Oilliam Boyd, 70, is the author of 26 books, including any human heart (2002) – adapted for television in 2010 with three actors playing the main role of Logan Mountstuart – and Restlessthe Costa novel of the year in 2006. His new book, Romanticis set in the 19th century and is presented as a biographical fiction inspired by the personal papers of a certain Cashel Greville Ross, an Irishman of Scottish descent who fought at Waterloo, met Shelley, smuggled Greek antiquities and set out in search of the source of the Nile, among other adventures.Boyd, whom Sebastian Faulks called “the best storyteller of his generation”, grew up in Ghana and Nigeria and lives in London and the Dordogne, from where he spoke on Zoom.
Where did this novel begin? My 20s were steeped in romantic poetry because I spent eight years at Oxford without completing a doctorate on Shelley. I always had the impression that nothing is lost, and I wondered how I could recycle this material when I read The life of Henri Brulardthe fantastically modern autobiography of [the 19th-century French writer] Stendhal, who I think is not widely read in British literary circles. He called himself a romantic because he kept falling in love – he thought it was a curse – and I decided that this reserve of knowledge I had about romantic poets could come to fruition by writing about someone. one with that kind of temper.
How does writing a lifelong novel – this is your fourth – compare to writing your thrillers? It’s harder. In a tightly structured spy novel like Restless, the plot machinery is part of the appeal. Here, the story must feel like it’s happening randomly, like life, but it can’t falter: Cashel is 82 when he dies, and you can’t write a 5,000-page novel every month. and every year. My other three full-life novels are told in first person, so nothing can happen and it’s always interesting because of the voice acting. I was aware that writing Romantic in the third person meant that things had to keep happening, even at the end of Cashel’s life. What I understood is that life in the 19th century were incredibly crowded; Anthony Trollope has been to Australia and America twice six time.
What attracts you to protagonists with identities? Maybe it’s my upbringing: I’m Scottish, but I was born in Africa, so I felt more at home in West Africa than in Edinburgh. If someone asks me where I’m from, I say, “How long have you been? Cashel is called an Irish jerk, an English jerk and a Scottish jerk – it was very deliberate, because, you know, what is he?