William Boyd has been telling stories for 20 years – as novelist, director, playwright, and part-time wine producer he is not a man, you imagine, who struggles to fill his day. He is a powerhouse of British literature and one of our best-loved novelists. And happily, he is as fascinating off the page as on it, flitting willingly and dexterously between talk of his background and of the future of literature – and his place in it.
Raised in Africa, schooled in Scotland and currently living in London, the meaning of identity has become a persistent theme in William’s work. It is a theme that connects with a wide-ranging audience, be it of literature or prime time television. He has also built a career on blurring the line between reality and fiction, including the diary-like narrative in Any Human Heart, and the “biographical” story of Nat Tate: An American Artist, (a no-better-than-average artist who achieves great fame, and commits suicide from the resulting art angst). The latter was the catalyst for one of the most talked about hoaxes in the art world, William explains – one that unfolded like a novel itself, with real-life characters, David Bowie, a pompous NY art crowd and an unruly British journalist.
It’s an incredible achievement to be so respected as a novelist and also as a scriptwriter and director.
I thought of myself as a novelist, first and foremost, but once that was parked securely, I was able to do the other things that took my fancy. Once I was established as a young author, I thought I could also write a film, for example. And once I’d written a film, I wanted to direct a film. It’s a very British way of doing things.
I don’t come from an artistic family at all – my father was a doctor and my mother was a teacher – but I was always interested in art. I wanted to be an artist, somebody without a proper job – a one man band with the freedom to decide when to get up and when to work and when to stop and do whatever I felt like doing. At the age of 17, I wanted to be a painter and go to art school, but this road was closed by the paternal hand, so I went to study english literature and decided to become a novelist. I didn’t know what was involved. I must have seen a movie about some writer, getting up from his desk and wandering out to his terrace, mixing himself a drink and looking out at the world. There must have been a fantasy in my head. But at university in Scotland, we had a writer-in-residence. I met a real writer – a completely forgotten Scottish poet, but here was somebody who could tell me what you had to do.
‘See? A book! See? A film! I wasn’t a dreamer, I was serious.’
It was all very well having imagination and dreams and ambitions, but how on earth did you set the thing in motion? That set of circumstances started a long process of self-education. I started to write. I was a film critic, theatre critic, I even wrote a novel when I was at university, albeit a hopeless, deeply autobiographical novel which I promptly binned.
When you talk about your father not wanting you to pursue a career in art; was that because he wanted you to study something more concrete?
He came from a big family, and all his brothers were engineers or accountants or farmers, proper solid jobs. He was always very sceptical about my ability to vaguely earn a living, let alone have a proper pension, which was his idea of a good job. I realise now he tried to brainwash me, and steer me away from anything that he saw as fanciful or stupid or dreamy, but I’m glad to say he failed. Every piece of advice he gave me, I ignored. Not deliberately; I was just the wrong person for shaping. I had a very vivid imagination as a child and I was perfectly happy playing on my own. When I was at school, I used to tell stories that involved the other kids at school, classic early writer material.
So it wasn’t a struggle for me to become a writer, but my father never saw my success, which is one of my greatest disappointments in life. He was only 58 when he died. I was in my early 20s, and I’d published two short stories. He died thinking, ‘That stupid boy, nothing good will come of this!’ I deeply regret that he didn’t stay around for a bit longer so I could say, ‘See? A book! See? A film! I wasn’t a dreamer, I was serious.’