Sebastian Faulks on Human Traces: ‘I had no idea I would turn out to be 3% Neanderthal’

The author on his exhilarating research into the human mind, teaching creative writing at Broadmoor – and his new, follow-up novel

I was about 50 when I wrote Human Traces or “The Footsteps on Mount Low”, as it was originally called. It came out in 2005. In the bright glow of hindsight it seems to be the book of someone who, at the middle point of life, is pausing to take stock and to confront what he believes to be his Waterloo. You can hear the intake of breath and flexing of muscles in the opening pages. If not now, when?

The question the novel attempted to answer was simply: what are we? What kind of creature? So ingenious, yet so unstable. Masters of the planet, yet separated from all its other inhabitants by our possession of the gift – or curse – of consciousness. Eternal refugees from a lost Eden, of whom one in a hundred suffers from severe delusions.

Anyone can ask these questions, read books and have thoughts about them. The novelist’s task is to embed the ideas into living people – into characters whose strife and disappointment are something that the reader can engage with. To begin with, this was easy enough. By setting it at the end of the 19th century and having as its main characters two psychiatrists, I could dramatise the opposite approaches to the question. Thomas’s interests lie in the biological basis of madness, in its neural causes, heritability and what that tells us of the nature of the species and its evolution. Jacques, whose training is in Paris, is more interested in the talking cures and tries – desperately – to give them a medical respectability and weight.

The research for all this was exhilarating. It took me to the Salpêtrière hospital in Paris, to Austria, to California and to remote parts of the Serengeti. In Pasadena, my wife and I climbed Mount Lowe to inspect the ruins of a mountain railway installed as part of a failed tourist attraction in 1893. Mount Lowe, with is comically paradoxical name, was to be a symbol of the doomed aspirations of my protagonists in their attempts to unriddle the mystery of our kind.

Back in England I visited what had once been county asylums, built on a wave of Victorian opti­mism. I was just too late, the hospitals had recently closed and their patients dis­charged into the optimistically named “care in the community” programme. But you could still get a sense of these places and their scale. In north London, Friern hospital, formerly Colney Hatch, had a main corridor that was one-third of a mile long. Off it had opened many locked doors. The asylum had opened its arms to the mentally sick, but it could offer them no cures. A rough categorisation was all it could run to, depending largely on how biddable the patients were. It became a dumping ground for people that the towns and villages couldn’t manage; and then, like many institutions, it became self-perpetuating. A doctor who worked at Friern in its final days told me that two thirds of his patients had been born there.

Broadmoor hospital in Berkshire where Sebastian Fauks conducted some of his research into the human mind
Broadmoor hospital in Berkshire where Sebastian Faulks conducted some of his research into the human mind Photograph: Paul Doyle/Alamy

I interviewed many doctors and watched hours of videos of consultations with schizophrenic patients. I went to the house of a patient who was rare in suffering severe delusions, including hearing loud voices, but in better moments, helped by medication, had clear insight into her condition. She gave me a Sony Walkman to wear while we did a role play, in which she was to interview me for a job. The voices coming through my headphones eventually grew too loud for me to concentrate. I couldn’t remember who the prime minister was. I tore them off and handed them back. “That’s what it’s like,” she said; “and do you realise, you were lip-reading me?” “Maybe,” I said, “but that’s because I couldn’t hear you.” “That’s what it’s like,” she repeated. At that moment, I understood that schizophrenic patients don’t “think” they hear voices; they hear them.

It was suggested to me that while most of the county asylums had been turned into “luxury residential developments” and their back wards into spas and fitness rooms, there was still one that functioned: Broadmoor. So one day I drove to Crowthorne in east Berkshire to meet Dr Gwen Adshead, who said she would show me round and answer questions if I gave a class in creative writing. I was a little anxious, but security was tight and the class went off all right. I talked about a poem by Thom Gunn, called “Considering the Snail”.

Since my visit, Broadmoor has become men-only and the patients with personality disorder are no longer treated there, but in the hospital wings of prisons. Much else has changed since I wrote Human Traces. In 2003, for instance, we didn’t know that Homo sapiens had interbred with other human species. I had no idea that I myself would turn out to be 3% Neanderthal.

I have always wanted to return to this territory, and Snow Country, my new novel, revisits the sanatorium that Thomas and Jacques set up in the high days of hope. The big question remains unanswered; but now it is 1934 and the world faces fresh challenges. There are new characters and different stories to tell.

• Snow Country by Sebastian Faulks is published by Hutchinson Heinemann (£20). To support the Guardian and the Observer buy a copy at Delivery charges may apply.


Sebastian Faulks

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