At 59, William Boyd has done it all, but a thirst for knowledge and a curious disposition keeps him writing, as an entertained Sue Leonard discovers
Waiting for Sunrise
WHEN Lysander Rief, hero of Waiting for Sunrise was 14 years old, his mother caught him asleep with his trousers down. Too embarrassed to admit he’d been masturbating, he told her he’d been assaulted by the under-gardener. Appalled, she dismissed the accused, along with his father.
Years later, now a successful actor, Rief loses the ability to reach orgasm. In 1913, he sets off for Vienna to seek a cure from an eminent psychiatrist. Dr Bensimon treats him with a therapy called Parallelism. Through hypnosis, he’s encouraged to re-imagine that fateful day. By doing so, he changes the moment, making it detailed, working out what he was wearing and what he’d had for breakfast. This way, the fictive memory strikes the true one out.
It’s an intriguing idea and it works for Lysander. Soon he’s in the throes of a passionate affair. But Parallelism is all in the head of William Boyd.
“I made it up,” says the writer, as we sip wine together in Dublin’s Merrion Hotel. “If you accept the premise that we contribute to the outside world as much as the outside world gives us, then our memories, equally, must be part us and part what actually happened. So why can’t we alter them, and forget we did this terrible thing? It’s very plausible. I’m sure I’ll be getting lots of letters asking if I can recommend therapists.”
It’s an extension, he says, of the way we all tend to misremember. “When Any Human Heart was shown on television recently, a lot of journalists said, ‘Of course the book was fantastically well reviewed.’ I said ‘yes,’ but then I looked back at my journal, and I got quite bad reviews for it. I was basking in this glow of false memory. Our interpretation of the past is often coloured by what has happened in-between.”
Lysander’s love affair with the tempestuous Hettie Bull ends in disaster. He’s accused of rape, flees the country in disguise and ultimately works in espionage, on the frontline, then in Geneva and, finally, in Whitehall, uncovering a mole.
But it was that interest in psychiatry that got Boyd started on his new novel. In Vienna on a journalistic assignment, he visited the Freud museum. “The museum is in Freud’s old apartment building and it was all so unchanged. I had a shiver at the top of the stairs. I thought, what must it have been like to be psychoanalysed at the beginning of psychiatry? We’re all Freudians now in that we acknowledge the role of the unconscious, but back then, it must have seemed so strange.”
Lysander continues to be helped by Parallelism, but it’s the spy element of the novel that drives the narrative. And it’s not the first time Boyd has written about espionage. Restless, winner of the Costa prize centred on a spy in Second World War. Logan, in Any Human Heart flirts with spying, too.
“It’s such a rich world for a novelist,” says Boyd. “You are dealing with bad faith, duplicity, mendacity, and lack of trust. The only sure thing is that you can be sure of nothing.” He enjoyed setting the book during the First World War.
“Espionage is as old as warfare, but the secret services are very new. It came to Britain in 1909, so in 1914 was a fledging organisation peopled by fly-by-nights learning by experience. It was really up to the ingenuity of the individual agent.”
Boyd clearly enjoys his research. He describes how he ‘invents’ ingenious ways to kill or torture people with the greatest relish. In Restless a man was killed with a pencil through his eye; in this one, torture is executed using a scouring pad and a live wire.
“My sick mind comes up with an idea and I check it out. I have an uncle who is a dentist; he helped with the latest one.”
It’s no wonder, then, that it takes Boyd three years to produce a book; two on research, and one on writing.
“I never hand over a novel until I’m completely happy with it. Whatever its fate, I know it works. Its component parts move and I’m totally happy with the construction, and with the expertise.”
So does writing make him happy?
“If it’s going well, you’re possibly the luckiest so and so, because you are in your head. Chekhov said, ‘All I want is to be a free artist.’ If you find yourself free to do what you want to do, then it is an amazing way to be.”
Boyd certainly looks happy. As well he might. At 59, he’s not only an author but a screenwriter, journalist and a critic. He’s been hugely successful, both critically and commercially. His screenplay of This Human Heart won a Bafta, to add to his numerous awards, and Restless is soon to be on television. He does, however, admit to an underlying anxiety.
“All my books are currently in print. They’re available in Dublin, New York, Milan, Berlin and London, but my challenge is, how the hell do I keep that going? Where will I be in 10 years time? I see people who started out with me in the 1980s still firing away, but their early work is unobtainable. That’s a fate to avoid. What do I have to do to keep the status quo?”
Boyd is well aware that his success is all down to his readers. What would he most like them to make of Waiting for Sunrise?
“If I have seduced the reader for a few hours into entering my world, and they’ve been completely held by it, and intrigued, I’ll be happy. They can take away sub-themes about modernism, duplicity and masks. I want their time to be fulfilling.”
Passionate about the novel form, Boyd takes the greatest care to produce rounded characters.
“The challenge is to make a character as complicated and individual as human beings are. So you have to work out what kind of a person he or she is. Once you get that clear in your head, every dilemma you have of what he would do in that circumstance, or how he would behave confronted with that, the answer comes. Because you know how those sort of people react.
“The more you get that right, the more the character lives. Conversely, the more you go to central casting, or draw on stereotypes, the more dead and boring the characters are. That,” he says, “is the great power of the novel.
“People are mysterious, even those nearest and dearest to you. You can’t really know what’s going on in their head. Pick up a novel and the novelist will tell you. You’ve got access to this mysterious life we are all leading.
“If you want to know what Elizabeth Bennett thinks about Mr Darcy, Jane Austen will tell you. But if you or I met Mr Darcy, we would know no more about hun than we know about anybody. A novel shows us the world clearly and allows us to understand this mystery tour we are all on.”
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