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'You made it up?!'

1 October 2007

'Most people's lives have a steady mixture of the social and the solitary, in factory or field, office or school. The life of the novelist has no such balance. For three years, you're alone with your thoughts, then for three weeks you're thrown to the microphones in the name of 'publicity'. The modern writer's life is like a cross between that of the Venerable Bede and Naomi Campbell.

(Readers) assume that everything in a novel is based on your personal experience, lightly, or at times not at all, rewritten. When I toured the country doing readings after Birdsong, most people could not conceal their disappointment. They had expected me to be 105 years old, French and, in some weird way, female.

One man asked me how I knew what it was like to fight at the Somme. I told him I'd read a lot of documents, visited the site, then made it up, 'You made it up?!' he spat at me. Yes, I said, that's my job. But he didn't believe me and neither did anyone else there. They thought I'd found a pile of old papers in the attic and passed them off as mine.'