Q&A with author and screenwriter William Boyd
The recent TV adaptation of Any Human Heart formed the backbone of this literary Q&A with best-selling novelist and screenwriter William Boyd. He discussed Any Human Heart (book and TV versions), his novels Ordinary Thunderstorms and The New Confessions, and divulged his favourite books for children, his tips for being a good writer and why he enjoys meeting fans.
Q. dollius: Any Human Heart bears a strong resemblance to The Confessions, by Rousseau, which you also adapted as a novel - The New Confessions. Are you attracted by this 'biopic' style, and can you give more insight into your interest in Rousseau? What do you think Rousseau was trying to tell us?
A. William: Well, Rousseau's Confessions is a highly manipulative but fascinating autobiography. AHH is a series of intimate journals and the true intimate journal, I believe, isn't shaped with wisdom of hindsight like the autobiography or memoir - so the two forms have a completely different effect and purpose. But, of course, they are both the story of a life, but I believe the journal is always going to be the more honest.
As for Rousseau, I became intrigued by him when I was writing my PhD thesis on Shelley. I became convinced that Wordsworth had stolen many of his ideas from Rousseau and so decided to read the Confessions. I was bowled over and asked myself the question, what would a modern day Rousseau be like? And this was the beginning of the novel The New Confessions. My character's life isn't like Rousseau's but he's obsessed with the book The Confessions - and spends a lifetime trying to film it - hence the title.
The most important thing about Rousseau, I believe - and his legacy to us today - is not so much in his political or cultural thinking ('The Noble Savage' etc) but that he effectively invented the concept of "romantic love" and the language in which we express it. His novel La Nouvelle Heloise was a massive European bestseller (in the middle of the 18th century) and it changed the way we thought about love for all time. It's hard now to see how revolutionary Rousseau's depiction of love was, but he invented a new language for us to express our emotions through. We are, to all intents and purposes, still using it today. I have written a play about Rousseau and the real life events behind the writing of La Nouvelle Heloise - called "the Language of Love" - maybe it'll get put on one day!
Q. OMaLittle: For me, The New Confessions and Any Human Heart are a complementary pair - whilst both excellent as stand-alone novels, they also work incredibly well together as a study of memory and the lenses of time/regret/pride. Both told in the first person, John's book is a memoir, and Logan's is a journal (I think the lawyers call it contemporaneous?), so John's story is told from the point of view of the final John, as it were, whilst Logan's is told from the point of view of the person who is experiencing it at the time. Was this a conscious choice, and did you hope that readers of AHH would be familiar with TNC?
A. William: It was a very conscious choice (see my answer to the question above, also). But the third book you have to add to those two is my "speculative memoir" Nat Tate: an American artist 1928-1960. The books form a kind of triptych in my work: TNC is a fake autobiography, Nat is a fake biography and AHH is a fake intimate journal. They are all ways of writing about a life but, more importantly for me, I now realise, is that they were all ways of making fiction seem so real that the reader forgets it's fiction.
I wanted to colonise the world of the real - of news, of documentary, of reportage and history - and show how powerful fiction could be beside it. We are so dominated by facts in our daily lives - bombarded with them in newsprint, internet, radio, TV etc - that I wanted to show how compelling a pure fiction could be, how it could be more real than the so-called "reality" showered on us by all medias. The books stand together but none relies on the knowledge of the others to flesh out the reading experience.
Q. dinkydoos: I have really loved all your books, but got utterly absorbed in Any Human Heart. So much so, that when I had finished it, I was truly devastated that Logan Mountstuart wasn't going to be in my life anymore - it was almost like a bereavement! Do you ever get this feeling, and especially with this book?
A. William: I have a very clear idea - a very clear visual picture - of all the characters in my novels. I can imagine them walking into a room, for example. But they never "take me over". I'm a bit suspicious of authors who claim that they were effectively channelled by their fictive creations.
