Interview: Sebastian Faulks

When I first met Sebastian Faulks, he had cherubic golden curls and an innocent eye. Thirty-five years on, the halo may be a tad less radiant, the features more rugged, the innocence tempered by irony or resignation, but he remains a front-runner for that Portrait in the Attic. We meet, in fact, in a converted attic off Holland Park that has been his den for the past decade, near the home he shares with his wife, Veronica, and their three children. Here, cocooned by copies of his books and the mandatory Nespresso machine, he works scrupulously from 10am to 6pm every weekday, with a half-hour break for lunch.

The intervening years have seen him morph from journalist (‘I always expected to have to get another job, but it’s been 20 years now’) into one of Britain’s best-loved novelists, although he would be loath to admit it. Mr Faulks is an English gentleman, courteous and self-deprecating, poised to give patient answers to questions that must, by now, bore him to tears. In the wake of The Girl at the Lion d’Or, Birdsong and Charlotte Gray, ‘Why France? Why war?’ was asked so persistently that it elicited a 5,400-word response under ‘FAQs’ on his website, presumably in the hope he will never have to answer it again. So I spare him that.

The first chapter of the new novel, A Possible Life, returns to wartime France, before hopscotching through time and space to present a disparate cast of protagonists, from a workhouse boy in Victorian England to a neuroscientist in 21st-century Italy. All inhabit a world of moral ambiguity and share the pain of loss. ‘It is like a symphony composed of different movements,’ he explains. ‘A single work: the characters are all different versions of one another. The way in which we separate out individual lives is not altogether satisfactory, in the way that death is not altogether satisfactory- people still live on in one’s memory.

And all atoms are re-used, literally, recombined. In fact, pop statistics suggest each of us has two or three atoms that made up Mozart or Shakespeare. So when I die, it is not really the end.’ This metaphysical bent has less to do with religious conviction (‘I have none, although I am interested in what the Bible tells us’) than with a fascination for the mind. Mr Faulks spent four years researching psychiatry for Human Traces (2005), which earned him an honorary doctorate from the Tavistock Clinic.

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The ‘holy grail of brain research’, is a theme he returns to. ‘My first five novels are about who we are. The next five explore what we are, and what makes us that way. We are weird creatures in the Darwinian sense. One in 100 people is psychotic, and it seems mental illness is a key indicator. We know that the brain is plastic and is moulded by experiences, which can change the chemistry. We know that if you mistreat a dog, it will turn bad on you, but animals don’t suffer a one-in-10 rate of massive delusional systems! Mental illness is connected to evolutionary advance, and is the price we pay for our superiority over other creatures.’

Having studied schizophrenia, it must have been disconcerting to wake up one morning to the voice of Engleby, an eponymous title character-to-be, in his head. That was a one-off,’ he laughs. ‘I let his voice dictate to me, and it was only two-thirds of the way through that I realised I had a book.’ It sounds effortlessly Mozartian (those atoms, again), although usually there is more graft involved. ‘It’s like flying a plane,’ he says of writing. ‘You know where you are going [when you set off], but can’t yet see the detail. The hard part is finding a tone of voice. I find the first person very difficult-you tend to automatically adopt that selfmocking tone the English have, and that’s hopeless! And it’s terribly important that nothing of me should seep through. So Engleby [2007] was a breakthrough Much in the manner of Laurence Olivier reproaching Dustin Hoffman-‘Ever heard of acting, dear boy?’-Mr Faulks is dismissive of critics who look for the seeds of creativity in the author’s personal experience. ‘You are setting out to tell an untruth, and you try to make it credible to the reader, so you put in a lot of specific detail, that the reader might recognize and believe. Okay, you don’t know what it’s like to go over the top on July 1, 1916, but the description of the feel of tannin from strong tea on the teeth is something you can relate to.’

Outside his den, Mr Faulks has little time for the screendominated, virtual existence of our age. ‘I was against our children having games consoles,’ he sighs, ‘but my wife felt they would be isolated at school without them, so I lost that battle.’ He says the blight of social networking ‘will find its level. After all, there is only so much time people can devote to saying “I’ve made a cup of tea”‘. Instead, for light relief -‘at least, 20 minutes in bed with a cup of coffee’-he turns to The Times crossword. ‘I started doing it when my father died, in memory of him. It’s rather sad, as it would have been good to ring him up and discuss clues.’ Is his outlook sanguine or does he share, as his novels suggest, Spanish philosopher Unamuno’s tragic sense of life? ‘It varies,’ he admits. ‘I am affected by moods.

There’s a release of endorphins after a game of tennis, and after a pint of beer, I do feel rather godlike! Other days are not quite so good.’ As the plaudits for his new book roll in, things look rosy. ‘My elder son, William, who is 21, asked to borrow A Possible Life. It’s the first time he has ever asked to read one of my books.’ He sounds bemused, and secretly proud.

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