Bath Literature Festival: Part 1 – Sebastian Faulks

Bath Literature Festival bannerI set off early on Saturday morning, walking through a cold, empty city centre to Cardiff Central Station. The homeless were still zipped firmly into their sleeping bags and street-sweepers were doing their best to remove the detritus from the previous night’s Wales vs. France match. The return journey to bath cost just £20, and was well worth it.   

Arriving in Bath, it felt even colder than Cardiff, and I was grateful for my super warm coat and extra layers. I walked straight to The Forum, a large, art-deco auditorium which was once a cinema, to see Sebastian Faulks in conversation with Elizabeth Day.

Considering Faulks’ fame as a best-selling author, I was surprised to see the venue not quite full, but it was fascinating to hear him speak about his work. I am currently still reading his most recent novel, Where my Heart Used to Beat, and will include more detail on this when I review it soon. However, what interested me most was hearing Faulks speak about his inspiration.

War – It Shows Us Who We Really Are

Where my heart used to beat - a book by Sebastian FaulksHe spoke about his childhood, describing how, for his generation it was “perfectly normal” to have a grandfather who fought in the First World War, a father who fought in the Second World War, and to expect to fight in the third. He recalled his father wearing old army clothes for gardening, and how an irritation in his father’s elbow turned out to be a piece of shrapnel. But, more importantly, he explained why war was the setting for much of his work – that it puts human beings under extreme pressure and, as a result, shows us what we really are.

He was asked about the balance in his work between real historical fact and fictitious narrative, saying that “when it comes down to it – what it felt like – you make it up” and described how some readers were affronted to hear that his novels were fictitious. But his work is thoroughly researched – he has spoken with war veterans and read hundreds of wartime letters and manuscripts. I was particularly interested to hear him say that “write what you know” is “terrible advice”. His opinion is that you should write about “what you don’t know”, and he commented on how easy it is to “find stuff out”, explaining how his early career in journalism taught him to write in an informed way.

Faulks described Birdsong, his most famous work, as “a very operatic book” and “very un-ironic”, the only one of his works written in such a way. He told of the gratitude of readers, and the response of one old woman in particular, who wrote to him, saying that she had never understood why her father had been so cruel to her in the 1920s, but “now I know”.

The Forum - a venue for the Bath Literature Festival

The Forum

Elizabeth asked him about the two main themes of his writing: love and madness. It was interesting to hear him speak of love as “the only experience humans have which is transcendent… when people become something more than themselves” which you can certainly see in books such as Birdsong and Charlotte Grey. He pointed out that madness is one of the distinguishing features of Homo Sapiens and told us of his time spent with schizophrenic patients, listening to them describe what it is like to hear voices.

Writing ‘Engelby’

It was fascinating to hear Faulks talk about how he works. He normally creates “a route map” for a novel, before starting, which acts as “something to hold on to”. But his novel Engelby was written in a completely different way. He described how it all began with “an off-key voice” (the voice of the main character – Mike Engelby) which came to him in “that stage between sleeping and waking”. Rather than try to capture it, he “just let him run” and, later that day, wrote down what he could remember. And through the process of writing, more words came. “This is not how I write books” said Faulks, but this was how he wrote Engelby, in three months flat, without a plan. It just shows that anything is possible when it comes to writing. There is no fixed rule that works for everyone.

Faulks described how, after writing Engelby, the only thing he didn’t know was “what was wrong with him”. He researched this online and discovered questionnaires which you can fill in yourself, to discover whether you have some kind of disorder. So he answered the questions as his character, Mike Engelby, and scored highly as having a schizoid personality disorder.

Searching for Inspiration

Faulks spoke about his current search for inspiration, explaining that he has “nothing more to say” on the subjects of neurology or psychology, but isn’t sure what will come next. He is living in Paris at the moment, soaking up the atmosphere of a foreign city, waiting for the next idea to form itself.

His current reading material is Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami, very different to his own work. An audience member asked whether he finds novels difficult to read, and he did admit that he is often distracted by “small irritations of grammar or syntax” or finds himself reading in an analytical way, out of habit (“that was how I taught myself to write”) but concluded that he can still immerse himself in a good novel e.g. The Days of Abandonment by Elena Ferrante.

The event finished with a book signing, and I stepped out of the building into glorious sunshine. The city was beginning to warm up, filling with tourists and shoppers.

Sebastian Faulks signing books at the Bath Literature Festival

Sebastian Faulks signing books after the event.

2 thoughts on “Bath Literature Festival: Part 1 – Sebastian Faulks

  1. Pingback: Lit Fest Highlights of 2016

  2. Pingback: Book Review: Where My Heart Used To Beat by Sebastian Faulks |

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