Quiet on the Set: William Boyd on His Latest Novel

William Boyd was 16 in 1968, the year his new novel, Trio, is set. It was a moment of change and social revolution, but Boyd’s impetus to write the novel—which centers on a shoot in Brighton, England, for a fictional film titled Ladder to the Moon—was driven by his teenage recollections of an era that was much less political.
During a phone call from his London home, Boyd says he was living in the U.K. in 1968 and then in 1969, he left for Paris. There, at 17, he met numerous people “who had been on the barricades” the previous May, and he soon realized that “the world was going to go to hell on a handcart.” But this wasn’t the feeling in the U.K.
“In Britain we were in a swinging ’60s bubble,” Boyd explains. The mood of fun and frivolity was expressed in a string of zany and largely subpar films like A Hard Day’s Night and the lesser-known Can Heironymus Merkin Ever Forget Mercy Humppe and Find True Happiness? The latter, he notes, was a flop, but it served as an inspiration for the novel. He wanted to “have a swinging ’60s movie being made in Brighton, and around it the real world creeps in.”
Trio focuses on three characters—the film’s producer, its leading lady, and the director’s wife—who must navigate the bizarre world of the film and the reality beyond it. It follows them over the course of an increasingly chaotic shoot.
Boyd has 16 novels to his name and is also an accomplished screenwriter and producer. His screenwriting credits include 1992’s Chaplin, starring Robert Downey Jr., and the 1994 adaptation of his debut novel, A Good Man in Africa (the book version won the Whitbread Book Award for first novel in 1981). Given this, he knows the world of Trio well, and the on-set machinations are a highlight of the book.
Paradoxically, Trio also betrays how little film sets have changed since the ’60s. There are still incomprehensible, expensive delays; egocentric male directors; and intense on-set romances.
Boyd acknowledges that this is partly to do with the essentially patriarchal traditions of the film world. “There are some differences,” he notes. “Joan Collins used to do her own make up. There was no catering or lunch breaks. But the fundamentals of life on the set—the temperaments, the tantrums, the things that can go wrong so easily—are exactly as true in 1968 as 2020. For a long time the movie business was a boys’ town. I’m old enough, and have had the experience to see how it’s slowly changed. Certainly in 1968, it was very patriarchal, and that’s only really started to change in the last few years.”
All three of the main characters in Trio are oppressed by the weight of this patriarchy in different ways. The producer, Talbot Kydd, is secretly gay. Anny Viklund, the film’s star, is being threatened and exploited by a succession of bad boyfriends. And Elfrida Wing, the director’s wife, endures her husband’s affair with the film’s screenwriter.
The misery experienced by Elfrida, who is also working on a novel, has an impact. Tormented by her marriage, alcoholism, and writer’s block, she becomes dangerously paranoid. She is unable to distinguish her husband’s lies from reality and is convinced she can see worms beneath her skin. There are recurring, devastating scenes in which she rewrites the opening paragraph of her new novel and then starts drinking again.
Boyd reveals that Elfrida is loosely based on a real-life novelist and poet named Rosemary Tonks, who disappeared from public view after an auspicious literary debut. Tonks was later discovered to have entered the religious life—a decision that fascinated Boyd. “It haunted me that someone could do that,” he says, “and I was interested to know more, too, about writer’s block.”
It is notable that the most functional and self-possessed character in Trio is a man who has no links to the film world—a private detective named Ken Kincaid, who is gay and at ease with himself. Through Ken’s eyes, we have some perspective on how strange this world of make-believe has become.
Boyd still has great affection for the film industry but says he is relieved to have the option to withdraw from it when necessary, into the world of novel writing. “My saving grace is that I have the two worlds. I really enjoy collaborating. I have more friends in the filmmaking business. I now coproduce. But I’m so pleased there are times that I can say cheerio and write.”
This affection is evident in the book’s many period details. Boyd says research is key to all of his writing. He can spend 18 months to two years preparing for a new novel. In the case of Trio, he read copiously.
“I’ve about 80 to 100 books about this era on everything from Jean Seberg, who was a model for Anny [the actor in Trio], to French politics,” Boyd says. “I think of a novelist as a magpie rather than a scholar. Anything bright that catches your eye can be brought into the work.”
Boyd explains that part of the novelist’s art is deciding what to use and what to discard. “I’ve taught myself that you have to throw out 90 percent of the research, and that is part of the discipline, too,” he says. As time has gone by, he adds, his nose for the right detail has improved.
For Boyd, the past is a more attractive setting for his fiction than the present. “You avoid any built-in obsolescence,” he says. “Contemporary novels have a terrible problem of dating very quickly. They can date. In the recent past, everything is fixed.”
Boyd’s 2002 novel Any Human Heart was written as a series of journals by a writer named Mountstuart who lived from 1906 to 1991. It includes recollections of many significant historical events, such as the Wall Street crash of 1929 and WWII. It has sold, according to NPD BookScan, more than 58,000 print copies in the U.S. and was shortlisted for the Booker and the International Dublin Literary Award.
For his next project, Boyd is going to embark on what he describes as another “whole-life novel”—a novel that portrays the entirety of a character’s life. It will be set “completely in the 19th century,” he says, and be “very ambitious,” extending beyond 500 pages.
“Unlike Elfride, I haven’t experienced writer’s block. Yet.”
Bonus Links:
Identity Crisis: William Boyd’s Ordinary Thunderstorms
Spy Story: A Review of William Boyd’s Restless

