Interview with Louis de Bernières

Posted by Goodreads on August 3, 2015
With a French Huguenot name, a life spent in the idyllic Norfolk countryside, and an early record of publishing sidesplittingly funny books about an imagined Latin American country, British author Louis de Bernières has from the beginning presented a series of delicious juxtapositions to his readers. His debut novel, the award-winning The War of Don Emmanuel's Nether Parts, was inspired by a love of Gabriel García Márquez and some time spent working in Colombia. After writing two equally well-received follow-ups—The Troublesome Offspring of Cardinal Guzman and Señor Vivo and the Coca Lord—both full of wild imagination, bighearted storytelling, and an unflinching presentation of cruel realities, de Bernières published his wartime love story, Captain Corelli's Mandolin, and followed that with Birds Without Wings, the book he thinks he was put on earth to write. Now the author is back with The Dust that Falls from Dreams, which centers on Rosie McCosh, a British girl who comes of age as the Great War overtakes the Edwardian era. Rosie's story was inspired by stories that de Bernières had heard about the fiancé whom his grandmother lost in the same war. Read on for the story of how the book got its title, writing "metaphorical truth," and his thoughts on the passage of time.

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Goodreads: It's lovely that the book is dedicated to your grandmother.

Louis de Bernières: My grandmother lost her fiancé in 1916, and she never really got over it. It was something that hung over her for the rest of her life. It made for a difficult marriage when she did marry [my grandfather] in 1918. But the thing is, if she had married [her first love], obviously I would never have been conceived. Furthermore, my parents met in Germany after the Second World War, when my father was in the British Army of the Rhine, and so I wouldn't actually exist at all if it weren't for two German megalomaniacs. I actually feel rather bad about it!

GR: Is your mother German?

LdB: No, she was British. She was actually visiting a friend, and the friend introduced her to my father, saying, "He's very amusing, but he's not your type."

GR: Did she decide quickly that he was her type?

LdB: He didn't give her any choice. And after a couple of days, he asked her to marry him, and she said no, and he said, "You bloody well will!" And six months later they were married!

GR: People used to be so much more decisive!

LdB: Oh, he was an army type. He knew what he wanted.

GR: Did you get a chance to know your grandmother?

LdB: Oh, yes. She died when I was about ten years old. I remember her very well. She was only 72 when she died, but she seemed an awful lot older. She'd gone bald, and she was awfully sweet. She had a lovely cat called Pinto, who was black and white, and whenever we went to visit her, she used to leave a florin [a two-shilling piece] by the side of our plate, and she lived off sausages and eggs mainly.

GR: Did she ever talk to you about her first love?

LdB: Not to me, but she talked about it quite a lot to my mother, and my mother passed it on.

GR: Is this the first time you've based a character on someone you were quite close to?

LdB: Yes, but having said that, this character, Rosie, is quite different from my grandmother. It is a work of fiction. I gave her a happy ending, for example, and my grandmother didn't have a happy marriage at all. And I've given her three sisters when she didn't have three sisters, and the character of her father is much more like her grandfather. You know, I've shamelessly altered everything.

GR: Did you feel an emotional responsibility to her story? Or to her?

LdB: Well, I had to be sensitive to my father. He's 91, and he's still alive. And he worshipped his mother, so I have a sort of moral duty not to write about his mother. So I start off, my grandmother was very religious, and I think that's just about the only thing she's got in common with our Rosie, apart from the death of the fiancé. I don't feel any duty for factual truth—what you're looking for is metaphorical truth or poetic truth. You're looking for a different kind of truth.

GR: What would you say metaphorical truth is?

LdB: This is hard to explain! It's when you're looking for things that could have been true or perhaps should have been true or which have enough truthful content to shine a light on real life.

GR: Tell us about the title of the book—The Dust that Falls from Dreams.

LdB: I originally had a completely different title, which was actually SNAFU, which is military slang for situation normal all…beeped up, but then I discovered that didn't come in until the Second World War, so I had to abandon that idea. I have a friend who's a songwriter called Ralph McTell. I went to a concert he did near me, and I noticed a line in one of his songs called "Walk Out in the Morning," and the line was, "I'm writing with my finger in the dust that falls from dreams." It's actually a rather lovely iambic heptameter. It's a good poetic line, and I took him out to the pub afterward, and we had a pint, and I asked him if I could have it, and he said yes, so I got my title in return for a pint of beer. So the point about the dust that falls from dreams—there's two kinds of dust, isn't there? There's gold dust, from the happy sort of dreams that become fulfilled, and the sort of damp, dismal gray dust from the disappointed dreams, and it just seemed to fit the story somehow.

