William Andrew Murray Boyd was born in Accra, Ghana on 7 March 1952. He spent much of his early life there and in Nigeria. His mother was a teacher and his father, a doctor. Boyd was in Nigeria during the Biafran War, which had a profound effect upon him. "It was crazy, idiotic, and not at all like I imagined war to be. All my received opinions from books and television turned out to be misguided."
At the age of nine years he attended Gordonstoun school, in Moray, Scotland. He began his university studies at the University of Nice (Diploma of French Studies). He moved to Glasgow University (MA Hons in English and Philosophy), where he edited the Glasgow University Guardian. He then moved to Jesus College, Oxford in 1975, and worked on a PhD thesis (not completed) on Shelley. For a period he worked at the New Statesman magazine as a TV critic (1981-83), then he returned to Oxford as an English lecturer teaching the contemporary novel at St Hilda's College (1980-83). While he was there, his first novel, A Good Man in Africa (1981), was published.
Boyd spent eight years in academia, during which time his first film, Good and Bad at Games, was made. When he was offered a college lectureship, which would mean spending more time teaching, he was forced to choose between teaching and writing.
Boyd was selected in 1983 as one of the 20 'Best of Young British Novelists' in a promotion run by Granta magazine and the Book Marketing Council. He also became a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in the same year, and is also an Officier de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. He has been presented with honorary doctorates in literature from the universities of St. Andrews, Stirling and Glasgow. He was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 2005.
Boyd has been with his wife Susan since they met as students at Glasgow University, and all of his books are dedicated to her. His wife is editor-at-large of Harper's Bazaar magazine, and they currently spend about 30 to 40 days a year in the US. He and his wife have a house in Chelsea, West London but spend most of the year at their chateau in south west France, where Boyd produces award-winning wines..
In 2009, he donated the short story Bethany-next-the-Sea to Oxfam's 'Ox-Tales' project, four collections of UK stories written by 38 authors. Boyd's story was published in the 'Water' collection.
His novels include: A Good Man in Africa, An Ice-Cream War, Brazzaville Beach, The Blue Afternoon, and Armadillo. His eighth novel, Any Human Heart, is a history of the 20th Century told through the fictional journals of novelist Logan Mountstuart. In 2004 Fascination, a new collection of short stories, was published, and in 2005, Bamboo, a collection of non-fiction. His most recent novel Ordinary Thunderstorms was published by Bloomsbury in 2009.
Boyd makes a complete separation between screen and novel-writing. For him, "they are as dissimilar as opera and theatre".
He has written twelve scripts for feature film and television productions. His feature films include: Stars and Bars (1988), adapted from his own novel; Mister Johnson (1990); A Good Man in Africa (1994), also adapted from his own novel; Scoop (1987), adapted from the Evelyn Waugh novel; and an adaptation of Vargas Llosa's Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter. He was one of a number of writers who worked on Chaplin, Richard Attenborough's 1993 biopic based partly on the actor's own autobiography. He also wrote and made his debut as a director with the low-budget drama The Trench, set in the First World War just before the Battle of the Somme and first screened in 1999. Man to Man, for which he wrote the script, is the tale of an attempt by three Victorian men to prove that they have found evolution's "missing link", and had its world premiere at the Berlinale in 2005.
His television screenwriting credits include Good and Bad at Games (1983) and Dutch Girls, both about public school life. He also wrote screenplay for his novel Armadillo (2001), a London-set drama that follows the adventures of insomniac loss-adjustor Lorimer Black; the book was produced as a four-part television series screened by the BBC.
Boyd has also written a radio play, the ghost story A Haunting, which was first broadcast by BBC Radio 4 in December 2001.
In 1998, Boyd published An American Artist 1928-1960, which presents the paintings and tragic biography of a supposed New York-based 1950s Abstract Expressionist painter named Nat Tate, who actually never existed and was, along with his paintings, a creation of Boyd's. When the book was initially published, it was not revealed that it was a work of fiction, and a number of prominent art critics were duped by the hoax; it was launched at a lavish party, with excerpts read by David Bowie (who was in on the joke), and a number of prominent members of the art world claimed to remember the artist. It caused quite a stir once the truth was revealed.
The name Nat Tate is derived from the names of the two leading British art galleries: The National Gallery and The Tate Gallery. Nat Tate also appears in Any Human Heart, also by Boyd, with a wry footnote to the 1998 book.
Boyd, who is of the same generation as Martin Amis, Julian Barnes and Ian McEwan, has been, some people believe, "overlooked" as a novelist, largely because he has kept a low public profile. Although his novels have been short-listed for major prizes, he has never had quite the same publicity as his contemporaries, even though many consider his novels superior in technique and content.
While his geographical settings vary from the conflict-stricken west African coast of Brazzaville Beach (1990) to the romantic vistas of the Philippine islands in The Blue Afternoon (1993), his recurrent character focus is the English personality and how it adapts — or fails to adapt — to the demands of a foreign landscape. Boyd often displays his affiliation to an English tradition of the comic novel of expatriate life, together with his allegiance to one of his many literary predecessors, Evelyn Waugh. Like Henderson Dores, the introverted Englishman turned extrovert Manhattanite in Stars and Bars (1984), Englishness under pressure is seen to undergo the most radical metamorphoses, and yet remain, at the same time, irrepressibly resilient. It is also his sense of being apart - of having the distance to analyse dispassionately - that provides much of the energy and elegance behind Boyd's nine novels, two collections of short stories and thirteen screenplays.
Boyd also echoes the post-war formula of the Angry young men in the figure of Morgan Leafy, a hapless British diplomat struggling to master the complexities of his posting to a corrupt west African country (the fictional Kinjanja) in his novel A Good Man in Africa. His bumbling, gauche, but ultimately sympathetic protagonist has even led some critics to hail the author as a natural successor to Kingsley Amis . Like Amis’s Jim Dixon in Lucky Jim (1954), the accident-prone Leafy pursues his love interest through a series of career crises and ham-fisted sexual encounters, 'an aristocrat of pain and frustration, a prince of anguish and embarrassment', until he eventually regains his girl, and his self-respect, against all the odds of his situation.
In her critical analysis of Boyd's style, Eve Patten has suggested that:"It could be said that both his stories and his novels are governed by the ideal of a 'discerning intellectual pleasure', one sustained by his ability to marry individual interest with historical scope, and to fuse conceptual purpose with the power of compelling narrative."
His most recent novels revolve around the major theme of lost identity and how this is regained by their protagonists.