Novelist and screenwriter William Boyd CBE has written numerous books, many of which he has adapted into films. Awards include the Somerset Maugham Prize and he is currently writing the new James Bond novel. He talks to Martha Alexander about big breaks, complex plots and why films are never as good as the books they are based on…
What was your big break?
I see myself as having a series of breaks. The first was being picked out of the slush pile by my eventual editor, Christopher Sinclair-Stevenson. It was his decision to publish my first novel, A Good Man in Africa, in January – a dead month. Astonishingly, I was reviewed on publication day in three national newspapers. This is pretty unprecedented but there was nothing much else around to review. Then I won the Somerset Maugham Prize and Penguin picked up the paperback rights. Looking back, I can see it was a pretty amazing launch for a first novel (I was 28). Then my second novel, An Ice Cream War, was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and sold very well. My third novel, Stars and Bars, was made into a movie by a Hollywood studio starring Daniel Day Lewis. All these breaks helped give my career its momentum.
What is the secret to a long and successful career?
Luck! And stamina — it’s a long slog. Also, the loyalty of readers; those people who come back to my books again and again.
Do you suffer from writer’s block and, if so, what are your methods for banishing it?
Actually I don’t. I work very hard and have innumerable projects on the go. My advice would be the same as Maupassant’s: “Put black on white” – start writing, don’t just sit there thinking about it. Also, when I’m writing one novel I find it helps to have a couple of clear ideas about what the next one might be. It makes you relax.
Do you have any good tips for keeping the plot clear, clever and under control?
A good complex plot is an incredibly hard thing to come up with. People who sneer at storytelling should try doing it themselves. I don’t think there is a technique you can learn — I really think it’s a gift.
How do you prepare to write a novel?
I don’t start writing until I know precisely how the novel will end. This “period of invention” usually lasts two years — during which I may travel, if required, for the novel. I also build up a small library of books that I’ll need for the background to the novel. Slowly but surely I can begin to block out the novel’s narrative, invent names for characters, make mistakes and double back, but, crucially, I haven’t started writing yet. The “period of composition” lasts about a year — hence the three-year cycle of the appearance of my novels. Of course if I get a good idea while I’m writing I’ll make changes, but the complete shape of the book is very clear to me.
What’s it like having your words adapted for TV?
I do the adapting, so I find the experience very congenial. No one but me has ever adapted any of my novels into films or TV films. The novel is a world of infinite freedom; film is a world of parameters, compromises, impossibilities. In adapting you should simply concentrate on making the best film you can — you can never replicate the novel’s richness, subtlety, its effortless subjectivity. You should never judge a film by the book it’s based on — the film will always lose.
Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?
I think it’s worth reiterating my point about “stamina”. It’s hard work, a long grind. Also, be prepared to move on. My advice is to write the next one. I wrote three apprentice novels before my first one was published. A Good Man in Africa was actually my fourth novel.
How are you getting on with writing the new James Bond novel?
Very well. I’m over half way through and will finish by the end of the year. My novel is set in 1969 — when James Bond was 45 years old — that’s all I’m prepared to say!
Image credit: Eamonn McCabe
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