An elating read.Sunday Times

In swinging Britain in the summer of 1968, three characters are leading troubled lives. Sexually conflicted producer Talbot Kydd is overseeing an archly arthouse movie in Brighton while sneaking away from his wife to a secret London flat and pondering a possible future with a scaffolder named Gary; his star, American actress Anny Viklund, is cheating on her French philosopher boyfriend with her onscreen love interest, fading pop idol Troy Blaze, while under scrutiny from the CIA for abetting her terrorist ex-husband; and novelist Elfrida Wing – interminably dubbed ‘the new Virginia Woolf’ – is drowning her decade-long writers’ block in all-day vodka shots, deadening any hopes of inspiration. As personal predicaments impact on their public lives, their stories intertwine in William Boyd’s funny and affectionate exploration of identity, desire, artistic ambition and the price of happiness.

MR: Trio is set in 1968, a year of major upheavals internationally which generally pass your characters by. Why did you choose that era, and then to focus on characters whose immediate preoccupations outweigh world events?

WB: I knew I wanted to set the action in the 1960s as I’d had this idea for a classic, zany, Swingin’ 60s movie. However, I’d already set a novel in 1969 (my James Bond novel, Solo) so I plumped for ’68 and realised that I’d serendipitously made a good move. I was 16 in 1968 and so had quite strong memories of the year but, as I researched it, I realised how significant a year it was – one of those tipping points in modern history like 1789, 1848, 1914, 1933, etc. The funny thing was the rest of the world was going to hell in a handcart – Vietnam War, assassinations of Martin Luther King, Bobby Kennedy, huge riots in the US, near-revolution in France and Germany, Italy and Mexico, the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, etc., etc. – and we in Britain were pretty much living in a bubble of hedonistic frivolity. Our counter-culture was small and bourgeois-intellectual – nothing really changed in the UK, though trouble was brewing in Northern Ireland and there was an inceasingly bitter stand-off building between the Labour government and the unions. I thought the contrast was fascinating – and then very slowly the real world impinges – or we’re made aware of the real world beyond Brighton and the film that is Emily Bracegirdle’s Extremely Useful Ladder to the Moon.

By what process did you settle on a film producer, a novelist and a celebrated American actress as your main protagonists?

I had had this idea of writing three separate short stories about three characters all hiding a secret life. The idea being that the stories could be read in any order – readers could curate their own narrative. This was the germ of the novel but I abandoned the idea as too gimmicky. However, the idea persisted, nagging at me – hence the title, and hence the eventual novel. I think I had always imagined the trio as connected to the movie business – a world I know extremely well having had some 20 films produced from my screenplays over the years, and having directed a film myself. It takes me so long to figure out a novel that I almost forget the thought processes that lead me to the final decisions. Elfrida Wing is very loosely based on a writer I’m curious about called Rosemary Tonks – who turned her back on her career and disappeared for fifty years. She was believed to have died but was discovered living under an assumed name as a member of a religious cult in Bournemouth. Anny Viklund’s life and fate has a resemblance to the life and fate of the actress Jean Seberg. And I’ve known many people like Talbot Kydd – well, three or four, at least. All these interests go into the ‘hopper’ of the novel and emerge transformed – but those were the starting points.

The big emotions: love, shame, desire, injustice, betrayal, unrequited longing, etc. – are most intensely experienced at the beginning of your adult life. These are the benchmarks that we measure our emotions against as we mature.”

Talbot, Elfrida and Anny each undergo a journey from Duplicity to Surrender and Escape – with varying results. How early in the writing did that story arc and three-part structure fall into place?

I never start writing a novel until I know how it will end. I need my final destination – to such an extent that I sometimes have written the last lines of the novel before I’ve started on page 1. Consequently, the ‘period of invention’, as I describe it, tends to be longer than the ‘period of composition’. Of course I change things while I write but there’s no way that the grand scheme and shape of the novel evolve during the writing process. I’ve figured it out – and made and erased all my mistakes before I start writing. It took me over a year to plot and plan the shape of the novel and I wanted to echo the ‘trio’ of the characters in the three-part structure of the narrative.

Talbot ponders the notion that emotions experienced in adulthood never match the intensity of those in adolescence, and concludes that, for him, the reverse is true. What is your view?

