Interviewed by Sue Leonard.
Published in The Irish Examiner, October 11th, 2009.
Sebastian Faulks has always wanted to write a book set in contemporary Britain. But in the past he’s had difficulty finding anything to say about it. That’s why he wrote his French Trilogy, including his first world war classic, Birdsong.
“France was a sort of liberation to me,” he tells me, when we meet on a Saturday morning before his appearance at the Dun Laoghaire Mountains to Sea Festival. “I could go there, and as soon as I got off the boat everything seemed to suggest to me stories and characters and things of weight and importance.”
His latest book, though, A Week in December is set entirely in London. It describes a time when the cracks were just starting to show in Britain’s boom. Chronicling the lives of seven major characters, their interweaving stories make for a complex plot.
“I started the novel in 2006; then I stopped to write the James Bond.” (At the request of the estate of the James Bond creator, Ian Fleming, Faulks wrote the 36th Bond book, Devil May Care.) “When I returned to the novel last September, the banking world was falling apart. I realised then, that I could not make the novel bang up to date, so I anchored it in 2007, when financiers should have realised the game was up, but didn’t.
“It’s not quite the book I set out to write. I wanted to write a novel with strong themes, strong ideas and big characters set in the modern day; but I have ended up writing about the here and now. It is, essentially, the way we live now.”
The novel centres on Veals; a hedge fund manager whose life is dedicated, solely, to the acquisition of millions. He’s an obnoxious character who never smiles, and who can’t connect to his children.
“I wanted to write about the making of money for no purpose,” says Faulks.
Veals’s son, Finn, becomes a slave to skunk and reality TV; the tube driver Jenni spends her spare time playing an alternative reality game on her computer, and the student Hassan, buries his mind is Islamist theory.
“Most people in London live in a self enclosed bubble,” says Faulks. “They have earphones on their ears, they’re on their mobiles or their laptops.”
Faulks reread Dickens’s Bleak House and Our Mutual Friend before embarking on his novel. He was inspired by the way Dickens connected up the city, and used coincidence. And A Week in December does read a little like a modern day Dickens. It’s satirical, and is heavy on plot, and rather lacking in emotion.
“A lot of my books explore the emotions of people. Their hearts, and by extension mine, are laid bare. This book is much more from the head than the heart.” There is, though, one romance. The impoverished barrister Gabriel falls for Jenni. “I did go into their feelings. I think they provide emotional identification.”
Faulks has long been fascinated by psychiatric illness. He lectured on schizophrenia at a conference in Venice, and often touches on such issues in his writing. In A Week in December he explores the connection between smoking genetically modified cannabis and psychiatric problems, and gives the lawyer, Gabriel, a schizophrenic brother. Where did this interest come from?
“I knew people when I was a child,” he says. “At my prep school the cleverest, nicest, most talented boy had a schizophrenic breakdown at 18. I’ve known several others. I felt sorry for these people, but also realised they were going through extreme experiences, at the outer limits of what humans can go through. And my interest, in all my books is ‘what are we made of, and what are we like.’”
His last mainstream novel chronicled the life of a man with a personality disorder. An extraordinary achievement, Engleby was particularly fascinating to me, because I knew Faulks in childhood. His father was our family solicitor, and I knew enough about Sebastian’s life to realise that it ran in direct parallel to his eponymous antihero’s.
Both were born in Newbury, Berkshire in 1953. Both won scholarships to Wellington College, and both went to Cambridge University before editing the literary pages of a new broadsheet. Did he set out to invert his own life?
“Not at all,” he says. “I woke up one morning and heard Mike Engleby in my head. It just began, ‘I am in second year at an ancient university.’ He went on and I thought, ‘this is good.’ I went to work and wrote down what I could remember, and once I had written the half page, I thought, ‘this isn’t how I write books.’ But I had nothing else on, so I just tuned in every morning, and ‘yes, it was coming.’
“I had never been able, before, to write in the first person, but now I was doing so with confidence. I thought, ‘there is nothing of me in this character, but his life is parallel.’ I thought, ‘I might as well make it more parallel.’ It was a game really. It was kind of fun.”
In his new book, Faulks pokes fun at London’s literary scene. The malicious reviewer Tranter provides comedy, but all the characters are defined by their reading habits, or lack thereof. Does it annoy Faulks when people claim that they never read fiction?
“It annoys me when they describe fiction as an escape from life. In my view it engages with life.
“People never put into words their inner lives, and what is most important to them minute by minute. And when you read a book that expresses something close to what you have thought, but dramatises it in a different way or set of circumstances, it is exhilarating. You feel connected to humanity. If people don’t read, I wonder how they know what to think, how they know who they are, and how they understand other people. If the characters in A Week in December read more books they would be better off. That is the moral of the story.
A Week in December by Sebastian Faulks is published by Hutchinson at 15.99 euro.
© Sue Leonard 2009.