William Boyd has to laugh at what he’s hearing about his 10th novel. “It is taking all prizes for being the fastest read of my books,” he says, chuckling, from his New York hotel room. “People tell me, ‘I read it in six hours.’ I say, ‘Go back and read it again! There’s more to it!’‘’
Boyd, 54, is joking about “Restless” (Bloomsbury, $24.95), but it’s no surprise readers are propelled through its fascinating pages. Set in the 1970s and World War II and told through two compelling narratives, the espionage thriller explores a young woman’s discovery that her mother was a British spy.
Boyd, who won the Whitbread Award for his first novel, “A Good Man in Africa,” is known as something of a literary trickster: In 1998 he unleashed “Nat Tate: An American Artist 1928-1960,” a fictional homage to an artist that fooled art and literary critics alike. (It helped that his co-conspirators included Gore Vidal, David Bowie and Picasso biographer John Richardson, who spoke about Tate’s contact with Picasso.) Tate even makes an appearance in Boyd’s novel-as-journal “Any Human Heart,” which features cover art attributed to the nonexistent artist.
“Restless,” though, is based on a real, little-known British “campaign of persuasion” to lure the United States into World War II. The British Security Coordination (BSC), a vast covert operations organization operating pre-Pearl Harbor from Rockefeller Center, was entrusted with feeding propaganda to U.S. news media about Nazi plans in hopes of changing public opinion against joining the war.
“There were so many ironies,” Boyd muses. “They very successfully penetrated the news media. But would it have worked? Would American public opinion have changed in 1943? In a way the British got off the hook with Pearl Harbor and, 48 hours later, by Hitler’s declaration of war against the U.S. ... Another irony for the British is that the man who saved their bacon was the mad dictator they were fighting.”
Question: How did you get the idea to write about this agency?
Answer: The subject has been brushed very far under the carpet. I stumbled across it researching a film about the relationship between Winston Churchill and FDR. When I found it the novelist in me said: “Bingo!” I came across reference to dirty tricks and dug a bit and discovered there’d been this massive operation. For a novelist these secret histories are a gift. You think, “Now I know where my young woman spy can go spying.” It’s fresh and different; nobody’s ever heard of it in England for sure. Maybe they knew in Canada; they were implicated. The man who set up BSC was Canadian, ... but I think I’m right in saying this is the first novel that dealt with the subject in some detail. It was a big operation and very covert, and after Pearl Harbor and World War II nobody spoke about it again. I guess because it was kind of embarrassing.
Q: Because, ironically, Pearl Harbor did what the BSC may not have accomplished?
A: Yes. When you strip away the myths of World War II—which have accumulated thickly—and look at reality, a different picture emerges. One of the things “Restless” does is force us to look again at something we think is carved in stone. It wasn’t like that at all. It was a far more random chance-driven set of situations. I think the whole postwar special relationship between the U.S. and the U.K. is a Churchillian myth. Churchill wrote the history of World War II because FDR died, and Churchill reinvented the story to a certain extent. It was far more complex and more difficult than Churchill’s story of the English-speaking nations joining to fight a common enemy.
Q: We tend to think of World War II London in a romantic light, don’t we?
A: TV and movies have done that for us. I’m sure it wasn’t that great a time to be living there, even as a civilian. My mother was a teenage girl at the time, and the life she led was quite constrained, with blackouts and rationing. There’s nothing very glamorous about that. It’s quite good to revisit these times to strip away a few veils.
Q: Why did you want your protagonist to be a woman?
A: It’s liberating to change sex for a novel. But another reason is that I was aware I was entering a genre with a tradition that you could argue is a masculine tradition. I wanted to make the story different. When I thought of writing about a spy I asked myself, “What would it be like if you found one of your parents was a spy, that everything you knew about them was a fabrication?” It seemed much more interesting for a daughter to discover her mother was a spy.
Q: You’ve written short stories, essays and screenplays, yet you always return to the novel. Why?
A: The thing about the novel is you do have total and absolute freedom. As an artist that’s incredibly alluring, to be master of your own destiny, the ultimate one-man band. ... There’s no comparison in terms of the pleasures of creation. I love the movies, and I love working in them but creatively it’s a world of compromise. Working in other worlds—writing stage plays or plays for radio or a TV series—you suddenly realize that all the people writing those forms are in a way hindered or constrained. You’ve left your world of total freedom. However much fun it is, you’re always incredibly pleased to retreat to your solitary study.