LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:
You might remember Sebastian Faulks for his book "Devil May Care," a sequel to Ian Fleming's James Bond series. Faulks has a new book called "A Week in December," a seven-day tour of modern London, some of it on the Underground -the famous Circle Line train.
In Dickensian fashion, Faulks creates a rich and huge variety of characters and issues. For Dickens it was class conflict, wealth, poverty and true love. For Faulks it's terrorism, greed, the Internet, and true love.
Sebastian Faulks joined us from London to talk about his newest tale.
How many characters are there? I mean I completely lost track. I mean characters that actually have names and back-stories.
Mr. SEBASTIAN FAULKS (Author, "A Week in December"): There are really six main characters. It is also, as you suggested, Dickensian. It's supposed to refer to the great London novels of Charles Dickens in the 19th century. So there are a big cast of background characters. I believe at one point I counted 125 speaking parts.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. FAULKS: But dont be dismayed...
WERTHEIMER: We're not counting here people who sell coffee or newspapers. We're talking about...
Mr. FAULKS: There are only six main characters.
WERTHEIMER: You gave your characters, as 19th century novelists did, punning names. The villain, for example, has an ugly name. His name is John Veals.
Mr. FAULKS: I got his name, actually, from a real estate agent I went past in a bus in Oxford. His name was Douglas Veal. And I liked the name Veal because its a bit like venal. And, of course, also veal is a kind of bloodless meat. And these things to me suggested the character of John Veals, who is a hedge fund manager. And he is an extremely cold, bloodless, rapacious, greedy son of a gun.
Can I say gun on NPR?
WERTHEIMER: Of course you can. You talk about some very interesting and quite serious themes and ideas. One is the real world versus the virtual world. Many of your characters have a livelier life in the virtual world than the do in real life.
Mr. FAULKS: Yeah, this is something that I've been really rather obsessed by for a long time in London. I suppose particularly I see it with my children, how they can travel abroad on holiday with me and for the duration of the journey their eyes won't have left a screen which is held in their hand. And they look up and say, Oh, this is Africa, is it? Oh, this America. Ooh, gosh.
And then, to me, what "A Week in December" is about is the way this whole city, London, has become detached from reality. And I started to write it when I investigated how so much money was being made by banks and hedge funds. This was long before the credit crisis. And I began to understand that these vast fortunes were being made by trading things which didn't exist, which were bets on bets on bets of the likelihood of other bets defaulting.
This seemed to me to key in very well to the whole idea of a city which had completely lost touch with reality and preferred to live with its head up...
Mr. FAULKS: ...rear end.
WERTHEIMER: Yes. There are other themes in the book that are equally current and interesting. One is Islam.
Mr. FAULKS: Yes.
WERTHEIMER: Some of the most appealing characters and some of the most appalling characters are Muslim.
Mr. FAULKS: Indeed, the nicest characters probably are the parents of Hassan, who's this young man who is led astray by politically motivated people who want him to commit a terrorist outrage.
It is an extraordinary phenomenon to have homegrown terrorists in your country. And it is a kind of sadness, I think, that if you are a true believer in a certain fundamental way of looking at Islam, then you are always going to be dissatisfied with the political structures that you find yourselves in. Because none of them really fit with the way of life that you aspire to.
And I think that the plight of Hassan - the young man who is potentially a suicide bomber - is that it's - he's explained, I think, really by the pressures that are being put on him political by bad men, really.
Whereas, Veals, the hedge fund manager is a breed - I mean Hassan is a victim, really. Whereas Veals is a predator.
WERTHEIMER: Here's the other thing about a novel that is huge in scope, as the reviewers said about yours. You made the Circle Line, the subway line which sort of encircles central London - you made that the image to sort of contain your characters, to give us an extraordinary view of London as it is now - the polyglot city and all.
But the idea, I suppose, is that the book has to come full circle. Now, I should have thought that by the time that you're about 75 percent of the way through the book you would be thinking, Oh, my God, how am I going to do it?
Mr. FAULKS: You're right that the book is really about London and it's about the different parts. But I did actually change the ending of "A Week in December" as I went along when I realized that the impulse of the book is so satirical, that although it's a dark and angry book and it has dark and serious things to say about the way we live, I wanted there to be sunlight at the end. When you climb out of the Circle Line train, you emerge into the sun.
WERTHEIMER: You've also got a good and evil thing going with books. You have a character who has nothing but contempt for fiction, who reviews without reading, who hates writers. And then you have this very sweet man who is the lawyer for the driver of the Circle Line train. She is the driver of the Circle Line train. He is a reading man and he wants to talk to her about books.
On Page 196 he says, You like reading. Could you just read for a bit?
Mr. FAULKS: Yeah.
And what about reading, said Gabriel as they moved off again. You like reading, dont you?
Yeah, I do.
Dont know. Suppose it's an escape from the real world.
