Louis de Bernières: 'I've been through absolute hell'

The bestselling author talks about the pain he endured when his relationship ended and he faced losing his children

Louis de Bernières, the best-selling author of Captain Corelli's Mandolin, is singing. "My love she speaks like silence, without ideals or violence, she doesn't have to say she's faithful, yet she's true, like ice, like fire."

He  says he wanted to be either Bob Dylan or a cowboy when he grew up, and though he can still "throw a lasso with about 30 foot of rope" after a year spent working as a cowboy in Colombia, the closest he's come to being Dylan is singing this cover. "I only ever did one Dylan song, 'Love Minus Zero/No Limit', then, as the years have gone by, I've become more interested in classical music and music from the Balkans and South America." He has been in various bands and is accomplished at playing the Greek bouzouki, clarinet, classical guitar, and, of course, the mandolin.

But, deep down he always knew he would write. If he hadn't become a novelist he might have become a travel writer, he says, but "the problem with writing for newspapers is you get a sponsored holiday, but all they want is a free advert." He was commissioned to write a travel article on Mauritius once. "What especially interested me were these lava boulders. The farmers gather them up and put them in the middle of the field, so when you fly over Mauritius you see these pyramids of pink boulders." He stretches out his short-fingered hands in an expansive gesture, taking in the blank walls of our meeting room. "I became fascinated and so that's what I wrote about."The editor was unhappy and requested a rewrite, but de Bernières refused. "I got so fed up, I said 'well just do it yourself'."

It's this obsessive attention to setting which pervades all his books, including Red Dog, which has been turned into a film. The red, eternally hot and unforgiving landscape of Dampier, in Western Australia, is strongly felt in both the book and the film. "People often say landscapes in my works are like a distinct character and I work to get them that way. If you go to a place and get it down freshly, that's the trick. I took my laptop with me and wrote it there on the spot. I was there in front of it, the dust and the extraordinary heat, it's important not to go out without a hat" - he indicates the battered brown leather hat resting on the table between us - "or you’d go crazy in an hour."

"Whatever research I do will give me better ideas than anything I could make up on my own. I found out in Turkey there was a custom that if there was a single woman in your house you'd leave an empty bottle on their roof. If I didn't go there, that would have been one less interesting fact."

As well as writing and playing music, de Bernières occasionally paints. His attempts "come out something like a 13-year-old's work" he says, but he has a strong sense of aesthetics and ideas about the "right" way of doing things. He recalls the last time his book was made into a film - Captain Corelli's Mandolin - and he thought they hadn't got it right. In an interview with The Independent at the time, he likened it to his "baby's ears being put on backwards," although today he is more restrained in his criticism. "They made a couple of mistakes. For instance there was a gratuitous sex scene in the middle that didn't make a lot of sense... but it's a film with a great soundtrack!"

The film of Red Dog is a distinct improvement, he says. "I loved it. I thought it was better than the book. The book's a kids book about a dog and the film is about the people around the dog." The film tells the story of a kelpie (a type of Australian sheepdog) that befriends the disparate members of a mining town in Western Australia and unites them into a strong community. "It was designed to be a tear-jerker" says de Bernières. "One of the aims of artistic creation is to manipulate people emotionally. I think it was done pretty well. I would have fallen for the same temptation if I was a film-maker."

One minor grudge is that a scene in which the dog urinates on the judges' table at a dog show has been omitted from the film. "They couldn't find enough dogs locally" de Bernières explains, "the people there fly back to Perth at the weekend so there aren't many dogs there, let alone pedigree ones."

Red Dog has several feline traits: he is independent and, though loyal, will befriend anyone who offers food. "I prefer cats," admits de Bernières, "but I've had some very profound and affectionate relationships with dogs. Dogs get desperate if you leave them, because they're pack animals, but the cat knows you'll come back eventually. Mine went wandering once when I was away and ended up with a Jehovah's Witness in Whitwell. I have a deal with the man now where he can look after the cat when I’m away."

Whether it's travelling, keeping pets or falling in love, you can't be a writer until you've accumulated enough experience, he says. "Everything I wrote before the age of 30 was rubbish, which is seriously disheartening to someone who is sure they're meant to be a writer. You have to do it at the right time."

Before becoming a full-time writer, he had stints as a landscape gardener, a mechanic, a cadet at Sandhurst and a schoolteacher, not to mention that year as a cowboy. "I had no direction, I was improvising a living," he says. "All I knew was I didn't want to work in an office, which I regret, as I now realise people in offices have a lot of interesting affairs."

He speaks enthusiastically, with robust, plummy vowels. He's 57, but like a young man, he still seems curious about the world. Even heartbreak hasn't made him jaded. Relationships, he asserts, are "quite crucial, because they change your whole life, don't they? Psychologically and emotionally, especially after they've gone awry". His 11-year-long relationship with Cathy Gill, a theatre director, came to a disastrous end in 2009 when she moved out, taking their two young children, Robin and Sophie, with her.

