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Mishcon Academy: Digital Sessions – In Conversation with William Boyd CBE

Posted on 04 March 2021

Last week novelist, screenwriter and playwright William Boyd CBE spoke with Hayley Geffin, Head of Communications at Mishcon De Reya, about his career, his latest novel Trio, and his upcoming six-part television Cold War spy-thriller, Spy City.

William was selected in 1983 as one of the 20 "Best of Young British Novelists" in Granta magazine. Boyd's novels include A Good Man in Africa, for which he won the Whitbread Book award, An Ice-Cream War, which won the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, and Any Human Heart, which won the Prix Jean Monnet de Littérature Européenne. In 2012 Ian Fleming's estate announced that Boyd would write the next James Bond novel, Solo.

William's 16th novel, Trio, was published in 2020 and is set in the summer of 1968, the year of the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy.  While the world is reeling, the 'trio' of an actress, novelist and producer are involved in making a rackety Swingin’ Sixties British movie in sunny Brighton.

Mishcon Academy: Digital Sessions are a series of online events, videos and podcasts looking at the biggest issues faced by businesses and individuals today.

Hayley Geffin

Hello to everybody who is joining us, welcome to this Mishcon Academy Digital Session.  It gives me great pleasure to introduce William Boyd to you all.  Novelist, writer, screenwriter, William’s novels have been translated into over 40 languages.  Your latest novel ‘Trio’ was published in the UK in October last year.  So, without further ado – hello.

William Boyd

Hi Hayley, very pleased to be here. 

Hayley Geffin

I recently read Trio and was particularly intrigued given that it’s your 16th novel that one of your main characters, Elfrida Wing, suffers terribly from writers’ block because clearly you don’t.  So, I wonder where the interest in writing about that came from. 

William Boyd

I don’t suffer from writers’ block but I think for all writers it’s the, it’s the terrible you know, malady lurking in the background and I take pre-emptive measures not to have writers’ block.  So, I gave this character in Trio, she’s a novelist called Elfrida Wing, a terrible case of writers’ block.  She hasn’t written a word of fiction for a decade and she’d written three successful novels and then suddenly for various complicated psychological reasons she, she stopped writing and in a way her journey or her struggle in Trio is an attempt to kickstart her writing career and to conquer this terrible block she’s got. 

Hayley Geffin

You mentioned pre-emptive measures.  What are the pre-emptive measures?

William Boyd

When I’m writing a novel, I always have an idea for the next novel I’m going to write or even two or three ideas, you know, novel ideas are tricky animals because in that germ of the idea there has to be something that can fill 300 pages or 500 pages and so when I get these ideas I write them down in a notebook and you know, park them.  It’s a good piece of advice actually I think for any, any you know, prospective or current writers is always have the idea of your next novel in mind as you’re writing the current one. 

Hayley Geffin

I’ve had a question come in from Adam, who asks, ‘How disciplined are you?’

William Boyd

I’m very disciplined and I think it’s one of the things about… writing a novel takes a long time, it takes me two to three years to write a novel and I think that when I’m writing a novel I’ll write you know, every day, seven days a week.  Even if I don’t feel like it or even if, even if I feel what I’m writing is not particularly good.  The key thing is to put the words down on the page as Yves de Maupassant said, ‘Put black on white’. 

Hayley Geffin

Who do you write mainly for?  Yourself?  Your audience?  Your characters?  Who do you have in mind when you’re writing?

William Boyd

I think most serious novelists, you know literary novelists as they’re called probably write for themselves.  You know, they’re writing for an ideal reader that is a kind of mirror image of themselves and you know that’s what I do.  I write the sort of novel that I would like to read and you hope that out there are other readers whose you know, sensibilities chime with yours and will appreciate what, what you like to read as well.  And you know then the novel has its own integrity in the sense that it’s… the novel that you’ve finished and the novel you deliver to your publisher is the novel you wanted to write and the novel that if you weren’t the writer would want to read.  I’ve known writers who feel their careers are in a fallow period and they have to write a different type of novel and so they kind of cook up a novel that they think might be successful in the marketplace and usually it’s a dud because it’s not written with that kind of integrity.  So, I think you have to be very true to yourself and if it doesn’t work then at least you can’t you know, beat yourself up because you’ve tried your hardest.  But if you, if you compromise and if you as I say second guess, try to second guess a market and it doesn’t work then you must feel what a waste of time. 

