Sebastian Faulks is the internationally acclaimed, best-selling author of eight novels. His best-known and perhaps best-loved novel, Birdsong, was published in 1993 and has sold over three million copies worldwide. The novel is now a classic in modern literature and is taught at schools and universities on English and History syllabuses. A TV adaptation of the novel was screened by the BBC earlier this year – and there is still talk of a movie. Hazel Gaynor caught up with Sebastian at the Four Seasons Hotel in Dublin recently, where he spoke about his new novel A Possible Life which has been described by the Telegraph as ‘a tightly written, moving and exciting work of fiction’ and by the Observer as ‘a profound novel … exploring big ideas without compromising the human drama.’ He also reflected on how he creates his memorable characters and wonderfully evocative novels.
Sebastian Faulks, literary legend, sits at a table overlooking the gardens at the Four Season’s Hotel. It’s a crisp, September afternoon. ‘It’s very stuffy inside,’ he says. ‘Do you mind if we do the interview out here?’ He speaks exactly as I had imagined: considered, polite and with an air of distinguished charm reminiscent of Bond himself. Yes, I am a little star struck.
Despite the goose bumps which have already risen in protest on my arms (I can find myself feeling a little chilly in the height of summer), I settle into the seat opposite and commence the interview, Sebastian’s ninth that day – and his last. For a man who has been up since 5.30am that morning he is remarkably enthusiastic!
I ask him to describe his new novel A Possible Life which, in his own words, isn’t like any novel he has written before. ‘The novel has five different characters who live in different countries and who voice the five parts of the novel. There are little connections between the five sections but it’s really like listening to a symphony in five movements or a CD – the tracks are separate, but the whole thing comes together to mean more. The sum is greater than the parts.’
Faulks wrote the book in five distinct parts because he felt that was the best way to convey the theme of A Possible Life which is about whether we are all separate, distinct individuals or whether we are really all part of the same ‘cosmic story.’ ‘I write the story in five separate parts and then show the unseen links which exist between people, generations and countries.’
Faulks ascribes the inspiration for the novel to many things, including documents he read at the Imperial War Museum and something as simple as an overheard conversation. ‘I don’t think writers necessarily choose the subjects they write about, they choose you,’ he explains. ‘When you wake in the night or spend weeks mulling over an idea which you really feel you can spend two years immersing yourself in, then you know you have found something you really want to write about. When you find the right voice to express them in, the book can almost write itself.’
Talking about writing the different and very diverse characters in this novel, it is clear that Faulks is a writer who immerses himself fully in the world and the people he is creating. ‘I write from ten until six each day in an office which is about ten minutes away from home. When I start writing each day I have to tap into my character’s voice again.’ He then slips into the voice of one of his characters and I ask if he spends time at home speaking in his character’s voice. He laughs, but assures me that he doesn’t go that far!
For a man who would make a pretty good 007 himself, it is no surprise to learn that he was approached by the family of the late Ian Fleming in 2006 to write a Bond novel to mark the centenary of Fleming’s birth. Devil May Care was published in 2008. Will be do more? ‘No. It was tremendous fun but I think there are certain things you should only do once in life and that is one of them!’
Faulks knew he wanted to be a writer as early as the age of fourteen, but he didn’t get published until he was twenty nine, with his first novel The Girl at the Lion d’Or. For many years he was a working journalist as well as a novelist and it wasn’t until the international success of Birdsong that he was able to leave his journalism behind and concentrate on his writing full time. So, what advice does someone like Sebastian Faulks have for aspiring writers? ‘I think the worst thing anyone can write, when they are describing a character is to liken them to someone. ‘He is a man who is like…’ Your characters shouldn’t be ‘like’ anyone else. They should always be original, fresh, and unique and your readers should feel that they have never met anyone like this person before. Other than that, you just simply have to stick at it.’ For now, Faulks is enjoying a short break. He spent the summer reading, rather than writing, but will be back to the desk and the laptop in January.
And what does he hope people will get from his novels? ‘I want readers to find my novels a struggle. I want them to make readers think, but I want them to be glad that they carried on with it when they get to the end. I want people to be shaken,’ he adds and we both wait for the inevitable, perfect punch line, ‘… not stirred!’
Thank you to Mr Faulks for a charming, inspiring – if slightly chilly – conversation. And in case you’re wondering, no, he hasn’t read Fifty Shades of Grey and, judging by the quizzical look on his face when I asked him what he thought of the sensation surrounding it, I suspect he has no intention of doing so anytime soon! Here is a flavour of his new novel A Possible Life:
Every atom links us. Every emotion binds us. Every thought connects us:
Terrified, a young prisoner in the Second World War closes his eyes and pictures himself going out to bat on a sunlit cricket ground in Hampshire.
Across the courtyard in a Victorian workhouse, a father too ashamed to acknowledge his son.
A skinny girl steps out of a Chevy with a guitar; her voice sends shivers through the skull.
Soldiers and lovers, parents and children, scientists and musicians risk their bodies and hearts in search of connection – some key to understanding what makes us the people we become.