I side with Vladimir Nabokov who once said: "All my characters are galley-slaves and I'm the man on the deck with a whip." However, Logan was a bit different. I had planned every small detail of his long life, of course, and knew exactly how and when he was going to die. I remember the day I wrote the last section of the novel when Logan dies - and I came down from my study to the kitchen and said to my wife, Susan - "Logan's gone". It was cathartic rather than sad because his death had been so prefigured in my mind, but I suppose that the journal form is so rooted in chronology that I had, in writing Logan's journals, relived the life I had planned for him, and in ending it had arrived at a conclusion that we are all going to experience one day. Maybe it sent a shiver down my spine...
Q. swanriver: Do you think that when a book is "framed" (for want of a better word), with an older narrator it decreases the dramatic tension, as the narrator lends his world weary/tragic view to everything you see unfolding. And you are constantly wondering what significance of events are in his life story rather than just experiencing them as they happen. Surely the story should stand alone, or is it a story about a story?
A. William: Yes, you're right, but there are many ways of telling a story and the "long flashback" device is as old as the hills. It becomes more about "how did we get here from there". However, that journey can have a real tension and fascination. If you think of The Day of the Jackal, for example, which is about an attempt to assassinate President de Gaulle - an event that we know absolutely will not be achieved - it still doesn't prevent the book from being unbelievably gripping, all the same. As was the film.
Any Human Heart is an attempt to subvert this sense. The journal is written day by day without wisdom of hindsight. It is the literary form that most approximates to the way we live our lives, heading hopefully into the void that is the future. The experience of reading the book is therefore quite different from reading a biography, autobiography, or even a standard past-tense novel. There is no sense of a shaping hand - or rather that sense has been skillfully erased! The reader advances into Logan's life with Logan, equally ignorant of what is important or what is banal and insignificant.
Q. swanriver: Did you have any writers of the 30s/40s in mind when thinking up Any Human Heart? I feel very ill-read, so I was just wondering if there was some connection with any one I should know about, like Greene or suchlike?
A. William: I did have some writers in mind - writers I like or am intrigued by as people. I was thinking of Cyril Connolly, a writer I love, who was a critic and an extraordinary character (check out his books The Unquiet Grave and Enemies of Promise and there's a wonderful, funny memoir of him called Tears before Bedtime by Barbara Skelton, one of his wives).
Connolly's vices were gluttony and sloth but he had no money so he had to work. I also thought of Henry Green and Lawrence Durrell. Green was a melancholic drunk and a most unusual experimental novelist - and extremely rich (inherited wealth). Durrell led a rackety life a bit like Logan's - drank himself to death. But the writer most akin to Logan is completely forgotten today. His name is William Gerhardie (1895-1977). In the 1920s, he was incredibly famous young writer - Waugh, Greene and Powell all confessed to being influenced by him. However, he never lived up to that early success. His last book was published in 1940 and he died in 1977 - so, 37 years of silence - and poverty and oblivion. A TERRIBLE WARNING to all writers!
Anyway, Gerhardie was known as 'The English Chekhov' (he was born in Moscow and spoke fluent Russian) and I believe he imported the Chekhovian spirit into English literature - that worldview that sees the human condition as an absurd tragi-comedy (with the emphasis on comedy).
Gerhardie's first two novels are great, and written exactly in this spirit - Futility and The Polyglots. He was so famous he wrote his autobiography (like Ken Branagh) in his early 30s, Memoirs of a Polyglot. Of his other, now forgotten, novels I really like Pending Heaven (very funny) and Jazz and Jasper - which Evelyn Waugh shamelessly ripped-off for Vile Bodies and Scoop. There is a super, hilarious biography of him by Dido Davies (who knew him in his years of oblivion). He very much lurks behind Logan Mountstuart.
