Nov­el­ist de­mands as much as he de­liv­ers

‘My read­ers have a de­gree of trust in me’

Calgary Herald - Calgary Herald New Condos - - Weekend Life - JAMIE PORT­MAN

Some best­selling nov­el­ists turn lazy once they achieve suc­cess. They start coast­ing — pro­duc­ing books which may still trig­ger huge sales but which also give the sense of an au­thor who is merely go­ing through the mo­tions, and is no longer fully en­gaged.

Se­bas­tian Faulks is not one of those writ­ers. Next year marks the 20th an­niver­sary of his break­through novel, Bird­song, but he cer­tainly hasn’t been rest­ing on those lau­rels. He con­tin­ues to sur­prise — and to pro­voke, which is why he’s sit­ting here in a wine bar on a sunny af­ter­noon, de­fend­ing his new novel, A Pos­si­ble Life, against spec­u­la­tion within Lon­don lit­er­ary cir­cles that it’s not re­ally a novel at all.

His de­fence is forth­right, even a bit in­tim­i­dat­ing: “Of course, it’s a novel,” he growls. But then, in scarcely a beat, you’re ex­posed to an­other as­pect of this burly Lon­doner with the trade­mark shock of red­dish hair: It’s his boy­ish ex­cite­ment in talk­ing about the rock icon who was in­spired to write a song in the book’s hon­our.

That ex­cite­ment con­tin­ues when Faulks moves on to some­thing very ba­sic — his love for his craft.

“The ac­tual writ­ing is the most ex­hil­a­rat­ing for me,” he says. “That’s when I feel this is what I’m here for.”

But those days can also be tough. For ex­am­ple, his strug­gle to find the right voice for the fifth and fi­nal chap­ter of his new book.

Faulks needed to psy­che him­self into the pop cul­ture of south­ern Cal­i­for­nia in the 1970s. But the chal­lenge of chron­i­cling the rise of a folk-rock star named Anya King through the rue­ful prism of Jack, the now­elderly English­man who loved her, proved daunt­ing.

“I wrote the first page of Part Five about 10 times un­til I got that voice clear.”

At 59, Faulks is some­thing spe­cial among nov­el­ists be­cause of what the pres­ti­gious Lit­er­ary Re­view de­scribes as his “rare gift of be­ing pop­u­lar and lit­er­ary at the same time.”

He may have long-term fi­nan­cial se­cu­rity with the in­ter­na­tional suc­cess of his First World War novel, Bird­song, which has sold three mil­lion copies but he never takes it for granted.

Hence his strug­gles with that pesky fi­nal chap­ter of A Pos­si­ble Life. Faulks needed Jack’s mem­o­ries to draw the reader into the pop cul­ture of 40 years ago.

An anx­ious Faulks fi­nally asked ac­quain­tances in the pop world to check his man­u­script for er­rors — and re­ceived an ap­prov­ing thumbs up. In­deed, Chris Cop­ping, once a key­board player for the fa­bled Pro­col Harem, liked what he read so much that he wrote a song based on one of Anya’s num­bers.

A Pos­si­ble Life, pub­lished in Canada by Ran­dom House, has been chalk­ing up rave re­views over­seas. But the nag­ging ques­tion per­sists: is it re­ally a novel?

It’s easy to dis­miss it as a mere col­lec­tion of short sto­ries — each of them to­tally ab­sorb­ing, but each seem­ingly stand-alone.

In the har­row­ing open­ing sec­tion, a young school- teacher named Geoffrey Tal­bot be­comes an un­der­cover agent in Ger­manoc­cu­pied France and ends up in the death camps

Sec­tion two of­fers the 19th Cen­tury saga of Billy, the work­house boy who es­capes poverty and raises him­self to a higher sta­tion in life only to be con­fronted by an ag­o­niz­ing dilemma when his wife, long cata­tonic from a ter­ri­ble ill­ness, re­cov­ers and turns his world up­side down.

There is the fu­tur­is­tic story of Elena, the lonely Ital­ian neu­ro­sci­en­tist who, later in our own cen­tury, makes un­set­tling dis­cov­er­ies about the source of self-aware­ness in the brain — and about the soul.

Sec­tion Four tells the poignant story of a pious un­e­d­u­cated fam­ily ser­vant in early 19th-cen­tury France. And then comes that fi­nal sec­tion, al­most a short novel in it­self, about Anya and Jack and ’70s rock.

He says read­ers should watch for re­veal­ing clues.

“The work­house in which Billy is brought up — in the fi­nal sec­tion, Jack takes an apart­ment in it. The farm- house in which Jeanne has her mo­ment of de­ci­sion is the same farm­house in which Geoffrey is be­trayed to the Ger­mans nearly a cen­tury later …”

Faulks sug­gests that A Pos­si­ble Life, a book con­cerned with iden­tity and con­scious­ness, should be ap­proached on mu­si­cal terms — rather like a se­ries of linked move­ments in a ma­jor sym­phonic work.

“What I like in nov­els that I read and en­joy is in­ter­play of theme. This book has nu­mer­ous themes, the most im­por­tant one — I sus­pect — be­ing the mys­tery of how we seem to be so sep­a­rate as hu­man be­ings.”

It’s Faulks’s virtue that he can tackle thorny is­sues within the con­text of su­perbly read­able fic­tion — a case in point be­ing Hu­man Traces, an 800-page fic­tional his­tory of psy­chi­a­try that out­sold his James Bond thriller. But for him, that also means a height­ened sense of re­spon­si­bil­ity to his read­ers.

“I want to write about se­ri­ous things, but I want to write about them in a way that makes them ac­ces­si­ble,” Faulks says. But he never writes down to his read­ers. For ex­am­ple, when writ­ing Hu­man Traces, the “pre­pos­ter­ous­ness” of early Freudian the­ory couldn’t be ex­plained sim­ply.

“So you have to dra­ma­tize it and pull peo­ple along with you and take them through the ar­gu­ment by dra­ma­tiz­ing the cir­cum­stances.”

“I sup­pose the good thing for me is that af­ter 12 or 13 books, my read­ers have a de­gree of trust in me. They know I may knock them about a bit — but I think they know that it’s a con­tract. The more I ask of them, the more I’m re­quired to de­liver in the end.”

A Pos­si­ble Life

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