Book Talk: Nigel Farndale tests commitment to life

SYDNEY Wed Aug 25, 2010 5:56am EDT

SYDNEY (Reuters Life!) - Faced with a life-threatening situation, would you leave behind a loved one to save yourself?

This question fascinated British writer and journalist Nigel Farndale for about 25 years, ever since he heard of an acquaintance who had scrambled over his girlfriend, leaving her behind, after their car crashed into a canal in France.

While both survived the accident, the couple broke up soon afterwards. The girl could not forgive her boyfriend.

Farndale said this story haunted him and was the basis for his new novel, "The Blasphemer," released in the United States this month, which tackles themes of loyalty, love, and faith with the story of a plane-crash survivor intertwined with that of a World War One deserter.

Farndale, 46, who has written one other novel, two biographies and published a collection of interviews, spoke to Reuters about his writing:

Q: What fascinated you about this story?

A: "It was one of those stories among a circle of friends that we talked about a lot at the time. You wonder what you would do in the same circumstances. If you are honest, even someone who considers themselves brave, you don't know until it happens to you. There aren't many circumstances in which you are tested like this if you are not of the age when you had to fight in a war. That is where the war theme came in."

Q: Why did it take so long to get to paper?

A: "The idea fermented and when I saw this would make a subject it started to flow from there. This was the starting point of the novel -- a plane crash with the plane filling up with water -- and that is how I wrote the first chapter for my agent. But as a reader you don't know anything about the characters so I needed to have some chapters preceding for readers to get to know them better and so I wrote backwards and then forwards and that is where the war came in."

Q: Where did your first novel, "A Sympathetic Hanging," come from?

A: "My first novel was prompted by a thought at the time I was following (Tony) Blair during the 1997 election and spent three weeks sitting on his tour bus. I kept thinking what would happen if he were assassinated and that is where the idea of my first novel came from. It was a political thriller whereas this book needed more time to breathe and it has a more literary tone. In a thriller there is no fat but with a literary novel you can savor the language more."

Q: Was it easier to write a second novel?

A: "This one took longer. From the time I first started writing to the time I finished it, it probably took me about eight years. In the meantime I did a biography of Lord and Lady Haw-Haw that was pegged to a particular time frame, an anniversary of their capture, so I got on with that and put the novel on hold for a while."

Q: How did you find time to write a novel while working and also with a young family?

A: "I had to rely on the indulgence of my wife. We have three young children so she had to bear the brunt of child-care while I was sneaking off to my study. I tend to work very early in the morning, about 5am, before everyone wakes up. But you do have to put your life on hold for a bit."

Q: Did you always want to write?

A: "I started my work career as a farmer. My father was a farmer and I was supposed to take over the family farm in Yorkshire but I had this compulsion to write. I was a distracted farmer so I went off to read philosophy at Durham University as a Masters degree which took me down the more literary route. I started writing for the Literary Review, Auberon Waugh's magazine. It was an ambition that I really wanted to be a writer."

Q: Any advise for aspiring writers?

A: "You have to have a lot of self belief and if you don't have that you probably won't get very far. You have to be confident enough to start and (to listen) if you have a trusted friend who is literary enough to give you an honest judgment on it. Showing it to people before you submit it is important as is getting an agent. In terms of working methods, you must be committed and you must have it in the back of your mind all the time you are writing it. Having a strong image as a starting point is quite good as you can work out what happened from there. Once you know your own characters they will in a way take care of themselves and they then become believable. Getting over self consciousness is key."

(Editing by Steve Addison)