Q. ArentFanny: Who approached who to adapt Any Human Heart for televsion? Are you happy with it?
A. William: I was approached by Carnival Films and TV, in the person of their head of drama Sally Woodward Gentle. We had worked together before when Sally was at the BBC on my film about Shakespeare's love life - the true story behind the sonnets - called A Waste of Shame (2005 - it has a super cast, available on DVD!). She had teamed up with Channel 4 and they offered me six hours of air-time, which was the key factor. I felt that we could do the book justice at that length. From conception to broadcast it has only taken two and a half years: super-fast in TV-land. And I'm absolutely delighted with the four films we've made.
Q. AitchTwoOh: How hard did you find adapting your own work in this instance?
A. William: I've written a lot of films (some 16 made, now) and AHH is the fourth of my books that I've adapted (Stars and Bars, A Good Man in Africa and Armadillo are the others) - so I'm something of an old pro.
AHH was difficult because it is so subjective - we are in Logan's head for the duration of the novel after all - and film, being photography, fundamentally, is so objective. You are always on the outside looking on. However, we used the excuse of the journal-form to employ a lot of voice-over and the director, Michael Samuels, has very cleverly used huge close-ups and the camera as point-of-view to get as close as we can to the sense of subjectivity that the novel effortlessly conveys. Look at the number of characters that talk directly into the camera lens, as if they're talking to Logan and making eye-contact with him (and thereby with you, the viewer). I think it works really well.
Q. swanriver: In the book, it's all from Logan's point of view and the women are like ciphers - we have no idea why they think or do things. That may work well in a book but does it work so well in a drama? Land seemed inpenetrable, and after a bit I couldn't really tell what their relationship was as I didn't understand her! He is very likeable though, it was easy to understand his reasons for everything.
A. William: Because, in the novel, you see everything from Logan's highly subjective point of view there is inevitably a dominance of that one angle on the world. But Logan isn't always right. Sometimes he's wrong and the reader will see things and read things that aren't overtly commented on and will make judgements entirely contradictory to Logan's. I don't think the women are ciphers, at all, especially not Freya, for example, and Gloria. Logan is smitten by Land - he sees her for something she isn't (an example of him getting her wrong). In fact, Land is a very interesting person, independent, cultured, politically engaged, strongly opinionated- the very opposite of a cipher, I would argue.
Q. ExpatGossipGirl: Can you describe the processes you go through to commit a book to script format, especially for TV format? Second, does the money made from selling your book for this purpose make the hard work worth it?
A. William: Adapting a book for the screen is very largely a process of deciding what to leave out. You can do anything in a novel. In the world of film (or TV drama) you are in an art form that is highly constrained, full of parameters and impossibilities. See my remarks above about subjectivity and objectivity, for example. What I do when I begin is deliberately not to think about the novel. I say to myself, what will work well on film? How will we best serve the film we want to make?
And as soon as you're in that mindset, you see pretty quickly what you can do - and do well - and what you can't. The aim is to make the best film possible - not the most faithful rendition of the novel. If the films of AHH work it will take people back to the novel because they know the aesthetic experience of reading a novel and being held by it is totally different from watching a film and enjoying it. I keep saying this, but it bears repeating - the two art forms, novel and film, are extremely different.
As for the money one makes, it's very welcome. But I do love working in film and TV - I love collaborating, I love the whole ambience and many of my friends are actors and directors and producers. More importantly for me, it subsidises my novel writing. It means I can take as long as I want to write a novel and I never need to sell them in advance. It makes me free, in other words.
Q. Shellbell72: I thoroughly enjoyed Any Human Heart - it's one of my all-time favourites - but I must admit my heart sank a little when I heard it was going to be adapted for television. I am still not sure whether to watch, as so many adaptations just don't match up to the book/story. Do you recommend it?
A. William: What you should ask yourself is very simple. Did I enjoy these films as pieces of filmed drama? If the answer is "yes" then you need go no further. The minute you begin to compare a film with the novel-source the film will lose. Film cannot compete with the massive generosity and incredible subtleties and nuances of the novel. It is a far cruder art-form than the novel, simpler, with broader, bolder effects and a limited capacity as to what it can achieve and express. It has its own strengths but it will always lose out to the novel.
