On a wet, grey morning in March, William Boyd invited us into a large terraced house, half-way between the King’s Road and the Thames. On the right-hand side of the thin corridor’s crisp white walls hung three dozen framed figurative paintings of identical sizes, each no bigger than a paperback book. These were David Hockney’s series of flower sketches, executed on tablet computers and smart phones.
The enthusiasm which William Boyd shows for these is in keeping with the evident pleasure he has in a range of creative arts – his career contains numerous film and television credits, alongside his notorious forays into the art world as the ‘lost’ abstract expressionist painter Nat Tate’s biographer. Having authored a monograph in 1998 on Tate, backed by stellar co-conspirators David Bowie and Gore Vidal, he convinced many in the art world of the existence of this entirely fictitious artist who had supposedly killed himself at the age of thirty-two in 1960 – in the style of Hart Crane, by jumping off a boat – after destroying ninety-nine percent of his work. Opposite Hockney’s digital essais sat a solitary Nat Tate, painted in preparation for the hoax by Boyd himself a decade or so ago.
The interview took place in an excessively heated first-floor living-room; paintings in various styles cluttered the walls, illuminated by tall bay windows. The central coffee table was stacked full of books, six or seven high – Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities and Lewis Crofts’ The Pornographer of Vienna prominent among them – testament to the meticulous research that goes into the composition of a William Boyd novel. His next book, set in Freud’s Vienna, will be his sixteenth, in a career spanning three decades that includes several short-story collections and volumes of non-fiction.
Perhaps his most ambitious projects have been the trilogy of works that tasked themselves with chronicling entire human lives, beginning with The New Confessions and Nat Tate: An American Artist. These include his most celebrated novel, Any Human Heart, which tracks the course of its hero Logan Mountstuart through the chaos of the twentieth century. Boyd’s life seems comparatively easy compared to those of his characters, who are often caught up in the vicissitudes of their times. Open and affable, William Boyd was a charming host, generous in his answers, and parading a contagious enthusiasm for his work and the wider world of books.
QThe White Review — You grew up in Africa. What was that like?
AWilliam Boyd — I am a child of the colonial system, and, as somebody said to me the other day, I suppose I am the last of a generation. I was born in Accra in 1952. Ghana got its independence in 1957 when I was five and then we moved to Nigeria, which got its independence in 1960, so we were really living out there at the tail end of the colonial era, when the wind of change was blowing through Africa.
My father was a doctor and my mother was a teacher and they spent their working lives out on what was then called the Gold Coast, where they moved in 1950. During the war, my father had specialised in tropical medicine, so he went back to the tropics five years later. It was supposed to be short-term but in fact he spent thirty years there, until he became ill and died. I grew up in a nice house with lots of African servants, nannies, gardeners, houseboys and cooks, and I often wonder how totally different my life would have been if my father had stayed and become a GP in Scotland.
It was an idyllic childhood, going to the beach and the club and the pool and tennis and so on, except in the late 1960s Nigeria began to implode. There were a series of military coups followed by the Nigerian Civil War – the Biafran War – which made a profound impression on me in my late teens. I was never in any danger but living in a country that was tearing itself apart was pretty extraordinary.
The great thing about the West African colonies as opposed to the eastern or the southern colonies was that there was no white settler class, so there was no racism. Obviously, apartheid existed in South Africa, but Rhodesia, Nyasaland, Kenya and Tanganyika had all been settled by white people and the tension between white and black was always there. Growing up in West Africa was, racially, a completely different experience. It was totally integrated and I could go anywhere without fearing anything whatsoever. I could walk around in the middle of the night in Ibadan, a great sprawling Nigerian city of close to a million people, and people would shout, ‘White boy!’ but you never felt threatened.
When I meet people who grew up in South Africa or Kenya, I realise that their experience of an African life was quite different because of this settler-indigenous schism. But in West Africa it just wasn’t there. White people would come out, work for thirty years, and then go away again. Nobody bought property, nobody had farms, nobody owned anything. In Rhodesia, there was this extraordinary statistic: five percent of the white population owned seventy percent of the arable land. In West Africa, that time bomb didn’t exist.
When I look back on this childhood now, I see it as something quite extraordinary but of course where you live with your parents is quite normal. It was a very odd mix of the exotic and the astonishing and sometimes the frightening and the terrifying – all of these part of your everyday life.
Until the age of about twenty-two, I regarded West Africa as my home. Even though I was at boarding school and my relatives lived in Scotland, my home was in Western Nigeria, and I felt more at home there than I did in London or Edinburgh.
QThe White Review — Did you feel comfortable when you were back in Scotland?
AWilliam Boyd — Not really. I felt sort of an outsider, which became useful to me as a writer. I spent nine and a half years at boarding school up in the north of Scotland, at Gordonstoun. I knew that world fantastically well but I realised quite early on it was totally artificial and bore no resemblance to the real world. The single-sex boarding school is a very strange society, and in my day you went there for a three-month stretch and it was a type of penal servitude.
I only saw the ‘real’ world on occasional holidays. I always felt as if I were on the outside looking in. I didn’t feel particularly at home and it wasn’t until I went to university and I started living in a flat in Glasgow that I could honestly say for the first time that I was experiencing British life.
