William Boyd at The Sunday Times Oxford Literary Festival

Published by Emma Lee-Potter in on Monday 2nd April 2012

The massive marquee at Christ Church was full to bursting for William Boyd’s talk at the Oxford Literary Festival on Saturday night. The event was a sell-out and fans were so keen to hear him talk about his latest novel, Waiting for Sunrise, that an orderly queue formed outside – just in case there were any empty seats.

In a way, Boyd, with slicked back hair and wearing an immaculate dark suit and dazzling white shirt, was back on home turf. He spent three years as an English literature tutor at St Hilda’s in the 1980s and said his time there coincided with the start of his writing career. In between, he told us, he’d done just about every writing job going – “from restaurant criticism to Hollywood movies.”  He’s written 17 novels to date, along with a myriad of screenplays and short stories, and been awarded the CBE.

For me, the most enthralling part of Boyd’s hour-long talk came when he outlined the details of how he writes. Famed for his amazing settings – from 1920s Berlin to Africa to Vienna before the First World War, he admitted that he doesn’t necessarily go to these places before writing about them.

“It’s the power of your imagination that makes it work and makes it feel real,” he said. “I send my imagination as a proxy traveller, and recreate a city in my mind. I have never worried about visiting a place. I do it from my armchair. Sometimes the use of imagination is more true than the documentary evidence that your eyes and ears provide you with.”

He reckons you need three things for a novel – the ability to express yourself lucidly, a relish for observation (“I take enormous pleasure in the cinema of everyday life”) and a well-functioning imagination.

It was fascinating to hear that before Boyd writes a word of his novels, he’s often spent two years planning them and thinking them through in very precise detail.

“I have a particular working method,” he explained. “Iris Murdoch talked about periods of invention and periods of composition. I have a long period of invention and maybe two years will go by before I start writing. I maybe travel a bit, acquire a small library of books that will help me, fill notebooks of ideas and think about the characters.

“It’s only when I know precisely how the novel will end that I start on page one and the period of composition begins. I write with confidence because I have done all my thinking and have a very clear plan. I add flesh to the bones but the actual writing of the novel is done, not with ease exactly, but with peace of mind.”

Unlike many writers and thanks to his tried and tested method of writing, he never finds his characters suddenly doing something he hadn’t expected them to do either. “My characters are my creatures and do my bidding,” he said firmly.

6 comments so far

  • Wow, amazing, two years of planning and thinking. Clearly I should be doing this too!
    But so fascinating. Love hearing about other writers’ working methods – thanks, Emma.
    Jill Mansell

  • I went to a talk and book signing that William Boyd did in Brighton years ago when he’d written ‘Any Human Heart’. He’s a brilliant speaker isn’t he? So charismatic. I read an article about his new book set in Vienna..did he talk much about his visits there? Fascinating..a city that I now really want to visit. I love his writing and I’m looking forward to reading his new book. My Mum went to a recent signing and got me a copy and he signed it ‘To City Girl At Heart’ 🙂

  • Yes, he talked a bit about Vienna and how he came up with the setting and his main character, Lysander Rief. How brilliant to have a copy of Waiting for Sunrise signed to City Girl at Heart. I haven’t read it yet but really want to.

  • Thanks for this Emma. I would have loved to have gone to this talk and reading about it here is the next best thing. (Your T-line shorthand must be amazing by the way, to have got all that down.) I’ve read a few sample chapters of ‘Before Sunrise’on my Kindle and it is just wonderful how he sets a scene.

  • That’s really kind, Karen. My shorthand isn’t that great but William Boyd spoke very clearly and not too fast, which helped! I haven’t read Waiting for Sunrise yet but I’m going to after his inspiring talk!

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