Actually, I disagree with Talbot. But I thought – given his unique circumstances – that it is a nicely counterintuitive analysis that he expounds. It’s true in his case – but in my case I feel that the adolescent emotions – the big emotions: love, shame, desire, injustice, betrayal, unrequited longing, etc. – are most intensely experienced at the beginning of your adult life. These are the benchmarks that we measure our emotions against as we mature.

What were you yourself up to in 1968, and what kind of research did you undertake to be confident of recreating that time in London, Brighton and Paris?

In the summer of 1968 I had just taken my O-levels and I was waiting anxiously for the results. I asked my mother what we had been doing as a family. The family home was in Nigeria and my parents had come to Scotland on their annual leave. We rented a house in St Andrews, Fife, and spent the summer there. Cousins came to stay, days were spent at the beach, or hacking round the municipal golf courses that lined the Firth of Tay. I think I was unaware of the turmoil in the world (naïve young lad that I was). We were more concerned at the unrest in Nigeria. The Nigerian Civil War, the Biafran War, also erupted in 1968. My parents flew back to a country that was tearing itself apart – I returned to my boarding school in the north of Scotland.

Of course, I did a mass of research for the novel, as I always do. However, you only end up using ten percent of the stuff you unearth. I have many street maps of 1960s Brighton. And many books of photographs of the period. I find photographs very useful.

Homosexuality has just been decriminalised, but Talbot is struggling to adapt to the freedom to explore his true sexuality. His former army colleagues are more openly gay, but it is still difficult to be ‘out’ in public. How much of an immediate game-changer was the Sexual Offences Act? 

It depended on who you were. There was quite a gay scene in Brighton – and I’ve read many accounts of gay life in the 1960s there. But for someone like Talbot, who has kept his homosexuality secret, there was no sudden liberation that came with the 1967 Sexual Offences Act. If anything, the new liberties, the new license, were unsettling, confusing. I used the figure of Ken Kincade as the polar opposite to Talbot. Kincade is confident, secure, happy with his sexual nature. He looks on Talbot with something close to pity.

I think Woolf’s journals and letters and criticism are her great legacy. I find the novels a bit too tremulous and ethereal.”

Today it’s difficult to imagine a time in publishing when Virginia Woolf was out of favour. Why would her reputation have been at a pretty low ebb in the 1960s?

It was something of a revelation for me to discover how little-regarded Woolf was in the late 1960s and how indifferent people were to Bloomsbury. I have written about Woolf before (in Any Human Heart where she appears as a character). I have a complicated relationship with Woolf and her work, I confess. Probably because I had to teach To the Lighthouse to undergraduates for years. I came to dislike that novel intensely. I think Woolf’s journals and letters and criticism are her great legacy. I find the novels (as Elfrida does) a bit too tremulous and ethereal. She is, however, a most interesting woman. I suppose the Bloomsbury revolution started with Michael Holroyd’s biography of Lytton Strachey (1968) – and then Quentin Bell’s biography appeared in 1972 and the Bloomsbury phenomenon was born and has grown exponentially. Then came Woolf’s diaries and her correspondence and she usurped Maynard Keynes as the key Bloomsbury figure. But there’s no doubt that from her death in 1941 to Bell’s biography in 1972 she was pretty much ignored and/or patronised as a ‘lady-novelist’. I’m not sure why that should be – perhaps it’s a posthumous fate visited on most writers. There is usually a period of obscurity after a writer’s death until they are rediscovered – if they’re lucky. Very much what happened to Woolf. Also, when one thinks about it, that kind of precious, highly self-conscious intellectualism that one finds in her novels was very out of step with post-war social realism, Angry Young Men and the whole kitchen-sink school. She must have seemed like some pampered, snobbish, wealthy throwback.

Elfrida is struggling with the opening to her attempted novel about Woolf’s last day and suicide, and in the process parodies the opening of Trio. Do you struggle with opening lines? Or do you think their importance is often overrated?

Opening lines, and the opening page, are absolutely vital in a novel. I take enormous pains to get the tone and the language and the narrative set and established. When I finish a novel I have on occasion written a new opening so the fit is perfect – or as perfect as I can make it.

You preface the book with a quote from Chekhov: “Most people live their real, most interesting life under the cover of secrecy.” and Camus’ declaration that suicide, or deciding whether life is worth living, is “the fundamental question in philosophy”. Were these your starting point, or did the epigraphs come to you in the course of writing?