My father was a powerful figure in his realm in Africa, where he ran half-a-dozen clinics and was responsible for 40,000 people, but I always remember him trying to buy an evening newspaper in Edinburgh. He didn’t know what the money was and the paper man had to pick the coins out of his hands. Suddenly I realised that he was adrift here as well.
QThe White Review — Is this why this idea of the outsider recurs in your writing?
AWilliam Boyd — I do feel deracinated and I always have, and maybe that feeds into the way I write and my ability to look at society and the things around me with the slightly curious eye of the permanent visitor. It was a very long time before I wrote a novel that could be described as British. Obviously, parts of my novels were British, but I think the first truly home-based novel was my seventh,Armadillo, which is a London novel. My characters are often outsiders, or, because of events that happen to them, they become alien or under stress. Very often I put a central character in an environment that is strange, threatening, perplexing. I suspect that’s as a result of my own journey through the various societies that I’ve encountered.
QThe White Review — Did you feel the need to write A Good Man in Africa to deal with your colonial childhood?
AWilliam Boyd — Partly, although A Good Man in Africa was actually the fourth novel I’d written. I’d already written three unpublished novels. When I was an undergraduate I wrote a novel which was incredibly autobiographical about my year in France between school and university. I’d gone to do a diploma at the University of Nice, which was a very formative year for me. Again, I was away from my family, culture and language, and I wrote a novel about that year, got it out of my system, and put it in a bottom drawer where it remains.
Then, I wrote a novel about the Biafran War while at Oxford, where I was doing my DPhil. It was a very self-consciously modernist novel with a fractured form, switching from diary extracts, newspaper extracts, standard narrative and first person. I’d shattered the linear conventions of the novel but it didn’t quite come off so I wrote another novel – a thriller – because I was beginning to get a bit desperate about getting published.
At the time, I was also publishing short stories quite successfully – nine or ten appeared in magazines and some were being broadcast on the radio. My short story writing career seemed to be going well, so I sent a collection off to Hamish Hamilton and Jonathan Cape. In a post-scriptum, I told them that I’d written a novel featuring a character called Morgan Leafy, a fat drunken diplomat in Africa who appeared in two of the stories.
Very quickly, I got a letter back from Hamish Hamilton asking for more information about the novel I had mentioned, so I wrote the synopsis of this novel in three or four pages and sent it off. A letter came back saying they’d like to publish my short story collection and my novel. That was the great ‘Yes!’ punch-the-air day, but they wanted to publish the novel first, and, of course, I hadn’t written it, I had lied.
So I said to my new editor, Christopher Sinclair-Stevenson, ‘Look, the manuscript is in a shocking state, I just need a couple of months to knock into shape’, and I sat down and wrote A Good Man in Africa in a white heat of dynamic endeavour in three months at my kitchen table. I was teaching at Oxford at the time so I just dropped everything and borrowed some money from my mother. It was all there waiting to come out and suddenly there it was.
Six months later, the stories came out. I published two books in 1981, so it was a great start, but it was by no means an overnight success. I was able to write A Good Man in Africa because I’d already written three novels. It’s not the classic first novel because I’d already written that four or five years earlier. I’d gotten the fascination with my own life out of my system.
QThe White Review — Are there no autobiographical elements there? What about Dr Alex Murray, the good man in Africa? Is he not based on your father?
AWilliam Boyd — It is very much the world I knew. It is completely set in Ibadan in Western Nigeria even though I changed the names, but everybody in it is made up. It’s rooted in my autobiography in terms of its colour, texture and smells but the story is – and that’s something that’s always been the case with me – invented.
There is an autobiographical element in that the character of Dr Murray is very much a two-dimensional portrait of my father. He had died the year before I wrote the novel so he was very much present in my mind. The clash in the novel is between a dissolute, overweight diplomat and the rectitude and solidity of somebody rather like my father. It may echo the clash which he and I had. We got on pretty well, but we were like chalk and cheese. So, there is an element of my own life in it but it’s seventy percent out of my imagination.
QThe White Review — Who were the authors who were influencing you at the time, and throughout your career? When reading your books, one is so often reminded of Evelyn Waugh.
AWilliam Boyd — I’m fascinated by Waugh and I’ve read everything he’s written but I’m almost more fascinated by him as a type of Englishman. The absolute blackness and ruthlessness of his sense of humour is something that chimes with me. I don’t think Brideshead Revisited, A Handful of Dust and A Sword of Honour are as good or as brilliant as his early comedies. I’d also read Kingsley Amis and I think I am a comic novelist in the sense that I see the world as an absurd and curious place.
As for other writers, I studied and later taught English literature at Oxford so I read my way through the canon. I was also reading a lot of American literature at the time. In fact, if you’d asked me then I would probably have said I preferred Philip Roth, John Updike, Joseph Heller or Ernest Hemingway to their English equivalents. I was widely read when I was first published but not conscious of any influence, although the comic-realistic tradition in English fiction is so strong, it’s such a broad river, that I am bound to have picked up influences along the way.
I’ve always read voraciously and indiscriminately and I apparently started reading very early. My father was a great reader of detective novels and when I came back to Africa on my school holidays, there would be a great stack of little 220-page detective novels. Some were interesting – Raymond Chandler, Ed McBain, Georges Simenon – and others are completely forgotten like Richard S. Prather and Peter Cheyney. I would read my way through ten or twenty of them in the holidays and then go back to Jane Austen.
