label is self-deprecating with humor, the shelves a proud reminder of the work he created; both sanctuary and exhibition. And her backlist, which includes the bestselling young adult novel The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, will soon be joined by a new adult novel, The Echo Chamber.
In early 2019, the house, in Rathfarnham in south Dublin, won the Irish Prize Celebrity House of the Year; his “proudest achievement to date,” he jokes. A few months later, when he published his novel YA My Brother’s Name is Jessica, seen through the eyes of a boy who is experiencing his brother’s transition, his life took a different, much less enjoyable direction.
I suddenly found myself at the center of an online drama, much of it created by people who hadn’t actually read the book.
The online fury – which accused Boyne of gender-abusing and shifting the novel’s trans character, and writing too much beyond his own experience – snowballed in newspaper comments and called for a boycott. More alarmingly, it has also led to online harassment, in the form of a man who over the course of 15 months has tweeted relentlessly and untruthfully about Boyne, posting close-up photos of his home and inciting him to writer to involve both lawyers and to renew the security of his home.
It also left him with depression. “To be honest,” he says, “I’ve always been quite liked and approved of; I hadn’t really rubbed anyone the wrong way. And when this book came out, I suddenly found myself at the center of an online drama, a lot [of it created] by people who hadn’t really read the book and who seemed to make a virtue out of criticizing a book they hadn’t read.
He had felt, he insisted, that he was writing “from a place where I thought I was empathetic and compassionate”; her intention was to support trans teens. The fact that opponents of the book didn’t see him that way was, as the way he talks about it even now shows, a source of deep distress. “I was really shocked and scared. It was very, very upsetting to be so poorly represented by people online, to be cursed and to receive death threats. And being portrayed as a fanatic, or hateful in one way or another … It’s the absolute opposite of who I am as a person and who I am as a writer.
But the ordeal has also borne fruit. The Echo Chamber introduces us to the Cleverley family: Father George, famous television presenter and BBC institution; his wife, Beverley, a romantic novelist whose early promises were somewhat dispelled by her dependence on negroes; and their three children of varying ages, Nelson, Elizabeth and Achille. As the character name Beverley Cleverley suggests, the novel is written in comic book mode – there’s also a sexy, cartoonish professional from Strictly Come Dancing and Her Pet Turtle, named after a Ukrainian folk hero – but in between. grotesque settings emerges a darker story.
The family spends much of their time dealing with their personality on social media, usually to the detriment of their real relationships; but when George tweets a performative statement of support for a trans woman he meets (this in itself is ambiguous, as their meeting is pungent and mutually unsatisfying), he falls in love with what he sees as the aggressive world of political awakening. The attacks that followed – and his own clenched insistence on his liberal credentials – destroyed his life and include particularly vicious and violent criticism from his daughter in disguise, who anonymously tweets bile to anyone large enough to generate the likes, clicks and attention it needs.
Boyne explains that he wanted to explore the type of behavior his stalker exemplified on Twitter and understand his own reaction. He seems both concerned, perplexed and irritated by online trolls, believing that at the heart of their behavior is need. “I think that’s what people want to count. They want to feel that their voice counts in the world. And that’s why some people hang on to a topic and it becomes their topic.
“And that’s what they use social media for, be it politics, trans issues, climate change, whatever; they choose a subject, and they launch themselves into hell for the leather. I mean, there’s a reason Twitter was the platform of choice for Donald Trump. It is a place where you can be awful, and you are not often called upon.
After Jessica, he says, he received many private messages of support “from Nobel Prize winners” but was disturbed by attacks from those he saw as overlapping his problems. “I found it more upsetting than the crazy people… I thought, it’s just mean, you know, and what have I done to you before?” But listen, these are people for you.
He’s adamant that he would write My Brother’s Name Is Jessica again, and just as sure that he’ll never respond to negativity online again. But it is clear that this is a very specific form of self-imposed silence; in other areas, he is determined to express his experiences.
In February 2021, former rugby teacher and coach John McClean, now 76, was convicted of abusing 23 boys at Terenure College, Dublin’s fee-paying school, between 1973 and 1990; he was sentenced to eight years in prison. In the aftermath of a lawsuit that continues to have repercussions, Boyne, who was a student at Terenure, wrote a song for the Irish Times.
He had appeared in court to support a friend who had been abused by McClean, although he himself had not; in fact, the professor had always encouraged him in his literary ambitions, and when Boyne’s first novel came out in 2000, he sent her a copy. But, Boyne wrote in February, he too had been abused at Terenure: severely beaten by a priest, who tied a metal weight to a stick and called him Excalibur; and, later, by a lay professor who leaned over him, put his hand in Boyne’s pants and masturbated him.
Attending McClean’s trial prompted Boyne to give his testimony to the Guard; he cannot say much more at the moment, because it is still in their hands. But what was particularly striking was the way Boyne wrote about it, going beyond the horrific nature of the abuse itself to ponder the effects it had on his emotional life, romantic and sexual. Recalling relationships that didn’t work out and his marriage breakdown, which he describes to me as the worst thing that has ever happened to him, he wrote: “The truth is, I have failed in every romantic relationship that I have. I had. never sued.
I want to think about the world we live in and question it. And if that means upsetting some people, well that’s what literature is supposed to do
In the conversation we have, he speaks candidly about how the loss of her husband, with whom he had been in a relationship for 11 years, “left a scar in me that will never heal”, in particular because it was completely unexpected for him; and how much he longs for a loving partner to share in the life he has made for himself.
It is the concept of “failure” that is so poignant. His experiences at school, combined with the fact that homosexuality was not decriminalized until Boyne was in his third year of college and by then the AIDS crisis was in full swing. boom, so want to fight this self-blame is just too cruel. In other parts of his life, after all, Boyne seems to be a measure of success: not only in terms of his career, but also in his closeness to family and friends and in his enjoyment of his everyday life. “I don’t spend my whole day crying,” he reassures me. “I work hard. And I love my life very much. And maybe you can’t have it all.
He expects The Echo Chamber to cause a reaction, but he’s preparing for it. “I just turned 50. And while I don’t like drama and I don’t like trouble, I think it’s important that your work is strong enough to inspire some kind of debate. And the antipathy towards him is not necessarily negative. At the end of this book, I mention Kingsley Amis’s line that if you don’t bore someone with your writing, you are not doing anything right. And it’s not that I set out to annoy people, but I want my work to be more interesting this way than it maybe once was. I want to think about the world we live in and question it. And if that means upsetting some people, well, that’s what literature is supposed to do. – Guardian
The Echo Chamber is published by Doubleday on August 5