London Connection Q&A: Sebastian Faulks
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Sebastian Faulks was born on 20 April 1953 and was educated at Wellington College and Emmanuel College, Cambridge. He worked as a feature writer for the Sunday Telegraph from 1983 to 1986, before joining The Independent as its first literary editor. He became deputy editor of the Independent on Sunday when it launched in 1989. He left in 1991.
He subsequently wrote a monthly column for The Guardian, then for two years a weekly one in the Evening Standard as well as a short spell as film reviewer for the Mail On Sunday. Following the success of Birdsong (1993), he has devoted his energies to writing books. His latest novel, A Possible Life, will be published in September 2012.
Sebastian Faulks was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1993 and appointed CBE for services to literature in 2002. He lives with his wife and three children in London.
Peter Quinn: Birdsong (1993) has become a classic of modern English literature. How important was your experience of reporting on the 70th anniversary of the Armistice – spending time with WWI veterans and seeing the battlefield cemeteries – in terms of galvanising you to write the novel?
Sebastian Faulks: That trip introduced me to men who had actually fought there. I met about six of them and talked to them about their experiences. It helped to bring the war out of an area marked ‘history’ and put it under the heading of life. Here we were in the actual field; and they were the same men. Over there, by that tree, was where his friend had died. As a fiction writer you are essentially telling lies and making things up; but if you are setting them in an historical reality you need to feel you have the authority to do so. This visit helped to give me confidence – though I still viewed the enterprise with trepidation.
The triple biography The Fatal Englishman (1996) is your only foray into non-fiction to date. What are your reservations about biography?
Most biographies are too long and most of them presume too much. You cannot know what your subject thought or felt most of the time and it is false to pretend you can. Facts can be interesting. For instance, if you could find letters written by a young Hitler to his mother in which he outlined his thoughts on war and family and violence. But the type of literary biography in which the author tries to relate every line of the subject’s imaginative work back to a real-life event or person seems to me pointless, or worse. There are exceptions, of course. I admire Claire Tomalin’s books. And biogs that just tell you what the person did. It is the pseudo-psychology I don’t like.
"I believe there are small generalised differences between the sexes, but not many, and seldom dramatically interesting."
Charlotte Gray (1997) and On Green Dolphin Street (2001) both feature strong female lead characters. Do you find that there is any difference when writing using a woman's voice or perspective?
The sex of the character is seldom the most important quality in a scene. Age, past experience, nationality, temperament and circumstance usually weigh more heavily. I believe there are small generalised differences between the sexes, but not many, and seldom dramatically interesting. However, if you are a woman writer it is worth stopping at the end of every scene told through the eyes of a male character and saying: Right, Joe’s done just what I want, but is there anything he has done or said that no man would ever do or say? Like a spell check: a bloke check. And of course the converse applies. I do do that after a woman’s POV scene.
Human Traces (2005) took five years to research and write. What fact about human consciousness most surprised you when you were doing your research for the book?
The single fact that most surprised me was to discover that schizophrenic patients don’t imagine that they hear voices; they do hear voices. Hard to get your head round. But much else besides. It is a fascinating area and this is my favourite of my books.
The eponymous main character of Engleby (2007) came to you in a dream. Have other characters or plot lines revealed themselves in this way?
No. But when I am in mid-book I always fall asleep thinking of my characters, or better still I fall asleep as one of them. I want them to live for eight hours in my unconscious so that they develop and grow and become more autonomous when I return to them the next day.
You have said of A Week In December (2009) that it didn’t quite turn out as the modern Dickensian novel you had intended. Do you still have plans to write that novel?
I think it turned out “Dickensian” OK, albeit in a rather shorter form, because I made it so by borrowing some of his structures. Obviously I am not saying it’s as good as Dickens, merely that it’s indebted to him. What it didn’t turn out was seriously realistic in the Bellow/Updike/Roth vein. It became satirical. The cultural and political world of contemporary Britain simply forced this satirical tone into it. I will probably try again one day to write the Herzog-Rabbit thing, but not sure that I can pull off what has eluded so many others.
"The style was quite easy to get. I analysed it in undergrad lit crit mode."
You took just six weeks to write the one-off James Bond book, Devil May Care (2008). How easy was it to inhabit Ian Fleming’s particular journalistic style?
The style was quite easy to get. I analysed it in undergrad lit crit mode – number of concrete nouns, active verbs etc. Then I did a sort of Rory Bremner, trying to find the voice. But I didn’t want to get too close or it would have become a parody. I think a successful parody exaggerates the characteristic bits and omits the rest; it is the subject plus 20 per cent. With Bond, I tried to stop at about 80 per cent.
Could you tell us a little bit about your forthcoming novel, A Possible Life?
It is a novel in five parts. It is composed like a symphony in separate movements. The parts have different characters, settings and times. There are some circumstantial connections, but mostly the parts are bound by theme: they are all, in their different ways, about the same thing. Each part moves very fast, so it may be best to read it all twice. It’s not that long.
“Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” Do you agree with E.L. Doctorow, or do you begin a novel with a shape of the whole?
It’s a nice image, but not my experience. I have an AA gazetteer, a sat nav, GPS and a route map. I wouldn’t dream of starting without. (Except Engleby, but that was different…)
Does the writing of a novel get any easier when certain things – structural details, for example – fall into place, or is it simply a question of luck?
Life is all luck, isn’t it? In the period of composition you have to be exceptionally open. Anything might feed in. The knack is knowing the difference between a disposable thought and a robust idea. You have to live in a rather vulnerable, open state, while at the same time making hard decisions. You are like a valve that switches between active and passive all the time. This is what takes it out of you a bit.
"Almost everything I know about structure I learned from classical music. Most of what I know about narrative I took from cinema."
You have incorporated filmic techniques in your writing. Are you ever influenced by other art forms – music or painting, for example?
See above on A Possible Life. Almost everything I know about structure I learned from classical music. Most of what I know about narrative I took from cinema. I also think of oil painting quite a lot, particularly when I am trying to add layers, to thicken the texture.
You work from around 10am to 6pm every weekday. What is it like to spend your working day in an imagined world?
It is exhilarating, though occasionally I do wonder if 21 years in a solitary cell is good for anyone. I do also wonder what it must be like to have a proper job. I guess it is too late to find out now. I would like to have been a diplomat. Or a psychiatrist.
How do you deal with the 'judge', that internal critic that gets in the way of writing?
I encourage him – or is it her? He/she does not get in the way, s/he stops me writing rubbish, I hope.
What was the last book you read for pleasure, rather than research?
The Cleaner of Chartres by Salley Vickers; Cakes and Ale by Somerset Maugham.
Of all the heroes, lovers, snobs and villains that populate your four-part TV series Faulks on Fiction, who is your favourite character?
Jeeves, I suppose. Though Mr Pooter from The Diary of a Nobody runs him close. And Merrick from Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet is rather magnificent.
Watch a clip of Robert Harris discussing George Orwell's 1984 from the BBC series 'Faulks on Fiction':
- For more information about Sebastian Faulks, please visit his official website.
- Visit the Sebastian Faulks page on Amazon.
- Our redeveloped BA English programme features a range of new optional courses including ‘Introduction to Creative Writing’ and 'Language and Gender'. You can find out more about the programme at our Undergraduate Open Evening on 6 September 2012.