Q&A with author Sebastian Faulks
To coincide with our September 2010 book of the month, A Week in December, we invited author Sebastian Faulks to our book club discussion, quizzing him on his novel's themes, characters and research (as well as incisive questions such as what was it like being called Sebastian at school).
He has written ten novels to date and his most famous - Birdsong - is currently a stage production. A Week in December was published in September 2009.
yUMMYmUMMYb: The detail in the book is exceptional, and lots of it uses very technical knowledge, for example around financial services. How long did it take to research and then write?
Sebastian: The book came out in September 2009. I began reseraching in about 2005. I wanted it to be bang up to the minute but things in the financial world moved very fast. It was at first meant to be about the boom, but then everything went bust and I decided to set it in December 2007, which was the last time any half-sane person could still think the boom would carry on.
I didn't know much about finance, but I was aware that investment bankers neither banked nor invested. They just gambled. The utter uselessness of most of what they do cannot be overstated. It is a tragedy that they conned Blair, Brown and so on into thinking they were admirable, to the extent that poor Brown said when he opened Lehman Bothers London office: 'What you have done for the City of London, I hope to do for the British economy." And he did. He bankrupted it.
Bankers like to pretend that mere mortals can't understand what they do. That is how they maintain the mystique. But most of it is very easy to understand. They gamble. They keep the winnings with minimal tax and if they lose, you and I and Mrs Bloggs with her small savings pick up the tab. Not good. It is the greatest con trick ever perpetrated on the British public.
In all it took about three years to research and write. I made it much shorter than I first intended by squeezing it down into a week. But that was a good decision.
redandgreen: Why did you chose to use made-up versions of things like Facebook, Big Brother, bands, celebrities, computer games, etc? I can think of loads of possible reasons but am wondering if there was one in particular?
Sebastian: I chose invented names for all those things because otherwise it sounds too much like journalism. By inventing slightly exaggerated names I hopeed to point up how absurd the real names are. I mean when and how did it become fine to have a group called Girls on Top? It also gave me freedom to invent things that happen, rather than stick what literally happens in Big Brother or whatever.
grandmabet: What was the story with the cyclist with no lights who kept appearing? Did I miss something there?
Sebastian: Ah, the cyclist! It is a fact of living in London that cyclists believe they are immortal. They never stop at lights, they ride the wrong way up one-way streets, they make mobile phone calls while zooming on the pavement (although the fine is £80, it's never imposed). At first I put him in as just a detail of London life. Then I thought that maybe I could use him as a symbol. He is what in opera is called (I think; I am not an opera buff) a Leitmotif. He is meant to show all these very different characters in different parts of the city are somehow connected. That may not help, but that's the truth of it.
carriemumsnet: Did you speak to anyone who had had contacts with Muslim fundamentalists? Also, have you been challenged by any bankers since you wrote this?
Sebastian: I had a hard time when the book came out and some horrible man (not a true Muslim - a rabble rouser, I think, who is now expelled from this country) tried to make trouble. As for bankers, there has been no comeback. Few of them read. Also they don't understand what the problem is. They operate in a closed world where profit is the only good thing, so if you raise ethical questions to them, I find that they tend not to understand what you mean.
yUMMYmUMMYb: Just wondering if there was any part of the book you could rewrite, which would it be?
Sebastian: If I was going to rewrite it now, I would probably cut a bit more of the financial detail - though I cut it by half from the first draft. When I planned the book, Hassan did succeed in his bomb plot. But I realised halfway through that although it is an angry book, it is also a comedy at heart - or a satire at least. And comedies must end not with the deaths of individuals but with a sense that society as whole will somehow carry on. Also, it gave me a good twist, I felt.
Manfrom: My question is about mental illness - and its treatment. It features quite heavily in your recent books. What is it that draws you towards this theme? And how do you research it?
