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.

It also left him, he tells me, with depression. “To be honest,” he says, “I’d always been pretty much liked and approved of; I hadn’t really rubbed anybody up the wrong way. And when that book came out, I suddenly found myself in the centre of an online drama, a lot [of it created] by people who hadn’t actually read the book and who seemed to make a virtue of the fact that they were criticising a book that they hadn’t read.” He had felt, he insists, that he was writing “from a place of what I thought was empathy and compassion”; his intention had been to be supportive of trans teenagers. That the book’s opponents didn’t see it that way was, as is evident in how he speaks about it even now, a source of deep distress. “I was really shocked and frightened. It was very, very upsetting to be so misrepresented by people online, and to be called names and to have death threats. And to be represented as somebody who is a bigot, or a hater in some way … That is the absolute opposite of who I am as a person and who I am as a writer.”

But the ordeal also bore fruit. The Echo Chamber introduces us to the Cleverley family: father George, a famous TV presenter and BBC institution; his wife, Beverley, a romantic novelist whose early promise has been somewhat dissipated by her reliance on ghostwriters; and their three more or less grown-up children, Nelson, Elizabeth and Achilles. As the character name Beverley Cleverley suggests, the novel is written in comic mode – there is also a cartoonishly sexy professional from Strictly Come Dancing and his pet tortoise, named after a Ukrainian folk hero – but between its farcical set pieces emerges a darker story.

The family spend much of their time tending to their social media personae, generally at the expense of their real-life relationships; but when George tweets a performative statement of support for a trans woman he meets (this, in itself, is ambiguous, because their encounter is spiky, and mutually unsatisfactory), he falls foul of what he comes to see as the aggressive world of woke politics. The subsequent attacks – and his own ham-fisted insistence on his liberal credentials – wreck his life, and include particularly vicious and violent criticism from his daughter in disguise, who anonymously tweets bile at anyone with a large enough following to generate the likes, clicks and attention she craves.

Boyne explains that he wanted to explore the kind of behaviour that his Twitter harasser exemplified and to understand his own reaction to it. He appears simultaneously concerned, bemused and angered by online trolls, reckoning that at the heart of their behaviour is need. “I think it’s that people want to matter. They want to feel that their voice matters in the world. And it’s why some people hook on to one subject and it becomes their subject. And this is what they use social media for, whether it’s politics, whether it’s trans issues, whether it’s climate change, whatever it is; they pick a subject, and they just go for it hell for leather. I mean, there’s a reason that Twitter was the platform of choice for Donald Trump. It’s a place where you can just be awful, and you don’t get called on it a lot.”

Post-Jessica, he says, he had numerous private messages of support “from Nobel prize winners down”, but was disturbed by attacks from those he sees as piggybacking on his troubles: “I found that more upsetting than the crazies … I thought that’s just mean, you know, and what have I ever done to you? But look, that’s people for you.” He is adamant that he’d write My Brother’s Name Is Jessica again, and equally sure that he will never again respond to online negativity. But it’s clear that this is a highly specific form of self-imposed silence; in other areas, he is determined to give voice to his experiences.

In February 2021, former teacher and rugby coach John McClean, now 76, was convicted of abusing 23 boys at Terenure College, a fee-paying Dublin school run by a Carmelite trusteeship, between 1973 and 1990; he was sentenced to eight years in prison. In the aftermath of a trial that continues to have repercussions in Ireland, Boyne, who was a pupil at Terenure, wrote a piece for the Irish Times. He had attended court in support of a friend who had been abused by McClean, although he himself hadn’t; in fact, the teacher had always encouraged him in his literary ambitions and, when Boyne’s debut novel came out in 2000, he sent him a copy. But, Boyne wrote in February, he too had been abused at Terenure: severely beaten by a priest, who taped a metal weight to a stick and called it Excalibur; and, later, by a lay teacher who would lean over him, put his hand in Boyne’s trousers and masturbate him.

The film adaptation of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas (2008). Photograph: Allstar Picture Library/Alamy Stock Photo

Attending McClean’s trial prompted Boyne to give his testimony to the Garda; he can’t say much more about it at the moment, because it is still in their hands. But what was especially striking was the way that Boyne wrote about it, going beyond the horrific nature of the abuse itself to meditate on the effects it has had on his emotional, romantic and sexual life. Recalling relationships that didn’t work and the breakup of his marriage, which he describes to me as the worst thing that’s ever happened to him, he wrote: “The truth is, I’ve failed in every romantic relationship I’ve ever pursued.” In the conversation we have, he talks candidly about how the loss of his husband, with whom he had been in a relationship for 11 years, has “left a scar within me that will never heal”, not least because it was entirely unexpected to him; and about how much he longs for a loving partner to share the life he’s made.

It’s the concept of “failing” that feels so poignant. His experiences at school, combined with the fact that homosexuality wasn’t decriminalised until Boyne was in his third year of university and that, by that time, the Aids crisis was in full spate, feel like so much to contend with that self-reproach is simply too cruel. In other parts of his life, after all, Boyne seems like a measure of success: not only in career terms, but in his closeness to family and friends and in his enjoyment of his daily life. “I’m not spending all my day crying about it,” he reassures me. “I work hard. And I like my life a lot. And maybe you just can’t have everything.”

He expects The Echo Chamber will provoke something of a reaction but is braced for it. “I just turned 50. And as much as I don’t like drama, and I don’t like trouble, I do think that it’s important that your work should be strong enough that it inspires some kind of debate. And antipathy towards it is not necessarily a negative. At the end of this book, I mention Kingsley Amis’s line that if you’re not annoying somebody with your writing, you’re not doing anything right. And it’s not that I set out to annoy people, but I do want my work to be more interesting in that way than perhaps it once was. I want to think about the world we live in and to challenge it. And if that means upsetting some people, well, that’s what literature is supposed to do.”

The Echo Chamber is published by Doubleday (£16.99) on 5 August. To support the Guardian and the Observer buy a copy at guardiannbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

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