Watch AHH as a film - and if you are beguiled, amused, saddened, shocked, impressed by it then it has worked in its film incarnation. The novel is always there, safe and inviolate. The pleasures one derives from reading are totally different from the theatrical pleasures of watching.
Q. chocoholic: Before it was filmed, did you have any say in which actors played each character? Were there any surprises for you as to how the characters were brought to life?
A. William: I was a benign influence behind the scenes. I didn't have a veto but, as I had written the scripts and it was my novel, I was able to express my opinion and be listened to! I had also worked with the casting director, Nina Gold, before and I have enormous trust in her instincts. There were 96 speaking parts in the four films - an enormous cast - and I don't think there's a single dud.
I love our three Logans - they are all wonderful actors - but I was hugely impressed by Tom Hollander and Gillian Anderson as the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. Their performances are uncanny - I think they'll redefine the way the ghastly couple are seen in the public mind. I also think that Hayley Atwell as Freya is astonishing - not only a sensational, naturalistic actor (the Logan/Freya relationship is incredibly real) but also stunningly beautiful - she's like Hedy Lamarr or Vivien Leigh, that old-style film-star incandescence.
Q. ElephantsAndMiasmas: I have a question, having watched the first episode of AHH. Do you think that there is a risk of self-indulgence when writers come to write about writers? And how, if at all, do you endeavour to steer away from any smugness that may result? Do you enjoy watching it on the screen?
A. William: Well, AHH is the only one of my ten novels where the central character is a writer. Usually I like to give my protagonists proper jobs. I think, I hope, that because Logan is, in a way, a failed writer I avoid any accusations of smugness. It all begins to go pear-shaped fairly quickly. The second half of his life is no bed of roses. The really smug writer in AHH is Peter Scabius - odious! Not an example to follow.
Because I'm so happy with the filmed version, I do enjoy watching the films. I think they get close to the effect of the novel. There's a sense of density, of a full life fully lived, and a great range and scope as we make our way through the 20th century.
Q. KittyFoyle: My husband adores Any Human Heart and is terrified the TV version won't measure up. How much control did you have over this one so he knows who to blame? Also, I love Earthly Powers by Anthony Burgess. Did that book have much of an influence on Any Human Heart? Both are in my top 10 books.
A. William: As both the novelist and screenwriter, you do actually have a lot of control. If you write it down it will be filmed. But film is a collaboration - the success or otherwise is a collective one. Though, if someone doesn't like the film version of AHH I will happily take the blame. But don't compare the films to the novel - just judge them as films, pure and simple.
I wasn't consciously influenced by Earthly Powers, though I'm a great admirer of Anthony Burgess and was lucky enough to get to know him a bit towards the end of his life. An extraordinary and extremely nice man.
Q. PaisleyLeaf: I've been so looking forward to Any Human Heart starting since seeing the trailers - it looks like it's going to be great. I always like Jim Broadbent. Are you happy with it? I've not read any of the novels, but this TV adaptation is inspiring me to. I think I'll start with Brazzaville Beach. I loved reading about the Nat Tate hoax!
A. William: I am absurdly happy with the films (and believe me this is not always the screenwriter's opinion). Jim Broadbent is sensational - we were incredibly lucky to get him for the role of the older Logan.
I never really know what novel of mine to recommend to new readers, but Brazzaville beach is an interesting start!
Q. greatestaunt: What sets apart novelists who also have a facility writing screenplays? Do you have a preference? Do you prefer adapting your own work, or another work of fiction? Like many others, Any Human Heart is my favourite novel. My sister and I are quite different and I was taken aback to learn it was hers too. Many posters mention it. It's really touched a chord, you must be proud.
