It’s more than twenty years since Sebastian Faulks published his breakthrough novel, the quietly thoughtful account of life in provincial 1930s France, The Girl at the Lion d’Or. In that time he has established himself as one of the leading lights in British literature, setting the standard for historical wartime fiction and then turning his back on it to explore more contemporary themes.
But Faulks is not just a novelist. In 1979 he began a career in journalism with a job as junior reporter at the Daily Telegraph. This led to work as a feature writer, and in 1986 he joined the recently founded Independent newspaper as its Literary Editor. Three years later he became Deputy Editor of the Independent on Sunday, and subsequently wrote columns for other papers until the success of Birdsong relieved him of the need to do anything other than write books.
And what a success it was. Faulks’s first novel, A Trick of the Light (1984), had made little impression on the reading public, and even The Girl at the Lion d’Or (1989), despite considerable advance hype, did not sell well. Birdsong, on the other hand, has never stopped selling. Listed in a BBC poll as the UK’s 13th favourite book, this painful account of the Battle of the Somme must be one of the most admired literary war novels ever written.
Faulks shifted his historical focus to the second World War with Charlotte Gray, a literary spy novel which shone a brutal light on French collaboration in the rounding up and murder of Jews in Vichy France. Ecosse Films produced a movie starring Cate Blanchett as Charlotte. The more harrowing aspects of the book were played down and it was not a box office hit, but Blanchett, as ever, turned in a compelling performance.
Since then, Faulks has continued to bring his writing forward in time, with On Green Dolphin Street set in 1959, Engleby set in the 1970s and A Week in December bringing us almost to present day. The exception is Human Traces, an intricately researched and demanding novel about nineteenth-century psychiatry. In amongst his “proper” books, Faulks has even dashed off a James Bond book, Devil May Care.
Born in 1953, Sebastian Faulks is married, with three children. He lives in London, and regularly appears on the Radio Four literary quiz show, The Write Stuff.