"I have been through absolute hell trying to get custody of my kids and I wouldn't give up until I'd spent my last penny," he says. There followed a two-year-long court battle for joint custody. "Having children is the biggest life-changer of all, because it completely changes your emotional focus," he explains. "When you're in love, your partner becomes your whole life and when you have children that switches. They are more important than anything else. To have that suddenly wrenched away..." he trails off.

De Bernières is the patron of Families Need Fathers, a charity that helps mothers and fathers to share parenting when relationships break down. "Attitudes [to joint parenting] have been slowly changing and so has the law," says de Bernières. "Australia takes equality as the default position, as do some Scandinavian countries, but we don't. One of the consequences of 1970s feminism was that men took on more household roles. Times have changed. I am as capable of being a mother as any mother; I know how to change nappies, sew on buttons and make fish fingers." His bond with his children is unquestionable. "My son used to sleep on my chest," he says. "He couldn't sleep unless he was on my chest, so I spent a year and a half not sleeping because I didn't want to roll over. It's a very passionate love."

‘Red Dog’ is in cinemas nationwide

Arts and Entertainment
By Seuss! ‘What Pet Shall I Get?’ hits the bookshops this week
Books
Arts and Entertainment
The mushroom cloud over Hiroshima after Enola Gray and her crew dropped the bomb
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Elliott outside his stationery store that houses a Post Office
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Rebecca Ferguson, Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible Rogue Nation

Film review Tom Cruise, 50, is still like a puppy in this relentless action soap opera

Arts and Entertainment
Rachel McAdams in True Detective season 2

TV review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Mullah Omar, creator of the Taliban, is dead... for the fourth time

    Mullah Omar, creator of the Taliban, is dead... again

    I was once told that intelligence services declare their enemies dead to provoke them into popping up their heads and revealing their location, says Robert Fisk
    Margaret Attwood on climate change: 'Time is running out for our fragile, Goldilocks planet'

    Margaret Attwood on climate change

    The author looks back on what she wrote about oil in 2009, and reflects on how the conversation has changed in a mere six years
    New Dr Seuss manuscript discovered: What Pet Should I Get? goes on sale this week

    New Dr Seuss manuscript discovered

    What Pet Should I Get? goes on sale this week
    Oculus Rift and the lonely cartoon hedgehog who could become the first ever virtual reality movie star

    The cartoon hedgehog leading the way into a whole new reality

    Virtual reality is the 'next chapter' of entertainment. Tim Walker gives it a try
    Ants have unique ability to switch between individual and collective action, says study

    Secrets of ants' teamwork revealed

    The insects have an almost unique ability to switch between individual and collective action
    Donovan interview: The singer is releasing a greatest hits album to mark his 50th year in folk

    Donovan marks his 50th year in folk

    The singer tells Nick Duerden about receiving death threats, why the world is 'mentally ill', and how he can write a song about anything, from ecology to crumpets
    Let's Race simulator: Ultra-realistic technology recreates thrill of the Formula One circuit

    Simulator recreates thrill of F1 circuit

    Rory Buckeridge gets behind the wheel and explains how it works
    Twitter accused of 'Facebookisation' over plans to overhaul reverse-chronological timeline

    Twitter accused of 'Facebookisation'

    Facebook exasperates its users by deciding which posts they can and can’t see. So why has Twitter announced plans to do the same?
    Jane Birkin asks Hermès to rename bag - but what else could the fashion house call it?

    Jane Birkin asks Hermès to rename bag

    The star was shocked by a Peta investigation into the exotic skins trade
    10 best waterproof mascaras

    Whatever the weather: 10 best waterproof mascaras

    We found lash-enhancing beauties that won’t budge no matter what you throw at them
    Diego Costa biography: Chelsea striker's route to the top - from those who shared his journey

    Diego Costa: I go to war. You come with me...

    Chelsea's rampaging striker had to fight his way from a poor city in Brazil to life at the top of the Premier League. A new book speaks to those who shared his journey
    Ashes 2015: England show the mettle to strike back hard in third Test

    England show the mettle to strike back hard in third Test

    The biggest problem facing them in Birmingham was the recovery of the zeitgeist that drained so quickly under the weight of Australian runs at Lord's, says Kevin Garside
    Women's Open 2015: Charley Hull - 'I know I'm a good golfer but I'm also just a person'

    Charley Hull: 'I know I'm a good golfer but I'm also just a person'

    British teen keeps her feet on ground ahead of Women's Open
    Turkey's conflict with Kurdish guerrillas in Iraq can benefit Isis in Syria

    Turkey's conflict with Kurdish guerrillas in Iraq can benefit Isis in Syria

    Turkish President Erdogan could benefit politically from the targeting of the PKK, says Patrick Cockburn
    Yvette Cooper: Our choice is years of Tory rule under Jeremy Corbyn or a return to a Labour government

    Our choice is years of Tory rule under Corbyn or a return to a Labour government

    Yvette Cooper urged Labour members to 'get serious' about the next general election rather than become 'a protest movement'