A. William: Thank you very much. One of the very first letters I received about AHH was from a 16-year old girl in Amsterdam. The other day a very, very old man came up to me in the street, tapped me on the shoulder and said "I am Logan Mountstuart and I knew all those women" and walked away. The point being that it seems all ages and both sexes get something from Logan's rambling, rackety, rollercoaster of a life. Which is amazingly gratifying - and mysterious.
As for writing screenplays - I see it as more of a craft, rather than an art. Writing a screenplay is nothing compared to writing a novel. A screenplay is a very curious document, and vitally important in the making of any film, but it keeps changing status according to circumstances: it's a literary text, it's a budgetary tool, it's an asset, it's bait for actors, it's a set of instructions on how to shoot the film and so on. A good screenplay has to be all of these things and therefore requires certain skills and abilities. It's a stimulating challenge rather than a vocation or a calling - if you know what I mean.
Q. Lilymaid: I'm reading Ordinary Thunderstorms and although I am now enjoying the book, I found the beginning really unconvincing. Others probably disagree. Obviously, to get Adam into this half-world of people without real names and identity trails, there had to be a sequence of unusual events, but why didn't he 'fess up immediately or when he went to the police station? (I haven't finished the book, so it may be that something will be revealed about Adam's psychology which would explain this.)
A. William: Now I don't agree with you here. Think about it. The circumstantial evidence against Adam is huge. Alone in the murder room with the corpse, covered with the victim's blood, fingerprints everywhere. And the real murderer is hard on his tail! It is a crucial, pivotal decision, I admit, but, put yourself in Adam's position. He will almost certainly go to prison until the eventual trial. All he sets out to do at the beginning of the novel is to buy himself some time - to take stock, to think. In fact, he plans on handing himself in at least twice.
Once he's spooked by his Wanted for Murder poster in the Belgravia police station (imagine seeing that) and the second time he's brutally mugged. He realizes, and he argues this with himself at great length, that maintaining his personal freedom, at whatever cost, is his best resort. When these moments arrive in your life they are like forking paths - you make the decision and you're condemned to follow it. Exactly the situation Adam finds himself in. If Jonjo wasn't chasing him I think Adam would have handed himself in and taken the consequences but, because he is being hunted, he knows there is a larger conspiracy out there. How safe would he be in jail? Better to stay free, go underground, live to fight another day.
Q. Blu: Why doesn't Adam do what any normal, or even slightly 'make bad decisions' person would do and go straight to the police/call the emergency services ASAP? I lost a lot of sympathy for him at the beginning of the novel, and found it hard to get into it because I couldn't believe that an intelligent man would be so idiotic - even if he had touched the knife. In fact, anyone who is a university lecturer and has watched an episode of casualty knows you don't pull the knife out! I loved the novel after that - the shift in moral outlook as circumstances changed, the almost unbearable terror...
A. William: I think the choice Adam makes is wholly plausible - however wrongheaded it may seem when you're reading the book in the comfort and security of your own home! Adam is smart, and it's his intelligence that tells him that he is the perfect fall-guy. The perfect suspect, the prime suspect. Who really killed Wang? Who is the killer chasing him? What is the bigger darker picture here? Look at all the classic hunter-and-hunted stories from 39 Steps, to North by Northwest, to Three Days of the Condor, to Rogue Male, to No Country for Old Men. When the hero is being hunted by "unknown forces" it's always better to stay on the run at all costs.
Also, ask yourself what would happen if Adam went to the police? He'd be banged up on remand until his trial (a year hence) and then he'd have somehow to disprove the overwhelming circumstantial evidence against him. And I bet you if you were in Wang's bedroom and he was begging you to pull the knife out of his side you'd do the same!
Q. GettinTrimmer: After finishing Ordinary Thunderstorms I felt there may be room for a sequel - Jonjo seemed determined to return and sort Adam out for good! Would you consider it? I just found Adam a really interesting and resourceful character.
A. William: I don't think I'd ever write a sequel to the novel but we are in the process of turning the book into a film. I've changed the ending slightly in the script so that it's crying out for an Ordinary Thunderstorms 2. Watch this space!