QThe White Review — Why did you decide to become a writer?
AWilliam Boyd — I wanted to be a painter originally because I was very good at art when I was young. I did O-Level and A-Level art and I was very keen. It was my first love, and I think I knew that I was not cut out for any kind of proper job. I come from a family of middle-class professional Scots – engineers, doctors, lawyers, accountants – but I somehow got this idea that I wanted to be an artist. I told my father I was thinking about going to art school, but he just said, ‘Forget it, not a hope in hell’. So, not being a rebel, I just switched to another art form – literature.
If I had gone to art school, I may have been a very mediocre painter, but as writer I always had the safety net of an academic career if it all went pear-shaped. It was only after I’d published three books and written a film that I decided that I could quit my job as a college lecturer at Oxford. By then I felt that I could cut all these ties to live by my wits and my pen, but for a while I wasn’t sure if I could earn a living out of writing, which is a key dilemma in a writer’s life.
Something was urging me in that direction but I had to find out how you did it because I didn’t come from a family or a background where that was remotely normal. I had no idea what was involved and it was a long process of education.
QThe White Review — What kind of process?
AWilliam Boyd — When I was at university in Glasgow I wrote a novel, a play and some poetry. I also wrote a lot of theatre criticism and film criticism for the university newspaper. When I moved to Oxford, I went to work for Isis and I met other writers because the place was full of them. Iris Murdoch lived up the road; I lived next door to Brian Aldiss, the science-fiction writer; and I entered a short-story competition that Roald Dahl was judging. I also met other students with dreams of writing such as Andrew Motion, Alan Hollinghurst, A.N. Wilson and James Fenton.
We were at the beginning of our careers and that collegiate feeling of young writers wanting to make their way in the world helped. I started to review for little magazines – Books & Bookmen and The London Magazine – and then I got a review in the Times Literary Supplement, another red letter day. I was slowly but surely finding my way into that world and discovering the nuts and bolts of being a writer. It was an education but it took several years before it finally bore fruit and I had that first published book in my hands.
QThe White Review — How do you go about writing? Have you always written in the same way?
AWilliam Boyd — Yes, I have actually. I’m part of that pre-computer generation and I’ve always written in longhand. All my novels have manuscripts, which is rare for anybody under the age of forty. I used to write my first draft in my tiny anal retentive handwriting and then I’d write a fair copy in large legible handwriting. I would then give that second draft to a typing agency – that dates me – and the typists typed it up from my fair copy so that I could then hand it in to the publisher. I’ve always had this process of writing a draft and then writing it all again, however long it takes. Now, of course, I type the second draft onto a screen.
QThe White Review — How much changes between drafts?
AWilliam Boyd — I change things all the time. When you are copying a sentence or typing it or rewriting it you think, ‘Oh, this is clumsy’, or ‘I can stick that word here’, so the difference from manuscript to typescript or manuscript to fair copy is often huge. It’s a very good editorial process and I wonder if writers who write directly onto a screen lose that. Of course, you rewrite and polish anyway, but there’s something about the two forms, there’s a real moment of decision, and just making that transfer, I wouldn’t change that working method now. I do write screenplays straight onto the screen, I do write journalism straight onto the screen, but I would never write a novel or a short story like that, I just seem to need the two forms – the handwritten and then the perfection of type.
The last few months of my working life have been very simple: I get up in the morning and write the novel. I can write for about three hours and then I’m knackered but I can type up what I’ve written. I’ve been doing that seven days a week. I’ve been writing my latest novel since the early summer of last year and since December I’ve been working full-time seven days a week on it. I’m now polishing it and tweaking it but I’m already thinking about the next one and that makes me relaxed because that plane is circling and waiting to be called in to land.
QThe White Review — Do you have a structure worked out when you sit down to write?
AWilliam Boyd — Yes. It takes me about three years to write a novel and I spend roughly two years figuring it out and one year writing it. Iris Murdoch, who worked in the same way, called it the period of invention and the period of composition. I think that’s quite a neat division. It’s become absolutely rigid for me now.
I get an idea for a novel, which is usually one sentence or a concept. Then I spend a long time thinking about it, filling out notebooks, travelling, acquiring the library I need for the book. I set about making more and more elaborate plans for the narrative and making lots and lots of mistakes, going up blind alleys and developing characters or sub-themes that fizzle out. Even then, I haven’t actually started writing the book. That whole period of invention is absolutely crucial in my work. Eventually, and usually when I know how the book is going to end, I will write a draft of the last paragraph or the last few lines – so I’m that sure of it – and only at that stage do I write chapter one and start the book.
Then it takes me about nine months or a year to write it but I write with confidence – not particularly fast but with fluency because I’m not stopping to think, ‘What happens next?’ I’ve already made all those mistakes and all of those bad decisions and corrected them. Of course, I still get lots of new ideas as I’m writing but there’s a real template, or as I describe it a skeleton, and then I add the flesh when I write it.
QThe White Review — Do you play around with the voice of your characters in the invention period?
