The Newest James Bond Author William Boyd speaks to the Strand
William Boyd is the author of ten novels, including Ordinary Thunderstorms; A Good Man in Africa, winner of the Whitbread Award and the Somerset Maugham Award; An Ice-Cream War, winner of the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize and shortlisted for the Booker Prize; Brazzaville Beach, winner of the James Tait Black Memorial Prize; Any Human Heart, winner of the Prix Jean Monnet; and Restless, winner of the Costa Novel of the Year. Last month, Boyd wrote Solo, which is latest James Bond novel to be released and has been met by popular and critical acclaim.AFG: Were you surprised when the Ian Fleming estate asked you to write this book?WB: Oh yeah, you bet. It just came out of the blue. You don’t know if you’re being considered, you can’t volunteer for it, you can’t be auditioned for it. Just suddenly, I got a call from my literary agent who said, “Would you sit down? Take a deep breath. Would you consider writing a James Bond novel?” So that’s how it all kind of took place—you know, it’s like winning the lottery—random?AFG: Had you always had an interest in spy fiction?
WB: Well, not always. I read it over the years, but the last ten years I’ve gotten more interested in it and I’ve actually written two spy novels of my own. One’s set in World War II called Restless, and my last novel before Bond is set in World War I. So I’ve become aggressively more intrigued by the genre and, to an extent, have tackled it myself as many novelists do in the course of their working life. Particularly in British literature, there’s a strong tradition in writing the spy novel, probably starting with Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent and then Graham Greene, Anthony Burgess, Ian McEwan. There’s something about the genre that appeals to novelists more than other ones, you know, and I’m just part of that tradition. I think I became very interested in the psychology of spying and being a spy and decided to write my own spy novels.
AFG: Your spy novels weren’t the stuff of popular fiction like the James Bond novels. Was it hard to grab hold of the James Bond style?
WB: What’s great about this was that they didn’t lay down any rules or formula you had to write to; you just had to write the character. So I didn’t have to write in Ian Fleming’s style, more like just his attitude. The novel is written very much in my voice and my style, but it just so happens to feature this iconic, world-famous spy. There’s no reason to simplify or reconfigure style and point of view. I was given a very free hand, and I wouldn’t have done it otherwise. That’s the appeal for novelists—they don’t want a pseudo-Ian Fleming or something that’s a pastiche. It’s a very attractive commission for a writer, because here’s a job where you’re given your liberty and a gift of these characters such as Bond and M and Moneypenny, and they’re there for you if you want them.
AFG: When you go back and look at the works of your predecessors such as Faulks, Deaver, or Gardner, did you try to reread their stuff?
WB: I didn’t read Faulks or Deaver. I went back to Fleming and reread all twelve of the Bond novels and the two short-story collections in chronological order—you know, pen in hand and just looking for material and a certain frame of mind. Looking for clues and hints I could exploit. That was my research—it was back to research—and mine goes back to 1969, which is still very much in the Bond Era. So absolutely, I wanted to get that feel and not anything more contemporary and certainly nothing influenced by the movies at all.
AFG: Those movies, I’m telling you, are getting more dated by the minute.
WB: I know. It’s like you have to be contemporary—they’re always set in the years they’re made, so 50 years on between the last Bond novel and the newest film, the gap is getting larger every year.
AFG: I think Bond must be about 85 right now.
WB: Yes, born in 1924, his 90th is coming up fast.
AFG: Hah, they should do a Bond story where he’s 90.
WB: I don’t think so. You know, there’s nothing to stop them doing a period Bond. It’s slightly more interesting to think about a Bond in a world with no mobile phones, no Internet, no GPS, etc. But anyway, that’s what the novels give you—the appeal. It gives a sense of time travel but is certainly not ancient history. It’s the Cold War, a perfect setting for a spy novel.
AFG: How do you think that these Bond novels and characters have endured for all of these years? In a sense, there is a bit of timelessness about them.
WB: When I reread the novels, some things really leapt out at me. First of all, Bond is not a blunt instrument. He has many of Fleming’s traits and characteristics and weaknesses. He’s a far more complicated human being than the rather two-dimensional Bond you see in the movies. I think there’s something human and troubled about him—he’s melancholic. But more to point, I did an experiment and wondered what would it be like to read Casino Royale in 1953? In 1953, in post-World War II England, we still had food rationing. Then to read these novels, which lifted the lid on the world of the wealthy, English society—and it was a secret upper-class world. That was the world Fleming came from, so he knew it inside out. They cared what cotton their shorts were made of and wrapped their own tobacco—you know, unbelievably glamorous and exotic and, I think, unfamiliar to readers. Bond gave you a kind of access to an exclusive club. Fleming was way ahead of his time in a sense of these lifestyle issues. Even today, Bond is exotic, then you add to that a very troubled secret agent and the allure suddenly becomes much easier to understand. It’s something Fleming tapped into, maybe guilelessly. He tapped into the world he knew. He was from that upper-class world of money and glamor and taste, and that all became Bond.
