On the background to SEX & GENIUS

sg1.jpgSEX and GENIUS was conceived in Positano in 1993.  I was reading Henry James’s THE EUROPEANS and trying to remember how faithfully Merchant Ivory had treated the character of Eugenia (played by Lee Remick).  I found it hard to believe that the film would have done justice to this characteristically ambivalent Jamesian heroine, lest she seemed ‘unsympathetic’ to a cinema audience; and that got me wondering what Henry James himself would have made of the countless film and TV adaptations of his work (this was pre WINGS OF THE DOVE, THE PORTRAIT OF A LADY, THE GOLDEN BOWL).  It seemed likely that The Master would have been awe-struck by the visual realization of his imaginative world and horrified by the radical simplifications and corner-cuttings required by adaptation.  The high priest of the novel would surely have had kittens; and he would have had them before getting to the preview theatre.  It fascinated me to imagine what he would have made of people in the film biz generally – the actresses, the producers, the movie agents, and the commercial language of that world.  I found it intriguing to imagine a clash between a nineteenth century novelist of genius (and virtue), for whom the term ‘artistic integrity’ is not some flaky throwaway phrase, and the ambitious, pragmatic, product-hungry bods of the movie industry.  Although the idea posits an anachronism, because a contemporary Henry James could not exist, his work and sensibility do still exist and have a life in the minds of readers; and adaptation is a process by which the mentality of the present comes into conflict (and is maybe exposed by) the sensibility of the past.  At any rate the character of James Hilldyard is an extrapolation into the present of a James-type novelist, and my setting of the novel in Italy is a partly a response to a landscape that I found as stirring as James himself, who not only travelled in Italy as a young man, but wrote and set many of his stories there.

It took a while to see that the main character of my book could not be James Hilldyard (the author), but had to be a person for whom the sanctity of literature was as near a given as it could plausibly be nowadays, and who would nonetheless be susceptible to the blandishments of Hollywood, with its transfiguring promise of glamour, power and sex.  Michael Lear, who starts as an arts producer and then becomes the author’s friend, has a foot in the world of the arts, and another in the world of business.  The action of the book rips him in two.  The novel’s array of film types (there are a  generous five agents) are all fictional characters but all avidly cultured from my real life experience of the world (which includes 22 trips to Cannes in eleven years).


James Hilldyard is a great novelist living in seclusion on the Amalfi Coast. Michael Lear is a documentary producer on a pilgrimage to meet him. When Hilldyard declines the documentary but asks Michael to stay in Positano, the younger man cannot refuse.

But Michael's fascinating sojourn is disrupted by the arrival of Adela Fairfax. The captivating actress is determined to secure film rights in a Hilldyard novel, and believes only Michael can help her. Hilldyard is resistant, but Adela is deeply compelling. What follows is an epic collision between the Hollywood system at full throttle and the will of a genius, with Michael at the epicentre.

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UK reviews

‘…A supremely intelligent and intense novel.  Conrad Williams writes like a dream.’ -  Publishing News

‘This novel is a gripping piece of work, written with style and panache.’ - Sunday Telegraph

‘Williams' plot is enthralling.  He mixes discussions about the importance of keeping art untarnished by commerciality with insider knowledge of the film world's methods and language.  And even though these themes form the core of the plot, he still devotes time and skill to fleshing out the characters and the picturesque location of the story...'SEX AND GENIUS is a compelling book and, with the combination of moral dilemmas and a complex cast, it reads as if it were written in a different age (it's no surprise that one of Williams's literary inspirations is Henry James).  An accomplished debut, bringing ideas about principles into the ultimate modern day situation.’ - The Big Issue

‘Williams is a delightfully eloquent observer.’ - Time Out

‘A cleverly written seduction dance…Wry, mature, richly drawn (and) accomplished.’ - Daily Mail

‘Gripping, intelligent and highly enjoyable...a plot as twisting as the sublime Amalfi Coast. The Hollywood wheeler-dealers read like Martin Amis at his funniest.  One is swept along by the passions of each character as they attempt to manipulate the other...An impressively old-fashioned debut.’ - The Times

‘A fan letter to the old-fashioned novel in form as well as sentiment, with plot refreshingly to the fore...a readable, atmospheric debut.’ - The Observer

‘Absorbingly interesting and tense…characters etched with economy and pungency…the Hollywood grotesques provide darkly comic relief, their brittle world drawn convincingly and colourfully…Williams is adept at recreating experience through buoyant dialogue and characterization.’ - TLS

‘This debut novel takes the classic Edenic form: beauty and happiness delicately drawn, then systematically destroyed…Williams deploys a rich leisurely style, which captures the subtler shades of emotion while viewing the physical scene with an almost alien freshness.  The complexities - and many virtues - of this book defy concise summary.’ - Times Play

‘Williams has a natural turn of phrase and a facility for evoking place and ambience…For all the vicarious thrills gleaned from becoming romantically entangled with a beautiful actress and playing Los Angeles sharks at their own game, Williams goes for a decidedly un-Hollywood finale, but it is in this ending that he reveals the novel’s truth.  In an age of spin and speed, of the relativity of meaning and the politicisation of morality, Williams provides a moment of sublimely Aristotelian emotional logic: some things can only be one thing or the other, not both at the same time.’ - Scriptwriter Magazine

‘A thoroughly entertaining tale of the interaction of high literary sensibility, the egos of actors and the greed of Hollywood agents.  Authentic detail, fine and convincing characterisation and a gripping storyline, moving fluently between high farce and intense emotion, make this an unusually accomplished story of our cultural times.’ - Primrose Hill Books, Christmas Catalogue 2002

Online reviews

‘Conrad Williams’ debut is a wonderful read and he writes with immense skill, capturing emotions and places with ease. Targeted at the more cultured customer.’ – Stephen Thompson, amazon.co.uk

‘Thus book is amazing.  I’ve never read a modern novel that so vividly evokes the world of Henry James in its subtle dissection of the ways we deceive ourselves and other people.  With its Italian setting, it’s like a mixture between ‘The Wings of the Dove’ and the ‘Aspern Papers’.’ – Watford Reader, amazon.co.uk

‘This is an emotionally satisfying and entertaining novel that has both great pace of narrative and the depth found in the strongest contemporary literature.’ – M. Roberts, amazon.co.uk

‘Despite being billed as John Fowles meets Patricia Highsmith, there are strong overtones of Henry James’ The Aspern papers in this thoroughly entertaining tale…an impressive and accomplished debut which will bring pleasure to many.’ – Amanda Craig, amazon.co.uk