Hundreds of people gave up their Saturday nights to hear Any Human Heart author William Boyd talk about his prolific career, and his eleventh novel Waiting for Sunrise, at Bath Lit Fest last weekend.
He was “an avid reader as a child”, and said that when he now meets young writers who aren’t, he tells them to find another career. That’s the first of the four things you need to be a writer, he said. Being “able to write in a lucid way,” was the second; the third is an ability to “relish the cinema of everyday life”, and the fourth: “You have to have a well-functioning imagination.”
“Write about something you don’t know about and test your imagination,” he added, in conversation with James Runcie. Boyd, who has written A Good Man in Africa, An Ice Cream War, and Costa Novel of the Year Restless, said that when writing he imposes a fiction-reading ban on himself in case other novels accidentally influence him. “I spend about two years figuring out the entire novel…it’s not until I know how it’s going to end that I write it.
“You’re looking for that one detail that radiates the page. There’s a wonderful bit in (James Joyce’s) Ulysses where he goes into a pub and orders a glass of claret and a gorgonzola sandwich. It needs to be unscholarly; like a magpie, you’re sifting tones of ore for that one nugget.”
Boyd said he believes writers should throw away about 90% of what they learn around their subject. “Chekhov said write your short story then cut the beginning and the end off it. It’s the unspoken between the lines stuff that really resonates; if the reader is reading attentively they should be able to provide that information. The more nuance, the more ambiguity you can muster, the more real the character.
“The better the novel the more idiosyncratic it is. Reading is a one-on-one exchange.” He said how he writes is to start in “orthodox third person past tense, but then shift to first person. That destabilising is what we’re like – we’re vastly complicated miscreants.”
As vastly complicated a miscreant Boyd is, it seems to be working well for him.
Waiting for Sunrise is out now, published by Bloomsbury.