Paul Burke on William Boyd and the Short Story

Article published on October 23, 2017.

William Boyd’s latest book will be published in early November. The Dreams of Bethany Mellmoth is a short story collection, his fourth. In anticipation of that, here’s a few pointers about the author and his love of the short story form. Personally, I feel I have to exercise the grey matter that little bit harder when tackling a short story rather than a novel. If the story is well written, each and every word matters, whereas a novel allows you to absorb the meaning and essence of the tale as the plot unfolds. Anyway, Boyd is a master of the short story, although when he started out, his publisher only agreed to issue what became On the Yankee Station on the condition that Boyd first published a novel, A Good Man in Africa. We all know where that led.

  1. Boyd is a student of the short story and a disciple of the great writers, but chief among them is the Russian master, Anton Chekhov (1860–1904). Boyd says, “Chekhov is the father of the modern short story” as well as an influence on James Joyce and all that followed. So, obviously, his own work is influenced by Chekhov and some of his stories are direct homagé. For instance, the story ‘The Woman on the Beach with a Dog’ in Fascination (2004) is based on Chekhov’s ‘Woman with a Dog’.
  2. Boyd wrote an article for the Guardian called William Boyd’s Taxonomy of the Short Story (available online, but also in his book of essays Bamboo, which was published in 2005). In it, he identifies seven kinds of short story, a classification intended to describe the modes and parameters of the short form.
  3. A fundamental theme in Boyd’s work is the randomness of life. How chance determined the future no matter how well planned life appears to be. Characters have dreams and hopes, but they are often thwarted by life. Living life is often hard enough and doesn’t always allow time for taking stock because things happen. If you’ve read a Boyd story, you will appreciate how life unfolds in an apparently random way. Portraying this is, of course, artifice, since it takes considerable skill to plot and fluidly execute a story that appears to be governed by chance. Boyd is a serious comic writer who makes the most of life’s vicissitudes.
  4. Bethany Mellmoth has appeared in short stories before, including an appearance in the Spectator in 2009. ‘The Dreams of Bethany Mellmoth’ was a Christmas story (misnomer!) and it is available online; it is now part of the new story, which is almost novella length. Having read it, I wonder if that means I have an insight into her character and the story arc, a head start on the new book? Incidentally, Boyd first wrote using a female narrator in a short story and now some of his best regarded novels have female protagonists, including Amory Clay from Sweet Caress and Brazzaville Beach‘s Hope Clearwater.
  5. Boyd’s short story collections are not just tales about life and chance; they are layered with themes. They have a unity of purpose like a good album. On the Yankee Station deals with discovery; of secrets, of new experiences, of life itself (there are a few coming of age stories in the collection). Fascination deals with well, fascination and obsession (desires and dreams and consequent frustrations and disappointments). Are dreams a theme in the new collection? There is only one way to find out.
  6. Boyd is fascinated by the visual arts; Amory Clay is a photographer, John James Todd a cinematographer, Nat Tate an artist. Turning the visual into prose and pulling it off is a neat trick.
  7. Boyd comes up with some great names for characters: Hope Clearwater, Morgan Leafy, Garrett Rising, Riley Spacks and, of course, Bethany Mellmoth. Yet they never seem out of place or fanciful.
  8. Boyd has avoided the autobiographical story since his very early published short stories. In a sense, he didn’t want to write about what he knows. His narrators are freer to be themselves and the inventive and imaginative nature of his stories thrills readers. Boyd loves researching his stories in great detail.
  9. Chekhov again, “every person lives his real, most interesting life under the cover of secrecy”. Boyd believes that we only know a small fraction about other people, even what they think about us. The story is a good way to get inside the head of another person. Similarly, not having the full picture in stories and the revealing of secrets often precipitate change or plot development. We all have secrets and they can occasion humour or have serious consequences.
  10. Boyd loves blending fact and fiction. This includes adding real people and events to his stories, but also photographic images, bibliographies and appendices. Then, there was the hoax. Nat Tate was published by Boyd as a biography of a twentieth century painter, but was in fact entirely fictional – it caused quite a stir.
  11. Finally, Boyd is sometimes attacked for his readability and popularity, but what author doesn’t want to sell books? As he points out, the trick is to avoid stereotypes and I don’t think he can be accused of failing there.


Paul’s review of The Dreams of Bethany Mellmoth is also published on Nudge today.


The Dreams of Bethany Mellmoth by William Boyd


The Secret of Vesalius by Jordi Llobregat

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