Thursday 16 November 2023

Review by Lee Wright of "The Mirror and the Road" by William Boyd and Alistair Owen

Alistair Owen’s extensive conversations with William Boyd that took place over a two-year period are not just for smitten Boyd fans. Whether you’re an aspirant writer or a seasoned writer, whatever your chosen field – fiction, non-fiction, novel, short story, or screenplay – The Mirror and the Road makes for a fascinating interrogation into the mind of one of Britain’s best writers. The book is structured chronologically, covering Boyd’s seventeen novels, five short story collections, twelve film screenplays, five television screenplays, and three stage plays. Boyd talks about the vim and vigour of writing, about his unpublished, semi-autobiographical novels, of how his first, A Good Man in Africa, came to be written in three months flat. But what this collection of interviews does best is to show us the process and the torments that come with being a writer, digging deep into the craft and the ingredients that has produced a staggering body of work. It is a 330-page writing masterclass, full of advice about what works for Boyd, his methods and modus operandi, how his plots evolve, how he chooses what he wants to write next, the research stage before writing, the importance of finding the right title for a project, the unimportance of writing sympathetic characters and the deliberate echoes of his many literary influences – Kingsley Amis, Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Anton Chekhov – underlining the importance of reading. And Boyd isn’t afraid to borrow from genre fiction to power his narrative, as he did in the case of his 1993 novel, The Blue Afternoon

The book explores Boyd’s preoccupations, seeing how they interact and interconnect and how he brings these different fixations together in his novels and short stories: “Short stories are like a laboratory for me,” Boyd says. He also stresses the importance of trusting the imagination: “I’ve often written about places I’ve never been to,” he says, writing about Los Angeles before he ever went there. “I wanted to see if I could inhabit the place vicariously through my imagination.” 

It sent me back to my time studying for an MA in Creative Writing and the recommended reading list we were given. Other than David Morley’s Cambridge Introduction to Creative Writing, no other book on the list offered the kind of embarrassment of riches (with regards to fiction writing) that comes with these interviews. It should be on the shelf of every university library to be discovered and show what can be done with narrative and how a writer can get there.      

About the reviewer
Lee Wright has an MA in Creative Writing and is currently working towards a PhD researching memoir and film. His fiction and poetry have been published with Fairlight Books, époque press and Burning House Press.

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