Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks

Week three: Sebastian Faulks on writing the novel that started life as How Far Can You Go?

I wrote this novel 20 years ago, starting on 3 June. I aimed, like the British Expeditionary Force in August 1914, to be home by Christmas, but a nasty little virus caused me to run over into January.

I had lost my job the year before, and this gave me the time to contemplate a book that had long been at the back of my mind but had seemed too much to tackle while working full-time. My interest in the first world war went back to childhood and to a sense that there was something untold, something too awful for my elders to contemplate – even at a distance of 50 years. And to a curious child the locked room is always interesting.

In the course of a previous novel, The Girl at the Lion d'Or, I had done some preliminary reading and had been struck by how little the soldiers had resisted the commands of their officers. There had been mutinies in the French army in 1917, but these amounted only to a refusal to attack; the men did not leave the line or throw down their arms. How far, I wondered, could human beings be driven? Was there no limit to what they could be made to do? (An early working title was How Far Can You Go?; another was Flesh and Blood.)

At a more personal level, I was interested by how individuals might deal with these experiences. No human being had seen such mechanical slaughter before: the shelling and machine-gunning, for no very obvious reason, of 10 million men from neighbouring countries. How would a man process this experience? There is, in my view, a good deal of luck in – well, in everything actually, but particularly in the planning and writing of a novel. I stumbled on the huge archive at the Imperial War Museum: millions of letters, postcards, diaries and papers that had been given to the museum by the families of soldiers. I had been fortunate enough to go on a journalistic visit to the western front in November 1988 with a dozen veterans of the war – men well into their 90s, but cogent and confiding. I spent time in a farmhouse on the old British front line on the Somme, where I found a shell casing in a forest and saw the great arch at Thiepval. In neighbouring Amiens, I happened on a house whose very façade suggested the events of the first, pre-war, section of the novel. Then I took a boat trip on the municipal water gardens and noticed that the canal banks were held up by wooden revetting, just like the trenches. I saw a rat scamper out. Sentences were forming in my mind faster than I could scribble them in a notebook.

When I told my newly arrived editor at Hutchinson that I was writing a book set in the first world war, she looked appalled; but, being the professional she was, she swiftly rallied: "We'll do the best we can." Most people thought I was insane. This period seemed remote, repulsive and badly memorialised. It was partly to get round these objections that I introduced the modern-day story, in which the main character's granddaughter goes in search of his experience. Elizabeth asks the question so many people had put to me: why should I care?

People's interest in the period has risen so much over the last 20 years that such a reservation would seldom be raised today. As it emerged in my conversation with John Mullan at the Guardian book club in London, this may well be a novel whose popularity with readers has made some of its own sections redundant. But I still think the modern scenes are worth having: the phone call that Elizabeth makes to Gray and the visit she makes to poor Brennan in his Star and Garter home enact in symbolic form what I was trying to do: to reach out to the past.

When Birdsong came out in 1993 it was generally, though not universally, well received. One senior reviewer found it all just too much, while a youngster told his readers that the love scenes lacked passion. (I hope his girlfriend was impressed!) The reputation of the book was made by the word-of-mouth recommendation of the general reader. It slowly began to live, and then to flourish.

Twenty years ago … I cannot paint what then I was. To tackle such themes so unironically, so operatically, seems to my older self too risky to contemplate. But the planets of your mind are always moving into different positions and in retrospect I am grateful that for six months in 1992 they were so fixed that they allowed me to write this book.

• Next week John Mullan will be looking at readers' responses.


Sebastian Faulks

The GuardianTramp

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