GR: In the time period of the book, a lot of those disappointed dreams come from losing loved ones in the war. One thing that was interesting was your discussion of the rise of an interest in spiritualists because of that.

LdB: There was a huge resurgence of interest in spiritualism after the Great War simply because there were so many millions of dead. And lots of quite important scientists were interested in it as well, people like Sir Oliver Lodge, he was a very well-known scientist, and he wrote a book called Raymond about getting in touch with his son. People like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle were interested as well. He got fooled by one fraud. But there was a lot of interest in whether or not there was scientific evidence of survival, and the Society for Psychical Research did an awful amount of work on it and published a lot about it, too, and I've always been interested in that. I personally suspect that there is some kind of survival, but I also suspect that we're not supposed to know anything about it, which is what one of my characters says in the book. And really, that was a time when simply everybody was doing planchet or Ouija boards or going to see mediums.

GR: Have you ever tried to make any sort of connection?

Oh, I've messed around with Ouija boards and things like that, but the only success I've ever had was completely accidental. The day after my cat died, my girlfriend and I heard its bell in the corridor when we were both in the bath. That's the only tiny shred of evidence that I've got.

If one of us had heard it without the other it would be less convincing, but we did both hear it simultaneously and were very surprised.

GR: Were the wars very much a presence in daily life while you were growing up?

LdB: Yes, I grew up listening to my parents' war stories. Normally what would happen is, they would tell each other a story. My father didn't want to talk about his experiences as much, but my mother told me about what had happened to him. We have a strong oral tradition in my family, and I was also told everything that had happened to my grandparents in the Great War. It was especially of significance to people of my generation because we were expecting to get caught up in the Third World War! You know, when the Berlin Wall came down, I remember sitting in front of the television, weeping and just wondering, What does history hold for us now? There were people talking about the end of history. Of course that was a little on the optimistic side—we've got plenty of history going on right now. When the Berlin Wall came down, the Soviet Union reformed itself under Gorbachev, all our expectations were confounded, thank God. But anyway, the stories about the two wars were most important because they had an enormous impact on everybody's family.

GR: Had this story lived in your mind for a long time before you actually wrote it?

LdB: Yeah, I've been thinking about this book for about 20 years, ever since we heard that my grandfather had died in the Rocky Mountains at the age of 96 when we assumed that he had died and disappeared 20 or 30 years before. I went to Canada to find out about him, and I met all his friends, and it was that that made me think, I can use elements of all of this for a saga.

GR: What was it about the era that really hooked your imagination?

I'm very interested in the war in the air of the First World War. When I was a boy, I knew absolutely everything about it, including the maximum speed of all the airplanes, and I think we very much lost the thrill of flying in modern life—it's like you might as well be in your living room—but it was wildly exciting in those days, and I wanted to capture some of that.

I was also interested in how peoples' religious beliefs were affected by tragedy on that scale. So Rosie, for example, comes through it with her faith untouched, whereas the army chaplain actually developed terribly serious doubts that she didn't have at the beginning. I've always been puzzled, or wondered why, how very religious people can remain religious when life is so vile to them.

GR: So I hear that you've already written the last chapter of the planned trilogy?

LdB: I've come up with an ending that I think is both rather happy and rather sad at the same time. Which is always a good thing. And it gives me something to aim toward. But, of course, it may be changed. Books grow organically, and they just change as you go along.

GR: Do you usually come up with the end first?

I don't have a method. I write whichever bit I'm looking forward to the most, and then I link them all together later. What usually happens is that a particular scene niggles at me until I just have to sit down and do it. That's how it works. There comes a point where maybe I can't even sleep because of this bloody scene in my mind, so I get down and do it and get it out of my system, and then wait for the next one.

GR: Do you have any unusual writing habits?

LdB: I don't think my writing habits are unusual, but, for example, I hate to have to carry a laptop around with me, so if I'm traveling, I write longhand, and I particularly write poetry on trains. I think because the rhythm of the train—that da-da-dunh, da-da-dunh, da-da-dunh that the train has—it sort of puts your mind into a rhythm, and you get poetic lines turning up.

GR: Many of your books—the Latin American trilogy in particular—are very funny. Do you think of yourself as a funny person in life?

