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.