“IF SOMEONE ASKS ME what nationality I am, I unhesitatingly say I’m Scottish,” William Boyd recently told Colin Waters for the Scottish Review of Books. The very fact he had to make this explicit speaks volumes about his relationship with Scotland and Scottish literature. The son of expatriates, Boyd was born in Accra, Ghana, in 1952, and grew up there and in Nigeria, before enrolling at Gordonstoun. He continued his education at the universities of Nice, Glasgow and Oxford, before publishing his first novel, A Good Man In Africa, in 1981. Since then he has published eight novels, with a ninth, Reckless, due to appear next spring. When not working on novels, Boyd writes screenplays, and his films include Mr Johnson (1990), Chaplin (1992), and The Trench (1999), which he also directed. To mark the publication of Bamboo, a collection of literary journalism, the SRB spoke to Boyd about autobiography, critics, style and being left off the 100 Best Scottish Books poll.
Scottish Review of Books: It’s ironic that we should be doing a specifically literary interview just at the moment you publish a book that contains a fair amount of autobiographical material.
William Boyd: Somebody said to me – because he knew I’d written a lot of non-fiction – why don’t you bring out a collection of your non-fiction. The idea lodged in my head. Then I passed the milestone of my fiftieth birthday and began to think that maybe this was the time to gather in some of this material. Once I sat down to do it, I was astonished by how much I’d written over 26 years and by the sort of things I’d written. I realised I’d put together a covert intellectual autobiography. I structured it under headings that reflected the way in which my mind has been working.
SRB: You class yourself as a “resolutely non-autobiographical writer.” It sounds almost like a point of honour?
WB: It’s more a definition than a point of honour. The binary definitions of literature are many, and one of them it seems to me is that you either use your own life as material for your fiction or you don’t. I’d place myself in that second category. I don’t consciously look at my life and the things I’ve done and think, Oh this’ll transmogrify beautifully into a novel or a short story. Graham Greene, for example, was by and large not an autobiographical writer; Evelyn Waugh very much was. It’s one of those handy classifying tools you have at your disposal when it comes to looking at literature. My novels are not keys to opening up my personal history. What was interesting was to see there were areas where I had written about my life and by stitching them together there were the makings of, as I say, a covert autobiography.
SRB: You do seem to be interested in this split between autobiographical and non-autobiographical modes of writing. As one reads through Bamboo, one notices the most repeated quote in the book is T. S. Eliot’s line about the separation between the man who suffers and the mind that creates.
WB: That quote was Eliot’s pre-emptive strike against critics reading too closely but now that we know more we can join the dots. It depends on the way you are as a writer. My own life finds its way into my fiction, obviously, and so does my personality, but they do so ‘under the wire’ so to speak. I don’t do it overtly or consciously. My first novel for example, A Good Man In Africa, is set in a town in Nigeria I knew very well though I changed the name. But the events of the novel are pure invention. That’s the way I tend to write. When my life creeps into my art it’s always as a commando raid rather than a full scale invasion.
SRB: Following on, the figure who you keep returning to in your journalism is Evelyn Waugh, who you describe as “one of the most confessedly autobiographical of writers.” He’s a key influence in your evolution as a writer. WB: I think it’s because of his comedies. His black comedies were very influential on me when I started. Waugh the man is complex to the extent it can obscure the work. What I drew from him was the ruthlessness and brutal glee of his comedy, which is what makes him modern and enduring. They refuse to console. I’ve frequently written about him over the years; if you look at Bamboo’s index, Waugh has one of the largest entries. And I’ve adapted Scoop and the Sword Of Honour trilogy. There’s been a strange interweaving of my writing life and Evelyn Waugh.
SRB: There are what I call William Boyd times and places – historical zones you return to – parts of Africa, New York in the Fifties, the Western Front. What attracts you to a certain time and place?
WB: One tries not to over analyse because as soon as you become over-conscious you lose a certain amount of creative energy. It’s easy to explain the Africa connection. It was my home for the first twenty years of my life. World War One is an obsession I’ve had since an early age because of the family legends of my grandfather and great uncle, both of whom survived the war. You follow your nose; I never thought I’d write a novel set in the Philippines set in 1902 for example. You let the subconscious and unconscious work together. If you’re drawn to a certain period you have to go with it, not to over-cerebrate. Instincts are very important to a novelist. If looking back you see places and themes recurring, so be it.
SRB: Scotland of course also appears in your novels as a setting. You’ve described yourself as a typical product of the Scottish diaspora. In what way? I mean beyond the geographical happenstance of your birth.
WB: Again, it’s not something I want to over-investigate. Both of my parents come from Fife, and even though I was born and brought up in West Africa, I was very conscious of my Scottish roots. My parents went on leave back to Scotland. There was never any doubt about my national identity, it was never anything I fretted about or questioned. It was a given. I think the Scots who live outside Scotland, particularly those of my parents’ generation, hold on to not so much the shortbread tin image of Scotland but to a folk memory that I was very aware of growing up. When I eventually I went to school and university in Scotland, there was no sense in which I was remotely alien though conceivably Scots who stayed behind might have seen me as a strange hybrid Scot. For me it was second nature; I felt at home, probably because of the cultural drip feed you get living in a black African country as a transient white person. If someone had asked me then where you are from, I’d have said Scotland, not Britain.
