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Author Sebastian Faulks talks a little about `Devil May Care`

16-Mar-2008 • Literary

Sebastian Faulks' two new novels are poles apart - an introspective character study and the further adventures of James Bond. Here, he talks to Geraldine Bedell of The Guardian about identity, hearing voices and adjusting to the pace of 007's world...

Sebastian Faulks has a hangover. It was his wife's birthday yesterday and he drank too much wine at dinner. He apologises for being inarticulate but, in fact, he speaks in perfectly formed sentences, mainly about the nature of existence.

He has always been clever: he managed to take his O-levels in only his second term at Wellington College, at the age of 13, then quickly polished off his A-levels, leaving him with more than a year of school with nothing to do but be tutored individually for Cambridge. His cleverness is, however, of a very English kind: understated and not show-offy. His novels don't parade themselves; they might be concerned with the nature of the self, with madness, with the place of the individual in some wider scheme of things, but they are also rattling yarns, character-driven, straightforwardly written, with a healthy respect for storytelling.

Faulks has curly blondish hair, which contributes to a cherubic, ageless appearance. At 54, he is tall and fit. He speaks in the well-modulated tones of one who was educated with an expectation of having a place in the world. We meet at a chi-chi cafe in Notting Hill, west London, near where he lives with his wife Veronica and their three teenage children, and close to his office in a top-floor flat where 'on the rare occasions I have visitors, I have to throw the keys down out of the window'. The two latest novels to emerge from this eyrie are about to be published - the paperback of Engleby at the end of the month, and his James Bond novel in May.

No doubt, both his publishers (Engleby is with Vintage, Bond with Penguin) will be hoping for crossover sales. He was a surprising choice of writer to mark Ian Fleming's centenary with a new Bond book, certainly in his own view: 'I'd just finished Human Traces and it seemed ridiculous. You've just spent five years in a Victorian lunatic asylum and then you go on to James Bond. But I think their hope is they'll get two markets. The more I think about it, the more I think it was clever of them, because the mismatch is intriguing.'

He wrote the Bond novel, Devil May Care, in six weeks (12 if you count reading Ian Fleming, other research and a bit of tidying up), which is how long Fleming customarily took. Narrative speed and verve were always going to be more important than reflection: 'Bond doesn't have an inner life. There would be moments when I'd think, we need to gather our thoughts here and have a breather, where in another novel you'd slow the pace, have some description and see what Bond feels about this. But Bond doesn't reflect. All you can do is move on to the next bomb or shark or car.'

Intriguingly, Engleby took scarcely longer. Faulks describes the process of writing his only first-person novel mystically, as almost like automatic writing: 'I woke up one morning with this guy's voice in my head. And he was just talking, dictating, almost. And when I got to work, I wrote it down. I didn't know what the hell was going on; this wasn't an idea for a book.'

It's a nice irony that Faulks had recently completed a book about schizophrenia, in which he considers why natural selection might have allowed such a debilitating flaw in the human mind as hearing voices to have survived. Having first heard Engleby's voice in September, he decided that he'd give himself until Christmas, to see whether it amounted to anything. By Christmas, the book was almost finished.

The result is a study of a kind of madness that feels alarmingly close to normality. Mike Engleby is beguiling, funny and observant, as well as supercilious, oddly unemotional and frightening. His voice is clever and conniving and charms the reader down a dangerous path. If the first-person voice was a departure, so was the setting - most vividly Cambridge in the 1970s, although part of the novel is set in the 1980s and there is a kind of coda that brings it up to the present. The only piece of advice Sebastian Faulks has habitually given would-be novelists is to write about what you don't know, because until now, he has found contemporary Britain an impossible subject.

'I interviewed John Updike once and tried to explain to him how difficult it was to write about contemporary England and how few people could do it successfully. He was absolutely baffled. But if Saul Bellow or Philip Roth tell you their main character is a professor in a provincial university, you think - great, possibly they'll be of European Jewish descent, they'll be a sort of bellwether of the century, the eternal currents are going to flow through their soul and so on, but if an English writer tells you their main character is a teacher at Stoke - see, you're laughing, aren't you? There's something about English place names that is inherently ridiculous.'

It may have taken him a long time to get round to it, but the novel he's writing at the moment is a sweeping third-person narrative - 'Supposed to be a Dickensian kind of thing,' he says casually - set in 2008 and featuring 12 main characters. 'There's a footballer, a hedge-fund manager, a tube train driver, all sorts of different people. But the only really difficult thing has been finding the sentence length and tone.'

The pared-down prose of many modern novels seemed too insubstantial for what he was trying to get across: 'What you often have with modern novels is this very minimal thing, which can work, as it does with Murakami. But I think in many French novels, for example, the prose is affectless, blanked out, not really capable of generating or bearing any thematic weight.' So what is this thematic weight? 'It's really about how people don't need to engage with the facts of life any more. Life can be lived at a remove. You trade in futures and then you trade in derivatives of futures. Banks make more money trading derivatives than they do trading actual commodities. And the internet - things like Second Life.'

It's not really surprising that in the past, war has seemed to offer him more dramatic material than the present. He doesn't think his interest in the wars that, after all, defined the 20th century, is as surprising as other novelists' lack of it. Yet perhaps there's also something else going on, beyond the obvious novelistic potential. His father won the Military Cross and Faulks admits to having felt on occasion that doing something equal to the previous generation's heroism would be hard.

'It was obvious what our parents were for, which was to beat the Nazis and keep the idea of democratic civilisation alive. I suppose I assumed as a child that we would have a similarly big, grand task. But eventually, with the end of the Cold War, I thought, "Oh Christ, what really are we for?" It did seem sort of empty and strange, but I think this coincides with what neuroscience tells you, which is that basically, we have no selves. There's no such thing as identity: it's something we have to believe in to make life more tolerable.'

Being conscious of the haziness of identity could be debilitating for a novelist. Thinking that the world is chronically trivial, that your generation is historically insignificant and human beings are neuroscientifically non-existent could give you serious writer's block. In his contemporary fiction, Faulks might be dealing with this partly by inventing characters who are detached or in flight from reality. Mike Engleby is certainly not entirely in the real world and it sounds as though the characters of the new novel might also prefer fantasy.

'A friend of mine called Rita Carter has just written a book the theory of which is that everyone has multiple selves: that we all have several necessary fictions, if you like. She thinks that Engleby is one of my selves.' And he smiles his officer-class smile, very charming, very poised, and moves on.

Sebastian Faulks: a life

Born: 20 April 1953, Newbury, Berkshire.

Career: Literary editor, Independent, 1986-89; deputy editor, Independent on Sunday, 1989-91. Awarded CBE in 2002.

Books: A Trick of the Light, 1984; The Girl at the Lion d'Or, 1989; A Fool's Alphabet, 1992; Birdsong, 1993; The Fatal Englishman: Three Short Lives, 1996; Charlotte Gray, 1998; On Green Dolphin Street, 2001; Human Traces, 2005; Engleby, 2007; Devil May Care, 2008.

Films: Charlotte Gray (2001); Birdsong (in production).

He said: 'If you have only one life, you can't altogether ignore the question: are you enjoying it?' (A Fool's Alphabet)

They said: 'Faulks has the rare gift of being popular and literary at the same time' - Literary Review

'One of the most impressive novelists of his generation ... who is growing in authority with every book' - Sunday Telegraph

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