William Boyd: “The world of books is much more difficult now” | William Boyd

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Oilliam Boyd, 70, is the author of 26 books, including any human heart (2002)adapted for television in 2010 with three actors playing the main role of Logan Mountstuart – and Restlessthe Costa novel of the year in 2006. His new book, Romanticis set in the 19th century and is presented as a biographical fiction inspired by the personal papers of a certain Cashel Greville Ross, an Irishman of Scottish descent who fought at Waterloo, met Shelley, smuggled Greek antiquities and set out in search of the source of the Nile, among other adventures. Boyd, whom Sebastian Faulks called “the best storyteller of his generation”, grew up in Ghana and Nigeria and lives in London and the Dordogne, from where he spoke on Zoom.

Where did this novel begin?
My 20s were steeped in romantic poetry because I spent eight years at Oxford without completing a doctorate on Shelley. I always had the impression that nothing is lost, and I wondered how I could recycle this material when I read The life of Henri Brulardthe fantastically modern autobiography of [the 19th-century French writer] Stendhal, who I think is not widely read in British literary circles. He called himself a romantic because he kept falling in love – he thought it was a curse – and I decided that this reserve of knowledge I had about romantic poets could come to fruition by writing about someone. one with that kind of temper.

How does writing a lifelong novel – this is your fourth – compare to writing your thrillers?
It’s harder. In a tightly structured spy novel like Restless, the plot machinery is part of the appeal. Here, the story must feel like it’s happening randomly, like life, but it can’t falter: Cashel is 82 when he dies, and you can’t write a 5,000-page novel every month. and every year. My other three full-life novels are told in first person, so nothing can happen and it’s always interesting because of the voice acting. I was aware that writing Romantic in the third person meant that things had to keep happening, even at the end of Cashel’s life. What I understood is that life in the 19th century were incredibly crowded; Anthony Trollope has been to Australia and America twice six time.

What attracts you to protagonists with identities?
Maybe it’s my upbringing: I’m Scottish, but I was born in Africa, so I felt more at home in West Africa than in Edinburgh. If someone asks me where I’m from, I say, “How long have you been? Cashel is called an Irish jerk, an English jerk and a Scottish jerk – it was very deliberate, because, you know, what is he?

What about your use of faux-real framing devices? attracts you to these?
When I published my novel The new confessions in 1987, he was seen again in the Time by Bernard Levin, who said he was so convinced by the autobiographical form of the novel that he found himself rummaging in search of the photographs. This is where the idea of any human heart was born. I had a sort of test drive for this novel when I used anonymous photographs of real people in my art prank, Nat Tate: an American artist 1928-1960a biography of this non-existent painter, where I had people like [David] Bowie to join the plot. In [Boyd’s 2015 novel] Sweet Caress the photos telling the story of the main character’s life all come from flea markets and websites. It’s an old trope – Daniel Defoe claimed Moll Flanders was a real person – but I want people to think, my God, did Logan Mountstuart really exist? I’m trying to show that fiction can grab you in a way that reporting and history can’t.

How has the life of a writer changed since you started publishing?
The 1980s were kind of a boom time, but the challenge for a literary novelist now is to just keep the show going. It used to be that you could write a novel every two years or so and lead a perfectly pleasant middle-class life. Now the mid-list is gone. The blunt fact is that you sell or you don’t sell. Friends of mine who have written 12 novels cannot be published or their advances have dropped by 80%. It’s a much tougher world.

Why do you think Stendhal isn’t read as much in English these days?
It was something of a hack: the polar opposite of Gustave Flaubert’s fussy paragraph-a-week model, which became the model for serious writing on the fringes of the literary novel. Flaubert took five years to write Ms. Bovaire; Stendhal wrote his great novel The Red and the Black in 60 days. I was part of a symposium here in France for a Flaubert birthday, and a French writer said, “I hate Flaubert, I hate what he came to represent – give me Stendhal anytime.” When people dismiss storytelling, I say, “Well, try it.” You can tweak your prose until it shines, but a story that readers want to know what happens next… is something you throw in at your peril.

What novel first made you want to write?
In my late teens, I was living in Nigeria and the civil war was raging. You constantly had AK-47s pointed at you at roadblocks. It was nothing like I had ever read or seen – until I read Joseph Heller Catch-22, whose absurd vision of the war resonated strongly because I lived it on a daily basis in the streets of Ibadan. The books I was reading for A level English were perfectly good but it was Catch-22 it showed me how the experience could be transformed. I tried to read it again recently and quit after 10 pages; It didn’t work, but it worked then, and I want those memories to stay intact.

Romantic is published on October 6 by Viking (£20). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

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