Reading Group Q&A with William Boyd

William Boyd
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Reading Group Q & A with William Boyd


1. How did the idea of writing Ordinary Thunderstorms come to mind and was there any particular challenge involved?

It’s a complicated answer.  First of all I had the large and vague ambition of writing a novel about London, contemporary London, a city I’ve lived in now for over a quarter of a century.  But how to tackle this vast subject?  I needed a way in, a portal.  And then I read in a newspaper that the London river police remove 50-60 dead bodies a year from the Thames.  That’s over one a week.  I began to ask myself – who are these people, these corpses? How have they died?  And I realized that the river was my “way in” to London – the river Thames was my portal and I realized that the story I was going to tell would have the river at its centre.

2. Which novels, films, tv series… served as inspiration in order to write it?

The main novelistic inspiration was Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens, a truly great novel about London and the last completed novel that Dickens wrote.  It sprang immediately to mind because it begins with a dead body being removed from the river.  Also, Our Mutual Friend is a study of all levels of society, and its sprawling narrative is driven by a kind of detective story about a missing man and the complications of a rich inheritance.  Broadly speaking, I saw that in Ordinary Thunderstorms I had the opportunity to write a neo-Dickensian novel about  contemporary London.  But I would say that Our Mutual Friend was more of an example, rather than an inspiration: it showed me how a multi-layered novel about society could also be an exciting and compelling read.

3. Any non fiction books that were specially helpful during the research process?

I did a great deal of research – particularly into the processes of drug regulation by the pharmaceutical industry ('Big Pharma' is my villain, if you like) and the industrial processes of drug manufacture.  One book I used a great deal is The London Encyclopedia (edited by Ben Weinreb and Christopher Hibbert).  It is the most exhaustive reference book on the city – over 1000 pages long --the best, in my opinion, a veritable treasure trove of facts and information.

4. In the novel London is portrayed in closed detail. Which novels would you say have more remarkably captured  the city´s soul?

There are many 'London' novels.  Dickens, of course, is the great novelist of the city. But I think also of London Fields by Martin Amis. The End of the Affair by Graham Greene, A Far Cry from Kensington by Muriel Spark, Hangover Square by Patrick Hamilton, Hawkesmoor by Peter Ackroyd – I could go on and on.

5. Which places in London does William Boyd visit when he wants to feel completely isolated form society?

I suppose Hampstead Heath would be a good example.  Many of London’s big parks give you that sense of isolation – Kew Gardens, Hyde Park.  There is a small walled garden near my house in Chelsea, called The Chelsea Physic Garden (it was planted out in the 18th century and you have to be a member to gain entry) that seems timeless and remote.

6. And out of London?

Take your pick. I would head for Scotland.  I used to rent a small cottage in the Cotswolds, about an hour and a half to the west from London.  It is typical English countryside, but it’s not difficult to feel isolated.  There is a tiny village in a valley between Oxford and Stratford called Chastleton.  You feel in the middle of nowhere and you feel you have gone back in time a few decades, also.  You could almost be in the 1950s.  I used this village in my novel Restless (Sin Respiro)

7. In case you found yourself forced to face the same troubles as Adam how do you think you would have responded?

Perhaps not as well as he did… Though I very much wanted Adam to be typical – an ordinary young man, with no special talents as far as surviving went.  He has to be as resourceful as he can, has to use his ingenuity and fall back on whatever strength of character and resolve he has.  The same would apply to us all.

8. Ordinary Thunderstorms shows us how heavily in big cities our identity and survival depend on material aspects (passport, credit card, mobile phone..). Did you want the reader to consider up to which extent he is slave to artificial constructions?

Yes.  We have a private sense of our identity, our 'soul' if you like, the sense of the being, the individual, we are which is pretty constant and intrinsic to us.  But we also have a “social’ identity which is entirely dependent on our ability to function in society – phone, home, salary, passport, credit cards, transport etc etc.  Remove all these social crutches and we can become powerless and vulnerable. The modern city will not allow us to participate in it. We become urban ghosts living like scavengers -- disenfranchised, invisible.

9. Would you say that the abuses and unethical behaviour of drug companies is a subject you are particularly concerned about?

I’m concerned about it – but then I’m 'concerned' about many abuses and corrupt institutions.  Because drugs are useful and do good we often ignore the fact that pharmaceutical corporations have enormous power, enormous wealth and there is a temptation, if not to break the law, then to bend it and shape it.  Why do we need so many drugs?  Why do they cost so much?   Why are we encouraged to take drugs for every possible ailment?  As soon as you start trying to get answers to these questions you begin to see how suspect many of the techniques the drug companies apply are.

10. You are adapting Ordinary Thunderstorms to the big screen. Which changes and new angles can we expect and which challenges make exciting the fact of returning to a previous work?

The same thing will happen with any cinematic adaptation – about 60 percent of the book will be left out.  Cinema is a very simple way of telling a story. As a story- teller you have relatively few techniques at your disposal.  Texture and nuance diminish. Subjectivity is very hard to achieve. All these defects are to do with the nature of the art form itself.  The world of the novel is one of absolute freedom. The world of the film is one of compromise, restraint, improvisation.  In the case of Ordinary Thunderstorms I think the thriller plot will emerge as the spine of the story.  With luck it should be a very exciting film.  But audiences of the film should never compare that film to the novel. A film always suffers in comparison with the novel it is drawn from.

11. Any outstanding books that you are presently reading (or have recently done so) and that you would like to recommend your readers?

I would like to recommend the work of Gordon Burn. A novelist and a friend of mine who died this year, aged only 61.  A most interesting and highly original writer who was doing very intriguing things with the contemporary English novel.  A great loss.

12. Could you please recommend us a good wine that can improve the experience of reading Ordinary Thunderstorms?

Currently I am drinking a lot of pinot noir wine from New Zealand and Australia.   Delicious and not very expensive.

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