LdB: I'm not nearly as funny as I used to be. In my early work there was an awful lot of farce—something the British and the French have in common is a great love of farce—and I think, I'm afraid, I sort of grew out of it, and my humor became much more subtle. And then, of course, as you get older, in many ways life becomes less and less fun. It wears you down a bit. For example, my mother died in a rather prolonged and horrible way, my family fell apart, and I had to fight to get my children. These things wear you out, so I'm not as funny as I used to be, I'm afraid! Though there's still plenty of humor in what I write, I think.

GR: Did having children change anything about the way you develop characters?

LdB: Having children is probably going to have more and more influence as I go along. I decided a very long time ago that one of the things that was wrong with the modern novel was that everyone seemed to be about age 30, and everything happened in towns, and there were no old people, no children, and no animals, and obviously they gave a very, very distorted idea of what human life was like, and I wanted to put all those things back into my novels.

GR: What's one of your favorite childhood books?

LdB: I had a very favorite book when I was, I suppose, around 12. It was called Moonfleet, and it was by somebody called John Meade Faulkner, and it had a sort of early teenage love affair in it, and it was about smuggling, and there were barrels of contraband floating around in the crypt of a church that also contained rotting coffins with bits of skeletons and that kind of thing. It was an absolutely wonderful book. For me it's the archetypal great story for the maturing youngster.

GR: Who are your greatest influences?

LdB: I think that if you write in English and you're of my generation, your biggest influences are actually Shakespeare, the authorized version of the Bible, and the Book of Common Prayer. You've got the rhythm of that magnificent speech in your mind, sort of built in, hardwired, but having said that, the writer who's always impressed me the most is Thomas Hardy because he was writing about all the travails of unimportant people. You know, he doesn't do duchesses and generals and that sort of stuff, and his books are all set in the countryside as well, and that's something I like because I grew up in the countryside, and I don't really enjoy or approve of metropolitan writing. I sort of don't care about townies! Also, I like the way he sort of doesn't feel obliged to have happy endings. I'm totally content with a miserable ending. He gets you to fall in love with Tess of the D'Urbervilles, and then she's hanged. That's a pretty powerful way of affecting people. I imagine that that probably did more than anything else, from a literary point of view, to get capital punishment finished in Britain.

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GR: Is affecting people one of your greatest goals as a writer?

LdB: Yes, I want to move readers. I don't necessarily want them to agree with me, but I do like them to see what all the other points of view are, and why people would have those points of view. And I do this to myself when I'm writing. For example, I always have religious characters in my novels even though I quite strongly disapprove of religion. I sort of understand why they are as they are, and I think it's important to, you know, do so. And I do feel very exercised by the effects of the cocaine trade on Colombian civil society, and I really wanted people to understand that every time they use cocaine, they do it on the body of a dead Columbian, you know what I mean? You don't move people with reason; you move them with sympathy.

GR: What are you reading now?

LdB: Well, I'm wading through all the novels I can find of an Algerian writer called Yasmina Khadra. That's a woman's name, but he was a major in the Algerian army, so the only way he could get published without being censored in Algeria was to pretend that he was a woman, and his books are all about how and why people become religious fanatics or Islamic terrorists. One of the best ones is called The Swallows of Kabul. It's very short, it's about two couples having to live under the Taliban, and at the end of it there's the most heroic self-sacrifice, which is absolutely beautiful and worthy of a Greek tragedy. And I'm very, very keen on this writer because he's such a good storyteller. He's so good at making you understand people's motives or how they get inveighed into things or trapped into things or misdirected into things, and you sort of come away thinking that you've learned an awful lot, which you often don't with novels because most novels are really just entertainment, and his are entertainment and education. I haven't been this excited about a writer since I discovered Gabriel García Márquez when I was 20.

GR: High praise! So, Louis, many of your fans wrote in just wanting to let you know how much they loved Birds Without Wings.

LdB: Well, I'm very pleased with that because I'm certain it's my best novel, and I feel slightly sad that it's been eclipsed by Captain Corelli's Mandolin, although I'm proud of that book and it's the reason why I have a house! But Birds Without Wings I thought was a much more grand effort.

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GR: Many of those same fans also want you to know that they tell people who hated the film version of Captain Corelli's Mandolin that they should still read your books! How do you feel about that?

