The Sunday Times / Writers

Sebastian Faulks: “the effects of the past are felt in every beat of your heart, today.”

British novelist Sebastian Faulks is the latest member of the Fairways Galle Literary Festival team. His job description, as he puts it is to act as “a sort of go-between” for authors being invited to the festival and the organizers themselves. Formerly the first literary editor of The Independent and now the author of over a dozen books, Faulks is that rare beast, a writer who is both critically acclaimed and immensely popular.

Having appeared at more than his fair share of festivals, the author has chosen to make his debut behind the scenes with FGLF. It helps that he knows this island well, having come here for the first time in 1981 for what he now describes as perhaps the most enjoyable three weeks of his life. Eager to “escape the grey English winter for as long as possible,” Faulks is looking forward to discovering the festival itself. Of Sri Lanka, he says: “The civil war was obviously a trauma and a disaster, but I found a cautious optimism in January which I hope has flourished since. I am longing to be back.”

Below are excerpts from his email interview with the Sunday Times.

Sunday Times: You have said you set your heart on being a novelist at a young age – what did you imagine the life of a novelist would be like at 14? How does it compare with reality?

Sebastian Faulks: It is much more of a day job than I had imagined. It is very hard work. It also involves much more publicity and marketing than I ever dreamed of. Luckily I enjoy meeting readers and going to festivals. But it is not quite the austere or monkish calling I had envisaged.

ST: How does the experience of having worked as a reporter and editor shape the way you function as a writer today?

SF: Being a newspaper reporter helped me understand how easy it is to find things out, if you are determined. One week I had to be an ‘expert’ on church architecture, the next on some aspect of wildlife. I learned that if you telephone people they will usually help – even if it sometimes not in their own interests. I learned not to be afraid of tackling subjects about which I was initially ignorant. I also learned not to be frightened of the blank page. You can’t be all fey and artsy about it if the news editor is shouting at you.

ST: From A Trick of Light to Where My Heart Used to Beat, your career spans decades. How has your writing and your approach to writing evolved over that time? 

SF: I only ever tried to write the best book that was in me. And usually the subjects came calling. They found me. Only in retrospect can I see that there is some sort of shape and development over 30 years. It has to do with the themes that emerged. But I was not aware at the time that I was ‘getting towards the end of Phase 1’ or ‘starting on Phase 3’ or whatever. However, I am aware that I am about to begin a new phase now. Heaven knows what will be in it…

ST: How did it feel to see Birdsong adapted by the BBC? How do you think the story fared in the transition?

SF: I thought Eddie Redmayne was terrific.  I was lucky to have him in that part. And Cate Blanchett as Charlotte Gray. You could not ask for better actors than those two.

ST: In Where My Heart Used to Beat, and of course Birdsong and the novels before that, you recreate the past in an incredibly vivid, detailed way. What for you is the appeal and the challenge of writing historical fiction? Is it inevitable that you would write about these times from the certainty of the present looking back or do you try to write from the uncertainty of the past, the moment as it was unfolding?

SF: You have to write in that moment, the turbulent present with no perspective. The key for me was understanding that people in 1910 or 1940 felt fully ‘modern’, just as you or I do. And humanity has changed very little, I suppose.

One thing I wanted to do was to understand who I was, where I had come from. That led me to try to understand the past and to honour the glorious dead. The dead are no more dead than we are alive, if you see what I mean…”

ST: What do you think historical fiction, your France Trilogy for instance, tells us about the present moment?

SF: “I hope the French trilogy opened up a fairly long perspective on France, Britain and Europe in the 20th century, but it began domestically and focused tightly on individual experience. It suggests that even the private love affair of a young maid in a run-down hotel is shaped by the movement of public events long ago. It was this connection that intrigued me. I wanted to take ‘history’ out of the class room and show that the effects of the past are felt in every beat of your heart, today.

ST: 13 books in, are you sure there will be a 14th and a 15th? Do you still feel anxious about where the next book will come from or how it will be received?

SF: I have reached a crossroads with Where My Heart Used to Beat, because it sums up and gives shape in quite a short book to a number of quite complex themes I have been dealing with a long time.

I have more books in me, though at the moment I don’t know what they are. I am not sure I could bear to write another novel as sad as Where My Heart, though. It is not good for one’s health or sanity!”

ST: Spectre will be out soon, and so the Bond franchise hums on. What was it like to follow in Ian Fleming’s footsteps in writing a new Bond novel?

SF: I read all the books through before attempting my own. And I enjoyed them, especially the early ones, before Fleming, I think, became bored with it. The later ones are a bit silly. The good ones work for a simple reason. He creates jeopardy round his hero. You feel frightened for him. You ache for him to escape and survive. That jeopardy thing is harder to do than you might think.

ST: In what ways did you want to pay tribute to Fleming and in what ways did you want to differentiate your work? When did you find yourself having the most fun with that project?  

SF: I copied the stuff I liked – girls, Feix Leiter, drink, action – and dropped the stuff I didn’t like so much. The best bit was discovering an exotic real-life machine called the Ekranoplan that might have been invented by Fleming himself. I had fun with Scarlett, the girl, and her twin sister. I enjoyed making her cleverer than Bond in a 21st century way – but I tried to make her fun and sexy in an old-fashioned way too. I think she is probably the best thing in the book. And the parachute jump. That was fun.

ST: You’ve advised aspiring writers to write about what they don’t know. How has doing that made you the writer you are today?

SF: All the words come from your head and through your fingers. Quite enough of you gets into the book anyway. Writing about people of a different sex, different age and in a different country was a liberation to me. It set free my energy and imagination, such as they are.

Published in the Sunday Times on October 25, 2015. Words by Smriti Daniel. Pix courtesy Sebastian Faulks.

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