Hayley Geffin

I’m quite keen to talk to you about the James Bond novel. 

William Boyd

Yes well, I had written two spy novels and I had written a lot about espionage and I’d written a lot about Ian Fleming interestingly. 

Hayley Geffin

Yes. 

William Boyd

Which is why the Fleming family asked me to write the novel.  The conditions are very good for a serious writer in that they make you a gift of the character and you have to respect the you know, the tradition of Bond and that’s it.  The rest is entirely up to you.  You can set it wherever you want.  You can invent a story of any type you want and my James Bond novel is set in 1969 which is when Bond was 45.  So, it’s like the middle-aged Bond and I sent him to Africa, there are no Bond novels set in Africa.  It was really interesting and I feel that my novel ‘Solo’ it is a real portrait of that fictional, mythic agent James Bond and so if you’ve never read James Bond and are curious about him then if you read Solo you’ll get the, you’ll get all the gen. 

Hayley Geffin

Someone… I’ve got a question from Lee Manning.  How much research do you have to do for your novels and where do you get that information from?

William Boyd

The novel I’m writing now is actually set at the beginning of the 19th Century.  So, I’m doing a massive amount of research to get that right because I’m a realistic novelist, the world of my novel has to be totally authentic and plausible, the internet is invaluable to writers.  I don’t know how, how did we exist you know, pre-Google?  But I also like to acquire a mini library of books that serve the novel and depending on the novel sometimes that mini library can be you know, 60 books or sometimes it can be 400 books.  But those books that I acquire become the basic you know, mulch if you like of my, my research.  Occasionally, I have to go to my favourite library in London which is called The London Library in St James’ Square so I still resort to that old fashioned you know, look up the catalogue, find the book, go to the stack, take it out of the shelf and hope that that single fact you want is there.  I’ll give you an example, I was trying to find out in, in ‘Any Human Heart’ in fact, how corned beef was made. 

Hayley Geffin

Right. 

William Boyd

You’d think that was very easy but if you type, ‘How is corned beef made?’ into Google, you get you know, 90,000 recipes for corned beef.  Having failed to find out the industrial process of how you know, live cattle are turned into tins of corned beef, I had to go to this library and I found the book which was published in 1910 that told you exactly how that happens. 

Hayley Geffin

So, stepping back to novels as a, as a creative art form, I have a typically challenging question from my colleague Anthony Julius, who asks, ‘Is there anything creative left to be done in the form of the novel?’

William Boyd

The novel is the most capacious, the most generous, the most free of art forms, you can do anything in it.  One of my favourite novels is a unique novel, I mean it’s unusual to be able to say it’s unique.  It’s called ‘Pale Fire’ by Vladimir Nabokov, one of my favourite novelists and Pale Fire is a novel that consists of 999 lines of rhyming couplets, a long poem and 250 pages of footnotes and you think, ‘Well, that’s not a novel is it? That’s a sort of academic text’.  But in fact, it’s a hilarious novel because the footnotes are completely wrong.  Only, only Vladimir Nabokov could have conceived of this form of, of a novel and made it entirely readable and I’ve read it five or six times.  It’s, it’s absolutely astonishing.  So, I think that the answer is you know, anything is possible and the form will allow you to do absolutely anything with it but at the same time the classic traditional novel which I think is the, the best art form for explaining our – this strange adventure we’re all on, our lives, the human condition - will still be endlessly fascinating if the writer delivers.

Hayley Geffin

Do any of your novels contain any parts of your own life?

