About The Author
Louis de Bernières was born in 1954 and published his first novel in 1990. He was selected by Granta magazine as one of the twenty Best of Young British Novelists in 1993. Since then he has become well known internationally as a writer, with Captain Corelli's Mandolin winning the Commonwealth Writers' Prize for Best Novel in 1994. His sixth novel, the acclaimed Birds Without Wings, came out in 2004., A Partisan's Daughter (2008) was shortlisted for the Costa Novel Award and Notwithstanding: Stories from an English Village was published in Autumn 2009, followed by a first collection of poetry, Imagining Alexandria: Poems in Memory of Constantinos Cavafis, in 2013. As well as writing, de Bernieres plays the flute, mandolin and guitar. He lives in Norfolk.
His latest novel, The Dust that Falls from Dreams, the first in a planned trilogy, opens in the brief golden years of King Edward VII's reign. Rosie McCosh and her three sisters are growing up in an idyllic and eccentric household in Kent, with their 'pals' the Pitt boys on one side of the fence and the Pendennis boys on the other. But their days of childhood innocence and adventure are destined to be followed by the apocalypse that will overwhelm their world as they come to adulthood. For Rosie, the path ahead is full of challenges. Torn between her love for two young men - one an infantry soldier and one a flying ace - she has to navigate her way through extraordinary times. Can she, and her sisters, build new lives out of the opportunities and devastations that follow the Great War?
Exclusively for Foyles, we talked to Louis about why he lost interest in going to Church, his favourite decade and how kindness rather than state policy helps returning soldiers reintegrate into society.
Author image © Ivon Bartholomew
Questions & Answers
What was the starting point for your novel?
We always knew that my grandmother had lost her fiancé in 1915, and never really got over it. I became interested in that story.
Rosie says she couldn’t survive the war without her faith, but it has also crippled her in many ways, whereas poetry is also capable of moving and even guiding her but without all the contingent guilt. Do you agree with Daniel that for some people faith starts with the language of the Bible and the Prayer Book?
Yes. One reason I lost interest in going to church was that they removed all the poetry from the services, and introduced dreadful banal new hymns with dodgy lyrics, so that all that was left was an intrinsically unbelievable theology and a general niceness.
Daniel has a terrifying recurring dream of the march past of the dead; how much of his post-war experience was informed by your maternal grandfather and the legacy of his time in the war?
That dream was one that I had after eating too many garden snails. I don’t know about my maternal grandfather’s state of mind, but he was horribly maimed in the Great War, and ended up committing suicide when I was a little boy.
You have said that ‘The secret of artistic entertainment is to drag people from one emotion to the other - the more extreme you can make it the better," Does that explain your fascination with war as a subject?
No. I am fascinated because I grew up listening to war stories, and fully expected to be in one myself. When the Berlin Wall came down, I cried with disbelief.
Of the books you’ve written, you’ve often said Birds Without Wings is your favourite. Does your new book match up to it, and is having a favourite a hindrance or an inspiration?
My jury is out over this one. I want to write two more volumes, and then I’ll know. Having written a book as good as BWW is a bit frightening, but in their own way the Malvern Hills are as beautiful as the Himalayas.
You describe twelve years before the war that ‘would forever be remembered as golden…’. Do such golden periods really exist, and is there a time and place that would represent a golden period for you?
Not exactly golden, but more golden than the rest. In my case it was the decade when I wrote my second, third and fourth novels. I’d left teaching, and lived with a truly sweet woman. I was still youngish and strong and optimistic. Even the cat was perfect.
Like Rosie, your grandmother lost her first fiancé, for whom Rosie’s is named, in the First World War. Did she ever talk about him and what it was like both to lose him and then find love again?
She talked about him to my mother. Her marriage to my grandfather didn’t work out, but she must have felt something for him, because she always refused to divorce him.
Are we any better with helping soldiers to re-integrate into society after fighting than we were in Daniel and Archie’s time? Is reintegration truly possible after what they have experienced and witnessed?
I think we mostly did it quite well, largely because of private kindness rather than state policy. The main problem is that leaving the services is like losing your huge extended family all at one blow, which is why old comrades societies and charities like SSAFA are so crucially important.
I talked to my father about this. He coped with it by working for charities all his life.
Do you have another book on the go and can you tell us anything about it?
Two more volumes of this story, and lots more besides……not to mention deluges of poetry.