Louis de Bernières, 57, is the author of the international bestseller Captain Corelli’s Mandolin and other novels.
What was your earliest ambition?
To be a cowboy. I did get around to it when I was 19, on a ranch in Colombia.
Public school or state school? University or straight into work?
Public school, Bradfield College. I then went to Sandhurst for four months but the army and I really didn’t get on at all. Then I went to South America for a year, then I studied philosophy at university in Manchester. I taught philosophy evening classes, I worked as a landscape gardener, a car mechanic and a motorcycle messenger. I had a bad motorcycle crash and during that time I wrote my first novel. I always knew I was going to be a writer.
Who is your mentor?
I’ve had many.
I’m overweight but fit; I can run up the stairs and my children treat me as gym apparatus so I have terrific upper-body strength.
Ambition or talent: which matters more to success?
That’s a false dichotomy, you have to have both. And all sorts of other things: faith, concentration, the ability to wander in the wilderness for years without losing your sense of direction.
Have you ever taken an IQ test?
Yes, but all I remember is that I got a much higher score than expected.
How politically committed are you?
Not to a party; I want what we’ve got, capitalism under democratic control, it’s the only system worth having.
I do but not for carbon footprint reasons. I buy meat from local farmers because I want my local farmers to do well, I grow my own vegetables because I like it.
Do you have more than one home?
What would you like to own that you don’t currently possess?
A couple of hundred acres of land so I can plant a walnut forest; walnut is the wood of the future and while waiting for the wood you get nuts.
What’s your biggest extravagance?
In what place are you happiest?
Any place where my children are.
What ambitions do you still have?
I want to write my last epic novel and be a great classical guitarist.
What drives you on?
A sense of destiny; there are things I came here to do and I mustn’t go until I’ve done them.
What is the greatest achievement of your life so far?
From a literary point of view, Birds Without Wings, which I think is far better than Captain Corelli’s Mandolin. In my private life, definitely the children. And I seem to have pulled a good life for myself out of a very bad start.
What has been your greatest disappointment?
I wouldn’t want it to appear in print.
If your 20-year-old self could see you now, what would he think?
He would be amazed that I ever got to be this old. I think he would be surprised but pleased; at the age of 20 it seemed I was going nowhere and had no future at all.
If you lost everything tomorrow, what would you do?
I’d go back to landscape gardening and I’d also go busking a lot.
Do you believe in assisted suicide?
I think I do, but I have very grave doubts.
Do you believe in an afterlife?
I suspect that there is one but it could be no better than a long stay in Croydon.
If you had to rate your satisfaction with your life so far, out of 10, what would you score?
At the moment, eight.
“Red Dog”, the film of Louis de Bernières’ 2001 novel, will be released in cinemas on February 24
FT arts podcast - Louis de Bernières on how to film a book