'When Joyce wrote Molly's soliloquy, it was a very risky thing to do'
Sebastian Faulks' new novel throws up timely questions about cultural appropriation. But reaching into an experience that's not theirs is what good novelists do, says the English author
At the end of 2015, Sebastian Faulks told his wife that he was going off to live in Paris for a while and didn't know when he'd be back. A story was stirring in his mind and he had a hunch that it was about Paris, but also about "different ways of living your life".
He had first gone to Paris at the age of 17 and is a self-declared Francophile; his best-known novels, Birdsong and Charlotte Gray, are set in France, yet the appeal of the country's capital city had always eluded him - part of the reason he was drawn back.
Over two months, he hunted down his story, constantly encountering the ghost of his younger self. The result is Paris Echo, a novel about a 19-year-old Moroccan runaway, called Tariq, and Hannah, an American academic 15 years his senior. Ghosts permeate the book's pages; the characters are as haunted as the city.
Through Tariq and Hannah, Faulks shows how public and private histories can converge. The novel engages with France's colonial past and explores the stories of two women who have recorded their memories of the German Occupation. Its themes are very much to the fore, particularly a question voiced by one of the women: "Can understanding the past help you to live better?"
It's a question that interests Faulks, who has three adult children. "The way in which they've been educated is different from people of my generation," he says. "They've read fewer books."
Does that worry him?
"I try very hard not to be an old bore about it," he says.
The comment is typically self-deprecating. He is far from an old bore. Courteous, erudite and understated, he has a healthy perspective on his achievements. The sea and a scattering of sailboats are visible from the foyer of the hotel in Dún Laoghaire where we talk. When I turn the voice recorder on, he moves it closer to him, like the journalist he once was.
Born in 1953, he grew up in Berkshire. His father was a lawyer and later a judge, his mother an avid reader who introduced her two sons to music, theatre and art. After graduating from Cambridge, he worked for newspapers including the Daily Telegraph and the Independent, and became a full-time fiction writer in the mid 1990s, following the publication of Birdsong - his World War I novel.
In the literary world, he is something of an anomaly. He has never won a major award and tends to get mixed critical reviews but he has been extremely successful commercially. Birdsong - part of the "French trilogy" that includes Charlotte Gray and The Girl at the Lion d'Or - has sold over three million copies. It's also studied in British schools and universities and has been used at Sandhurst, the military academy, to teach young officers about the realities of warfare.
Faulks says he never really thinks about his success. "The default setting of my family is so teasing. None of my family takes me at all seriously. None of my friends take me at all seriously."
After the trilogy, Faulks largely abandoned France as a setting. His other books include Human Traces, about psychiatry in late 19th century Austria, and Engleby, narrated by a sociopath who lands in Cambridge in the early 1970s. He has also written a James Bond continuation novel, and a homage to PG Wodehouse called Jeeves and the Wedding Bells.
Like all of his work, Paris Echo is extremely well researched and, though it falters occasionally under the weight of its own preoccupations, it's at its best in its depiction of the difficulties facing immigrants and of the stark differences between genteel Paris and the poverty of the banlieues. Written in the voices of Hannah and Tariq, it throws up some timely questions about cultural appropriation: Faulks is a white Englishman, writing from the point of view of a young woman and an African man.
"The world in which I grew up, that's what a serious novelist did," he says. "He appropriates or she appropriates the experience of other people... But the more you write about things that are not you, the riskier it is and the more careful you need to be to get it right. But I still think that that is what good novelists try to do, to reach into experiences that are not theirs, and when James Joyce wrote Molly Bloom's soliloquy, it was a very risky thing to do."
He considers himself "a sort of bog-standard liberal", and gets reflective when I ask if writing characters with different worldviews pushes him to interrogate his own.
"I grew up in the 1960s," he says, "and we had this wonderful sort of intellectually fireproof and very simple liberal thing, which was that all people are equal, regardless of whether they're men, women, religion, race, colour, gender, etc, etc."
He thinks "the great 1960s consensus has failed the people it was supposed to serve," and identity politics have come about "because of the failure of something which was logical and beautiful but was insufficiently bought into".
Ultimately though, for him, writing is like method acting; his job is "not to have an intellectually coherent position", he says, but to create dynamic characters. And he doesn't totally downplay his success; he remembers very clearly the process of writing Birdsong.
"I was in a sort of frenzy, really," he says, "I was married, we had one child, we were expecting one more and I didn't know how I was going to make ends meet or anything, and writing a very graphic book about the First World War seemed a pretty perverse thing to do really, but I just felt so driven on. I felt this is what I'd been born to do."
There were days he almost couldn't continue; he cried and smoked a lot, but having such a happy domestic life, being so in love with his young son, helped.
"It is only a novel," he says, "it's not the real thing but I think it did enlarge people's understanding in a way that I find, obviously, incredibly satisfying, and the other thing is, I think of my 39-year-old self and I just want to say, Well done for sticking at it."
- Paris Echo is published by Hutchinson and is out now