AWilliam Boyd — Yes, because those elements are the first questions you ask yourself once you’ve got your idea and the whole process of invention is a series of questions and answers that goes on over this period of two years. For example, I ask myself whether it is going to be in the first person or the third person, and that decision is absolutely crucial. Am I going to write from one point of view or from many points of view? Is my central character going to be male or female? The answer to these questions trigger a whole set of other questions: ‘Oh, it’s a woman, right, OK, how old is she? What’s her name? How tall is she?’ And so on and so forth and this aggregate of information begins to accrue and you see stories and storylines emerging.
QThe White Review — What are you currently working on?
AWilliam Boyd — It’s a novel that starts in Vienna in 1913 and it’s about a young Englishman who is an actor. He’s got a sexual dysfunction and he’s engaged to be married, so he decides to go out to Vienna to try out this new-fangled psychoanalysis lark to see if it can cure him of this particular problem. He starts being psychoanalysed and he meets another woman there and then, because it’s one my novels, things go from bad to worse and World War One begins.
It’s very long and it’s possibly one of my most complex plots ever because he gets embroiled in all sorts of Buchanesque adventures, but it’s got a lot more sex in it than John Buchan ever had. It covers a lot of ground but I now realise, two weeks before I hand it in to my editor, that it’s actually about lying and uncertainty which seems to me to be a very modern state of mind. And with Vienna in 1913-1914, we are at the beginning of the modern era and in the capital of a decadent empire. Something about the city then made it the focus and locus of what was modern.
QThe White Review — How do you go about researching your novels? Do you read a lot?
AWilliam Boyd — Yes, I often read novels set in the period I want to write about. For this latest novel, for example, I read Joseph Roth and Robert Musil. I find novels very useful because what a novelist saw in 1912 or 1913 is not necessary what a historian writing today will see. I also use photographs a lot. I’ve never really gone beyond the twentieth century – 1902 is as early a novel as I have set – so photographic evidence exists and I find books of photographs fantastically helpful. Then I use all sorts of newspapers, magazines, guide books – but all contemporary.
It’s not about reading some book on the Viennese Secession, it’s about reading books that are much more banal because as a novelist the banal is what you are looking for. What struck Joseph Roth as he described a country scene in The Radetzky March is what I want to reproduce through the eyes of this young Englishman in Vienna for the first time. It’s a very selective process and if you get the detail right suddenly that world comes alive. As you sift through this material you find that you are not looking at it in the way that a journalist or a historian would look at it – you are looking at it for something that intrigues and seems unusual.
Take the business of communicating for example: you could make telephone calls in 1914-15 but only 20,000 people had telephones. The telegram and the telegraph offices were the main avenues for communication because you just popped one in the post at half a pence a word. These details make the book come alive but they have to be fed in seamlessly so that it doesn’t look like a gobbet of research. We’ve all read novels where you plough through three pages on the manufacture of rubber and you realise that the writer has been to Singapore to see a rubber plantation and by God are we going to hear about it. It is a very interesting process to make it seem entirely natural and yet at the same time you want the reader to be aware of time travel.
I always quote something from Ulysses where Bloom goes into a pub in Dublin and orders a glass of claret and a sardine sandwich. That seems very modern and it brings a Dublin pub to life in a way that knowing that Guinness costs one and sixpence doesn’t. Language is another thing. People swore as violently in 1913 as they do today, maybe not in mixed company but amongst men, and certainly soldiers’ language was as rich as anyone’s.
QThe White Review — Where do you find traces of that? Because it doesn’t appear much in the literature of the time…
AWilliam Boyd — It does if you know where to look for it. I can give you two good examples. If you read the letters of James Joyce to Nora Barnacle, 1909 or thereabouts, they are the most sexually candid letters you can find two lovers writing to each other. Joyce was in Trieste and Nora was in Dublin so they wrote each other some dirty letters for sexual stimulation at a distance.
The other one is a novel by Frederic Manning which might be the best novel that came out of World War One. Manning wrote two versions of the book: one called Middle Parts of Fortune which is unexpurgated and another called Her Privates We which had no swearwords in it and was published at the time. Manning was an intellectual who fought at the battle of the Somme as a private soldier. The soldiers he writes about are all saying ‘Fuck’ and ‘Cunt’ like a soldier today would, but of course our image of the Tommy is of a plucky chap with a fag in his mouth saying, ‘Cor, blimey, it’s the Huns throwing over’.
This is what is so fantastic about Manning’s novel. You realise the soldiers didn’t give a toss about the war, they hated their officers, they hated the officers back home, and the only things they wanted were food, drink, and sex if it was available. These words weren’t invented in 1940. You just need to read Shakespeare’s soldiers to see that it’s an absolute truth, but gentility has tended to mask that so it does take some unearthing.
QThe White Review — What was the genesis of your forthcoming novel on psychoanalysis?
AWilliam Boyd — I became very interested in psychoanalysis, which is one of the three great scientific revolutions. There is the Copernican revolution, when we realised that the sun didn’t go around us but that we went around the sun. There’s the Darwinian revolution – we are animals – and then there’s the Freudian revolution – half the time we don’t know why we do things because our unconscious mind is at work.
Whatever anyone may think of Freud and however discredited he is, there is no doubt that we are all Freudians. Even though the unconscious existed before Freud, he schematised and systematised it and changed the way we think about ourselves. So to begin with I asked myself, ‘What would it have been like to be psychoanalysed and to realise that half the things you do are driven by forces that you are only partially aware of?’ Then I decided I’d send my protagonist off to Vienna before the First World War when psychoanalysis was new and controversial, and off I went.
