Beginning with the 1981 publication of his first novel, A Good Man in Africa, winner of the prestigious Whitbread Award, William Boyd has been astonishingly prolific—14 novels, four story collections, four plays, countless film and television scripts, essays and reviews.
“I think it’s a very British thing,” Boyd says during an afternoon call to his home in London. He and his wife, formerly editor-at-large for Harper’s Bazaar and now a film writer and producer, are packing to escape overheated London for the house they have owned for 20 years in rural southwest France, where they spend roughly a quarter of the year. “You’ve got to write something every day,” Boyd says. “It needn’t be a novel. It might be a restaurant review or your diary. I think it’s because of the great Victorians—Dickens, Thackeray, Trollope—those tireless dynamos of writers who make us all look lazy. In the British literary tradition, it seems normal to be prolific.”
Over the last decade, in addition to producing a novel every three or so years, much of Boyd’s extracurricular writing has been devoted to a newfound interest in photography. That interest bodies forth in bold, captivating and mischievous ways in his sweeping new novel, Sweet Caress.
Subtitled “The Many Lives of Amory Clay,” the novel opens on a sparsely populated island off the coast of Scotland in 1977 with the title character, born in 1908, looking back over a tumultuous life. As a professional photographer, Amory has been a witness to many of the signature events of the 20th century: the return of emotionally damaged soldiers—including her father—from World War I; scandalous Berlin between the wars; the catastrophes of World War II and Vietnam. Amory’s romantic life has been equally turbulent.
“In all my novels I tend to steer my protagonists into areas of life or history that intrigue me,” Boyd says. “Amory’s journey is pretty amazing, but it’s not extraordinary. A lot of women photographers, especially between the wars, seemed to live interesting, emotional-rollercoaster lives. Photography is a very democratic profession. There was no glass ceiling for these women. So they had a kind of independence which other professions open to women did not have.”
As part of his interest in photography as an art form, Boyd says he also wanted Amory’s career to span “the many types of photography that the 20th century threw up. So she takes [action] photographs like Jacques Henri Lartigue in the beginning of her career, then she becomes a society photographer like Cecil Beaton, then a fashion photographer maybe like Richard Avedon or Irving Penn, and then a war photographer and a reporter.”
Boyd decided early on that merely describing Amory’s photographs wouldn’t suffice. So in a move that will surely stir comment, Sweet Caress is illustrated with photographs purportedly of and by Amory. Other novels, Boyd notes, have included photos. His own elaborate literary hoax Nat Tate (1998), a supposed biography of a tragic American painter, for example, included images of the fictitious artist and his paintings. But, with 73 images, few previous works of fiction have used photography on the same scale as Sweet Caress.
“The decision to make Amory a photographer in the 20th century made me think that maybe I should do the unprecedented thing and put a lot of her photographs in the novel,” Boyd says. “Once I had that idea, it seemed to me a really intriguing kind of parallel creative process. I thought it would be interesting to see if I could illustrate her life with photos that were purportedly taken by her but are in fact anonymous photographs and also give the anonymous people in these photographs new identities from the fiction.”
And so the search for la photo juste began. Already a frequenter of junk shops and “car boot sales,” from which he had amassed a large collection of found photographs, Boyd also searched through online catalogs for photos of the right era and style. Vietnam War photos were the most difficult to come by because most of the pictures from that war are press photographs. But France, he notes with a laugh, was a gold mine. “The French seem to throw away their family albums willy nilly. Because I live in France, I go to these brocantes—antique fairs—where I’ve bought many a family album. I used them in Nat Tate and I used them in Sweet Caress.”
At the outset, Boyd worried that the photographs might be a distraction. But his creative selection of photographs, many of them snapshots, has the opposite effect. Not only do the images aptly fit how a reader might imagine a particular character or situation, but they add a surprising vitality to the narrative. As Boyd says, “In a very curious way that I haven’t fully analyzed yet, the photographs actually enhance the fiction. It’s a most strange thing that happens.”
Maybe, Boyd speculates, the key lies within the nature of the snapshot. “What strikes me about photography is that it’s a stop-time device. And I think the snapshot is the quintessence of photography. Time is frozen, a moment is frozen, life stops. That moment frozen forever can be incredibly powerful.”
Which leads Boyd to a kind of epiphany. “Many people have read the novel now and there’s a consensus that the photos don’t detract from the fiction. Seeing the man Amory’s in love with or the house she lives in actually makes the novel seem more real. And that fits into this bigger plan I realize I’ve been working on throughout my writing life, which is to make fiction seem so real you forget it’s fiction, to push the bounds of fiction into the real world, the world of history and journalism and reportage. I never had this plan, but I can look back at the work and see, yes, this is something I consistently tried to do: to make people’s suspension of disbelief absolute.”