Sebastian: Mental illness is just the most interesting thing because we are the only creatures to suffer from it. Dogs don't hear the voices of other dogs loud in their ears telling them what to do. If we could understand why one in 100 people is psychotic, or broken, we would understand a great deal more about what makes us human, different from other creatures. I did a lot of research for Human Traces and it is all documented at the back of that book.
Wheelybug: How did you conduct your research on Islam fundamentalism? I can't imagine its easy to research. Also, what happened to Hassan, did they catch up with him or did he live happily ever after? I was desperate to know!
Sebastian: My research into Islam was mostly reading books. I went to Copenhagen with a suitcase of books, including the Koran, and said I would not emerge until I had understood it all. It was very, very interesting. And sad.
Hassan is fine - he is redeemed by love and by Shahla. And by the fact that his parents, good, loving Muslims, look after him. Unlike the awful financier, John Veals, who doesn't care about his son.
ginghamgiraffe: Did you play lots of Second Life to research the online game world in the book?
Sebastian: I played Second Life for about an hour. It made me want to shoot myself.
snice: It's interesting that Human Traces is your favourite of your books - would you agree that its maybe the least accessible? I enjoyed it but found it harder work than say, Birdsong or Engleby. Also, I really enjoyed On Green Dolphin Street, which hasn't been mentioned much.
Sebastian: Yes, I do think Human Traces is the hardest to read. But I also think the rewards are correspondingly greater. I'm glad you like Dolphin Street - it was a transitional book for me, as I had almost run out of things to say but could not look into that abyss. I could not understand what it was about until quite late on. It is about dying. Mary's mother. And how love feels or can feel almost indistinguishable from dying.
Once I understood what it was about, I liked it more. It was a nightmare to write as I had to keep going to New York for ideas. Cost a fortune!
zerominuszero: I was wondering what your feelings are towards the main character in Engleby? Personally, I find him wonderfully endearing, and in fact one of my favourite literary characters of all time. And yet, almost everyone he meets in life dislikes him and, of course, he murdered a girl who was totally innocent. What are your thoughts towards him? Did you want readers to like him? Do you think that readers like him too much?
Sebastian: This is a very interesting point - Engleby is lovable in a way, and he says things that some of us may feel but dare not say. He is unbelievably honest, but, as you say, he is a murderer. A friend of mine has said how much she liked him as a character, and I said 'Sure, until you found out what he had done', but she said no, that she still liked him.
The standards we apply to people in books are different from real life. In books,the only sin is not to be interesting. If a character is vital, you can forgive him almost anything. I love Mike Engleby. He is so not me; yet he is like the shadow side of me. I love him because he worked so well for me. Another character who did that, and whom I love to death as a result, is Kitty in Human Traces.
Wheelybug: Everyone raves about Birdsong (quite rightly) and I would imagine, for many, it is the book that most people think of when they think of you. It is probably my favourite although I read it ages ago. Engleby is a close contender. Do you have a favourite and why?
Sebastian: My favourite book of mine is Human Traces, though I love Birdsong and am grateful to it for the way it changed my life. I want to write one more that I think it on a par with those two. I think Charlotte Gray, Engleby and The Fatal Englishman were my next best shots. On that note, as I said already, my favourite character is Kitty in Human Traces, though I do love Charlotte too. And Mike Engleby.
My favourite characters in other books include Joe Gargery in Great Expectations, Emma in Emma and John Self in Martin Amis's novel Money. A monster, but a vital one!
PotKettleBlack: I really enjoyed your other books, but I fell at the hurdle that was Human Traces and I have to admit to having skipped large parts of the more detailed sections - you seemed to have got very into a certain subject and wanted to get down on paper everything you knew. Did you look back at that book and wish you had had a more ruthless editor? Or do you stand by every word?
Sebastian: Well, there was tons I knew, and didn't put in. It was very, very hard to decide how much detail people could bear. I took a lot of advice and much of it was contradictory! I could perhaps go over it again and take out 5% of Jacques' lecture and 5% of Thomas's. But that's about it. What I tried to do was to reward the reader - so once you finished one of the medical bits you had a nice comic scene to relax with.
