Novel set in the Norfolk Broads
Sebastian Faulks at the Petworth Festival Literary Week
7th November 2018
We had the huge pleasure to hear Sebastian Faulks talk – on a dark November evening in Sussex – at the Petworth Festival, in conversation with Hephzibah Anderson. TripFiction members will hopefully be as enthralled as TF’s Andrew was to hear what this revered author says about his latest novel Paris Echo, and about his writing life.
HA: Paris Echo has a tentatively happy ending….a new experience in your books!
SF: Well, books with happy endings have been considered vulgar for 100 years. Since Dickens, really. But it’s not a completely happy ending in Paris Echo, and the story has its harrowing moments. It touches on some of France’s horrible past, including WWII and the Algerian war.
HA: How well do you know Paris?
SF: I first visited when I was just 17. I stayed off the Avenue de la Grande Armée. I walked around the city day after day. I had no money. I went to galleries and the cinema. I was lonely, and never quite got over the experience. But I’ve been back many times since, as a journalist and as a writer. I notice its architecture and think how Hausmann’s rigid rules for the rebuilt city have led in some way to routine lives for its occupants. But Paris is very proud of its past, the streets and Metro stations are all named after their heroes.
HA: And how well do your characters in Paris Echo know the city?
SF: Well, post-doctoral resercher Hannah comes armed with a wealth of information about the city’s past, but runaway Moroccan teenager Tariq knows nothing about Paris. The central theme of the book is ‘how much do you need to know to live a worthwhile life?’ – everything in Hannah’s mind is connected and important, which drives her mad, but Tariq thinks Charles de Gaulle is a roundabout!
Education no longer seems to require knowledge, or the retention of information. Hannah is over-educated, she envies Tariq his ability to live ‘in the moment’. She focuses too much on dead people, while she researches the lives of women in Paris during the Nazi occupation, and not enough on her own life. But Tariq also realises he needs to be more inquisitive.
HA: Readers and critics seem to like Tariq.
SF: Yes, he represents his generation. He has life and energy. He is tolerant and forgiving. It’s gratifying that people have responded so warmly to him.
HA: What specific research did you carry out for Paris Echo?
SF: I was keen for the average reader not to know many parts of Paris included in the book. I had a French guide and asked her to ‘take me where no tourist goes.’ We went to the hardline Muslim suburbs, and we went to St. Denis, where Tariq works in a fried chicken shop. It’s like Wembley is to London geographically, but it feels more like being in Africa than Europe.
Paris Echo may well be the perfect example of literary wanderlust for TripFiction members. Wander the city’s streets with Hannah and Tariq, understand how Parisiennes coped with the German occupation during WWII, dive into a huge number of different Metro stations and explore the souks of St. Denis with Tariq on his way to work.
The rapt audience was keen to know more about Sebastian’s writing life, before and after Paris Echo.
Q: ‘Birdsong‘ was a huge success for you. Which books did you write before that?
SF: Yes, Birdsong was my 4th published novel, in 1993. I wrote my first book in 1975, I think, and perhaps two or three more in my 20s. But they were bad and didn’t get published. It was a long process, and I was close to giving up! ‘Trick of the Light’ was my first published book, in 1984. ‘The Girl at the Lion d’Or’ was published in 1989, and was probably my ‘breakthrough’ novel. Then Fool’s Alphabet in 1992, but that was a tricky structure.
Q: How has the business of being an author changed?
SF: I’ve been very fortunate. It’s been a boom time for fiction writers since the 1980s, when Waterstones changed the face of publishing, making multiple copies of books immediately available to interested readers. But that’s sort of come to an end, because there are now so many different things competing for everyone’s time and attention.
Q: What can we expect from you next?
SF: I’m writing a play. I have just got back from three weeks in Italy, locked away and writing something specifically for the theatre. It will be 90 minutes long, have no interval and won’t be too naturalistic. It certainly isn’t destined to be adapted into another medium.
Q: What books and authors do you like to read?
SF: Well, I tend to absorb lots of research material when I’m writing a novel, so I was reading a lot about Morocco and France for Paris Echo. Otherwise, I enjoy Joseph Conrad. And more recently, Lullaby by Leila Slimani (also set in Paris and winner of the Prix Goncourt in 2016). I read books recommended by friends, and my wife works in a bookshop, so she makes recommendations too. I like anything by Alan Hollinghurst. And I enjoy reading poetry, Elizabeth Bishop for example.
On the page, Sebastian Faulks has grown to be one of our most popular, and critically acclaimed, living writers of fiction. In person, he is exceptionally engaging and funny. And he is certainly the perfect guide to Paris, through the pages and vivid characters of Paris Echo.
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