That was the idea that grabbed me and it’s nearly always like that. I start off with an idea and it has enough mass in it to be a four-hundred or five-hundred page novel. The ideas I get for short stories or movies or a piece I might write are different. There is a certain category of idea I get which is gravid enough or has enough potential to fill a novel. I’ve never written a short novel.
Some people like to start and see where they end up, but I’m not that kind of writer. I like to know my destination and my period of composition is not fraught with having to stop and invent, which is where novels get abandoned of course. The first sixty pages come like that and then you think, ‘What does she do next?’ I’ve never abandoned a novel because I never get to that stage.
QThe White Review — Some writers say that once they start writing their characters take on a life of their own and become uncontrollable.
AWilliam Boyd — Vladimir Nabokov was always asked this and he was very much anti-Freudian and anti the unconscious. He said: ‘All my characters are galley slaves and I’m the man on the deck with the whip’. I feel rather like that because I try to make my characters live and breathe on the page as real and complex human beings. You are the master of that particular world and they are your creatures. Sometimes you don’t know where you get ideas from but it’s not the character taking over. That’s a romantic fallacy or convention – the inspired driven artist at the mercy of his or her muse. I think writing a novel takes so long that there is something very dogged and methodical about it. I believe in the Flaubertian-Joycean model of the artist controlling everything, not the drink-fuelled spontaneity of the muse descending.
QThe White Review — How does that relate to when you are writing about characters who are already iconic figures such as Woolf, Picasso, Hemingway or Joyce? How do you create their voice?
AWilliam Boyd — They are usually people I have been very intrigued by anyway and I’ve read a great deal about them. It’s a kind of thought experiment. I think, ‘What would it actually be like to meet Virginia Woolf?’ I’ve never particularly liked Virginia Woolf and I’ve read everything and taught her books for many years but she just seems to me an unpleasant, snobbish, slightly bogus person. I know she was disturbed as well and that’s how I imagined her.
If you read her letters and diaries, you see what type of person she is – we’ve all met them. The challenge as a writer is to bring that iconic figure alive in a way that makes them a real person rather than a postcard that you bought at the National Portrait Gallery. I’ve written stories about Chekhov, Wittgenstein, Brahms and Cyril Connolly, people I’m really intrigued by, and I try to make them live as characters in fiction. It’s about stripping away the myth and getting to the real person, but they are always people about whom I have been curious about and read a lot about. I can’t imagine writing a novel about George VI for example.
QThe White Review — The Duke of Windsor is much more interesting.
AWilliam Boyd — Yes, and that is the wonderful thing about writing fiction. I got Logan Mountstuart to meet all these people that I was intrigued by so I could present them through his eyes. Some people who knew the Duke and Duchess of Windsor who I have spoken to have said that their appearance in Any Human Heart is a fascinating and very credible portrait of them. Some of my favourite short stories of mine are these biographical short stories because when it is successful I feel like I captured the essence of the person in those fifteen or twenty pages and the reader gets a sense of them as a character quite apart from their reputation.
QThe White Review — Does this tie in with your interest in blurring the lines between fact and fiction? Say with Nat Tate for example? Or is it really just a narrative device you are using?
AWilliam Boyd — That exercise was to make something utterly fictitious seem completely real so that the line is blurred, so that your suspension of disbelief is rocky, and it’s amazing how it could be done with tricks and presentation. And why did I do it? If you look at three books where I do this, The New Confessions, Nat Tate and Any Human Heart – published between 1987 and 2002, so that’s a long time – I think they stand up as a trilogy of books all exploring the same thing: is it true or is it false?
There is an ongoing argument that somehow non-fiction is more powerful and gripping than fiction and I felt that I wanted to reclaim the top of the hill for fiction. These three books were a series of attempts to prove that something made-up could supplant what you might regard as real.
QThe White Review — Is there a critique of the art world in the Nat Tate project?
AWilliam Boyd — There is. I wrote the book in 1998, at the height of the Young British Artists phenomenon. I was on the editorial board of Modern Painters at the time and I was, in a way, answering that early urge to be a painter by writing about art. I’ve written a great deal about painting and artists and I have strong opinions about who’s good and who isn’t and it struck me that a lot of the YBAs who were being acclaimed and making vast sums of money were, when you judged them as artists, very average, not to say sub-average.
This also happened in the 1950s in New York with the Abstract Expressionists, who are the first group of artists who had that level of fame. Jackson Pollock was featured in Life magazine, which was unheard of, like a film star… When you look closely at the Abstract Expressionists you see that as figurative artists they are average. A lot of them couldn’t draw to save their lives. Jackson Pollock’s attempts to draw are lamentable and yet he is one of the most famous artists of the twentieth century.
After roughly a year of doing his action paintings, he started painting really crap semi-representational stuff, and I saw in those two moments how enormous acclaim seemed to blind people to the merits of the art being produced. Nat Tate is not a critique of any particular YBA, but more a kind of fable about too much fame attached to too modest a talent. Nat is a case in point, a perfectly OK painter, but when he comes up against a genius – a word to be used very rarely – like Georges Braque, it shines too harsh a light on what he does and he cracks and kills himself, having destroyed ninety-nine percent of all the work he produced.
