Novelist demands as much as he delivers
‘My readers have a degree of trust in me’
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