Q. FiveGoMadInDorset: I have thoroughly enjoyed the three books I have read and have another two in the queue. I enjoyed Any Human Heart so much that I googled to see if he existed in real life. Now, to my shame, I can't remember the title of the book which friends say I need to read but mentions, Lulworth Cove, Durdle Door and the Weld family, I think? Was that because you stayed down here, or have some connection to the area?
A. William: That book is Brazzaville Beach, which cuts between Africa and SW England. I don't know the area well but the central character, Hope Clearwater, is working as a landscape archaeologist in the West Country. To be honest I can't really remember why I chose the area - I think it must have been determined by the research I did. Funnily enough, I also regularly set bit of my novels in Norfolk/East Anglia - another part of England I'm not very familiar with.
Q. alicatte: I first read Armadillo - a long, long time ago (I live near Monken Hadley) and found the whole idea of the 'armadillo-shielding' we put up to define ourselves fascinating, although of course I could have read it all wrong, I often do. I have read a few of your novels and get an impression of 'blind chance' being totally in control of your characters lives. Is this one of your themes or am I, yet again, completely mistaken? My overwhelming favourite from your novels though is Restless which somehow seems to still live with me, even now. I thought Eva was a fabulous character - I don't know how you managed to take a 'spy novel' and write characters that were so believable. Thank you.
A. William: No, you're absolutely right. The theme that it is luck that governs our lives - all the good luck and the bad luck we have - is central to many of my novels. It's particularly foregrounded in Any Human Heart though it's also key to Armadillo. You're right also about that novel, exploring as it does our attempts to erect a shield - armour - around us to give us the illusion of protection, of being exempt from the vagaries of ill-fortune that will inevitably come our way. It's a very human illusion that we can protect ourselves in this way - as the worldwide, multi-zillion dollar insurance business proves.
Restless, like Armadillo, also examines one of my abiding themes - our sense of personal identity. Can we change, can we reinvent ourselves? The spy, of course being the perfect example of someone who has to change identity in order to succeed, whose new identity is the only guarantee of self-preservation.
Q. lalalegs: Each of your books seems very different in its setting and tone - how difficult do you find it to jump between different eras and countries or is researching a book half the fun for you (I can no longer pass Chelsea Bridge without seeing that scrap of land and thinking that's where Adam lived)?
A. William: I like to write a different book each time - mainly to keep myself stimulated - though of course as one goes on one recognizes themes recurring and being amplified and reinvestigated. I don't find it difficult - in fact it's tremendously interesting and fun. My next novel, for example, starts in Vienna in 1913.
TNC and AHH are both attempts to write long lives, to investigate the human condition over decades rather than a few months or years. They are in different literary forms - autobiography and intimate journal, and the two protagonists are different men - but I see now (and they were written 15 years apart) that they are attempts to analyse this adventure we are all on and share - this journey from cradle to grave, and see what sense can be made of it. Or not.
Q. punkatheart: How far do you plan your novels? Are you a post-it-note obsessive, chart-maniac or do you leave a certain amount of space for the stories to unravel? How much do you enjoy the magic of a character claiming its own existence, with you taken along for the ride?
A. William: I spend twice as long planning, researching and figuring out my novels as I do writing them. It seems to work out as two years for the "period of invention" and one year for the "period of composition" (Iris Murdoch's phrases, as it happens). I don't start writing until I know how the novel is going to end. I'm not rigid in adhering to my detailed outline - I will make huge changes while I write if I get inspired or have better ideas - but it means I can write each day with confidence as I know the essential route of my journey and its final destination. As I said in answer to an earlier question I'm a bit suspicious of writers who claim that their characters "take them over". Writing a novel takes so long, and is such a dogged, deliberate, thoughtful process that there really can only be one person in control in that world. The author is god, pulling all the strings.