William Boyd

Well, they do inevitably but I’m not an autobiographical writer really I don’t use my life or my circle of friends or things I’ve experienced as raw material for my fiction.  I’m one of those novelists who makes things up you know, I use my imagination.  I like to invent a story and invent characters and set them off on their journey.  I’m not interested in writing about myself but having said that, inevitably a lot of me sort of trickles down through the invention, you know. 

Hayley Geffin

I suspect from what you’ve just said you’re not picking little character traits from people you know.  How do you build a character in that way?

William Boyd

I think the thing you must do is to avoid stereotypes, the worse a novel, the more the stereotypes.  It’s a very simple way of evaluating a novel.  If you’ve got a villain or a, or a meek wife or a sort of wimpy husband, you don’t want to go to central casting and just present that character as such.  So, I think incumbent on me and I think incumbent on all serious novelists is to make the character as idiosyncratic and as individual as possible.  Because you know, people are strange, people are odd.  I’m strange, I’m odd and I think that the more you reflect the multifaceted nature of human beings and what they say and what they do and how they react or how they dress or what they eat etcetera, etcetera then the more real that character becomes.  So, that’s what your… that’s a challenge you have as a novelist writing serious fiction to create characters that live and breathe as unique individuals. 

Hayley Geffin

So, we’ve talked a lot about novels, I’m keen also to ask you about film and television. 

William Boyd

Moving from the world of the novel, as I said which is a world of total freedom you can do absolutely anything to the world of film, is a move from this world of total freedom to a world of compromises and parameters and sheer impossibilities.  I love working in film but compared to the novel it’s a very simple art form.  I mean simple in a positive sense not in a derogatory sense because film is photography.  There is basically one point of view in any film whether you’re watching EastEnders or Bernardo Bertolucci and that is the camera lens and that makes it remorselessly objective.  You’re always on the outside looking on.  Whereas in the novel, you can effortlessly enter the mind of anybody and spend 500 pages there.  So, what you have to do when you move from writing a novel to writing a film is play to the strengths of the medium.  Don’t try to replicate the novel you’re adapting or the biography you’re adapting to a film because you’ll fail.  You have to make the best film you can with the you know, industrial, creative components of that art form. 

Hayley Geffin

And you returned to the spy world for television writing is that?

William Boyd

I find myself writing, writing films and writing TV series about spies because I’ve now got this reputation of knowing what I’m talking about.  I’ve written a six hour series called Spy City which is I hope going to come out in the next few months which is set in Berlin in 1961 in the summer before the Berlin wall goes up, about a British spy who’s trying to find a traitor in the midst of the allied forces,  French, American, British.  It’s about this British spy played by Dominic Cooper, he’s the star…

Hayley Geffin

Oh yes.  Yeah. 

William Boyd

… and it’s a classic cold war spy thriller you know but it’s set around that, that moment on the Sunday, August 13th when suddenly the city of Berlin is divided.  But I enjoyed you know it’s… I enjoyed the process and you know, Dominic Cooper is fabulous as the, as the lead spy as it were. 

Hayley Geffin

Someone’s anonymously asked a pretty unfair question, I’d say but I’m still very interested in your answer, it is, ‘What is your favourite William Boyd novel?’

William Boyd

Well, that’s a good question and I have a very boring answer actually.  From my point of view, the novel I like best is always the last one I’ve written because I think it reflects my status quo, it reflects my competence if you like.  This is as, as good as I can be and it’s, it’s a bit better than the one before it.  Though I know there are some readers who I know think I never got any better than my first novel ‘Good Man in Africa’ 40 years ago. 

Hayley Geffin

I just want to thank you so much for joining us.  It’s such a rare pleasure to speak to someone about their work and there’s so much of it to talk about.  Thank you. 

William Boyd

Thank you very much.  I really enjoyed it, Hayley and no it was a great experience.  It made me think.  I really enjoyed myself, thank you. 

Hayley Geffin

Thank you, everyone. 

The Mishcon Academy Digital Sessions.  To access advice for businesses that is regularly updated, please visit mishcon.com. 

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