LdB: It certainly did turn people off my work on the Continent because the French, for example, really hated the movie. I don't really know why, but they did, and the Greeks didn't really like it much either because they thought Penélope Cruz had a Spanish accent. It didn't make any difference, really, in the Commonwealth countries and in America because the book had already peaked by the time the film came out, but I think it did blight the book's prospects on the Continent, and I'm a bit sad about that because I think the French and the Spanish probably would have liked it.

GR: How deep do you get into research for your books?

LdB: When I wrote Birds Without Wings, I made the mistake of doing all of the research in advance, and I ended up with notebooks full of stuff, which was unmanageable. There was too much information, and I couldn't remember the significance of a lot of it, and so what I do now is, I research as I need as I go along. That way I can get my head around the complexities and difficulties just by doing it one step at a time.

But for this book, gosh, I'd been thinking about it for 20 years, so I went to Canada two or three times, for example, when I was trying to find out about my granddad, and that's all going to be saved up for later volumes. I've been to Sri Lanka for a couple of weeks, to the tea planting area, just for the sake of the last two or three chapters in this novel, and I'm going to go back next year, basically just hanging around, picking up the atmosphere and the general mood of the place.

There's a scene in the last chapter of the book where Daniel finds a bird with its claws, its talons, stuck behind its wings so it's helpless, and he releases it, and this is a metaphor for his effect on Rosie, which I'm quite proud of, but that is actually something that I had happen to me on the terrace up in the mountains in the tea planting area in Sri Lanka. I found a bird in exactly that condition, and I managed to release it from its own talons, and it just sat on my finger, and it tidied up its feathers, and it flew off. That was a beautiful example of how a nice accident can happen to you while you're doing research.

GR: Goodreads member Simon asks, "Louis de Bernières is an author loved by both me and my son. We were discussing his work last week, and agreed that something he does really well is to create an extraordinary sense of time passing, so much so that by the end of his books we feel a sense of nostalgia for time and people now gone. So my question is, 'Please tell us a little about about the portrayal of time in your novels.'"

LdB: I am personally very preoccupied with the way that time passes by, and when you've got little children, it's especially poignant seeing them grow up so quickly. One minute they're a tiny little thing with shoes three inches long, and the next minute they're crawling around pulling books off your shelves and leaving them in the bath, then the next minute they're demanding a mobile phone. If you have children, you have the most wonderful pleasure but also a deep underlying sadness as they steadily grow up and away.

I am 60 years old, and I'm of the generation that thought we were going to live forever. We really did, you know. We thought we could change the world just by lying around growing our hair and playing the guitar. And now we're 60 or over, and half of us are dead of cancer, and I can sort of look back on my own lifetime and see this beautiful, optimistic, and actually deluded generation gradually fading out. And then I look at my father's generation, he's 91 and of the generation that defeated the fascists and actually made it possible for us to be useless and pointless hippies. I feel the most immense respect and admiration for my father's generation now, even though when I was young I thought they were a bunch of fascists.

I think it's just anybody who's got to the age of 50, anybody who's got to 60, wants to spend more and more of their time looking back and trying to work out what it all meant. When you're younger, you're still looking forward to what's to come. In a way I no longer care what's to come because I just want to live long enough to see my kids grow up. I already think I've done what I came to earth to do, which was to write Birds Without Wings.

After that I thought I could safely die, and it wouldn't matter too much.

GR: Did that feeling change the way you approached later work?

I've tried to look at it in a positive light and just think of all the work I do after it as a bonus. And obviously I'll try and make it as good as Birds Without Wings, but I won't be too desperate if I don't because you can't write the same book twice.

GR: Goodreads member Madhurabharatula asks, "What I loved about Birds Without Wings was the fact that it dealt with simple human themes that have the power to move mountains—love, faith, religion, honor, nationalism…The raw power in your book was in dealing with these elements directly, as cause and effect. There was no intellectualization involved in writing your novel, which for me made it all the more powerful. Is the modern novel losing its heart to intellectualization?"

LdB: Yes, there's a serious danger in intellectualizing too much. You get a certain kind of writer who just wants to impress other writers. Who just wants to show how clever or well-informed or even how radical they are, and it's not actually about telling stories or saying anything profound or even entertainment. And, again, I particularly associated this with metropolitan writing, which is all about 30 years old, having affairs, you know what I mean? I really couldn't be asked with all that. Because I want novels that move me, and I want to write novels that move people and that isn't about the intellect; it's about the heart. I'm an emotional writer, I do write from the heart, but I'm also an intellectual, and I think what I'm trying to do is strike the right balance, that's all.

