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Author, John Boyne

John Boyne

About John Boyne

An Interview with John Boyne

More About John Boyne

John Boyne was born in Ireland in 1971 and is the author of three novels, The Thief of Time, The Congress of Rough Riders and Crippen (nominated for the Sunday Independent / Hughes & Hughes Irish Novel of the Year Award), and a children's book, The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas (shortlisted for the Ottakar's Children's Book Prize). His work has been translated into 10 languages. He lives with his partner in Dublin.

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Writing Next of Kin by John Boyne

I have always had a great interest in historical fiction and, five novels into my writing career, I feel that I have become a historical novelist more by default than design. Each of my books so far has been set in a different period of history and I have chosen the stories based on times and places that I have always been fascinated by – for one thing, it makes the research a little easier. My first novel, The Thief of Time, skipped between various times and places from the mid 18th century to the last night of the 20th; my second, The Congress of Rough Riders, featured a fictionalised Buffalo Bill Cody as he created his great cowboy stage shows of the 19th century. For Crippen, which was published by Penguin in 2004, I revisited 1910, the year that Dr Hawley Crippen fled London for Canada while being pursued by Scotland Yard’s Inspector Dew. And in my fourth novel, The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas, a young boy called Bruno is taken away from his home in 1942 to a terrible place during one of the worst times in human history, the Holocaust.

I began Next of Kin shortly after finishing a first draft of The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas and knew that I wanted to write another book in a historical setting, albeit with less emotive material than that novel. And so I chose 1936, and more specifically the six months leading up to the abdication of King Edward VIII just before Christmas of that year, a period of British history which has always fascinated me and about which I believed there remained a lot of mystery and intrigue. (The advantage to writing any novel set around political intrigues is that so much detail of the time is cloaked in secrecy anyway, so the novelist can create a ‘supposition’ which can have as much validity as any other theory.)

The one thing I knew when I began to create the story was that unlike my second and third novels, where real life historical figures featured prominently in the story, I didn’t want either Edward or Mrs Simpson to be at the centre of the novel, but rather to float above it, their presence always felt but rarely seen. (Indeed, like Adolf Hitler, whose actions are at the very heart of The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas but who appears in only one brief scene, the king and his mistress make only a fleeting appearance in the novel, a cameo of sorts, but one that is crucial to the development of the story.)

I chose a young man of aristocratic background to be at the centre of Next of Kin, a feature typical to many of the novels at the time. Owen Montignac, a charismatic and highly intelligent scion of a wealthy family, is in the unfortunate position of being considered wealthy by others when he barely has a penny to his name. Unfortunately for him, as it turns out, as the novel begins with Owen seriously in debt to a casino owner who wants to be paid off and quickly.
Readers of this novel will recognise the debt that I owe to Patricia Highsmith in the creation of Owen Montignac. I have always been an avid fan of Highsmith’s fiction, particularly the five Tom Ripley books, and admire the manner by which she consistently created flawed, damaged characters, capable of both extraordinary moments of cruelty and unexpected bursts of humanity. For me, Ripley is one of the most well-rounded characters in fiction and I hoped to create such a dichotomy of characteristics in Owen Montignac. However I also read widely many of the novels of the time, particularly those which featured aristocratic anti-heroes as I hoped to create a sort of modern pastiche of those novels on the surface while bringing contemporary sensibilities and themes to play in the subtexts and undercurrents which pervade the story.

Researching times and places for my novels is one of the most enjoyable aspects of being a writer and I read widely about the 1930s, particularly about the role the monarchy played in the lives of British people during this time. One of the things that surprised me the most was the fact that the vast majority of people supported Edward VIII’s relationship and would not have objected to the idea of an American divorcee on the throne beside him. Indeed, thousands of letters from ordinary people arrived at the Palace and at Downing Street in support of their king and his decision finally to abdicate (brought on more by a disapproving Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin, than the feeling of the populous) was seen as a calamity by the people of the land. But Baldwin’s objections ruled the day, to the extent that he influenced other political party leaders and elders (including Winston Churchill) to agree not to form a new government should the king refuse his demands and he be forced to resign. Such an eventuality would, of course, have led to a constitutional crisis of unprecedented terms. And history would have followed a very different course had the king and his mistress married and reigned as king and queen. However it is the conjecture of what was taking place behind the scenes during that tumultuous year that is at the heart of Next of Kin.

While writing the book I found myself more and more drawn to Owen Montignac’s character and, despite his actions, liking him. I don’t think it’s unusual for a novelist to feel greater affection for his ‘bad’ characters than his ‘good’ – often they are the most colourful ones, after all – but it did leave me with the dilemma of how to finish the book, with the triumph of evil over good or the restoration of the natural order. For the answer to that question, you’ll have to read the book.

John Boyne

Interest in Dr Hawley Harvey Crippen seems to have reached an all time high, with a documentary about him on television, and articles about his trial in the broadsheets – was it a miscarriage of justice? Should it have been considered a mistrial? Crippen, through fiction, paints a fascinating and insightful picture of a man who has been vilified for almost a century as one of our most notorious killers. In our interview John Boyne answers some of our questions about the man and the novel.

