William Boyd: ‘A bad ending can ruin a good novel’

Described by Sebastian Faulks as ‘the finest storyteller of his generation’, William Boyd details the secret to keeping readers hooked for over four decades as he speaks to Caroline Sanderson about his life as an author.

William Boyd
William Boyd

“The ending is crucial to the success of a novel. A bad ending can ruin a good novel”. Strange perhaps, to begin an interview with one of our most popular novelists by talking about the end. But in William Boyd’s case, knowing exactly how a story is going to finish before he starts writing it has been a crucial component in his globally successful career. Beginning with the publication of his first novel, A Good Man in Africa in 1981, Boyd’s list of credits now encompasses 14 novels (a 15th, called Love is Blind is due out this September), several volumes of short stories and copious journalism, as well as numerous plays and screenplays. No wonder Sebastian Faulks called him “the finest storyteller of his generation”.

If you want to know the secret of keeping readers hooked on your books over four decades, the unpretentious William Boyd answer is: preparation and pondering. Hold one of his novels in your hands, and you are looking at a book guaranteed to have been carefully crafted over three years: two years in the planning and researching, and a third year in the writing.

“I call it my period of invention followed by my period of composition,” he tells me. “It’s a rhythm I’ve got into now. It’s fun, working out the story you’re going to tell - the shape of the vessel that will carry the cargo you put in it - maybe doing a bit of travelling, and finding the books and photographs I use for my research. The period of invention doesn’t determine absolutely what that composition will be – ideas come all the time - but it is reassuring in the sense that I’m never in that terrible position of thinking: what happens next?”.

William Boyd

It’s fun, working out the story you’re going to tell - the shape of the vessel that will carry the cargo you put in it - maybe doing a bit of travelling, and finding the books and photographs I use for my research.

With all of Boyd’s novels strikingly different from one another in terms of story and setting, I feel justified in asking that old chestnut question: where does he get his ideas from?

“It’s very odd. I get maybe ten ideas a year. It might be one sentence, or a notion that is somehow gravid with potential. It could be a radio play or a short story or a movie or a TV series. But certain ideas I now recognise as having the potential for filling out a good-sized novel. Some are incredibly simple. My novel Stars and Bars began with me trying to imagine what would happen if you were dumped naked in an alleyway just off Times Square in New York and had to get back to your hotel. Even just a single question like that can provide you with the building blocks of a narrative.”

The inspiration for Love is Blind, Boyd’s most recent novel, which follows the turn of the 20th century fortunes of Brodie Moncur, a Scottish piano tuner who falls irrevocably in love with a Russian opera singer called Lika Blum was a musical one. “I’m a great listener to music of all sorts, and I was thinking about the notion of a sequence of notes, which if you hear them, will make your tear ducts operate. What exactly is it that triggers an emotional response to a piece of music? That question became the starting point”.

Having written about both artists and writers in previous fictions, notably Nat Tate and Any Human Heart, the idea of exploring a different art form appealed to Boyd, but he was initially daunted by idea of writing about the nuts and bolts of music. “There aren’t many novels about music because it’s very hard to get on the page how it works. And that’s when I had the idea of writing not about a composer or a virtuoso, but about a piano turner. Having somebody who was involved in the machinery and mechanics of music solved the problem”. As indicated by its subtitle, “The Rapture of Brodie Moncur”, Love is Blind is also a beguiling novel about obsessive love, and its tendency to obscure the real person behind the dazzling object of our desire. Threads in the novel were also inspired by the lives of the two authors mentioned in the novel’s epigraphs – Anton Chekhov (“a literary obsession of mine”, says Boyd) who also loved a woman named Lika; and Scottish writer, Robert Louis Stevenson, who lived in exile from his native land just as Brodie Moncur does.

William Boyd

I’ve always have been a storyteller. I think the novel is about story and character and the more compelling those are, the better the novel. I also think I’m essentially a comic novelist. I see the world through a black comic lens, and that’s been consistent from the very beginning.

It’s tempting to search for echoes of William Boyd’s own Scottish heritage in Love is Blind, a book he dubs “my most Scottish novel”. Born into a Scottish family albeit in Accra in Ghana, and educated in Scotland, Boyd still speaks with a faint Scottish lilt despite living in London and France for most of his adult life. But you soon discover that he considers himself the least autobiographical of writers. “I don’t use my life as raw material for my fiction. That way I feel free to roam historically through time and space. For me the pleasure of writing is the liberation of the imagination: trying for example to capture what it would be like to be a young woman primatologist in a jungle in Africa, as I did in Brazzaville Beach”.

