By BRUCE DENNILL
John Boyne’s A Ladder To The Sky is a dark thriller involving lying (bad), death (worse) and plagiarism (oh hell, no). Its protagonist is Maurice Swift, an immensely ambitious writer fortunate enough to find himself in the ambit of some influential – and often naïve – authors (both fictional and historical). Swift does what many aspirant novelists might often consider but would never endorse ethically, and being able to identify with his motives make the character even more detestable, even as his considerable charm repeatedly buys him temporary amnesty.
Boyne gives some insight into the story:
You’ve made the villain your protagonist in A Ladder To The Sky. Actors often say that villains are more satisfying to play. Is that true for writing such a character as well; for viewing the material from that perspective?
Yes, it is. Working with that malevolence was a new thing for me. The challenge was to try and judge how many terrible things he could do and still be realistic, keeping the reader onside. I must have done nine or ten drafts of the story, though, so I had a chance to make it more authentic as I went.
Different parts of the book – chapters and interludes – are delivered using different voices, genders and styles, and narratives who are both real people and imagined characters. How enjoyable – or challenging – was putting all of that together?
It was interesting to do. I wanted to keep Maurice’s voice until the very end, and to show how other people saw him all the way through until then. Gore [Vidal] was the only person who saw through him. And Gore was fun to write. He was witty, but he wouldn’t suffer fools. I really tried hard to capture his voice.
I didn’t plan the characters upfront, though. I just let the novel unfold before me as I wrote. At this point, I trust myself that it will come together.
In terms of “writing what you know”, there are obvious links to your characters in that everyone involved is an author. But how much of the darker side – the frustration and the envy – is personal?
I’ve been publishing books for about 20 years now, and during that time, I’ve seen many writers come and go, so I know about being young and ambitious, and the back-stabbing that can happen. That said, the same thing is true of many other industries as well.
Does the need for validation that Maurice feels ever really go away in reality? For you, for example, was there a shift of any kind when your book The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas was made into a film?
I suppose it depends on how you define “validation”. I want readers to enjoy the book, and to reach as many of them as possible. I’m not as interested in reviewers. That view differs from person to person. Maybe it’s a question of how insecure you are? I don’t think, though, that art is defined by the critical view.
Maurice Swift is an awful person, yet readers will recognise that they’ve been drawn to similar individuals, probably against their better judgement. If Maurice’s rise and fall is the narrative arc of the book, is that feeling of unease perhaps the emotional arc?
I think if a writer’s done their work well, you become fascinated by the anti-hero. You’re not rooting for him, exactly, but you are intrigued. It’s like with Hannibal Lecter or Tom Ripley: you want to see what they’re ultimately capable of. I’ve had only positive feedback. People seem to enjoy the idea, rather than be worried about it.
A Ladder To The Sky by John Boyne, published by Penguin Random House, is available now.