It's no surprise that Sebastian Faulks might consider himself a Francophile. After all, a good number of his 14 books are set (or at least partially set) in France, including his three most famous novels, known as the "French trilogy": The Girl at the Lion d'Or; Birdsong; and Charlotte Gray, which in 2001, was made into a movie starring Cate Blanchette.
In 1961, when Faulks was eight, he first visited France with his family. He recalls in an interview, " we stayed in Deauville, which was an old-fashioned resort in Normandy, in a boarding house... Very nice food, rather formal and there was something, I suppose, about France, even then, that did seem to me attractive or different in some way."
As a young man, in the year before he went off to university, Faulks returned to France and lived in Paris for three months and worked at a campsite in the Vendée region. However, it wasn't until he came back again in his mid-20s (this time with a car) that the country began to take hold of him. As he explains, "I think there was something about these places, you know, in northern France I'm talking about really, where these small towns and villages just excited me in a sense that the people who lived there had hidden lives, hidden passions, long, long, untold secrets. And they gave me a desire to write. They intrigued me, that part of my brain which deals with creative things would suddenly light up." In time he realized that he also loved the palpable sense of history found in France. "[I]t was like going back into the 1930s or even into the 1920s. It was like driving back into the past and I do think it was that that really excited me about France."
In addition to the evocative landscape, Faulks acknowledges that French art (e.g. Impressionist painters), architecture, music (Ravel and Fauré), and literature - in particular, the works of Zola, Stendhal, Balzac, and Marcel Proust have influenced his work. "[T]here's no doubt that the domestic detail of Proust was, as well the whole theme of Proust's novel, a catalyst for something in me." He began researching French history, and in 1984, after his first novel A Trick of the Light had been published, he decided "to go the whole hog and actually set a book in France And this book became The Girl at the Lion D'Or. And in the course of writing it he says he "read quite a lot about French history of the 1930s."
More than anything else, however, Faulks points out that the most valuable thing France has offered him is a change in perspective; as he puts it, it "enabled me to become a writer by getting me out of my own culture".
This article was originally published in February 2013, and has been updated for the
November 2013 paperback release.
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