#ClivdenLitFest: Writing gives shape and purpose to life


Have you ever reflected on events in the world or in your own life and wondered how they could happen, why they happened, thought them meaningless, having no purpose? That’s one of the reasons we need literature, according to award-winning and bestselling author Sebastian Faulks. In stories, the events lead up to something, giving experiences a shape and purpose they don’t have in real life.

Speaking at the Cliveden Literary Festival, Faulks went so far as to say he couldn’t believe people who don’t read can fully understand how people think and feel. Writers are eloquent and give us rich insights into human nature we don’t tend to get in general life. What readers take away from each story will vary, however. Readers’ life experiences are different, colouring the way literature is interpreted, which is part of the magic.

Sebastian Faulks is famed for writing about love and war, both themes which were discussed with interest at Cliveden Literary Festival given the estate’s history. Cliveden has hosted many relationships, including one infamous love affair, and hospitals were also built in its grounds during both world wars. Faulks’ writing, however, covers themes much broader then love and war. He has a particular interest in psychiatry, psychology and human consciousness which began while he was at school and witnessed the impact of schizophrenia on several classmates. It inspired one of his most ambitious novels, Human Traces, for which the University of East London awarded him an honorary doctorate in recognition of his contribution to the understanding of psychiatry.

Writing is a daily process of discovery

Literature has a crucial role in our society because it teaches us much about life. Faulks said, if we don’t understand the past, we can’t understand the present and we’ll repeat mistakes in the future. Literature can help us address this cycle. Both reading stories and writing them is a process of discovery, helping us better understand the world and ourselves.

Although not autobiographical, Faulks said the purpose of many of his earlier books was to make sense of the world.  He’d become fascinated about how mad the human race could be, especially during wars.

Faulks has to write a certain number of words every day and always needs something to work on to give him purpose. To ensure he has the confidence to keep writing, he carries out research to get his facts right which then frees him to play around with his characters and discover his stories.

When writing Birdsong, which is about as close as a reader can get to experiencing the horrors of war, Faulks spent an enormous amount of time doing research at the Imperial War Museum, reading war documents donated by families. These were much richer than official documents as they recorded granular experiences of soldiers from when they had a bath to how often they wrote home. By concentrating on these small details, he brought the story alive in a graphic and moving way.

Write what you feel right

Faulks said he’s lucky that he’s only ever written exactly what he’s wanted to write and people have bought it. He’s never tried to adapt himself to a market. He’s heard too many people’s books have fallen apart that way.

Despite never aiming to be popular while writing his books, Faulks does think about pleasing readers as he sees writing as a way of having a conversation with them. He spends time trying to simplify, simplify and simplify while considering where every word is best placed in a sentence. It’s this care that is satisfying to read and is likely why The Literary Review said “Faulks has the rare gift of being popular and literary at the same time.”

Writing again after success

One of the challenges many published authors have is following a success. Maybe it’s writing a second novel after a bestselling debut or finding another idea after winning an illustrious prize.

Faulks said he’s had fallow periods in his career where he was unable to move anything forward but, eventually an idea would come and that would begin to turn into something that he could cultivate. It’s this perseverance which enabled him to write his latest novel, set in Paris, but we’ll have to wait all the way until next Autumn to read it.

If you’d like to read something by Sebastian Faulks in the meantime, you can check out all of Faulks’ novels here. His most recently published novel was Where My Heart Used to Beat. Birdsong and Human Traces are Literary Lightbox’s top picks. 

Discover more about Cliveden Literary Festival here


Photo credit: Charlie Hopkinson

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    By: Loretta Milan

    Loretta Milan is the founder of Literary Lightbox. She works as a professional writer and also has a novel in construction. She is a graduate of the Faber Academy and Curtis Brown Creative’s three-month novel writing programme. Her writing is fuelled by too much tea.

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