British novelist Sebastian Faulks has always maintained that he doesn't choose the subjects he writes about; rather, they choose him. "You overhear things, things annoy you, things touch you, things make you laugh, and then you think about it for a long, long time. They can be gestating for years," says the 59-year-old author of such novels as Birdsong, Charlotte Gray - adapted into the 2001 film of the same name starring Cate Blanchett - and, most recently, A Week in December. Not to mention three non-fiction works, or his 2008 Bond continuation novel, Devil May Care. "There's a great deal of luck, I think, in the genesis of all novels."
His latest and eleventh novel, A Possible Life, was in fact seeded by his 2005 novel Human Traces, which in turn lodged in his consciousness in embryonic form more than 40 years ago. "The genesis of A Possible Life is really a reflection that one of the characters of Human Traces, Jacques, has about whether a self, one's self, is satisfactorily distinguished from another.
"Whether we can ever be really sure that we'll die. Or whether in fact we are all taking part in the same cosmic story, the same joined up life. That's his fear, and that's one of the ideas that lies behind this book."
Indeed, Faulks explores these concerns through the stories of five individuals whose lives are tethered in disparate eras and continents. From the story of a British prep-school teacher turned spy in World War II, to that of a workhouse boy in Victorian London, an illiterate housekeeper in Napoleonic France, and on to an account of two musicians in 70s America, it misses nary a beat. Yet even with its central and most thematically revealing story, concerning Elena Duranti, a neuroscientist in a future Italy who discovers the part of the brain responsible for human consciousness, A Possible Life has confounded critics with its structure. But not with its haunting concerns about the nature of human consciousness and identity.
"Neuroscientists currently believe there's no such thing, really, as a self, it's what they call a necessary fiction. In other words, it's a delusion - but one that's hopeful for human beings to have. It is a very disturbing idea to think that our so-called higher function is complete nonsense. But as Elena herself reflects at one point, '(Knowing) this doesn't take away the aching of the heart'."
Intriguingly, the book's opening chapter about a British prep-school teacher, who is captured as a spy in wartime France and sent to a concentration camp, was again triggered by a chance reading of a document in the Imperial War Museum about two British Army officers who'd been accidentally sent to Auschwitz instead of a POW camp. "Both of them survived and one of them wrote afterwards 'We felt it was our duty as British officers to set an example to the other inmates of this awful place'. There was something terribly touching, slightly grotesque, slightly comic really about that, so that was my sort of way into that."
He happily cites other chance encounters too, that seeded parts of this potent novel but says: "I was surprised to find myself again creating, as it were, a French house and village in A Possible Life. But there is something about rural France, which I discovered when I first started writing 25 years or more ago, that just suggests to me these stories, these characters, these dilemmas, in a way that (England) doesn't seem to."
Faulks, who was recently ranked one of Britain's most successful novelists, with sales of 4.5 million books since 1998, by trade magazine The Bookseller, credits France with freeing him as a novelist. "It was a liberation and an inspiration and its one that I'll always be grateful for.
"It's connected with trying to get outside your own immediate environment and your own immediate experiences. Some novelists write about their own lives in thinly disguised form but that wasn't something that I was interested in doing. I needed to find another life, another way of writing about other people."
It was the phenomenal success of his third novel, Birdsong, that enabled this former journalist to become a full-time novelist. Currently co-writing the screenplay for the film version of Birdsong, he recalls writing it in "huge anger". There's also "huge anger" behind Charlotte Gray, which opened up discussion of a chapter of French World War II history that few had visited.
Almost all his novels are powered "by a sense of injustice, a sense that things have not been properly understood".
A Possible Life is published by Hutchinson ($32.95).