The same goes for the globe-trotting settings of Boyd’s fiction. Whilst Love is Blind takes us to Scotland, the country where Boyd went to school, and “Any Human Heart” concludes in the part of France where Boyd now lives for part of the year, he has also written about numerous locations he has never actually visited. “Even though I grew up in West Africa, I set my second novel, An Ice Cream War in East Africa”. And when I got the idea of setting The Blue Afternoon in the Philippines of 1902, I did think of going there, but then some volcano erupted just as I was about to, and all flights were cancelled. But it wouldn’t have made any difference in any case because the Philippines I wanted to write about no longer exists. You’re often far better to send your imagination to a place”. 

Whilst Boyd several times stresses how crucial imagination is for any writer of fiction (“it’s the one thing you can’t learn from a writing course”, he says), rooting his writing in reality has always been of paramount importance to him. “It has to seem totally authentic and plausible, particularly if you’re a realistic novelist as I am. There’s a Serbian writer called Danilo Kiš who said that the novelist’s duty is to make the reader believe that everything in his novel actually happened, or could actually happen; and any means to that end is acceptable. That’s very much what I do. Even though it’s all made up - there never was a Brodie Moncur, or a piano manufacturer called Channon & co - for the kind of novels I write, everything has to seem as if you though you could Google it. The reader has to be able to suspend their disbelief, and enter into the world of the novel. That’s the contract the author has with the reader who spends money on their books”. Boyd’s worldwide sales - all his books remain in print in the UK, as well as in the US and across much of Europe – suggest that he consistently fulfills his part of this contract.

Ask people to name just one William Boyd novel they have loved however, and one title recurs again and again, namely Any Human Heart, published in 2002, and later made into a TV drama, scripted by its author. Boyd confirms that he receives three times as many letters about Any Human Heart than about anything else he has written. Why does he think this is?

“I have a theory that it’s partly because it’s a whole life novel. It follows the character of Logan Mountstuart from cradle to grave, and that’s unusual, because in most novels you only get part of a life. The effect of this is that you know everything about the central character – from when they are a little child to when they are an old person. The other thing that’s key to the way people feel about Any Human Heart is the fact that it’s written as an intimate journal. It’s the literary form that most approximates the way we live because it isn’t shaped, it’s not written with hindsight, but reflects what happened that very day, that very week. It gives the reader the sense of living a real life in all its randomness, which you don’t get from a more orthodox novel. Of course the novel isn’t random – it’s all highly plotted and planned - but the effect is that you live Logan’s life with him, and at the end, you’re present at his death. People get terribly upset at that: I get letters saying: “I felt a friend had died”. That’s the intimate nature of novel-writing – it’s a one-on-one relationship between the novelist and a particular reader whose response will be unique among maybe hundreds of thousands of readers a novel has had. People still write to me about my very first novel, A Good Man in Africa.

Almost four decades after the publication of that very first novel, William Boyd is, he says, working “harder than I’ve ever worked. I don’t have any sense of slowing down or running out of ideas. If anything, the ideas factory is working overtime”. Among his numerous current projects are an adaption of his novel, The Blue Afternoon into an 8-hour TV series, a musical version of an early short story entitled Love Hurts and of course, his next novel, currently in its period of invention. “I’ve got a very clear idea of what it will be, and where it’s set”, Boyd tells me.

It’s hard to think of any other novelist whose back catalogue encompasses such a diverse range of themes and settings as that of William Boyd. But apart from always knowing how his novels are going to end, what does he see as the other constants in his now near forty-year writing career?

“I’ve always have been a storyteller. I think the novel is about story and character and the more compelling those are, the better the novel. I also think I’m essentially a comic novelist. I see the world through a black comic lens, and that’s been consistent from the very beginning”. He reflects for a moment. “And I’ve always been struck by the division of good luck and bad luck in everybody’s life as being a guiding way of analysing our experience on this small planet. Even early on in An Ice Cream War, you can see that I was looking at ways of the world that seem utterly random and inexplicable. I’m also interested in the kind of people we become, how our world view and personal philosophies are shaped. What makes sense to you, and what do you value? And how do you prioritise the things that are important in your life? All these questions are reflected in all of my fiction”.


Love is Blind by William Boyd is out on paperback now


Sign up to the Penguin Newsletter

For the latest books, recommendations, author interviews and more