Trenches to Trench Coats: Summing Up Sebastian Faulks

World War I inspired the author's breakthrough novel,
World War I inspired the author's breakthrough novel, "Birdsong." Coming soon: Faulks's take on 007. (By Carol Guzy -- The Washington Post)

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By Bob Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 25, 2007

Talking with Sebastian Faulks is a bit like trying to chat up four writers at once: amusing but occasionally disorienting.

There is the Faulks who's a household name in his native England and who's best known internationally for his 1993 war-and-love epic "Birdsong." Set mainly in France during World War I, it sold in the millions and inspired the New Yorker's reviewer to laud its author as "Flaubert in the trenches."

There is the Faulks whose latest novel, "Engleby," shattered his established literary mode so thoroughly that he asked his publishers if they wanted him to publish the thing under a pseudonym.

There is the man who says, "I hate thrillers, I hate thrilling films, they're just not thrilling" but who was nonetheless tapped by the Ian Fleming estate to craft the next James Bond adventure. "The name is Faulks, Sebastian Faulks -- and he's been granted a license to thrill" is how a typical report on this odd pairing began.

Finally there's the Faulks who knows -- having worked as a feature writer for several British papers in a previous life -- just a little too much about how the interview game is played.

"When I used to read papers as a kid, the interviewer would go along and write down the answers and that was it," Faulks says, eyeing his own interviewer across a table at a downtown restaurant before ordering the yellowfin tuna, medium rare. But the idea now is to "go and meet someone and produce a complete psychoanalysis in an hour and a half."

Damn.

Our cover is blown.

Guess we won't be wrapping up those multiple Faulkses in one neat little psychological package for you. But maybe you can connect some dots on your own.

Faulks is 54, a big man, bearded and curly-haired. He grew up in Berkshire among what an Evening Standard interviewer dubbed "the tennis-playing classes," though it's easy to imagine that -- if raised on this side of the Atlantic -- he'd have been an intimidating presence on his high school's defensive line.

His father was a lawyer and a judge. His mother, who had been an actress, had a breakdown when Faulks was 10 that contributed to his lifelong interest in the mysteries of the human mind.

"I think you might have the wrong person," he says he told the Fleming family when they first discussed the Bond project. "My last book ['Human Traces'] was 600 pages about Victorian psychiatry with not a gun or an Aston Martin in sight."


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