William Boyd: How I Write

The author on writing, the difficulties of directing and why people need to stop getting Bond wrong

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With 14 novels under his belt and enough awards to make most other writers blush – including a 1982 Booker nomination for An Icecream War – 63-year-old author William Boyd has firmly established himself alongside Tóibín and Faulks et al as one of the grand old giants of our best-seller list. 

He's also credited with returning James Bond to the pared-back brutality of Fleming's original novels, with his own 2013 effort, Solo, in which a middle-aged 007 becomes embroiled in a drug trafficking operation and a quest for revenge. 

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Esquire sat down with William at London's BAFTA 195 venue to discuss his approach to writing and to see if any of this talent might rub off on us.

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How does your day begin?
There are larks and owls. I’m an owl. I go to bed late and I’m very slow in the morning – sluggish, brain not functioning – so I get up at a civilised hour and organise the day, get myself ready, and after lunch I settle down at my desk and just forge on.

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How much time do you spend writing each day?
I try to write about three hours a day, then my brain kind of packs up. I tend to write from two o’clock through to about five or six o’clock, and stop when the Channel 4 News starts – cocktail hour, I call it. I do that seven days a week, remorselessly, until the novel gets written.


How much planning goes into each novel?
I take about three years to write a novel and usually it’s about two years of research with maybe a bit of travel if that’s required, and then when I’ve figured the whole thing out, filled notebooks etc. I sit down to write with a complete plan. That way, however bad or tired I may feel, if I’m in the middle of chapter eight, I know exactly where I'm going. You need a lot of stamina to be a novelist!


Do you use a typewriter?
No, although I bought myself a typewriter for my 21st birthday present – an old Olivetti portable – then I got my first computer in 1990, but because I’m of that pre-computer generation, I’ve stuck with paper and pen. I have manuscripts for all my novels which I then transfer to the computer and edit and fiddle around with. But the first draft is written in a way that Shakespeare would have recognised, in pen and ink on paper.


How many drafts do you go through for each novel?
Every word is written at least twice. I may be on my twenty-fifth draft of one page and my second of another. You think you’ve finished the novel and then you go back to the beginning and you polish, reject stuff, add more, and so on.


When did you decide to devote yourself to writing full-time?
I was teaching at Oxford University and I had this double life of author and academic, which I kept up for three or four years after my first book was published – aged 27. But you can’t just say, “I can live by the pen,” you have to prove that you can. I wrote three more books and had a film made, then my wife and I moved to London, and that was the great symbolic moment where I thought “I am now a full time writer”.


What are the main differences between screenwriting and writing fiction?
They’re hugely different art forms. You can do absolutely anything in a novel, it’s totally free. You can write 500 pages about an hour in somebody’s life, but film is a world of compromises and limitations. Because film is photography, it’s very hard to be subjective in a film, but it’s effortless in a novel. There’s an old saying, "writing a novel is like swimming in the sea, writing a film is like swimming in the bath," that sort of sums it up.


What was your experience of directing? 
I really enjoyed it and I will do it again one day, but you have to have an nine-month gap in your life, which is quite tricky to arrange. Then the financing might fall away, or the actor you wanted becomes unavailable and you have to push on regardless. The film I wrote and directed [The Trench (1999)] had an amazing cast – they’re all incredibly famous now.


Considering some of the cast members have gone on to star in the recent James Bond films, would you consider writing one if asked?
It’s very odd, I gave Ben Wishaw his first role and now he’s playing ‘Q’ to Daniel Craig’s ‘Bond’. They met on The Trench. I still see a lot of the actors but they’re very grand now, so it’s hard to get them in one room. I would certainly consider writing a Bond film. It’s an interesting franchise – and getting more interesting with Sam Mendes. I can also see signs of Daniel’s influence behind the scenes. It’s interesting that Bond is a myth of the 1950’s and here we are in 2015 still exploring that.


Do you have a favorite adaptation from Fleming’s original novels?
From Russia With Love. The film also stands up because it’s a proper spy novel. It’s not silly and about dreams of global domination, it’s a honey trap. I think the Bond novels that I like are the ones most rooted in the real world. The Man With The Golden Gun, which Fleming died before properly finishing, is also great. 


Which is your least favourite Bond novel?
You Only Live Twice is full of such elementary errors. Bond’s pocket is picked as he’s on his way to Blofeld’s island. If you’re a spy and your identification had been seized, you’d abort the mission, but he just carries on regardless! You can see the variation in the quality – the earlier novels are better, there’s no doubt about it.


William Boyd's new novel, Sweet Caress is released on 15 September, williamboyd.co.uk. Esquire spoke to William at the Pin Drop (pindropstudio.com) reading at BAFTA 195, bafta.org.


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