William Boyd is a true master of storytelling and the written word. His 16 novels have sold millions of copies around the world and have been translated into 40 languages. He is also an acclaimed short story author, journalist, film and television critic, screenwriter, playwright and film director (and he produces his own fine wine and is quite the painter too!).
The term Renaissance man can be thrown around too loosely, but it’s an accurate description of William. So what a treat to share a conversation with this supremely talented wordsmith, and to welcome him as the latest subject of our ‘Who The F*** Are You?’ profile.
William’s first novel ‘A Good Man In Africa’ was written in 1981 when he was a young lecturer in English at St Hilda’s College, Oxford. Forty years on, his latest offering as a screenwriter, ‘Spy City’ starring Dominic Cooper, is streaming on AMC+ and available on Amazon, and has received rave reviews including in the The Wall Street Journal.
And there’s much more to come. Now 69, he is currently writing his 17th novel, and has a significant target in mind.
“I think there’s a slight ticking clock aspect,” he says. “I’m writing my 17th novel at the moment and I think, ‘Will I make it to 20?’ I must be entering act five of the novel writer’s life in which there are things you still want to tackle, ideas for books or for movies.
“I am fizzing with ideas. I take on more and more projects. I’ve been a great believer in having lots of irons in the fire. I also enjoy not working, but there’s no doubt that I’m busier now than I think I’ve ever been in my life. People are starting to slow down at my age, actually, I’m speeding up.”
William, born in what is now Ghana, Africa, to Scottish parents, is gentle in demeanor but fierce in his commitment to his craft and to his own continued learning. The man is inexhaustibly curious, robust in his appetite to explore, produce and share his art.
And describing his process which has been so prolific, he explains, “I’m not very good in the morning. Most writers write in the morning, but my metabolism kicks in after lunch. So I tend to write in the afternoons up until the cocktail hour, whenever that arrives.
“I used to be able to write five, seven hours a day. That’s one thing that does slow down. I can manage a good three hours now, before I feel exhausted. My brain is knackered. So I tend to write between lunch and the ‘Channel 4 News’.”
He adds, “I don’t start until I’ve planned the whole novel, until I know how it’s going to end. I often know the end in a very detailed way, I have my destination very clear.
“I don’t write particularly fast, but I write with confidence because I’ve done all that work. So it takes me longer to figure a book out than it does to write it, and I have a detailed plan. If I’m in the middle of chapter 10, I know exactly what chapter 10 should include and where it ends and chapter 11 starts. So I’ve got no excuse. I can’t not write.
“There’s a lot of stamina required in writing novels, it’s quite a dogged business. If you’re scratching your head, thinking what happens next, that’s when you run out of steam – you go for a walk, you put it to one side, wait for inspiration, go down to the pub. But I don’t have the right to do that because I’ve spent so long planning and figuring it out.”
On the length of time it takes for him to write a novel, William says “Interestingly, I think I am speeding up. I used to take three years to write a novel and now I take two – I don’t think I can go any faster! I think that is a sign of anno domini, a reminder, don’t take too long mate!”
William’s sustained calibre throughout his career is truly remarkable. His storytelling in the 1990 novel ‘Brazzaville Beach’, written from a female point of view, is awe inspiring. ‘Any Human Heart’ and ‘Sweet Caress’ are both riveting and deeply touching – their essence remains with you long after you’ve turned the final page. An aficionado of espionage, in 2013 he released ‘Solo’, a James Bond continuation novel set in 1969, six years after Ian Fleming’s last book was set. His latest novel ‘Trio’ was published in the US in January. He’s adapted his own novels for the screen, as he did with ‘Restless’, and also written scripts based on other’s books, like the 1987 movie ‘Scoop’. And he recently penned the foreword for David Hockney’s latest exhibition, ‘The Arrival of Spring, Normandy, 2020’ at the Royal Academy of Arts, London.
But while he continues to explore different styles, genres and mediums, fundamentally, all his stories begin in the same way.
“I write in longhand,” he explains. “Black ink on paper. Then the next day I type it up onto the computer. I have manuscripts for all my novels, which is unusual in this day and age. I don’t think any writer under 40 writes in longhand anymore.
“I just like physically writing. And I think there are all sorts of technical reasons why it helps the rhythm of your prose, and the style and things like sentence length. Things like that are all affected by physically writing with your hand. That head, hand, page interface is very important I think”
Before embarking on our ‘Who The F*** Are You?’ questionnaire, answering the 20 questions that get to the heart of who we are, William had some parting advice for aspiring writers, passed down from another literary great.
He says, “Guy de Maupassant is a man I quote on a daily basis, and his best piece of advice for a writer was, ‘Put black on white. Put ink on white paper.’ It’s something I urge myself to do. And to young writers I say, ‘Just put black on white and see how you go.’”
Who the f*** are you?
William Boyd. Novelist.
How are you feeling right now?
Pretty good, thanks.
Where did you grow up and what was it like?
I grew up in two West African countries, Ghana and Nigeria, in the 1950s, 60s and early 70s. It was an astonishing, privileged, rare experience to be part of that society — an experience that has now gone forever. These West African countries were fully integrated and there was no racial tension at all. As a boy, as a teen and as a young man I could go anywhere at any time without any apprehension. In a profound way that freedom – that integration — has shaped me as a person and I’m still finding out how and why.
What excites you?
Being with my wife, Susan.
What scares you?
What is your proudest achievement?
Keeping the show on the road for over 40 years. A novelist’s career is a long one – and very, very susceptible to failure and reverses. The fact that all my books are in print in many countries is the most important facet of my life as a writer. The enduring challenge is to ensure that his state of affairs remains the status quo.
What is the hardest thing you have ever done?
Writing a long novel.
Who was your greatest mentor and what did they teach you?
My art teacher at my school, Bob Waddell. He awakened an aesthetic sense in me that was dormant and showed me how it could flourish.
Who are your fictional and real-life heroes?
Fictional hero: Yossarian in Catch-22. Real-life heroes… Certain great artists: Anton Chekhov, Paul Klee, Johannes Brahms
What is your favorite item of clothing in your wardrobe?
Probably my many dozens of Brooks Brothers button-down shirts.
What music did you love aged 13 — and do you still love it now?
The Beatles and the Rolling Stones. Still in the top 10.
What is the most inspiring book you have ever read?
‘Pale Fire’ by Vladimir Nabokov which is a unique novel. No novel has ever been like it, or will ever be like it. It’s a completely astonishing book, not just clever, it’s hilariously funny. So that’s one I doff my cap to.
What is a movie that left a lasting impression on you?
What is your favorite word or saying?
All this will pass.
What do you want people to say at your funeral?
We miss him.
And finally, a quickfire five favorites …
Don’t drive. But it’s probably a Jensen Interceptor.
The Scotland Rugby XV. And Chelsea FC.
Boeuf Stroganoff (served with rice).
Kiehl’s hair gel.