Image Credit: Trevor Leighton

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

Fiction Is Freedom: On Martin Amis

A novel tells you far more about a writer than an essay, a poem, or even an autobiography,” says Martin Amis. He then adds, “My father thought this, too.” This statement is especially intriguing in light of his soon-to-be-published book, Inside Story, which Knopf is billing as an autobiographical novel.
Amis’s life has been exceptional. He has enjoyed great success, and the company of literary notables from birth. His father was Kingsley Amis; his stepmother was acclaimed writer Elizabeth Jane Howard; and Philip Larkin, one of the finest English poets of the last century, was a family friend. His peer group—formed largely while he was studying as an undergraduate at Oxford—includes Christopher Hitchens, Ian McEwan, and Salman Rushdie.
“I apologize for all the name-dropping,” Amis writes in the book. “You’ll get used to it. I had to.” He then counters that it’s not actually name-dropping “when, aged five, you say ‘Dad.’”
These relationships alone ensure that Inside Story will attract enormous comment, but condemnation will likely follow. Amis is accustomed to this. He’s long been a fascination—and a punching bag—in the U.K., where his status as a celebrity author has done him no favors. The British love to hate this native son. In a negative review of his 2012 novel, Lionel Asbo: State of England, in the Independent, Amis was called “one of those writers about whom it is increasingly difficult to find anything worth saying.” In a 2014 article for the Guardian (titled “Why We Love to Hate Martin Amis”), Spectator literary editor Sam Leith wrote, “There is no living British writer who garners as much attention as Amis, so much of it hostile, and so much of that hostility, circularly, arising from the attention itself…It’s as if, and in answer to some inchoate public need, we demand of Amis that he say things in public so we can all agree on what an ass he is.”
Now almost 71, Amis displays the kind of confidence that only a privileged white man can downplay. Or, to paraphrase British actor Michaela Coel, nearly all men of his age and milieu carry themselves in this way—without fear of interruption. Nonetheless, Amis’s contribution and commitment to literature are substantial. And his very particular upbringing was, in reality, an apprenticeship.
Inside Story engages with some of this background, traversing territory covered in Amis’s well-received 2000 memoir, Experience (which he wrote in response to his father’s death in 1995). But Inside Story is a very different book. It is presented as fiction, though Hitchens, Kingsley Amis, and other real figures from Amis’s life make appearances as characters. The names are slightly changed for others, such as his wife and children. And some characters are entirely fictitious, though it’s not always clear which, making the work something of a play on the concept of memoir and novel writing. On another level, the novel allows those with knowledge of Amis’s literary circle to play a guessing game about who might have actually said, and done, what.
Inside Story begins with an invitation to join Amis in his home, and one of the best qualities of the book is its regard for the reader. Amis acknowledges this during a call from his home in Brooklyn. “You have to love the reader,” he says. “It’s not about toadying to the reader but loving and respecting them. A book is nothing without a reader. The relationship between writer and reader is very mysterious and fascinating and not terribly well explained. There is an intimacy to reading a novel because you feel you know the writer embarrassingly well. The great excuse for a public event is that it’s great to meet a reader.”
There is plenty to make the reader feel cherished in this novel, particularly if they like highly wrought literary criticism or are fans of those within Amis’s personal orbit. Inside Story describes encounters with those people over time and, along the way, explores ideas of childhood, family, love, literature, politics, terrorism, aging, illness, and death.
The world of the book is one that now seems very distant: Everyone smokes and drinks copiously as they work. A career in journalism provides plausible means. Social change is often tentative. Social media doesn’t exist. One might feel some nostalgia, especially if one is of a certain demographic.
