What’s the most irritating question a writer can be asked?
According to Maurice Swift, the amoral protagonist in John Boyne’s new novel, A Ladder to the Sky, the answer is simple: Where do you get your ideas?
“No one knows where they come from and nobody should know,” Swift says. “They evolve in thin air, they float down from some mysterious heaven and we reach out to grab one, to grasp it in our imagination, and to make it our own.”
Swift’s relentless quest to grab ideas and make them his own is the essence of Boyne’s novel, a wickedly dark tale of seduction, ambition and intellectual theft.
“A Ladder to the Sky” opens with 65-year-old Erich Ackermann, an established novelist who meets Swift, a handsome young would-be writer, and agrees to mentor him. Swift tells the aging author that his sole ambition is to become a famous writer, and he uses his charms to woo Ackermann and pry secrets from his past. Swift steals the man’s life story, turns it into a novel, and spends the rest of his life stealing other people’s stories and using them to advance his own goals.
In Swift, Boyne creates one of the most selfish, soulless, despicable characters in all of literature – a man whose quest for fame knows no bounds and spares no victims. And this reader, at least, could not resist him.
Boyne has said the novel was inspired by people he’s met over his nearly two decades of publishing. Some characters are real people – Gore Vidal makes an appearance in the second section of the book – while others are figments of Boyne’s imagination.
With its original narrative structure, varied points of view and ever-darker plot twists, A Ladder to the Sky shows how far one character will go for a winning idea. And this novel is a prize.