I think Pollock wanted to die because he couldn’t live with his fame and he eventually deliberately crashed his car. A lot of these artists died unhappy and tormented – Basquiat is another who drugged himself to death. I think art has to be evaluated, there have to be criteria, otherwise what’s the point? We are entitled to express our opinions and my own touchstone is virtuosity of some kind. I’m very interested in modern art and I think certain artists are fantastically gifted and intriguing, but then there are others who are even more famous who seem to me almost risibly bad, but such is the nature of the art world and the art market that the whole thing can function on the basis of four or five incredibly rich patrons, which seems to me very skewed.
I had a big argument in Germany when Nat Tate was published there last year with the editor of a German art magazine who said to me speaks in German accent], ‘I am obsessed with contemporary art!’ He obviously thought I was some retro-throwback figure and I said, ‘Well, I love contemporary art as well but I do judge it and I’m not going to just take everything’. There’s a line in the film version of Any Human Heart where Ben Leeping says, ‘I just bought an Andy Warhol the other day, incredibly expensive!’ and Logan says, ‘Yes, I call it snack art. You think you are satisfied but after an hour or so you are hungry again’.
In a way it’s facetious but you can go to see these exhibitions and you get it, you know, you can get Damien Hirst, and you see what he’s done, and then you set it in the context of contemporary art and think, ‘Just how original is it?’ and that’s another matter. Vitrines have been around for a long long time, as have spin paintings. But is it as interesting as a small Georges Braque late landscape? That’s the sort of question I ask myself, and I think, ‘No’, but I still find myself amused, beguiled, provoked by contemporary art. They’re not snake-oil salesmen, but they seem to me smart idea peddlers. When you go to art schools now all the students are thinking, ‘What’s my gimmick?’, not, ‘Can I draw a hand?’ It’s cyclical, and it will come back.
I was in The Wolseley the other night and there was Lucian Freud. I think he goes there almost every night. Nobody recognised him, this funny little man with paint-stained shoes who paints nudes. He’s a figurative painter – Degas would have been able to claim him as a fellow artist – and conceivably our greatest living artist. I’ve also got to know David Hockney, that extraordinary painter and intellectual, a virtuoso who can draw phenomenally well. He sends me little iPhone pictures, absolutely stunning little figurative paintings. That’s just my taste and the editor of the German art magazine would totally disagree with me and think I was old-fashioned, but I think judging work by the virtuosity on display is a very good system. If there isn’t any on display, there have to be other things that make you evaluate it.
QThe White Review — Is it true that you painted the Nat Tate paintings yourself?
AWilliam Boyd — Yes, they are all mine. Again, that’s the frustrated artist in me. In fact, we’re going to sell a Nat Tate at auction in June, I hope, so I’ve ‘found’ one in the attic…
QThe White Review — What was the Nat Tate launch evening like? Were people really pretending that they had once known him?
AWilliam Boyd — Well I wasn’t even there – can you believe it? – I was on a book tour. We were going to do two evenings. April 1 was Manhattan and then a week later we had a huge equally glitzy party booked for London. I was going to be at the London party and I had given big interviews in national newspapers and on the radio talking about how I had discovered a forgotten artist.
The plan was to launch the book straight up, saying, ‘Here’s a book, a monograph by me about this forgotten artist’. I thought it might run until somebody might accuse me in three months time of making the whole thing up. Phase one was the launch in New York, which David Bowie, who was the publisher of the book and one of the key conspirators, arranged with his chum Jeff Koons to have in his huge studio in Manhattan. And of course, if Jeff Koons and David Bowie invite you to a party, you go, so they got everybody there.
There were very few conspirators. There was me, three people who had worked on the book, and Bowie. Even Koons didn’t know. On his trip to cover the launch an English journalist named David Lister overheard a conversation about how it was all fake. He had bought it completely. He later claimed that he had been suspicious and went looking for the Janet Felzer Gallery on Madison Avenue and couldn’t find it. Basically, he had been hoodwinked and believed that Nat Tate was an unknown abstract expressionist so he threw a hissy fit and to silence him we had to bring him into the inner circle.
Lister was the one that went around this glamorous Manhattan party with all the glitterati and the fashionistas saying – and we weren’t planning on doing this at all – ‘What do you think about Nat Tate?’ Bowie read three extracts from the book, and he had actually written the blurb of the book saying he had known Nat Tate which was very convincing, and I got Gore Vidal and John Richardson, who was Picasso’s biographer, to reminisce about Nat Tate. It was a very elaborate lie, a very carefully thought-out pretence, but Lister played agent provocateur by going around asking people about Nat and they’d say, ‘Oh yeah, it’s so sad, he died so young, and I think I saw a show of his in…’ and dug holes for themselves and jumped in.
Then, we were going to do exactly the same thing in London, but Lister realised he was sitting on a huge story and about three days after the Manhattan launch he blew it wide open in The Independent with a headline along the lines of: ‘British Novelist Fools Manhattan Art World’.
I was in Paris on a book tour and I was quite pissed off because it had not been planned like that and I came back into a twenty-four-hour news maelstrom as everybody picked it up, which shows you that everybody loves a hoax, but who was hoaxed and for how long, that’s a good question.
