For such an expansive chap, William Boyd is being annoyingly evasive. I'm digging for a titbit about his latest novel, a new James Bond book, but the prolific novelist is playing his cards closer to his chest than the secret agent himself. I have, I realise, gone about this interview all wrong. We're sitting in the upstairs living room of Boyd's Chelsea townhouse.
I'd hoped the cosy setting, which has the unlikely feel of a French farmhouse-cum-second-hand-bookstore, might trigger a few indiscretions about the spy's next adventure. But no.
It turns out I should have pressed him to meet at London's Dukes Hotel, Ian Fleming's old watering hole, over a Vesper or three for lubrication purposes. The "mind-bogglingly strong" cocktail — was a Bond invention, named after one of the secret agent's many women, which Boyd drank "in the interests of research" at the hotel's legendary bar.
"It's rocket fuel. And it all comes from the freezer, so it's icy cold and not diluted at all by ice chips. I had one, and thought." He trails off, presumably unable to remember much else.
The meticulous writer cuts a vaguely raffish air in his open-neck, chambray shirt, worn untucked over navy chinos with some sockless tan boatshoes, a single, silver bangle on his wrist, and the signs of an old earring hole visible in his left ear. He clearly had a field day researching the literary Bond, "a far more interesting character than the cinematic one by enormous degrees".
This seems largely to have involved totting up the vast number of drinks sunk by the spy, a reflection, Boyd adds, of Fleming's hedonistic life. "He Fleming was obsessed with food, obsessed with drink, and clothes, and cars. He gives these personal obsessions to Bond.
I've been counting his drinks through the books, which has been great fun, because Fleming obviously hadn't realised how many double bourbon on the rocks he had drunk."
The "troubled, complex" James Bond is the one we will read about when Boyd's book is published next autumn. Era-wise, Boyd has dived back into Fleming's world, setting his story in 1969, five years after Fleming released his last work, The Man with the Golden Gun. Forced to jump to my own conclusions, I'm betting the action takes our hero to Africa, scene of both Boyd's formative years and his early books such as An Ice-Cream War; A Good Man in Africa; and Brazzaville Beach.
I'm basing my assumption on the wry smile Boyd gives when I ask if he's planning to set another novel in Africa. "I may well do, I may well do," the 60-year-old says in his softly Scottish accent. It's been years, decades even, since Boyd journeyed there, literally. He says Africa — he was born in Ghana and lived in Nigeria until his late teens — yields the "pure source of memories" he uses as a writer, and another reason that I'm guessing he might draw on that continent for Bond's adventures.
"As a novelist, where do you go to tap into memories, and impressions, and sensations? It's usually, in my experience, your early life, before you started thinking of yourself as a writer, because somehow those experiences are unadulterated.
When you reach that moment, all experience is filtered, not immediately but eventually, by the writer's brain."
As a teenager, he bounced between western Nigeria, where his father worked as a doctor and his mother taught, and Scotland. "I've lived in England, in Oxford and London, ever since school and university. I also have a house in France, where I feel very at home as well" he says.