Birdsong author Sebastian Faulks speaks to Alexander Larman about literary success, the creative process behind Where My Heart Used to Beat and why he writes about war
It must be a very nice life being a bestselling writer. The financial security and the fame are no doubt welcome, of course, but also the respect of one’s peers and eager press waiting to review the next offering. If only that were true. The first part, perhaps, is the case for Sebastian Faulks (his best-known book, Birdsong, sold around three million copies, and the likes of One Week In December and Charlotte Gray aren’t far behind), but he’s had to deal with the usual brickbats and problems as well. These have included everything from a jokey offer in an Evening Standard piece to give him a job after he complained of boredom; to the flack that he received when he took on the mantle of P.G. Wodehouse to publish 2014’s Jeeves and the Wedding Bells. As he puts it over a convivial Diet Coke in a Holland Park pub, ‘I had a jolly evening with my wife reading me some of the nastier comments. One said that I was ‘a fat, bearded git’, and she said ‘Oh, don’t worry. You’re not that fat.’
Thankfully the book’s reception was warmer than the beard-hating comment suggested, and it enabled him to move onto his latest book, Where My Heart Used To Beat. Best described as a cross between Birdsong and his brilliant, underrated 2007 roman à clef Engleby, it follows its protagonist, psychiatrist Robert Hendricks, throughout the 20th century, beginning with him as a young boy and ending with him trying to make sense of his complex and often tragic life. Witty and gripping, it’s Faulks at his best, with a scope that few other contemporary writers dare explore.
While modest about his motivation – ‘my desire was to write a halfway decent book’ – Faulks claimed to be inspired by more recent events. ‘The idea started on the last day of 1999; I was intrigued by the idea of having one person explore the entire 20th century, and I also liked the idea of having a dyspeptic and disillusioned narrator, who people wouldn’t necessarily warm to at once, but would want to find out how he got to be that way.’
While war weighs heavy on the narrative – as it has done throughout many of his novels – Faulks rejects the idea that conflict represents an ongoing theme of his. ‘The defining events of the 20th century are wars, but it also gives you a grip and a focus and a means of looking at human beings at their best and worst, which is fascinating for a novelist to explore. And there’s a line when a character asks “at what point does it become politically expedient to support mass murder?” which sums up my own interest in it; that was a bad moment, when man knew around 1910 that they had the means of mass destruction, and carried on anyway.’ For all this, Faulks doesn’t describe himself as pessimistic when it comes to human nature – ‘if I say I’m a pessimist nobody will want to read the book!’ – but does allow that ‘we are a very weird species… a work in progress, and we haven’t come to terms with the equipment that we’ve got.’
I’d like to put on the record that I like Eddie Redmayne in the TV adaptation of Birdsong – there seems to be some sort of belief that I was disappointed, which is utter nonsense. The man’s an Oscar-winning actor!
Exploring this ‘weird species’ is, of course, a novelist’s privilege, and Faulks’s psychologically complex protagonists are some of contemporary literature’s most enthralling. Still, as he says, ‘it’s easier for other people to see this than the writer to – I never sit down and think ‘I’m going to write about X protagonist’, but instead the character has to carry the novel that he’s in. But Hendricks is definitely an awkward, difficult man, and he’s a good representative of the average figure in the 20th century. But the book’s also a love story, and I think and hope that that humanises him.’ As does it to all of us, one would hope.
Faulks has a deserved reputation as one of our busiest writers. His recent exploits, in addition to resurrecting both Bond and Bertie Wooster in the past, have included small appearances in selected performances of the stage adaptation of Birdsong (‘great fun, and lovely to be part of a company like that’) and a continued attempt to get the book filmed, although he is quick to stress ‘I’d like to put on the record that I like Eddie Redmayne in the TV adaptation – there seems to be some sort of belief that I was disappointed, which is utter nonsense. The man’s an Oscar-winning actor!’ Despite his talent for adapting the characters of others, he’s turned down a no doubt lucrative offer to do a third book in similar style – ‘I’m not a big enough fan of the character and it would just end up being a strained pastiche’ – and is instead concentrating on screenplays, which he describes almost as a rest, ‘the big, serious novels take a lot out of me’. Still, if it takes a lot out of him, at least his hordes of readers are the beneficiaries.
Before we part, we discuss the world of publishing, and Faulks offers his opinion that we’re no longer in the ‘golden age’ that he describes lasting between the 1980s and the end of the first decade of the 21st century. Yet, as he says, it remains enormous fun. ‘If someone had come to me at the age of 19 and told me that P.G. Wodehouse’s grandson would ask me to write another Jeeves and Wooster book, I would have been so thrilled and so excited…Sometimes in life you don’t want to overthink things.’ And then we part, both headed to book launches in different parts of town. The difference between us, however, is that I scuttle in anonymously, and, no doubt, Faulks enters regally, to be greeted by friends and admirers from the world of books. And that, after Faulks’s successful, unpreditcable career, is no more than he deserves.
Where My Heart Used To Beat is available in all good bookshops now, Hutchinson; sebastianfaulks.com