I was on Newsnight for twenty minutes interviewed by Paxman. I was interviewed around the world. With hindsight that was probably the best thing that could have happened. When the original book sold out and went out of print, I said to Bloomsbury, ‘Why don’t we reissue it?’ and that’s what we’re doing this year. We’re doing that auction in June to coincide with that and if somebody will pay money to own one, again, some sort of blurring between reality and the fictive has occurred.
QThe White Review — You’ve written many different types of novels. Restless, for example, was a spy novel and had clear commercial potential. Do you write novels with the market in mind?
AWilliam Boyd — I have always cherry-picked my genres. I do believe that the novel is fundamentally about story and character and the more intriguing the story and the characters, the more beguiling the book. My novels have always had a very strong narrative line and often a very complex plot as well as everything else.
I became interested in spies and spying when I wrote Any Human Heart because Logan Mountstuart is a spy in the war, and I’d been reading a lot about Kim Philby, the master double-agent, just wondering again, what must it have been like? From this, I thought I would write a novel following on from Any Human Heart about a spy, but I decided to make the spy a woman to refresh a tired old genre.
The Blue Afternoon had a serial killer mystery lurking at its centre. Armadillo is about a massive insurance fraud, borrowed from that corporate thriller world. It’s the same thing with Ordinary Thunderstorms which is powered by that classic innocent man-on-the-run. An Ice-Cream War is a kind of chase – one brother following another. I’ve happily gone to genre to provide myself with the motor for my novel, and then around it constructed a rather elaborate and – I hope – beautiful automobile.
This new novel I’m just finishing is another trilogy following Restless and Ordinary Thunderstorms. It’s the final panel in a triptych exploring how to take a genre and give it a different kind of energy, in the same way that The New Confessions, Nat Tate and Any Human Heart were pushing the boundaries of fiction into the world of the real and the documentary. There was no grand plan, it’s just with hindsight I can see what’s going on: I’ve taken ingredients that seemed familiar and given them a good shake-up.
QThe White Review — Your characters are often beset by circumstances around them but they tend to find peace at the end of their novels, to end at ease.
AWilliam Boyd — I got an email today from a young theatre director I’m working with who has just seen the DVD of Any Human Heart, and she said, ‘What’s going on here?’, referring to Logan eating dog food, but also to Adam Kindred and his triangle, and the passage in Stars and Bars where Henderson Dores runs through Times Square wearing nothing but a cardboard box. ‘Why are you stripping people down to their rawest?’ she asked.
I hadn’t thought about it. But I ended up emailing her back and I explained that I do put my characters under stress and I do make them fall back on their own resources as human beings. Whatever they’ve got, whether it’s resources of character or ingenuity or particular skills, if they come through then, you’re right, there is this sense in which they’ve proved themselves in a way that that they never imagined possible. I’m not doing this consciously, but I do give my protagonist in the new novel a really hard time. Maybe it’s an exploration of the fragility of my own rather comfortable and easy life.
In Ordinary Thunderstorms, by sheer bad luck, Adam loses everything. Identity, passport, credit card – all the social buttresses we use to create our identity in the twenty-first century. I suppose you could go through all my books and see characters challenged by circumstance. In A Good Man in Africa, Morgan Leafy is blackmailed by a very clever African politician who asks him to corrupt a man who is incorruptible. Same in Armadillo, or with Logan. It’s one of those tropes that all my books can be boiled down to – the character finds himself in a world he doesn’t understand and has to somehow get through to the other side.
QThe White Review — Is that why your characters drink so much?
AWilliam Boyd — Well, it’s also a period thing. People drank a lot more liquor before. Maybe it’s also a novelist’s thing. All novelists are drinkers, some of them heavy drinkers. Anthony Burgess, who I knew, used to have a crate of gin delivered to his house once a week. Twelve bottles of gin a week! His wife was an alcoholic, but he kept up with her. Kingsley Amis was a bottle of whisky a night man, and Lawrence Durrell, Malcolm Lowry – there are many examples of the writer as drunk – let alone Scott Fitzgerald, Faulkner and Hemingway.
Alcohol is a very good way of fixing a period or fixing a character. Some of my characters are tea-total but drinking – I drink wine – is part of the texture of my life so it seems completely normal. When I’m writing about people, I ask myself, ‘What are they doing with their hands?’ There’s quite a lot of smoking in my novels as well and I don’t smoke and never have. It’s a period thing. When did women start smoking in public? In 1913 it was rather daring but a lot of them smoked. Virginia Woolf smoked like a chimney, sixty a day. You forget that before the 1960s, before the cancer scare arrived, smoking was almost completely universal. I remember flying back from Africa as a seven or eight-year-old and the entire plane seemed to be full of smokers. Proust was recommended that he smoke cigarettes to ease his asthma. It’s part of the textures of life in a given period.
QThe White Review — One gets a sense that you see history as inexplicable and the lives of individuals as a series of coincidences.
AWilliam Boyd — I think that old saying, ‘All history is the history of unintended consequences’ rings very true. The overriding theme of Any Human Heart is that all our lives are governed by luck. Any life is the sum of all the good luck and bad luck you’ve had and some manifestly had a lot of good luck or bad luck but with most people it sort of evens out over the course of threescore years and ten.