GR: Goodreads member Anthony Brockbank asks, "When did you believe that you could be a writer?"

LdBThat's easy, actually! My father always wrote poetry, so in our family it was completely normal to want to be a writer and even to be one. My father didn't publish his poetry, but it's really good. It's old-fashioned, it's like Walter de la Mare or John Masefield. It's good, old-fashioned stuff, and it's also very emotional. My father writes emotionally, just like me, and he's written a lot of poems about my mother or about his children or even about the family dog. I think I realized I was going to be a writer, and I had absolutely no choice in the matter, when I was about 12. I started to write a lot of poetry, and I just knew that was my destination. You know, in my twenties I deluded myself into thinking I wanted to be a rock star, but by the time I was 30 I knew that, OK, it was good practice writing all of those songs, but I didn't want to be a rock star.

Comments Showing 1-17 of 17 (17 new)

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message 1: by Isobel (new)

Isobel Ridley Thank you so much for posting this interview. I am a huge fan of Louis de Bernieres. I look forward to reading The Dust that Falls from Dreams.

Erin *Proud Book Hoarder* One of the best interviews I've read on here, enjoyed your thoughts and answers. Great line of questioning too. Will have to check into some of the books mentioned.

message 3: by Diana (new)

Diana Forsman How delightful to read Mr. de Bernieres responses to the great questions asked! I find his choice of words so rich and appropriate to the situations and characters in his books. I look forward to reading The Dust that Falls from Dreams and I will also explore Yasmina Khadra's work.

message 4: by June (new)

June Bevan I too am looking forward to reading "The Dust that Falls From Dreams". Thank you posting the interview. Some years ago my late husband and I were in Turkey and somehow found ourselves in the empty village of "Birds Without Wings". It was an incredible experience. I love that book.

message 5: by Maria (new)

Maria Smith I don't know this author, but I am looking forward to his reading his books. Great interview!

message 6: by Teresa (new)

Teresa Pesce It's an excellent interview when you become intrigued with the author, and an excellent author when you now want to read everything they've written. Both true here.

message 7: by Eileen (new)

Eileen Northall Great interview. I love Louis de Berniers and look forward to reading Stuff that Falls from Dreams.
Goodreader Eileen

message 8: by Claire (new)

Claire Young A wonderful and absorbing interview. Reminded me how much I love LdB's work. Really looking forward to discovering his new book, plus seeking out some of the other books he mentioned in this interview.

message 9: by Kathrine (new)

Kathrine enjoyed the interview very much. Usually I skim these type of things,but today read the entire thing. Am looking forward to getting some of LdB's books. Katherine

message 10: by Thomas (new)

Thomas Kuhn Terrific interview. I had just returned from Turkey and the specific setting of Birds Without Wings when I read it, or absorbed it I might say. I had not started my own writing adventure until I was almost sixty and I found the maturity of style and theme of LdB very refreshing. I now recommend this as one of my favorite books to anyone who asks me what they should read next.

message 11: by Omar (new)

Omar Sattaur Great interview. Touched by the generosity of Mr de Bernieres. I too loved Birds without wings. ONe of the things I most love about his books, especially Correlli, is that they steer clear of psychological back story. His is great storytelling, pure and... complex!

message 12: by Maria (new)

Maria I agree. LdB is the greatest storyteller of all time. I stay up all night reading his books. His humour and astute insight to situations in life is amazing.

message 13: by Yalda (new)

Yalda hello .Tankyou.verygood.goodbay...

message 14: by Fiona (new)

Fiona Hunter So pleased to hear that Louis de Bernieres has published another book - I am very pleased to have signed up with Good Reads.

message 15: by Maria (new)

Maria LdB is the greatest writer yet. I'm excited to read his new book 'The Dust that Falls from Dreams.'
Goodreader Maria

message 16: by Gary (new)

Gary I have a copy of BIRDS WITHOUT WINGS, unread...I need to change that. I look forward also to reading his new one,and loved Captain......Great interview!

message 17: by Sophia (new)

Sophia Mr. deBernieres, what is remarkable is how affecting you are in your own voice when speaking about yourself, and not only in your fiction. Some of the comments you made above are so reflective and show your depths and nuances as a person. I am richer for having read your literature, and I want to say a heartfelt "thank you" for the things you've given us.

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