The Chekhov quote is one I have used before – as an epigraph to a short story. It has always struck me with particular force and I think goes a long way to explain the power and humanity of Chekhov’s short fiction. I have a fully-fledged Chekhov obsession, by the way – for his fiction and for his life – and I’ve written about him a great deal. I’ve written a play, Longing, that is based on two of his short stories. He also appears as a character in my novel Love is Blind.

I’m also extremely interested in Camus – a fascinating figure in French intellectual life. Elfrida’s struggles with her opening lines to her novel mirror a character in Camus’ novel La Peste (a new must-read during this pandemic) called Joseph Grand. He is writing a novel but is such a perfectionist that he can never get beyond rewriting the opening lines. It’s actually very funny. And Camus’ observations about suicide are particularly relevant to Elfrida and Anny’s problems.

Elfrida’s struggles with her opening lines to her novel mirror a character in Camus’ novel La Peste (a new must-read during this pandemic).”

Richard Harris’s overblown rendition of ‘MacArthur Park’ is the song of the summer, and seems to follow Talbot wherever he goes. Why did you pick this song as the book’s theme tune?

Well, it’s a song I know well and remember. It was a hit (no. 4) in the early summer of 1968 so it fitted the period and the mood perfectly. I think the lyrics have been voted as “most stupid song lyrics ever” many times. But it is a strangely haunting song, nonetheless, written by the great Jimmy Webb. There’s a fantastic Donna Summer disco version too. It’s also seven minutes long – unheard of for a pop record of that era. It did a lot of useful ambient work for me – and Talbot, at the end, thinks he may have decrypted the preposterous lyrics. And of course he associates the song with Gary, the scaff.

The supporting cast, including teen heartthrob Troy Blaze (a.k.a. Nigel Farthingly) , philandering director Reggie Tipton, conniving producer Yorgos Samsa, resourceful private detective Ken Kincade and many others are Swinging Sixties archetypes who would suit a period movie. Are there any plans for a film adaptation?

Nothing yet. In fact I haven’t even tried to interest a producer or a production company. Anyway, these things have to generate their own momentum. I have enough film projects and long-form TV series underway to keep me busy.

What’s the latest on your adaptations of John Treherne’s The Galapagos Affair and Graham Greene’s The Captain and the Enemy?

Cases in point. I suppose you could say they are both ‘in development’. The scripts have been written, there are producers and production companies attached but they are both, in their way, arthouse films, however exciting – an endangered species. It’s all about casting for films of this type and budget. They will always languish until the right actors, with the right heft, come along. Not easy.

You’ve also been writing a TV drama about the 2019 Notre-Dame fire. What unexpected stories will the series uncover about the blaze?

There is a real scandal about the alarm system that was installed. Also, now I know all about how events unfolded minute by minute, it is clear that it was an incredibly close-run thing. The cathedral was probably ten minutes from total, irrecoverable collapse and demolition.

How would you pitch Emily Bracegirdle’s Extremely Useful Ladder to the Moon in 25 words or less?

Nightmare question! I suppose it might be something like this: “Beautiful, famous American film star falls hopelessly in love with working-class English lad. Will they find happiness together, or will it end in tears?” 25 words!

How would you summarise your lockdown experience?

To some extent my normal working life has been the same. I sit in my study and write. In fact I’ve never been busier. I do miss society, however – close friends and family. I haven’t been in a restaurant since March. Very unusual.

What have you been reading lately?

I’ve written the introductions to four books during lockdown. Two Simenons, Mountolive by Lawrence Durrell and Gordon Burn’s tremendous novel Fullalove. The best new novel I’ve read recently was Evie Wyld’s The Bass Rock. I’m a big fan of her work. I’ve also been reading a lot of books about the Bay of Pigs fiasco in 1961, the assassination of JFK and CIA malfeasance and manipulation in the 1960s for a long-form Cold War spy-thriller series I’ve written called Spy City (set in Berlin in the early 1960s). Season 1 was filmed last year (6 hours – starring Dominic Cooper) and should be streamed in the coming months. Season 2 has been commissioned.

What are you writing next?

I think it will be Spy City II. But in fact the next bit of actual writing I will be doing is a long review of the new biography of Graham Greene.


William Boyd was born in 1952 in Accra, Ghana, and grew up there and in Nigeria. He is the author of fifteen highly acclaimed, bestselling novels and five collections of stories. He is married and divides his time between London and southwest France. Trio is published in hardback, eBook, audio download and audio CD by Viking/Penguin.
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Author portrait © Trevor Leighton

Mark Reynolds is a freelance editor and writer, and a founding editor of Bookanista.