Author Q&A:
William Boyd

The Romantic (Viking)

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Born in 1799, Cashel Greville Ross’s long life takes him from a farmhouse in Ireland to a brewery in America and a small village in Sri Lanka, with many other stops along the way. As the 19th century progresses, he falls in and out of love, meets some of the period’s defining creatives, makes groundbreaking geographical discoveries – and tries to make peace with the lies that structured his complicated childhood. From the author of the critically acclaimed Any Human Heart, William Boyd’s latest novel, The Romantic (Viking), explores how the myriad decisions we make every day shape the course of our lives, and those around us, with consequences both wonderful and devastating.

In your author’s note, you present the novel as emerging from genuine documents, a literary tradition that dates back centuries. What drew you to this?
I’m interested in making a fiction seem so real that the reader begins to forget it’s fiction. Hence the framing device (as old as the hills – Daniel Defoe did it for Moll Flanders in 1722). That ambition also explains the footnotes, the encounters with real historical figures and the little drawings. I want the world of my novel and its people to seem totally authentic and plausible.

Cashel is many things to many people – a “good boy”, a “pathetic husband”, a “dear father”. Is he all these things, something in between, or something else entirely?
He is all these things – though some of these judgements are made by others.  Like the rest of us, Cashel can be placed in various pigeon-holes but, fundamentally,  he tries to remain true to himself, to his nature, an irredeemably romantic one, hence the title of the novel.

He often describes feeling haunted by his past. Are all life stories ghost stories?
Is the child father of the man, as Wordsworth said? It depends on your childhood, I suppose (traumatic or serene). Cashel’s childhood sense of himself was a sham, built on lies. He tries to escape that – but even the act of escape is an acknowledgement of its influence.

The novel lingers on the colour of beer and clothes, the taste of curry, the sensation of a kiss or a bite. Is human experience first and foremost one of the senses?
It’s more, again, an attempt to make the novel feel real, full of textures – “granular”, as we would now say. If the world of my novel can be sensed, almost palpably, then I feel I’ve achieved something very important. Especially in this case as I’m recreating the world of the 19th century, some 200 years ago. I want to make it vivid, present, tangible.

Cashel notes that “even the name he went by was a construct”, and the name given to the source of the Nile is a recurring point of contention. Do the words we use influence the lives we lead?
This is more a question of identity. Cashel’s sense of himself is very fluid. He’s even buried under a pseudonym (Michael Finnegan). I have a strong feeling that our identity is made up of a series of selves that we occupy as we age. We’re not the same person in our seventies as we were in our twenties. Cashel’s shifting names, and his shifting identities throughout his life illustrate this theory.

The characters’ lives are shaped by the choices they make, but also by politics, religion, law, wealth (or lack of) and social mores. How far do they create their own destinies?
I think we all try to create our own destinies – try to plot the way ahead, envisage a destination – but our lives, I strongly believe, are entirely governed by luck – good and bad. We do what we can to follow a chosen path but, more often than not, our destinies are random, as if controlled by a roll of the dice.

Cashel spends his life in love with an unattainable woman, then becomes unattainable to another. Is this kind of pain inevitable – for him and for anyone who lives as long?
It is if you experience continuous bad luck. If you experience good luck you might live happily ever after. But it’s not guaranteed.

The narrative often diverges from traditional conventions – Cashel makes resolutions he swiftly abandons. What were the challenges of writing this kind of protagonist?
I’m trying to follow the contours of any long life with its waywardness and the fact that it is or will be fundamentally haphazard. If you look back at your own life you can see all the forking paths, and the road you chose. It could so easily have been completely different.

Cashel’s final memory is also his earliest – one that shaped the course of his life. Is life essentially cyclical?
Well, it can be in a novel! My feeling about giving Cashel that final image was to close the circle on his life. Who knows what thought comes to mind at the moment of our death? In the case of The Romantic it’s to give a kind of literary resolution, a catharsis. The boy, Cashel, had had a sort of premonition, little did he know.

You note that “most people don’t leave much of a trace or record behind them”. Could a novel like this be written in 200 years about the age of social media?
I think so. Can you imagine the mass of social media any individual will leave behind?  It’s too much – how can you tell, as the saying goes, “noise from signal”? My feeling is that after a few generations have passed, with a few exceptions, most of us will end up completely forgotten.

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