The tone of the book is generous. Amis has very much sought to praise rather than to blame. “I’m not an angry person,” he explains. “I’ve read autobiographical stuff that’s full of settling scores and smearing people. I’m so glad I don’t have that.”
Amis’s father was married to Howard for 18 years and, according to Amis, during his teenage years they provided him with a vision of how to live as a writer. “It did feel like an exciting household,” he explains, noting that fellow writers were always dropping by. “The rumor is that writers are at each other’s throats. But I’ve never found that to be true. Those feelings belong at the periphery, if your confidence reasonably corresponds to your abilities.”
Accordingly, Inside Story contains wonderful considerations of what it is to be a writer, the importance of reading while writing, and writing while reading. It offers, in a way, what Amis’s parents gave him: an insight into the lives of writers.
“Most fictions, including short stories, have their origin in the subconscious,” Amis writes in Inside Story. “Very often you can feel them arrive. It is an exquisite sensation. Nabokov called it ‘a throb,’ Updike ‘a shiver’: the sense of pregnant arrest. The subconscious is putting you on notice: you have been brooding about something without knowing it. Fiction comes from there—from silent anxiety. And now it has given you a novel to write.”
The richness of this passage and others like it are nearly eclipsed by the startling plot involving Phoebe Phelps, with whom the character of Amis has a doomed five-year relationship. Their relationship is funny, wretched, and very readable. The “night of shame” is a darkly comic highlight in which Phelps refuses to have sex with Amis yet again and he starts to pay her for various sexual acts. Several decades later, long after their breakup, the 9/11 attacks prompt Phelps to reconnect with Amis. When the pair reunites, another remarkable scene occurs: she tells him that he is not the son of Kingsley Amis. It would spoil the story to say more, though the question of who Amis’s real father is will likely prompt much discussion.
Amis is reluctant to reveal much but clarifies that Phelps represents “an anthology of various women” he has known, and that she took on “a life of her own.” He also confirmed that the post-9/11 scene had not taken place but rather was “something Phoebe would do.”
In the book, Amis expresses relief that he has reached 70 and escaped both the self-doubt of middle age and the arrogance of youth. But during our call, he seems a little less assured. It had been difficult, he says, to find “a creative flow” while writing this book. “Age is a real consideration. There are so many ways you start to decay. Your certainty of what goes where tends to be harder to convince yourself of. And some very basic givens of writing a novel don’t fall into your lap.”
This is not evident from reading Inside Story. It is markedly more sincere than some of Amis’s previous work, and events and insights seem to flow seamlessly. His love for literature is earnestly shared. The Phelps plot is audacious and well done. A lifetime of scholarship is reflected in the quality of the writing. But there is still material to derange, or perhaps delight, Amis’s detractors. Some references to women are jarring at best, and the perspective is certainly one of great privilege.
Amis says he feels “fatalistic” about the launch of his 15th novel. He seems particularly stung by the criticism of Lionel Asbo, whose portrayal of working-class lives led to accusations of voyeurism. “You’ve got to be able to do what you want if you write,” he says. “If you feel the urge to write about something, that’s all you need. I was scolded by a critic about the working classes, and suddenly one wonders why he feels qualified to write about it. I’m not going to seek anyone’s permission to write. Fiction is freedom, or it’s nothing.”
Bonus Links:
The New Normal: Martin Amis’s ‘The Pregnant Widow’
A Martin Amis Hatchet Job? On ‘Lionel Asbo: State of England’
The Arcades Project: Martin Amis’s Guide to Classic Video Games
The Adulatory Biographer: On Richard Bradford’s ‘Martin Amis’

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.