But surely it's just the opposite, said Gabriel. Books explain the real world. They bring you close to it in a way that you could never imagine in the course of the day. People never explain to you exactly what they think and feel and how their thoughts and feelings work, do they? They dont have time or the right words. But thats what books do. It's as though your daily life is a film in the cinema. It can be fun looking at those pictures.
But if you want to know what lies behind the flat screen, you have to read a book. That explains it all.
WERTHEIMER: That was great.
Mr. FAULKS: It is a paradox, isnt it, that some people think of books as being an escape and a kind of virtual world. But I think that what Gabriel is saying - and I agree with him - is that they are actually the opposite. If you read a really a fine writer - you know, J.D. Salinger, Henry James, or whoever it might be - they have the time and skill to articulate all those things and to enlarge our understand of the world we live in.
WERTHEIMER: Thank you very much.
Mr. FAULKS: Thank you.
WERTHEIMER: Sebastian Faulks' latest novel is called "A Week in December." You can read more from "A Week in December," starting with the story of barrister Gabriel Northwood, in an excerpt on our Web site, NPR.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.
Sebastian Faulks' satirical novel is a weeklong tour of modern London, woven together in Dickensian style. Dickens' 19th century characters dealt with class conflict, wealth, poverty and true love. Faulks' contemporary characters deal with terrorism, greed, the Internet and — because some things never change — true love.
Sebastian Faulks' A Week in December is a seven-day tour of modern London written in Dickensian style. Charles Dickens' rich cast of 19th century characters dealt with class conflict, wealth, poverty and true love. Faulks' modern-day characters deal with terrorism, greed, the Internet and — because some things never change — true love.
The satirical story unfolds in 2007 over the seven days before Christmas. Readers follow the characters all over the city and its suburbs — often underground on the famous Circle Line train.
True to form, the long cast of characters turns out to be linked to one another: There's a hedge fund manager and his drug-addicted son, a lawyer, a book critic, a train driver, and a successful Muslim businessman and his religiously minded son, who is deeply conflicted about the true message of Islam.
The backdrop of the book was inspired largely by Faulks' own experience — he tells NPR's Linda Wertheimer that he began thinking about the alternate reality of the banking world about 10 years ago, when he noticed that his London neighborhood of Notting Hill was filling up with bankers. (Back when he moved in, the neighborhood was made up mostly of artists and musicians.)
"I was having dinner with people earning $10 million a year," Faulks says. "This was strange to me and it was completely divorced from any reality that I understood."
He began writing A Week in December well before the financial markets unraveled.
"So much money was being made by banks and hedge funds," Faulks explains. "This was long before the credit crisis, and I began to understand that these vast fortunes were being made by trading things which didn't exist."
Faulks took a break from researching material for the novel to write Devil May Care, a sequel to the late Ian Fleming's James Bond series. When he returned to A Week in December, his storyline was overtaken by real life events; the financial boom was over.
"Instead of talking to this guy who was helping me about how much money was made and how it was done, he kept on looking down at his hand-held computer saying, 'Oh my God, another bank is going broke,' " Faulks recalls.
In keeping with 19th century novels, Faulks assigns punning names to some of his characters — particularly the villainous hedge fund manager, John Veals.
"I got his name from a real estate agent. I liked the name 'Veal' because it's a bit like venal, and of course veal is a kind of bloodless meat and these things to me suggested the character of John Veals. He is an extremely cold, bloodless, rapacious, calculating, ruthless, greedy son of a gun."
Many of Faulks' characters lead livelier lives in virtual worlds: They lead parallel lives in online gaming, play fantasy football, and get sucked into reality television programs. Faulks says he recognizes it in his own children — their eyes glued to hand-held screens when they're on family vacations.
"What A Week in December is about is the way that this whole city, London, has become detached from reality," Faulks explains.
The abstract nature of the financial world only reinforced for Faulks "the whole idea of a city which had completely lost touch with reality and preferred to live with its head up its rear end."
One character who is struggling with his identity is Hassan al-Rashid, son of pickle magnate Farooq al-Rashid. He's so disillusioned that he's easily swayed when a friendly extremist contacts him via a social networking Web site called YourPlace.
"This young man ... is led astray by demagogues and politically motivated people who want him to do a terrible thing — commit a terrorist outrage," Faulks says. "It is an extraordinary phenomenon to have homegrown terrorists in your country. ... And it is a kind of sadness I think that if you are a true believer in a certain fundamental way of looking at Islam then you are always going to be dissatisfied with the political structures that you find yourselves in because none of them really fit with the purity of the way of life that you aspire to."
He says that Hassan's character — a potential suicide bomber — is ultimately a victim, whereas Veals — a hedge fund manager — is a true predator. Faulks' book is full of good and evil, greed and generosity, and a few romances.
"It's a dark and angry book and it has dark and serious things to say about the way we live," he says. "I wanted there to be sunlight at the end. When you climb out of the Circle Line train, you emerge into the sun."