William Boyd is one of the world’s most loved novelists. From his 1981 debut novel A Good Man in Africa, to Armadillo, Brazzaville Beach, and Any Human Heart, he has created some of the most memorable characters in modern literature. In an exclusive interview we talked to William Boyd about his new novel, his favourite writers, and surviving the ‘slush pile’.
Can you tell us your experiences of first getting published? I heard that you originally wrote a book of short stories which was bought by the publisher on the condition that you then wrote a novel.
In the early eighties the most pragmatic way of getting your name in print was by writing short stories. I had quite a lot of success; I had stories published in magazines and broadcast on the radio. I had submitted a collection of short stories on spec to Hamish Hamilton, my current publishers, and I got the dream letter back from the editor saying we’d like to publish the collection of short stories but we’d like to publish the novel first. The only trouble was that I hadn’t written the novel, so I took three months off my job, borrowed some money, and wrote A Good Man in Africa in about four months.
Out of all your other novels, Any Human Heart seems closest to The New Confessions. Was this deliberate?
I think Any Human Heart does share a lot with The New Confessions, but the biggest difference is in the way the story is told. In The New Confessions the hero is at the end of his life and is looking back. The difference with Any Human Heart is that the man telling you the story is telling it day by day, in the form of an intimate journal that starts when he’s seventeen and ends when he’s in his eighties. As a story-telling situation it’s massively different. As his life unfolds, you can look back and see what’s gone wrong, what mistakes he’s made. In the end we begin to understand him in a way that I think we understand ourselves.
Do you think the reader will like him, or do you think that’s irrelevant?
Any Human Heart is an attempt to examine humanity in a novel, but without hindsight or manipulation. We’re all flawed and Logan Mountstuart is not a saint either; he behaves very badly, he’s very self-regarding sometimes. I didn’t want to make him a nice guy, I wanted to make him a human being. In a way the question of do you like him or don’t you like him is irrelevant.
He does suffer the terrific misfortune of losing both the love of his life and his child during the war. Is the fact that he does survive and go on something that the reader warms to?
Everybody wants to love and be loved, if you’re in that state you can cope with anything. In Logan’s case, he suffers the worst kind of body blow that any human being can. He is in the middle of his life and this terrible thing has happened to him, so what happens next? He runs the gamut of every human experience available, but somehow emerges as an old man living in a self-appointed exile in France. There’s a serenity that arrives with his self-knowledge. I don’t think he’s a heroic figure but maybe he’s an exemplary figure in the sense that we all hope we could cope as well as Logan.
The novel is written with real people interwoven into the story, which gives it a strangely Victorian feel. Do you think it’s peculiar having those two things together?
The structure of the novel was dictated by the fact that I wanted to write a life from the beginning to the end. Logan is born in 1907 and dies in 1991, so he lives in every decade of the twentieth century. Not many novelists have to cover all that ground. Because I was writing it as a journal, I couldn’t just say ‘Chapter six - fifteen years later’. Maybe you will think Logan Mountstuart did exist because it’s all so incredibly plausible and it’s all so incredibly documented, there’s even an index at the back of this novel.
Do you feel you’ve been influenced by any other writers?
I’ve studied and taught English Literature for twelve years so I’ve pretty much read my way through the canon. I re-read Evelyn Waugh and Charles Dickens and American writers like John Updike and Philip Roth. I also read and re-read a lot of Russian writers; Nabokov is a great favourite of mine, as is Gogol, and Chekov. I don’t think, however, ‘oh I must write in a Chekovian way’, or ‘I must write like John Updike’ it’s just that what you like inevitably comes out in what you write.