SRB: For Scottish readers, one of the most interesting sections of Bamboo is your review of a Ronald Frame book, where you raise the issue of “what happens to be a ‘real’ Scottish writer…as opposed to a writer who just happens to be Scottish.” This cuts to the heart of your own relationship with Scottish literature.
WB: It’s a strange experience. If someone asks me what nationality I am, I unhesitatingly say I’m Scottish. I’m also aware sometimes I’m included in anthologies of Scottish literature, and sometimes I’m excluded. You wonder what the criteria for exclusion or inclusion. Ronald Frame is – whom I know well from university – and indeed I am myself as quintessentially Scottish as Irvine Welsh but there’s an absence of pluralism in Scottish literature. If you look at the literature of the southern states of America, it encompasses William Styron at one end and kind of white trash, Tennessee Williams stuff at the other. In Scotland, the net is not being thrown wide enough. The house of fiction has many windows, Henry James wrote. The house of Scottish literature has many windows too but only two or three are open.
SRB: You’ve identified in Scottish literature an emphasis on, for want of a better term, the working class, a focus you describe as “proudly narrow.” Do you think this diminished Scottish literature?
WB: I would say so, because if you carried this all the way through, you’d exclude Robert Louis Stevenson, who grew up in a middle class Edinburgh family, who left Scotland early on to live in England then abroad, but who is in some way a patron saint of Scottish literature. This is what I mean by pluralism; ‘toffs’ shouldn’t be forced to apply for the ethnic tag. You look at Scottish literature from Boswell to Hume to Lewis Grassic Gibbon, it’s a broad church, and the broader the church, the better the literature.
SRB: There’s a wry observation after one of your characters asks another whether he has any Scottish blood. “Scots are very keen to establish this fact from the outset I’ve noticed.” It’s true…although the recent poll of the best 100 Scottish novels couldn’t find room for one of your novels. This would appear to confirm everything you’ve said. WB: Somebody mentioned it to me but what were the criteria they were using? That’s the essential question: are you a Scottish writer or are you a writer who happens to be Scottish? William Styron said when he was forever being tagged as a Southern writer, “No, I’m a writer who happens to come from the southern states of America.” It’s the same line as I’d use. I’m a writer who happens to be Scottish. Your question should be directed not at me but at the compilers of this list. I don’t lose any sleep over it. I’m anti-list, and I never bother to read them.
SRB: Clearly you’ve read your way through the canon of Scottish literature. Do you feel you have themes and concerns in common with what’s gone before? I ask because you have that sceptical line at the end of a Robin Jenkins review where you write about “Scottish fiction if there is such a genre.”
WB: There’s a black sense of humour which you might be able to describe as typically Scottish. I’m reluctant to pin it down it more than these vague terms, but having taught literature I’m aware of currents and forces. I’m reading more about Stevenson and find his position somewhat akin to my own, and I find his attitude very sympathetic. He’s an interesting example of a Scot who left Scot-land but was still haunted by his Scottishness. In a funny way, although I’ve lived out of Scotland since 1975, I’m always back there; my family live there and I know which team to support.
SRB: A reason you might find yourself excluded is that your fiction avoids the well worn tropes of Scottish literature. You don’t have doppelgangers, you don’t write Scottish historical novels, and so on. One might surmise critics and academics don’t know where to slot you. Certainly, one area where you differed from other Scottish writers, like Kelman and Gray, in the 1980s was over politics. Do you recoil from overtly politicising your novels? WB: Yes. I’m with Vladimir Nabokov on this. “If you’ve got a political novel, write a manifesto, not a novel.” That idea of the engaged novel might provoke interesting political discussion but the novel itself will be very dull. I’m against using the novel as a platform for debate. Politics will come out, it will be apparent as a subtext, but whenever you make it overt, you diminish the power of fiction. Although as a citizen I have clear and strong political views, I would never think to fictionalise them.
SRB: In an essay Kelman talks about “the endemic racism, class bias and general elitism of the English end of the Anglo Ameri-can literary tradition,” going on to name as embodiments of this “literary totems like Rudyard Kipling, T. S. Eliot, Joseph Conrad, Evelyn Waugh, Henry James and so on.” Excluding Conrad, these are writers who all merit substantial mention in Bamboo, and On being left off the 100 Best Scottish Books Poll
“I’M A WRITER WHO HAPPENS TO BE SCOTTISH. YOUR QUESTION SHOULD BE DIRECTED NOT AT ME BUT AT THE COMPILERS OF THIS LIST. I DON’T LOSE ANY SLEEP OVER IT. I’M ANTI-LIST, AND I NEVER BOTHER TO READ THEM”