As Louis de Bernières gets set to appear at literary festivals Write on Kew and Wimbledon BookFest, he explains to Kat Hopps why he’s a poet and frustrated musician at heart.
There was a phase when everything got pretty much out of control; I always refer to it as my Corelli rock stardom,’ Louis de Bernières says jokingly. The British author is, of course, talking about his international best-selling novel Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, which was adapted into a Hollywood film in 2001, and reached 19th place on The Big Read in 2003, the BBC’s list of the nation’s best-loved novels. ‘It was tremendously good fun for much of the time but it was such a big distraction that I got much less work done,’ he says.
After a small hiatus in the 00s, Louis has been busier of late, promoting his new novel The Dust that Falls From Dreams notwithstanding a determination to reinvent himself as a poet. You have to keep remaking yourself,’ he tells me. ‘There’s a lovely line that Bob Dylan came up with years ago that is he not busy being born is busy dying.’ He’s well aware of probable implications – ‘what it means is losing some fans and gaining others, you just have to put up with it’ – but argues he’s always had alternative fan bases, from those who enjoy the surreal humour of his early Latin American books through to devotees of Birds Without Wings, his modern attempt at War and Peace, and also his personal favourite of his books.
His newest novel slots nicely under the ‘epic’ section of his work. The Dust That Falls From Dreams returns to the author’s familiar topics of death, war and love. Set during Edwardian times in England before making sojurns in France and Ceylon [now Sri Lanka], it tells the stories of three neighbouring wealthy families: the McCoshes, the Pendennises and the Pitts for whom life changes forever with the arrival of the First World War. While the boys are sent off to fight, the girls are left with hard choices, particularly Rosie McCosh, who is conflicted by her love for two men. Rosie’s character was inspired by Louis’s grandmother whose finance died in the First World War. He has gone as far as to dedicate the novel to this tragic young man who, when he died, ‘completely altered her personal history – obviously if not for that I wouldn’t exist.’
Louis writes skilfully, manoeuvring one moment from the grim details of war to witty, light-hearted passages in the next. He’s great fun in person and a fantastic observationist, leaving me in frequent peals of laughter with his dry delivery, so I’m not surprised at his admittance to being an emotional person. ‘I realised decades ago that we’re not rational beings, it’s our emotions that make our lives worth having,’ he says.
South West London remains emotionally dear to his heart. He lived in Earlsfield for 10 years during the 90s before relocating to his current location in South Norfolk, but Wimbledon remains in his ‘stomping ground’ and he returns there regularly to visit his ex in-laws and other family in Earlsfield. ‘And Deepak is there,’ he adds drily, referencing an earlier conversation about the Tooting supermarket where he likes to stock up on sacks of basmati rice. Other favourites include Gerry’s, Wimbledon’s fishing tackle shop, and Mandy’s for Irish goods. ‘Once you’ve lived somewhere for a certain period of time, you always belong there,’ he says.
Louis is topping the bill of Wimbledon BookFest’s closing Gala night, where he will be discussing the signature themes of his novels. He’s interested in big stories and ‘there is nothing like a major catastrophe for bringing out the big stories’. Gabriel Garcia Marquez was a huge influence on him, apparent in his early Latin American trilogy ‘when he ‘had a young man’s energy and stupid sense of humour – I’ve lost my stupid sense of humour unfortunately,’ he adds, ‘life gets you in the end.’
This may or may not be a reference to a darker chapter in Louis’s life as he battled for custody of his two young children after the breakdown of his long-term relationship. Fatherhood, however, is something he adores. ‘I’m totally happy when I’ve got my children and I find them very, very interesting and also emotionally fulfilling in a way that loving an adult never is,’ he says.
Having reached 60, Louis is beginning to think about his literary legacy. He thinks he will be best remembered for Birds Without Wings and says ‘it is the one I came here to do’ but makes times for short stories and poetry, ‘which fills a little gap in my soul which fiction doesn’t. He’d even be a professional musician in his next incarnation – if he could stand the stress. What would he do now if he wasn’t a writer? Is it true that he was once a mechanic? ‘Yeah, I’ve slightly gone off doing yoga under filthy cars’, he jokes. We ponder whether he could return to landscape gardening or teaching, but after some thought, he realises that in this life at least he should be a writer – which makes us, dear readers, the luckiest lot of all.
Louis de Bernières will be appearing at Write on Kew on 26 September, and he will be in conversation with Jennifer Cox at Wimbledon BookFest on Sunday 11 October 2015 at 8pm, tickets £15. To book tickets or for further information, visit wimbledonbookfest.org