John Boyne: ‘People were criticising my book when they hadn’t read it’

John Boyne talks about the online backlash to his recent YA book and how it inspired his new novel about social media

From the table in the garden where we sit chatting, I have a good view of John Boyne’s “ego room” – the light-filled, pale green annexe to which he comes, at 8.30 every morning, seven days a week, to write, and which is filled with global editions of the 21 books he has produced over the last two decades. Both the space and the name he’s given it are instructive, revealing: the tag humorously self-deprecating, the shelves a proud reminder of the work he’s created; at once sanctuary and display. And his backlist, which includes the bestselling YA novel, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, will soon be joined by a new novel for adults, The Echo Chamber.

At the beginning of 2019, the house, in a quiet suburb of south Dublin, won Ireland’s Celebrity Home of the Year; his “proudest achievement to date”, he jokes. A few months later, when he published his YA novel My Brother’s Name Is Jessica, seen through the eyes of a boy experiencing his sibling’s transition, his life took a different, significantly less pleasurable, direction. The online furore – which accused Boyne of misgendering and decentring the novel’s trans character, and of writing too far beyond his own experience – snowballed into newspaper commentary and calls for a boycott. Even more alarmingly, it also led to online harassment, in the form of a man who, over the course of 15 months, tweeted relentlessly and mendaciously about Boyne, publishing closeup pictures of his house and prompting the writer both to involve solicitors and to renew his home security.

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