That world view is entirely plausible but it’s faithless. There’s no deity so it is your human experience and your human predicament ultimately and you better make the most of it while you can. That’s very much my own view of life. There’s a sense that your present happiness, whatever that may be, is actually an incredibly fragile thing and most of us can’t bear to think about that but it’s quite good to have it at the back of your mind because it does govern the way you make decisions. That contentment or that stasis of happiness can be shattered at any moment. If you believe in a God or Gods, then there’s a whole other story, but if you don’t you’re stuck in the present moment keeping your fingers crossed, advancing with due caution. That’s how I approach life and I dare say it colours the way I write about my fictional lives as well.
I recognised this very early on in Evelyn Waugh. His sense of humour is so ruthless that he won’t reward his characters with what they deserve. Instead, he will follow the implacable dice-throwing rules of the universe. At the end of an early travel book called Labels, which he wrote as his first marriage was collapsing, his main character says, ‘Fortune is the least capricious of deities, and arranges things on the just and rigid system that no one should be very happy for very long’. It’s not about being nihilistic or cynical, it’s just about realising that good luck is as likely as bad luck.
QThe White Review — It seems that, through your godless perspective on the world, you have evolved your own moral system which you impose on your characters, whereby humans are depicted as flawed beings but capable of redemption on their own.
AWilliam Boyd — Yes, I think that’s absolutely true. What do you base a moral system on once you remove the deity issue from your scheme of things? There seems to me to be very simple adages that people have know for millennia, ‘Do as you will be done by’, ‘Love is better than no love’, or ‘Being loved and loving in return is fuller than anything you will experience.’ Although I don’t articulate it in such a crude way, it powers a lot of my fiction. In Ordinary Thunderstorms, even though Adam has killed a man and is now a hospital porter with a false name, his life is made bearable by the fact that it has Rita in it and their love is shared. I don’t offer that to all my characters.
If I was a devout Anglo-Catholic, no doubt my fiction would be different. One of my favourite scenes in the film version of Any Human Heart is when Peter Scabius says he’s converted to Catholicism. Logan is, as it were, speaking for me when he says, ‘It’s all mumbo-jumbo mate.’ Scabius is having nothing of it and the two of them clash over it. It’s a really interesting microcosm of two attitudes to the human predicament. Scabius is completely bogus of course.
QThe White Review — Scabius is an interesting character. Is he based on anyone?
AWilliam Boyd — Someone wrote to me from the Graham Greene society to ask whether Scabius was based on him. Scabius stumbles into a marriage, has two children, didn’t love his wife, gets a job at a provincial newspaper as Greene did, writes these techies and then hits gold with Guilt. Then he becomes a portentous and rather heavyweight novelist. The other thing about him is that he’s a pure egomaniac and you don’t meet many of them. I’ve only met half a dozen. They don’t have to be famous or rich but all they think about is themselves and the world only exists in so far as they see it from the glow they cast. Scabius is one of those people who is oblivious of his own monstrous ego. These people are actually very funny when you encounter them because you can never dent their self-assurance. They’re absolutely impregnable.
Scabius is a poor man’s Graham Greene in a way. Greene is someone I’m really interested in as a writer and as a case study. His Catholicism seems to me to be a complete sham, just like Muriel Spark, another writer I really admire who converted to Catholicism. Waugh’s conversion, on the other hand, was genuine – he needed it – whereas the other two I think did it and then found it useful to be “Catholic Novelists”. I’ve read a great deal about both Muriel Spark and Graham Greene and they seem to me to be the most irreligious people I can imagine. They paid lip service to religion but it doesn’t wash with me.
QThe White Review — Have you ever seen yourself fictionalised in a contemporary’s work?
AWilliam Boyd — No, I haven’t, and I don’t draw on life in that straightforward causal way. I’ve been reading about H. G. Wells and Henry James recently. Wells wrote a novel at the end of James’s life called Boon, which nobody knows about. It’s a malicious portrait of Henry James and they were friends. And you think, ‘What’s going on there?’ James was hugely upset, and the friendship ended. What motivated Wells to so thinly disguise Mr. Boon? It’s just a straightforward attack. It does happen, but not in my fiction.
QThe White Review — Is Peter Scabius an embodiment of the writer’s fear of having someone supersede you in terms of success?
AWilliam Boyd — Gore Vidal famously said, ‘Every time a contemporary of mine succeeds a little something inside me dies’. Within the community of writers, we all know what the others are up to and how they’re doing. My first novels were published thirty years ago and it’s been a long and winding road so for me the challenge is keeping it going. It’s not about winning prizes or having films made of your books. It’s more about how you ensure as a maturing novelist that your books are still on sale in bookshops and are still being read. I know very eminent novelists who are in their seventies and eighties and you can’t buy their books other than in antiquarian bookshops. If you’ve written twenty-five novels and they’re not there anymore, it’s hard to cope with. But it’s almost an inevitable fate.
The model for Logan Mountstuart was William Gerhardie, the terrifying case study of a very successful young novelist, hugely acclaimed, who wrote his last book in 1942 and died in 1977 – that’s thirty-five years of silence and neglect and oblivion. That’s the terrifying fear, not how well others are doing.