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Author William Boyd focuses on psychoanalysis, wartime intelligence

The English writer's latest novel, Waiting for Sunrise, takes place in early 20th century Vienna where an actor seeks the help of one of Freud's students and ends up embroiled in military espionage

Reuters, Saturday 21 Jul 2012
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For more than 30 years, author William Boyd has won acclaim for writing complexly plotted page-turners often set in unique historical milieus, from World War One-era East Africa to 1936 Los Angeles.

His latest novel, "Waiting for Sunrise," features Lysander Rief, a young British actor seeking treatment from a disciple of Sigmund Freud for a sexual problem in pre-World War One Vienna before becoming entangled in the opaque world of wartime intelligence.

Boyd spoke with Reuters about the book, his writing process and his recent agreement with the estate of Ian Fleming to write the next James Bond novel.

Q: How did you get the idea for this project?

A: I've had a bit of a Vienna obsession for some time. I went there to write a piece about Egon Schiele, the painter. While there, I went to the Freud museum, which is in his old apartment. I had this spooky feeling that I might myself a hundred years ago be coming for an appointment with Herr Dr. Freud to see if he could sort out my problems. And I started thinking about psychoanalysis then and how strange it must have been and how weird it must have seemed to talk to a perfect stranger. That was the origin of the novel.

Q: How much historical research do you do?

A: I do a tremendous amount. I went to Vienna four times while I was writing the book; walked the streets, accumulated quite a library of books to serve my purpose. I'm a realistic novelist. The world of my novels has to be absolutely detailed and rich. I spend twice as long researching a novel as I do writing. It takes me about two years to figure out a novel, one year to write it.

Q: Why detail the bureaucracy behind World War One?

A: I did some research about the massive amount of bureaucracy required to keep these armies fed, watered and fighting. The more I dug into it, the more I realized I'd hit a gold mine for the novelist, because it's Kafkaesque. 'The Directorate of Movements' actually existed in the war office. By changing the angle of entry into World War One, the idea was to make it fresh, and to make people see it again and get rid of those stereotypes of men up to their knees in mud, staring out of barbed wire.

Q: How do you know when you're finished?

A: It's really a sense, an instinct that having accumulated all this information, you then cherry-pick the stuff you need. You discard 90 percent of what you've done because otherwise the book begins to sag under the weight of its research. I needed [to know], for example, how do you get by steamer from Geneva to the French town of Evian in 1915?

Q: Do you know how a book will end before writing?

A: Absolutely. I have something I call the 'period of invention,' which is this two-year process of researching the novel. It's a long and arduous process, but that's where I make all my mistakes. As soon as I know how the book is going to end, then I can start writing. I don't write particularly fast, but I write with confidence.

Q: What separates literary from commercial fiction?

A: The worse the book the more stereotypical the situation, the characters and most importantly the language. I think the better the book, the more idiosyncratic it is. There should be fewer stereotypical situations, fewer characters from central casting. The language should be accurate and precise, not lazy and overused. That's the distinction for me.

Q: How do you feel about writing the next James Bond novel?

A: It's a fantastic, exciting challenge. I was very familiar with Ian Fleming as a character and even put him in one of my novels as a character. The film Bond is a cartoon character. I think the literary Bond is far more interesting. The intriguing thing about getting the job is you're given virtual total liberty. This isn't going to be a pastiche of Ian Fleming. It's going to be a William Boyd novel that happens to have James Bond in it.

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