William Boyd is a prolific novelist and a good one at that. All you want from these literary events is an opportunity to see your idols in the flesh, be dazzled by their eloquence, maybe ask them a question (if you dare, or if you are sitting close enough to one of the people brandishing microphones and they see you frantically waving your arm about) and perhaps get an autograph at the end in a brand new copy of their book. That's the deal between the author and the reader. Boyd delivered on every level.
The first thing that is striking about Boyd is that he is humble and modest in a very personable way. After a brief introduction by Richard Ovenden, the Bodley's Librarian, we got into some very well-paced and structured questions.
We discovered that he had studied at Jesus College and later taught at St Hilda's, quitting only after he'd written three books and a film and in doing so, freed up some much-needed time for himself to churn out the rest of his impressive oeuvre.
Boyd spoke about the relationship between the author and the translator and shared amusing anecdotes about how the Dutch version seemed to have 'Strange Little Man' in the title of every book. The Russian version was completed without any input from Boyd until he received his copy in the post with a picture and title of the wrong book and a different person in the author picture.
We learned that in fact he'd never been to Manila or Berlin but could write convincingly about these places because a) he's an ardent and dedicated researcher and b) his imagination. No-one without imagination has any business becoming a novelist. His credo is "make the reader believe" and this was taken to unbelievable lengths with his Nat Tate hoax.
It was with mirth that he recalled writing a monograph about a fictitious artist who'd committed suicide at the age of 60, Nat Tate, but not before burning all his art works, "which is why you'd never heard of him before", he added with a suspicious and mischievous smile. With the help of friends David Bowie (who published it) and Gore Vidal (who wrote the blurb) and a few blurry pictures supposedly of Tate in the back, they set him on the New York social elites at a launch party on April Fool's Day. Bowie said he had a Nat Tate original that survived the fire. People started saying what a tragedy it was how Tate had died and how they'd seen him at such and such launch/gallery before and how he was such a talented artist. The hoax was ousted about a week later and to get closure on his "Frankenstein's Monster", Boyd decided to auction the remaining "painting" by Nat Tate in 2011. It was sold to none other than Ant from Ant and Dec and Boyd donated all the proceeds to a charity for struggling artists.
He then read an extract "the world exclusive" of his new collection of unorthodox short stories, one of which was entitled, 'The Man Who Liked to Kiss Girls'.
We were all very entertained and I think everyone could have stayed there for hours more listening to him speak but it was time for him to receive the Bodley Medal, the highest honour of the Bodleian Libraries. Previous recipients have included Peter Carey, Alan Bennett, Oliver Sacks, Hilary Mantel, Nicholas Hytner, Ian McEwan and Professor Mary Beard.
Questions were then opened to the floor, and I chickened out of asking my question of whether he used to be a spy. Instead, someone asked if he had a favourite character. Boyd reminded us that Vladimir Nabokov was always asked this and he was very much anti-Freudian and anti the unconscious. He said: "All my characters are galley slaves and I'm the man on the deck with the whip". However, he did later confess that he was filled with melancholy when he finally killed off Logan Mountstuwart in Any Human Heart.
It is not surprisingly that William Boyd has received worldwide acclaim for his books. If I wasn't already a huge fan, I would become one on the back of this event.
Dreams of Bethany Mellmoth will be published by Viking (an imprint of Penguin) in Autumn 2017.