The Books Interview: William Boyd

Like much of your work, your new novel, Ordinary Thunderstorms, is about multiple identities.
It's a deep human question. Have you an inner core of identity or are you many people? Are you a collection of cells or one cell? Can you reinvent yourself? What if I hadn't gone down that road? It's maybe because I was born in Africa, grew up there, yet my parents are Scottish. If you ask, "Where are you from?" most people can give you an answer. My own deracination lies behind these questions I ask myself.

As you get older, you look back at your life. I kept a journal and, reading back, I see the evidence that I was tormented, melancholic, self-castigating in the late Sixties, early Seventies. I don't recognise myself.

Freedom is also an important theme.
The most precious thing for Adam [the protagonist] is to remain free. He has to adapt or die. He becomes harder, more resourceful, ruthless. He also craves human contact. He finds his new self and contentment through love. It is love that redeems the characters. Even Jonjo [a murderer] is redeemed through love.

Whereas the excessive love of money is depicted as corrupting.
The seduction of vast amounts of money makes people go awry. Moral standards start to slip. We've seen it in the banking sector.

Another notable feature of the novel is its vivid portrayal of London as an anonymous sprawl full of "urban ghosts".
I've lived in London for over 25 years now. The city has changed massively in that time. London is the most cosmopolitan and diverse city on the planet. That's a change I've seen happen. I also wanted to reflect the vast gulf that exists between the rich and poor. Some people in London are living on the edge in a way that most don't realise.

It's as if you turn the river into a character, too.
I walk by the River Thames every day. It makes you aware of flux, mutability, time passing. Our present happiness is an unbelievably fragile thing. That was the beginning of the novel.

Did you do much research for this book?
My own pleasures as a reader are realism. I'm not a lover of fantasy and fable. I actually went to hospitals and talked with the chief porter. But I am
one of those novelists who uses his imagination. If your own imagination is functioning well, it is a good route to the truth.

Your use of an omniscient narrator is striking.
Yes, it's the first novel I've written like that. I needed it to be multilayered, all-embracing, since its scope moves from aristocrats to the poorest, most desperate people in the city.

What are the greatest challenges of the writing life?
The great anxiety is keeping your work in print, available for readers. The industry is changing phenomenally fast. But there's something about a book which has an inbuilt longevity. Chekhov understood that other people are fundamentally mysterious and private. Novels allow access to their innermost thoughts. As D H Lawrence said, the novel is the bright book of life.

William Boyd's "Ordinary Thunderstorms" is published by Bloomsbury (£11.99)

This article first appeared in the 28 September 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The 50 people who matter