William Boyd: The man who knows the real 007

The writer has been doing research for a novel about a 'complex, troubled Bond'. And he knows how to keep his cards close to his chest. Susie Mesure meets William Boyd

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The Independent Online

For such an expansive chap, William Boyd is being annoyingly evasive. I'm digging for a titbit about his latest novel, a new James Bond book, but the prolific novelist is playing his cards closer to his chest than the secret agent himself. I have, I realise, gone about this interview all wrong. We're sitting in the upstairs living room of Boyd's Chelsea townhouse. I'd hoped the cosy setting, which has the unlikely feel of a French farmhouse-cum-second-hand-bookstore, might trigger a few indiscretions about the spy's next adventure. But no.

It turns out I should have pressed him to meet at London's Dukes Hotel, Ian Fleming's old watering hole, over a Vesper or three for lubrication purposes. The "mind-bogglingly strong" cocktail – three parts gin, one part vodka, half part Lillet, with a dash of Angostura bitters, and a slice of orange peel – was a Bond invention, named after one of the secret agent's many women, which Boyd drank "in the interests of research" at the hotel's legendary bar.

"It's rocket fuel. And it all comes from the freezer, so it's icy cold and not diluted at all by ice chips. I had one, and thought..." He trails off, presumably unable to remember much else. Curses!

The meticulous writer cuts a vaguely raffish air in his open-neck, chambray shirt, worn untucked over navy chinos with some sockless tan boatshoes, a single, silver bangle on his wrist, and the signs of an old earring hole visible in his left ear. He clearly had a field day researching the literary Bond, "a far more interesting character than the cinematic one by enormous degrees".

This seems largely to have involved totting up the vast number of alcoholic drinks sunk by the spy, a reflection, Boyd adds, of Fleming's hedonistic life. "He [Fleming] was obsessed with food, obsessed with drink, and clothes, and cars. He gives these personal obsessions to Bond... I've been counting his drinks through the books, which has been great fun, because Fleming obviously hadn't realised how many double bourbon on the rocks he had drunk."

The "troubled, complex" James Bond is the one we will read about when Boyd's book is published next autumn. Era-wise, Boyd has dived back into Fleming's world, setting his story in 1969, five years after Fleming released his last work, The Man with the Golden Gun. Forced to jump to my own conclusions, I'm betting the action takes our hero to Africa, scene of both Boyd's formative years and his early books such as An Ice-Cream War; A Good Man in Africa; and Brazzaville Beach.

For the record, I'm basing my assumption on the wry smile Boyd gives when I ask if he's planning to set another novel in Africa. "I may well do, I may well do," the 60-year-old says in his softly Scottish accent. It's been years, decades even, since Boyd journeyed there, literarily and literally. He says Africa – he was born in Ghana and lived in Nigeria until his late teens – yields the "pure source of memories" he uses as a writer, and another reason that I'm guessing he might draw on that continent for Bond's adventures.

"As a novelist, where do you go to tap into memories, and impressions, and sensations? It's usually, in my experience, your early life, before you started thinking of yourself as a writer, because somehow those experiences are unadulterated. When you reach that moment, all experience is filtered, not immediately but eventually, by the writer's brain."

As a teenager, he bounced between western Nigeria, where his father worked as a doctor and his mother taught, and Scotland: he went to the notoriously tough boarding school Gordonstoun. Not that he thinks of himself as particularly Scottish, despite originally hailing from Fife. "I don't really know where I'm from. Is home wherever I hang my hat? Or are you just a deracinated mixture of all the influences that have come your way?" he asks, when I quiz him. "It's one of the things I often ask myself. I think it's why I write about identity so much. It's strange; when I was younger and people would ask, 'Where are you from?', I'd say, 'West Africa', which was odd because I'm obviously not African, but it was my home. I've lived in England, in Oxford and London, ever since [school and university]. But I also have a house in France, where I feel very at home as well."

All this talk of identity brings us to Restless, Boyd's popular spy novel, and arguably his most populist, being, as it was, a "Richard and Judy" choice in 2007 and winning the high-profile Costa Award. The author has dramatised his novel for a BBC double-bill, which airs over two evenings after Christmas. It's gripping stuff. I've seen it, with a Christmas cracker of a cast, ranging from the inimitable Charlotte Rampling and Michael Gambon to TV's new favourite Michelle Dockery (Lady Mary in Downton Abbey) and Hayley Atwell, who also starred in his adaptation of another of his novels, Any Human Heart.

Boyd, who is sitting on a sofa across from me, uncrosses his legs and leans forward in enthusiasm, professing himself "dead chuffed" with his latest television version. He has, he says somewhat defensively, "no snobbism at all" about writing for the small screen. "In some ways, you could argue, television is doing far more interesting work than the movies. It's more fulfilling. Characters can do more and you don't have to cut, cut, cut."

I'm struck, listening to Boyd, who is astonishingly free of ego for one so successful, by how hard he works. He claims he's no "Stakhanovite kind of manic", but then tells me he wrote for six newspapers in a single day just the other week. "To live as an artist requires hard work or some extraordinary good fortune to come your way. Don't get complacent."

Restless, which jumps between the early Forties and 1976, was the first of what Boyd says wound up being a trilogy of spy novels, including Ordinary Thunderstorms and his most recent, Waiting for Sunrise. Despite his "Kim Philby obsession", he says he's somewhat spied out narratively speaking, so expect a genre shift for his next book. Before that, Boyd obsessives – of whom there are clearly countless thousands; never have so many people asked me for an autograph from an interviewee – have a different sort of literary treat in store: his first play.

Rehearsals for Longing, which Boyd based on two Chekhov short stories, start next month, but as of Friday was still being cast. "It opens on 7 March – which is my birthday – which I'm hoping is a good omen, not a bad omen." This latest venture rekindles something of an old flame for Boyd who was theatre critic for his university magazine at Glasgow in the 1970s. "A lot of my friends are actors and I've always been stage stuck. Forty years later I've finally managed to get this monkey off my back," he adds.

Whether the reviews are good or bad, you can expect the evasive Boyd to avoid attempts to make him blow his own trumpet. When prompted to share one of his secrets, something of a theme in Restless, all he'd say was: "The very last thing you know about yourself is your effect. This is a secret that applies to everyone."

Part one of Boyd's adaptation of 'Restless' airs on BBC1 on 27 December

Curriculum vitae

1952 Born 7 March in Accra, Ghana, where his father works as a doctor and his mother is a teacher. Moves to western Nigeria with his parents and two younger sisters after Ghana becomes independent. As a teenager he travels between Ibadan and northern Scotland where he boards at Gordonstoun. Reads English at the University of Glasgow, where he meets his eventual wife, Susan.

1980 Becomes a lecturer at St Hilda's College, Oxford, and writes his first novel, A Good Man in Africa. Wins the Whitbread First Novel Award.

1982 His second, An Ice-Cream War, is shortlisted for the then Booker prize.

1998 Famously hoaxes the art world with the fictional Nat Tate, about whom he wrote a biography.

2005 Awarded a CBE.

2006 Restless wins the Costa Book Award.

2012 Adapts Any Human Heart for Channel 4 mini-series.

2012 The Ian Fleming estate asks him to write a new James Bond novel.