Reviewing Sebastian Faulks @ Independent Bath Literature Festival

29th February 2016

The first big and ‘grown up’ book I remember reading is Sebastian Faulks ‘Birdsong’, it is a novel that has stayed with me for many years and defines an evaporating generation of war. I was seventeen and studying AS English Literature, so though the book was thrust upon me as opposed to chosen, it was a book that struck me with its epistolary and unreliable narrative, which was both haunting and lovely.

As a student at Bath Spa University, it felt only right that I went to see Sebastian Faulks at the Independent Bath Literature Festival, where he was discussing his career as a writer and promoting his most recent novel ‘Where My Heart Used to Beat’. Faulks, who ‘doesn’t often do literature festivals’, was accompanied by Elizabeth Day, journalist for The Observer and up and coming novelist whom Faulks described as ‘Fierce young talent’. Having only read ‘Birdsong’ and ‘Jeeves And The Wedding Bells’ of Faulks, I would not classify myself an avid fan, but simply someone who was interested in a particular author and his distinctive style.

Elizabeth began the Q&A by asking what it felt like to have finished his latest novel, to which he responded ‘Turning on the light after a teenage party…so I suppose a literature festival is the process of putting beer bottles into the glass bin’. She then went on to prompt him on the themes of his writing, and he went off on an endearing tandem about his keen interest in human science and psychology, and finally decided that ‘Where My Heart Used to Beat’ questioned what it was about homo sapiens that distinguished us from other species. Both Faulks and the book concludes it is our conscience that differentiates us, and our needs to understand and defend our actions, motives and outcomes.

‘Birdsong’ of course was mentioned most notably throughout his discussion. Not only was it a bestseller and made into a three-part series featuring Eddie Redmayne (Faulks does not associated with the television series and did not comment having had controversial opinions in the past, but he did credit Eddie Redmayne as an actor and thought him a ‘very convincing Stephen’), it was also incredibly personal to Faulks who describes his generation as ‘the direct aftermath of war’ having grown up in the 60’s with two generations of war heroes before him. Having a father who would still garden in his army greens and ration food throughout Faulks’ childhood, he grew up believing it would be his duty to fight in the anticipated third and final world war, but was grateful it never came to that. It was interesting to learn that Faulks did not use any kind of diaries to research the stream of consciousness of a young man on the front line but instead chose to ‘make it up’ and talk to war veterans about their experiences. When writing ‘Birdsong’, he foresaw it would be received as an ‘operatic book’ , but did not anticipate just how strong a reaction it would create. He told an anecdote about an elderly woman who wrote to him after reading ‘Birdsong’ as she could finally understand her father’s abusive and distant attitude towards her due to how severely the war impacted him psychologically, which was one of the biggest compliments to his writing.

He spent a lot of time towards the end of the Q&A conferring his writing techniques. Having started his writing career as a journalist, he was very aware of authors who wrote novels as ‘disguised autobiographies’. His key advice contradicted what many authors would say, and he proposed that rather than writing what you know; write what you don’t know. Research, find things out, and write about a niche topic that you don’t know about as beginning a project that you are learning about whilst writing is so much more eloquent than writing about your own life. I was intrigued with this advice, and will definitely consider this moving on with my own work.

The final question asked of Faulks was about the Independent, and how it has ceased publishing print editions of the newspaper. The Independent was one of the first major publications Faulks worked for, so he expressed his sadness, but added that he was ‘not surprised’ as news has evolved so much over the last decade due to the web, and this was simply the new age of the world.

Sebastian Faulks was an incredibly well-spoken and fluent speaker, someone with un-rehearsed and endearing sketches throughout his Q&A, and incredibly blunt in his response to the publics questions about his work and style. He is, in appearance and tongue, what I would describe as the epitome of a writer; dressed in tweed and a little too narcissistic, but I enjoyed his talk non the less and will definitely be reading his new novel ‘Where My Heart Used to Beat’ now that I have a signed edition.

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