The books world is much tougher now

From The Guardian:

William Boyd, 70, is the author of 26 books, including Any Human Heart (2002) – adapted for television in 2010 with three actors playing the lead role of Logan Mountstuart – and Restless, the Costa novel of the year in 2006. His new book, The Romantic, is set in the 19th century and presents itself as a biographical fiction inspired by the personal papers of one Cashel Greville Ross, a Scots-born Irishman 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 has called “the finest storyteller of his generation”, grew up in Ghana and Nigeria and lives in London and the Dordogne, from where he spoke over Zoom.

Where did this novel begin?
My mid-20s were steeped in Romantic poetry because I spent eight years at Oxford not finishing a PhD on Shelley. I’ve always felt that nothing is wasted, and I was asking myself how I could recycle this material when I read The Life of Henry Brulard, the fantastically modern-feeling autobiography by [the 19th-century French writer] Stendhal, who I don’t think is much read in UK literary circles. He called himself a romantic because he kept falling in love – he felt it was a curse – and I decided that this store of knowledge I had about Romantic poets could gel with writing about someone with that kind of temperament.

How does writing a “whole life” novel – this is your fourth – compare with writing your thrillers?
It’s more challenging. In a tightly structured spy novel like Restless, the plot machinery is part of the allure. Here, the narrative has to seem like it’s happening randomly, like life, yet it can’t flag: Cashel is 82 when he dies, and you can’t write a 5,000-page novel with every month and every year. My other three whole-life novels are told in the first person, so nothing can happen and it’s still interesting because of the voice. I was conscious that writing The Romantic in the third person meant that things had to keep happening, even at the end of Cashel’s life. What I came to understand was that 19th-century lives were incredibly crowded; Anthony Trollope went to Australia twice and America six times.

. . . .

What about your use of faux-real framing devices – what attracts you to those?
When I published my novel The New Confessions in 1987, it was reviewed in the Times by Bernard Levin, who said he was so convinced by the novel’s autobiographical form that he found himself riffling through looking for the photographs. That was where the idea of Any Human Heart was born. I had a kind of test drive for that novel when I used anonymous photographs of real people in my art hoax, Nat Tate: An American Artist 1928-1960, a biography of this nonexistent painter, where I got people like [David] Bowie to join the conspiracy. In [Boyd’s 2015 novel] Sweet Caress the photos telling the story of the main character’s life all come from junk shops and websites. It’s an old trope – Daniel Defoe pretended Moll Flanders was a real person – but I want people to think, God, did Logan Mountstuart really exist? I’m trying to show that fiction can grip you in a way that reportage and history can’t.

How has the writing life changed since you began publishing?
The 1980s was a kind of boom period but the challenge for a literary novelist now is to just keep the show on the road. It used to be you could write a novel every couple of years or so and have a perfectly nice bourgeois life. Now the mid-list has gone. The brutal fact is you either sell or you don’t. Friends of mine who’ve written 12 novels can’t get published or their advances have dropped by 80%. It’s a much tougher world.

Link to the rest at The Guardian and thanks to C. for the tip.