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'I've been through absolute hell'

The author Louis de Bernières tells Emily Jupp about the pain of a crumbling relationship and the threat of 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."

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."

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 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.

De Bernières is the patron of Families Need Fathers, a charity that helps mothers and fathers to share parenting when relationships break down.

"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