In the United Kingdom, Sebastian Faulks is a household name. His novel Birdsong, a WWI saga of combat and love, has sold more than two million copies in the U.K. and Commonwealth alone, and in Great Britain it's the kind of must read most writers would kill for. In the months ahead, it's likely that Faulks will become equally famous in the United States, after the arrival in both countries of Devil May Care, a new James Bond novel, published to mark the centenary of Bond's original creator, Ian Fleming.
It's a signal departure for Faulks, whose novels up to now have had historical, un-English settings, and mingle distinctly un-Bond-like intellectual themes with passionate love stories. Birdsong is actually the middle volume of a trilogy set in France—The Girl at the Lion D'Or (1989), which preceded it, and Charlotte Gray (1998), a WWII semisequel that became a feature film starring Gwyneth Paltrow. The other earlier Faulks novels have explored equally foreign terrain: On Green Dolphin Street (2001) is set in 1950s Washington, D.C., with episodes in the bleak, Cold War Moscow of that time; Human Traces (2005) is a sprawling exploration of the late 19th-century roots of modern psychiatry, set in landscapes as varied as an Austrian sanitarium, Pasadena, Calif., and the Masai tribal lands of Africa.
Yet Faulks himself is almost quintessentially English. He's a big man, well over six feet and heavyset, though with a gentleness that belies his size. Faulks, now 54, grew up near Newbury, part of England's Home Counties, which surround London, a rural landscape that, remarkably, survives unscathed. His upbringing and education were stereotypically privileged: he attended Wellington, then Cambridge—the rough equivalent of a prosperous Connecticut childhood, with prep school followed by Yale. He was not, he says, a particularly diligent student, but benefited from the one-on-one tutoring he received to prepare him for university. At Cambridge, he found college life “a little chilly.... There were very few girls there then. I made some good friends, but I don't think I benefited or contributed as much as I could have.”
After a brief false start as a schoolteacher, Faulks worked as a journalist, first as a reporter for the Daily Telegraph, then for the Independent, where he served as its first literary editor before becoming deputy editor of the Sunday edition. He left in 1991 to try his luck as a full-time novelist (he had published two novels by then, A Trick of the Light (1984) and The Girl at the Lion D'Or (1989), but kept his hand in journalism, writing columns at various times for the Guardian and Evening Standard. He has no regrets about his long apprenticeship. “Journalism was enormous fun,” he declares. “Your average broadsheet [quality newspaper] journalist is infinitely better company than your average novelist. Better informed, more interesting, less vain, less paranoid. If you had to pick six people from broadsheet papers or six novelists to have dinner with, you'd rather spend the evening with the journalists.”
Faulks was nonplussed when first approached by the Fleming estate: “The last book I'd finished at that point was 650 pages about Victorian psychiatry.... I'd never written a thriller, I didn't even really read thrillers, and I told them I wouldn't know where to begin.” Faulks knew that other writers had written sequels, including Kingsley Amis and the late John Gardener, neither with conspicuous success. Yet when the estate persevered, making clear something completely different was wanted to mark the centenary, Faulks agreed to reread the Fleming novels and think about the proposal.
Though a fan of the Sean Connery movies (“he was the best by miles of all the actors playing Bond”), Faulks hadn't read any of the novels for over 40 years, and says, “I was very pleasantly surprised by them. The writing was very clear, swift, journalistic.... I liked the elegance of the style as well as a certain playfulness—not the heavy camp groaning jokes of the Roger Moore films, but the feeling that Fleming occasionally winks at you and isn't taking it all too seriously.”
In asking Faulks, the estate representatives cannily recognized that they were asking a writer with an aptitude for parody as well as an established name. Faulks had recently published Pistache, a collection of his parodies of well-known poets and novelists, many of them delivered on a BBC radio program, The Write Stuff. Once he accepted the Fleming assignment, he says that his aim was to replicate Fleming's style faithfully enough that “had Fleming lived another two years, this is the novel he would have written.” After Barbara Broccoli, holder of the film rights, read Devil May Care, she said that if she'd found it in an attic she'd think it was a lost Fleming manuscript, which, Faulks remarks, “made me feel I'd already had my dream review before the book was even published.”
The plot, settings and action were left to Faulks, with only minimal intervention from the Fleming heirs. Details of the book remain under a fierce embargo imposed by the estate and Penguin UK—understandably perhaps, since the U.K. publishers are reported to have ordered a hardcover first printing of 250,000 copies. The experience seems to have left Faulks coolly bemused, though he insists Devil May Care is a one off, not to be repeated. Yet along with his recent novel, Engleby, the Bond novel suggests a departure for a novelist whose themes and artistic preoccupations have been historical and patently invented.
In Engleby (U.S., 2007), an eerie story told in the first person by a narrator who may or may not have been responsible for the murder of a girl he knew at university, Faulks shows a new willingness to write about his own country and his own time. And now he is at work on a large-scale novel of contemporary London, one he hopes to complete by Christmas: “that's always a nice target, I feel.” He plans a Dickensian third-person account of metropolitan life, with at least 12 main characters, as varied as a professional soccer player and a hedge fund manager.
The landscape of the book is certainly familiar to its author, since Faulks has spent his adult life in London, where he lives in a handsome house in London's fashionable Notting Hill and works down the street in a small attic flat he rents from friends. He has been happily married for 20 years to Veronica, whom he met when she came to work for him on the book pages of the Independent. The father of two boys and girl, he admits to guilt at times that he hasn't “brought them up surrounded by cows,” but says he found the countryside of his own upbringing deeply boring once he reached adolescence. In any case, he insists, “You can have a great childhood in a city,” adding with self-deprecating humor, “Besides, I'm a tragically superficial person who requires urban excitement.”
Like many writers Faulks doesn't like to read fiction when he's at work on a novel of his own, preferring poets ranging from John Donne to the contemporary Sean O'Brien: “But then I go on a binge and try and catch up.” He admires the way “American writers seem to write more seriously about their immediate surroundings,” and particularly likes the work of Philip Roth and Lorrie Moore. Quiet-spoken, even a little shy, Faulks is nonetheless a frequent presence at the parties and events of London literary life.
Faulks has been a frequent visitor to the States, most often on book publicity tours, though he recalls a summer sojourn in Maine with affection. He admits to an occasional hankering to live in New York City; other fantasized candidates for an alternative life include Italy and, intriguingly, India. His indigenous fame has not impeded his productivity as a writer or dampened an omnivorous curiosity he attributes to his education. Asked if he has ever found the tremendous success of Birdsong a burden, he replies at once: “Not at all. If you think of a career like mine as a long train, then it's nice to have a big locomotive among the freight cars.”
|Andrew Rosenheim is a writer living in England whose new novel, Without Prejudice, will be published in august by Random House UK.|