Waiting for Sunrise

combines suspense with an unusual romance as William Boyd again explores the effects of war on ordinary lives.

Would you describe Waiting for Sunrise as a psychological thriller or an espionage novel?

I think of my first novel, Restless, and this one, as adventures in the manner of John Buchan and Somerset Maugham, yet with our modern hindsight. In the ’20s and ’30s they wrote about Englishmen embroiled abroad. That was my starting point.

Why did you make your protagonist, Lysander Reif, an actor?

I work so much in film and TV, and I have many close friends who are actors. It’s a profession I’m very close to. I knew from the beginning that he was going to get into trouble and his profession was going to be very helpful to him.

Why did you choose to start the novel in pre-WWI Vienna?

I’m fascinated by that city at that time [1913–1914]. Everything was happening there: art, philosophy, psychoanalysis. It was a ferment of intellectual ideas, a well of creative talent.

What or who inspired Lysander’s nemesis, the unscrupulous sexpot Hettie Bull?

In my mind she’s a bit like Sally Bowles. I’ve read a lot of memoirs by English girls who at the time went to Vienna for adventure.

After Lysander becomes a British spy, he inadvertently kills two people in France. He tries to erase the memory by creating an alternate reality in his mind, a concept suggested by his psychiatrist, who calls it parallelism. But Freud, seen in a cameo, dismisses the idea. Was this really a psychological therapy at the time?

I completely invented it. I’m sure I’ll be getting lots of letters saying it’s not authentic therapy. I sort of cherry-picked psychological ideas here and there. If I ever need another career I could do that, I suppose.

You portray a rigid class system in England, especially the closed society of the intelligence network. Does this come from personal experience?

I’ve done an enormous amount of research about that institution as it was at the time. I’ve known spies and people who worked in the intelligence world. Many of their secrets are coming out into the open now. Lysander is a bit like Somerset Maugham [who spied for England during both world wars]. His talent will allow him to play a part.

In a pivotal scene, Lysander is waiting for the sun to rise to provide “clarity and certainty” about someone he thinks is a traitor in British intelligence. Yet in the novel’s last sentence Lysander “looks like a man who is far more at ease occupying the cold security of the dark.” This is typical of your work, where there are no certainties for any of your characters.

Like many of his generation, Lysander is influenced by Freud. The course of the novel is a journey in which he begins as a bit of an adventurer and then becomes a modern man. Many writers have been drawn to espionage novels because of the mendacity in human nature. Under the surface of adventure you can investigate all sorts of serious questions.