Trenches to Trench Coats: Summing Up Sebastian Faulks

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."


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."

Faulks was, he says, "a conservative, straightforward little boy" of perhaps 14 when he encountered "this wonderful essay called 'A Hanging' " in which George Orwell evokes "the unspeakable wrongness" of taking another human life. Reading it turned Faulks into "a sort of liberal overnight." Reading Orwell and others -- he mentions D.H. Lawrence in particular -- also turned him into someone whose ambition was to write.

Educated at Cambridge, he eventually made his way into journalism. Faulks the journalist had a pretty good time, he says, at least until he got elevated to management. Meanwhile, he was trying his hand at novels. He published "A Trick of the Light" in 1984 -- "The Girl at the Lion d'Or" would follow five years later -- but he was still a long way from making a living writing fiction.

A newspaper assignment changed that.

It happened in 1988, 70 years after the end of World War I. Faulks had been asked by the Independent -- where he and his then-girlfriend were both working -- to cross the Channel and report on the anniversary.

Unfortunately, he was too sick to travel.

Fortunately, his future wife told him: "You've got to go, the paper needs you."

In France he found himself in a crowd of veterans, gazing across a plowed field toward the remains of a concrete gun emplacement. "This is where I stood," one old man told him, "and my best friend was blown up next to me into a hundred pieces." The man explained how he'd "done what you would do," which was to gather up those pieces, each "no bigger than a leg of mutton," then put them in a sack and mark the spot.

"Maltby, his name was," he said.

Later, as Faulks and the veteran toured a nearby war cemetery, they stumbled across a grave marker that read "J. Maltby, such and such regiment and the date of his death." Apparently the sack had been found and properly buried. Standing in the mud, with the old man holding his hand, Faulks thought: "You know, maybe I could write something about this."

Back in London, he discovered a trove of soldiers' letters in the Imperial War Museum. "There'd be little smear marks where a drop of rain had come on from the roof of the dugout," he says, marveling at the emotional immediacy of the documents. Underlying his fascination was the fundamental question the war raised:

"You know, what kind of animals human beings are."

"Birdsong" combines the story of an intense, ill-fated prewar love affair with a stunning evocation of the mundane insanity of trench warfare. It is so convincingly detailed that some readers assumed Faulks fought at the Battle of the Somme himself.

Not everyone thought a fat World War I novel would sell. One American editor, Faulks recalls, went so far as to suggest that he consider "relocating it in a more recent conflict." But "Birdsong" proved the doubters wrong, and Faulks the journalist went into permanent retirement.

More novels followed: "Charlotte Gray," "On Green Dolphin Street," "Human Traces." None are set in the present day. Faulks explains his "impulse to go back to the past" as a way to orient himself in time, to puzzle out "where I came from and where I stand."

"When you're a child, you think, 'This is it, here I am, let's go, you start from here,' " he says. "And it's only when you reach a certain age that you think, 'But here is very odd. Here, that starting point -- excuse me, how did that happen?' "

It's tempting to ask the same thing about "Engleby" -- which, for Faulks, is a very odd departure indeed.

The new novel is written in the first person, something Faulks had not tried before. Its narrator is Faulks's age and, like his creator, follows up a Cambridge education with a journalistic career. Most startlingly for someone accustomed to carefully working out themes, plot and characters before starting to write, Faulks launched into "Engleby" with no clue where he was going.

A voice simply invaded his head one morning, he says.

"My name is Mike Engleby, and I'm in my second year at an ancient university," it began. Faulks understood immediately that there was something odd about the guy, "like a radio station that's not quite on the right wavelength." But he was between projects, "so I thought I'd go in and write it down."

On the first page, Engleby mentions "someone I've seen a few times, called Jennifer Arkland." On Page 80, she vanishes. When he wrote this passage, Faulks says, he didn't know whether his title character was involved in this disappearance.

He was almost halfway through the book before he figured it out.

Critics have been all over the map on "Engleby." New York Times reviewer Terrence Rafferty dismissed it as "aggressively weird." Michael Collins, writing in The Washington Post, called it "brilliant," adding that it "seems like a page torn from Camus, updated with a slew of scientific arguments questioning the very concept of selfhood."

But never mind the critical back and forth. What does it mean when a congenitally controlled novelist -- one who's spent a career exploring human nature from the relative psychological safety of the past -- suddenly starts channeling a fictional contemporary and casting existential doubt on "the very concept of selfhood"?

We are so not going there.

We've been warned. Better to stick with James Bond.

The new Agent 007 thriller will be published on May 28, the centenary of Ian Fleming's birth. The idea to have Faulks write it originated with his agent, Gillen Aitken, who sits on the board of Ian Fleming Publishing.

"He'd spent four or five years on 'Human Traces,' " Aitken says. "It struck me as a change of music."

Faulks was skeptical, but said he'd at least go back and reread the Fleming books. He was surprised to find himself reacting the same way he had when he'd first read them at 12 or 13: "Oh my God, I hope this guy gets out okay! You know, he's in danger! He might not get out!"

He studied Fleming's style ("It's a journalist's style: short sentences, a lot of active verbs, no semicolons"). He researched Bond's character ("Pretty easy, you just read the books"). He checked out the famed 007 gadgetry in a volume called "The James Bond Bedside Companion" ("You look in the index, under 'car' -- it's not that hard").

Then he knocked out "Devil May Care" in six weeks, just as Fleming used to do.

What was the hardest thing about writing it?

"Probably doing the opposite of what I do, writing about characters with hardly any interior life," Faulks says. With Fleming's Bond, "you get 5 percent of the hinterland behind the man." With his Bond, he says, that percentage might rise a bit, but only to 10 percent or so. He's still supposed to be an Ian Fleming character, after all.

As for the hinterland behind Sebastian Faulks, well, our hour and a half is up. And that complete psychoanalysis is definitely going to have to wait.

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