Q. TillyBookclub: What would be your first piece of advice to someone starting to write?
A. William: I think you need three things to be a novelist, three necessary conditions as they say in philosophy. First, you have to be able to write well. By this I don't mean develop an over-literary style or one full of ostentatious flourishes. You need to be able to convey, in what ever words you choose, what you want to say, however simple or complex that may be.
Second, you have to be a compulsive observer of the world, an ardent lover of the passing cinema of everyday life. Savour the phenomena all around you. A six-hour delay at an airport should be a joy.
And third - and I think you either have this or you don't - you need to have a well-functioning imagination. You have to be able to imagine things you've never, or can never, experience. Like being the member of the opposite sex, for example. Or killing someone. Or starving. Or betraying someone. Or almost drowning. Or drinking blood. Or being very ill. Or suffering from unrequited love. The list is endless. The better your ability to imagine things the better a writer you'll be, but I think it's a gift, it's not something you can learn. Actually, there's a fourth category - incredible stamina. It's hard, hard work, very long hours, no guarantee of reward.
Q. staranise: I was lucky enough to hear you speak at the Wimbledon Literary Festival last year. Do you enjoy meeting your readers? Do they ever offer insights into your work that hadn't occurred to you? I nearly named my son Logan after reading AHH.
A. William: I do enjoy meeting my readers - and it's a recent occurrence in the literary world. Fifty years ago authors only met readers if they were personal friends. I've encountered tens of thousands of my readers all over the world. It's not so much insights they give me, as hearing how the books have affected people. It is always amazing - and humbling - to see how your novel has touched someone, or how it has become important to them, or how it made them laugh or cry or whatever.
It actually puts you directly in touch with the basic reason why you write - you want readers, you want to be read, more than anything. An unread book is almost a contradiction in terms. The relationship between a writer and a reader is so intimate - and unique - it's salutary to be reminded of it from time to time. You'd be surprised to learn how many little Logans there are out there in the world!
Q. aristocat: I was blown away by your book Any Human Heart and I am now reading Ordinary Thunderstorms. Can you please tell me what your favourite children's book is?
A. William: Hard to say. I vividly remember reading The Jungle Book by Kipling. Between the ages of 10 and 12 I was completely obsessed by Lord of the Rings (the age to read it). I'm very fond of Winnie the Pooh and Alice in Wonderland because the characters in the books are timeless and ageless. We still meet Eeyores and Mad Hatters as adults.
Q.SlightlyJaded: I think my favourite book of yours is Restless and I have a few 'all-time favourite' books by other authors. What is your all-time favourite novel? And what is your all-time favourite William Boyd novel (don't be shy now!).
A. William: I think my all-time favourite novel is either Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov or Ulysses by James Joyce because they are inexhaustible - you can go back to those wells again and again and slake your thirst. My favourite writer of all time is Chekhov - the short stories, not the plays. I revere Chekhov and the world view that he communicates to us in the mature stories he wrote in the last ten years of his life (he died aged 44 in 1904). It is amazingly modern and amazingly wise and humane. And very, wryly funny.
As for my own favourite book I have a boring answer. It is always the last I've written because I feel my latest novel always reflects the peak of my competence as a writer. It's a technical thing. And then I think that the one I'll write next will be even better.
Q. TillyBookclub: What is the best book you've read in 2010?
A. William: Funnily enough, I think it is Patrick French's authorised biography of V.S. Naipaul's The World is What It Is. No living writer has allowed his life to be so displayed with such shameful candour and lacerating self-accusation. It's unprecedented and astonishing. I read it because I was writing a review of Naipaul's latest book. It completely and utterly changes your opinion about this eminent writer (Nobel prize winner 2002). Everything is filtered by what you now know. You have far too much information.
Q. pickledsiblings: William, which of your books would you recommend for my 78-year-old FIL who has recently enjoyed The Corrections, Suite Francaise and Memoirs of Hadrian?
A. William: Perhaps The New Confessions...
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