AFG: Tell us about Solo. It’s set in Africa like a few of your other works.
WB: I was born and raised in West Africa, and Bond never visited Africa in the Fleming novels except briefly in Diamonds Are Forever. I thought this was an opportunity to take him there, and I wanted to write a very realistic novel—not fantastical. It’s dark, dirty, and gritty, and the war going on there during that time was not that far off from what I experienced. It’s not about gambling or luxury or casinos. It’s about slogging his way through a tropical jungle, and that was the original ambition: a simple story of 45-year-old agent on a very real mission.
AFG: You lived in Africa in, as you said, a time of great upheaval. To what extent has your life influenced your writing?
WB: Sometimes I don’t want to analyze it too much, but I think being born and growing up in Ghana and Nigeria, which was home and completely normal to me, was also exotic and deeply frightening. So I think I got this extraordinary dose of exotic very early in life, but also a sense of deracination. I grew up in Ghana, but I went to boarding school in Britain, and that in and of itself was a very strange society. In my twenties, I started to live in Britain and be a citizen, so I’ve always felt something of an outsider in both Africa and Britain—an interesting situation for an author because you’re always a bit of a stranger looking on. That’s what my African heritage gave me—a sense of being deracinated—and I think that’s given me a particular angle of the human condition and the country I come from.
AFG: That’s a good point. I was born in the United States, but when I was two we moved to Athens for ten years. So in essence, there are parts of me that are very European and parts that are very American, and you can never quite feel fully merged with either society by the way of how you lived.
WB: As a child or young person, it has a particular effect on you that you’re not even aware of. It’s not like being a tourist or working abroad. It’s your home, it’s where your stuff is, what you know. I knew the cities of Nigeria far better than I knew London. I was much more at home in that community than I was in a British community, yet I wasn’t affected by this or troubled by it; it was just the norm. In all sorts of unconscious ways, it shapes you and shapes your attitudes.
AFG: You wrote the screenplay for Scoop, and it happens to be one of my favorite all-time books. What was that like?
WB: I think Scoop is a near-perfect comic novel masterpiece, which is a hard thing to write. The thing about the adaptation of Scoop (that you can buy on DVD on Amazon) that I’m proud of is that we made it in the ’80s with a very large budget for a television movie and we had this incredible cast. It’s a very lavish adaptation and we went to film it in Morocco. And it delivers that comic novel—a comic elegance. And you forget that half of it is set in Africa, in Ethiopia. It’s not just about Fleet Street; it’s about this adventure of a hapless young man. I think we delivered that all in the film, and with this brilliant cast, it’s a joy to watch.
AFG: When you see some of the poor reporting during the Iraq war, I was really reminded of Scoop.
WB: That’s very accurate. Journalists…
AFG: One final question: What writer would you say had the greatest influence on you?
WB: The writer I reread most constantly is Anton Chekhov. I actually had a play in London this year that was an adaptation of two stories he had written that I stitched together. Not only is he the greatest short-story writer ever, but also I think that Chekhov—the man—and his worldview are sympathetic. So it’s not so much as an influence on me. I am very conscious of having this empathy toward his worldview and his personal philosophies as a man. So he’s a person I cite, and revere.
AFG: Everything I’ve read by him I’ve clung onto and I’m not sure why that’s the case. Could it be that literary device where there’s no clear-cut ending so your mind keeps trying to fill in the blanks?
WB: That’s the revolution that he brought about. He didn’t plot his stories. He made them like life, which is ambiguous and open-ended and filled with things we don’t know. This is how it is. He also refuses to judge his characters, which is very original and against the beliefs of the 19th century. Even people who are crass or stupid or vain or whatever—he doesn’t condemn them or set them up for disdain. There is something very neutral and nonjudgmental about his view of human beings and their predicament. He is also a faceless man, and his view is very modern. It’s quite cynical and worldly-wise, and that’s what I find in him. He knew that he was going to die of tuberculosis and understood the nature of the human condition with extreme profundity.
AFG: A lot of writers show their spirituality or lack of in their writing. And I remember a scene in a story of Chekhov’s that showed he was not faithless, but rather he was able to escape beyond himself.
WB: I think that comes back to his not judging characters, not making moral judgments about their banality. He sees the world very clearly—there’s a certain common human experience and he touches on it time after time.
AFG: I really like Chekhov. Some of his stories are my favorites. And Tolstoy…
WB: Yes. Another writer I like for completely different reasons is Tolstoy.
AFG: It has been a pleasure speaking with you today.
WB: Thank you, it was also a great pleasure.
PHOTO by Trevor Leighton