The story of Dr Crippen seems to be one, which has been neglected over the years. What drew you to it initially?
I wasn’t deliberately looking for a subject for a new novel, but happened to come across the story of how Crippen disguised his mistress, Ethel, as a boy and travelled with her as father and son in order to evade the authorities. The image of that – and of the lengths that they would have to go to in order to maintain their fraud – struck me as wonderful subject matter for a novel, both dramatic and comic, and I immediately knew that I wanted to write about it. Then the more research I did into the life of Dr Crippen himself, and the more his character began to form in my mind, the greater were my ambitions for the book. He seemed to be a much more ambiguous and conflicted character than I had previously imagined. Also, the idea of writing a slightly ‘gothic’ crime novel was very appealing. Stories of Jack The Ripper, for example, seem to have been done over and over but Dr Crippen was a story that I felt I could bring a very fresh perspective to. And it’s a lot of fun having people walk down foggy pea-soup London in 1910, with bottles of poison tucked in their pockets of their topcoats!

How much freedom do you feel an author of a historical crime novel has?
I think that with any story based around real life events one has a certain responsibility to the truth. But in a story such as this, where no one really knows what took place between Dr Crippen and his wife, or of the events that took place on that fateful evening at Hilldrop Crescent, it’s interesting to play with the evidence and suggest alternatives. After all, both Crippen and Ethel always maintained their innocence in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. It’s interesting that much of what might seem like coincidence here – the fact that they happened to travel on the very first boat with a telegraph machine, for example, which resulted in their capture – is actually based on the facts of the case. Anyway, part of the fun of being a novelist is that one can take events which are in the public domain and put a fresh, speculative spin on them, bringing details forth to the public that they might not have known before and encouraging debate. Look at The DaVinci Code for example. The line between truth and fiction in a novel can be quite a fluid one, but at the end of the day the classification at the back of the book says quite clearly that it’s “fiction”.

Some of the events in the novel seem quite astonishing in terms of modern police techniques. How much of it is actually based on fact?
The circumstances of Dr Crippen’s various jobs are true; his early marriage is rarely remembered but is a matter of record, although there’s never been any suggestion that he had a hand in her death! The chase aboard the Montrose and Captain Kendall’s telegraph to Scotland Yard is all true and Inspector Dew’s capture of the couple is also presented pretty much as it happened. Indeed, towards the end of the novel when Dew arrests Crippen, the dialogue comes directly from his own recollections which were submitted in evidence during Crippen’s subsequent trial. However, the secondary characters in the novel are all made up and of course the personalities of Dr Crippen, his wife Cora, his mistress Ethel and Inspector Dew are all entirely imagined by me.

Do you feel that Crippen is a change of pace after your first two novels?
Not really. My first novel The Thief of Time was semi-historical and semi-contemporary, something I always thought of as an adventure story, while my second, The Congress of Rough Riders, does for Buffalo Bill and the Wild West what Crippen does for the good doctor and Edwardian London. However, of the three books I think this was the most fun to write. Once I got caught up in the action and began to structure the story around the chase from Antwerp to Canada, it became a very exciting novel for me to work on. And, of course, bringing back the character of Matthieu Zéla from The Thief of Time and installing him as a passenger on board Crippen’s escape ship was great fun.

There seems to be a deliberate emphasis on gender issues in the novel? Was this intentional?
Definitely, I would go so far as to say it my most important concern in tackling the book. I mentioned earlier that it was the fact of Crippen and Ethel’s disguises that drew me to the subject and through that I wanted to explore how a pair of lovers would behave around each other if they were dressed and behaving as father and son. Whether this would prove a distraction to their relationship… whether it would enhance it in some curious way. And from this I began to play with the genders of many of the other characters, most notably those on board ship. The fact that Ethel turns out to be quite a striking boy catches the eye of a young passenger called Victoria who pursues her/him relentlessly. But is she attracted to who Ethel is as a boy or who Ethel is herself? Even the relationship between Dr Crippen and Inspector Dew is an ambiguous one and it does appear that despite the fact that Dew set out to capture him, there was a surprising level of affection between the two; when I read what Dew said on capturing Crippen, it was hard not to feel that he felt a certain regret.

Who are the authors who have particularly influenced you in your writing?
There have been so many over the years because I don’t think I’ve had a book out of my hands since I was about four years old. But if I had to pin it down I’d say that reading Dickens when I was a kid affected me enormously – I’m always stretching toward the epic 19th century novel even if I am writing a century and a half later. Every few years I still go back to David Copperfield. Also the American writer John Irving was the first contemporary author who I fell for, whose story-telling ability I’m still in awe of. I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve read his books. A few others off the top of my head would include Patricia Highsmith, Tobias Wolff and of course Philip Roth. But I read widely and frequently and need to stop spending so much money on books!

And finally, your writing seems to have concentrated on history so far. Is this deliberate or is there a contemporary novel on the horizon?
Well Crippen is actually the first completely historical book I’ve written as half sections of both my earlier novels were set in the present day. However I’ve moved from the late 18th century, to the late 19th century, and now to 1910 with this novel, and I’m currently working on a new novel set in 1936 so I suppose I’m getting closer. I’m not a big fan of contemporary novels that just namedrop trends, logos or celebrity names. To me that gives a book a shelf life of about 2 weeks. But I think after the next one I’ll have to set myself the challenge of writing something set in the present day and just sticking to what I suppose fiction writers are supposed to do – making it all up as I go along.

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