British author Sebastian Faulks talks about breathing new life into the world of P.G. Wodehouse.
Forty years since their last appearance, master-butler combo Wooster and Jeeves are about to be breathed back into madcap life. Acclaimed British writer Sebastian Faulks, best known for his historical novels set in early 20th century France, is the man who has taken up the formidable task of writing a P.G. Wodehouse sequel. Faulks who was at the Ubud literary festival in Bali recently discussed his new novel, Jeeves and the Wedding Bells, which was released on November 7. Excerpts from an interview:
You are most commonly associated with grim visceral expositions of trench warfare, as in Birdsong. The switch to something as frothy as P.G. Wodehouse is a bit jarring. Why were you asked to write this sequel? Why did you accept?
I was asked by Wodehouse’s step-grandson, Edward Cazalet, who felt young people were not reading him any more and that something should be done to revive the tapering interest in his books.
I had done a BBC series three years ago about characters in British fiction and one of them had been on Jeeves, which Cazalet had watched. But when I was initially contacted with the idea of writing this sequel, I said no. It seemed too difficult. The Jeeves and Wooster books might have been light, but the plots were so intricate, the timing was perfect. As a writer, plot is not my main concern. My focus is usually on ideas and feelings and character development. And, of course, Wodehouse is in the top half-dozen writers of English prose, so it would be a formidable task.
But then earlier this year I was in Jaipur (attending the literature festival) and began re-reading a few Wodehouse novels I’d taken along. I suddenly had an idea for a sequel and began to feel enthusiastic. So I changed my mind.
This is your second sequel. You’ve already written a James Bond novel, Devil May Care, in 2008. Is sequel writer your new avatar?
You know I think there are far too many sequels, so it’s really strange that I’m in this position. They say, once is funny, twice is silly, three times a smack. No smack for me, thanks!
How do you write in someone else’s voice? So much of writing is about finding your own voice. Is it a bit like acting?
Well, I’ve always been a good mimic. I have an ear. (Faulks breaks into a passable imitation of my Indian accent before continuing) And even in my own books I have to hear characters and voices in my head. In a good, not crazy, way! I have, for example, written as a woman. As for Jeeves and the Wedding Bells, it’s written in Wodehouse’s voice, not mine. It is supposed to sound like him, but I’ve tried to ensure it’s not a parody, nor a pale imitation. It was difficult to keep true to his larger-than-life characters, but not to exaggerate them.
You have said that Wodehouse is inimitable. Some have called your attempt a folly. What do you make of the criticism that the announcement of your sequel has garnered?
Actually, I agree with many of these critics. The fact is that my position is inconsistent. I do think he (Wodehouse) is inimitable and yet I will in effect be imitating him in the sequel. That said, I was a bit taken aback by the violence of some of the criticisms. Someone wrote on the Internet, “Who is this fat, bearded git?” of me. My wife read that and was quite put out. “You’re not that fat,” she said.
Without revealing the plot, can you tell us if this will be a “typical” Jeeves novel?
Yes, it will be fairly typical of what someone might expect. I decided against modernising it by transplanting the characters into the 21st century. The book is set in the 1920s. But I don’t think that necessarily works against it. The public seems to have an enormous appetite for that time period. Think of the success of (TV series) Downton Abbey.
What is your hope for this book? Are you satisfied with it?
Well, his family love it. Ultimately the book is not intended as competition to Wodehouse but as a thank-you letter for all the pleasure he’s given me and his other readers. And if new readers come to his original books because of this, the task will have been accomplished.