I do think about my readers a lot, and I try to find a balance between what I want to tell you and what I feel you can take - if you see what I mean.
TillyMumsnet: As many reviewers pointed out, A Week in December is very much a contemporary, state-of-the-nation novel, in contrast to your previous books set in the past. Do you believe novelists have a duty to grapple with the present, to show the way the world really works now?
Sebastian: Yes it is a state of the nation book. It could be called The Way We Live Now, if Trollope hadn't nicked that one. I'm not sure about 'duty' but I thought it would be interesting.
The book turned out much angrier than I expected. I think the flight from reality into electronic escape is really worrying. We have access to knowledge, but we don't have knowledge in our heads any more. It's too much like hard work. The generation now in its 20s and 30s is the first for perhaps 200 years in Europe who will end up knowing less in aggregate than its parents. This is the opposite of education. It is appalling.
Knowing things in your own head, full understanding them, is important. If Tony Blair had known much history he would not have invaded Iraq. The question about why English/British writers can't write like Bellow, Updike or Roth is a very complex one. But Gabriel has some thoughts on it in AWID. I also go into it in Faulks on Fiction, the book that will accompany the TV programmes in February next year.
Lankyalto: What do you think about film adaptations? I loved Cate Blanchett as Charlotte Gray because she fitted in with how Charlotte was in my head. But there have been film adaptations (not of your books) that have made me weep. How do authors feel? Are you often asked to write screenplay?
Sebastian: I thought Cate Blanchett was wonderful as Charlotte Gray, but sadly the script did not work and changed a lot of the detail and the story. It was filmed in a way like a David Lean Technicolor pic, like Zhivago, but I think that particular style did not suit the material, which is very character-based - quite internal. There were a couple of scenes they could have filmed in that way - when the little boys are deported to Auschwitz, but they chose to leave those out.
On the whole film people prefer not to have novelists write the screenplay. They like to keep some mystique about the whole movie business! On a similar note, a stage adaptation of Birdsong has just opened in London at the Comedy Theatre. I recommend it.
ChampagneSupernova: Do you ever give consideration to how your books work in audio format?
Sebastian: I have not heard all the audiobooks, though I did listen to Charlotte Gray this summer and thought it was very good. I did one myself, On Green Dolphin Street - I got a very sore throat, and I found it a bit annoying when the director broke in and said, 'No, no, Mary wouldn't take that tone here. She'd be much more hopeful. Once more, please from the top.' But I invented the wretched woman!
PotKettleBlack: I sometimes manage to hear you on Radio 4 (the literary quiz programme). It always sounds like you're all having fun - is it enjoyable? Would you like to do more radio and TV?
Sebastian: Yes, the quiz The Write Stuff is great fun. I especially enjoy winding up my dear friend and lethal opponent John Walsh. We are recording a new series right now and it will start again soon.
I spent last year making a four-part TV series for BBC2 called Faulks on Fiction - it's about famous characters in novels and it should be shown in February 2011. I am not really a TV person - I look a bit like a frightened rabbit. But it made me admire the Dimblebys and Paxmans of the world a a great deal.
ginghamgiraffe: I am 34 weeks pregnant and have no boys' names inspiration and I really like Sebastian. Do you like your name? What were you called growing up? (I'm guessing not KnivesAnd? <groan>.)
Sebastian: Being called Sebastian was a bit of a trial when you were trying to get a game of darts in a pub aged 17 and everyone else was called Bill and John and Nick. But I have grown to like it. And it is now much more usual - lots of Europeans are called it. And it is my younger son's second name, so I must have come round it it. Seb was the usual shortening, especially on the football field...
Sebastian: This has been very good fun. I have loved talking to you all. But unlike the characters in A Week in December, I have a love of Real Life. I must now re-engage with it - with my wife, my daughter, little boy and charred dinner. Thank you very much for having me on your site.
Happy reading to you all.