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Sebastian Faulks at UEA’s Literary Festival

Sebastian Faulks, perhaps most famously know for his novel Birdsong, was the first guest at UEA’s Literary Festival this term.

The author began the evening by explaining what inspired him to write his recently published novel, A Possible Life. The book is Faulks’ 13th, and explores ideas of autonomy in science and fiction.

Faulks explains how he is preoccupied by ideas of the self, and whether firstly, a soul exists at all, and secondly, if it is stable. He suggests that philosophical debate and scientific research into the existence of the soul historically became a “necessary fiction” because it aided evolutionary and social development. That is, it does not matter if the soul does not really exist, because peoples’ belief in it has aided a struggle for survival.

Indeed, survival is a theme which runs throughout the five sections of the novel, with each character battling for a survival of some kind or another. The structure of the novel is interesting in itself, because each section takes the voice and narration of a different character, allowing them to tell their story.

The author describes this structure as a symphony in five movements, and asks the audience not to view each section individually, but to see it as one body or unit, just like a piece of music.

Explaining how the five sections were actually chosen from a total of ten (two of which were never written), Faulks emphasises his preoccupation with inventing characters and “possible lives”. “To live in another life”, Faulks explains, “is the interest of writing itself”.

Most fascinating, perhaps, was the writer’s description of his need to stay in touch with the places he is writing about, by placing pots of sand or soil on his desk from the place the novel is situated.

Hilariously, Faulks described how expensive On Green Dolphin Street proved, with frequent last minute flights to New York. More seriously, however, the method serves to endow the writer with an authenticity and authority which only comes, Faulks says, from “doing your homework”.

The evening came to a close with questions from the audience, and when asked how, as a young artist, he remained positive despite the failure of his early writing, Faulks replied that one should, “keep reading”, demonstrate “pure bloody mindedness in the face of rebuttals”, and always try to “make the world a better place”.


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harrietfarnham Harriet is the editor of Arts. Email her at

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May 2022
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