This is an edited transcript of an interview with Michel Faber with headings inserted for ease of reading and navigation. The video of the complete interview can be accessed by clicking the above image. A review of The Book of Strange New Things is available HERE. Alex Henry’s review of Michel Faber’s reading at the 2014 Dundee Literary Festival is available HERE.
Alex Henry: On behalf of DURA, Dundee University Review of the Arts, as well as the University itself, I’m delighted to welcome Michel Faber to our Interview Room here at the 2014 Dundee Literary Festival. Since the publication of his genre-defying debut novel, Under the Skin (2000), Michel has gone on to establish himself as a distinguished writer of fiction, winning critical acclaim for his Victorian-set novel, The Crimson Petal and The White (2002). As well as his novels, Michel has written three short story collections, the first published in 1998 and also enjoys an active role in journalism, most often in the form of fiction reviews. His latest novel, The Book of Strange New Things, of which he’ll be presenting a short reading in just a few moments, explores issues of love, marriage, faith and language as Christian missionary Peter Leigh leaves his home and his loving wife, Beatrice, profoundly far behind, travelling to the alien world of Oasis to spread the word of God. So welcome Michel and thank you for your time.
Michel Faber: Thank you. I will just read a little bit from near the very beginning of the book so as not to give away any spoilers. [Reads from The Book of Strange New Things]
AH: … [Can you] talk about the backgrounds of you coming into publication, your early life, just to give us a sense of where you’re coming from? Your early life is really quite unusually varied…You’d emigrated from Holland to Australia as a young boy and then from Australia to Scotland in the early nineties. So do you think it’s fair to say that that has influenced in some way the thematic concerns of your writing, I was thinking maybe of the ideas of alienation or displacement?
Michel Faber: I’m sure that’s true. And another factor which may be linked to the migrations, particularly the sort of forced migration when I was seven, is that I have no recall of my very early life. I think a lot of authors mine their past for material and… when things seemed to matter most, when they were just discovering their first love: first realising that people die or first starting to figure out that the relationship between their mother and father might not be what they had imagined when they were a baby and so on. That’s very strong material for a lot of writers. It fuels their narratives and their understanding of the world. I can’t do that: I don’t have that. All those childhood memories are blank for me. I have very few teenage memories left. My young adulthood is hazy and, really, as I live it’s as if my memory is a window that moves. And as it goes that way, I lose more of that. That really influences the kind of writing I can do. So I make it all up. I have to make it up.
AH: It kind of makes your writing constantly move with you as your perspective moves and your memory moves.
Michel Faber: That too; I mean, it is writing that metamorphoses all the time. I am always moving on to fresh territory. But it also puts the pressure on me to conjure things out of nothing. I just have to trust that when I’m making up these narratives featuring invented people or places that are not familiar to me, that I’ll still be getting access on a deeper level that I don’t understand to things that I’ve experienced. It’s just that I can’t in an autobiographical, technical way tell you what those experiences were.
AH: That’s very interesting. Following on from that, would you say that nationality is important to the way you think about identity or do you ascribe more unique qualities to self-identity than something that’s as broad as nationality?
Michel Faber: Well, I don’t feel as if I have a nationality. I only lived for seven years in Holland and I don’t remember it at all. There are some values I have that I’ve since discovered are quite Dutch. There’s a directness about various things, including the way the body works that is clearly not British. But, you know, I couldn’t claim to be Dutch. I grew up in Australia and was educated there and it was a great place to grow up. I got a really good education there and it was multi-cultural, it was interesting but I don’t feel Australian. And, I’m not a Scot, clearly. I mean one of the problems for me with the first novel, Under the Skin, with doing public readings is that whenever there was a bit that had a Scottish person in it – Isserley, in the book, picks up Scottish hitchhikers – I wouldn’t be able to read their voice because I can’t do that. So that alone is a big tip-off that I’m not Scottish. And obviously not English either so… What nationality I am – it’s up for grabs, whatever people think.
Politics and Literature
AH: Is it true that ..I’ve read a story that your publishers tried to get you to become a British citizen in 2001 for the Booker prize because at that time you could only enter your book if you were a Commonwealth citizen (this was for The Crimson Petal and the White).
Michel Faber: I can understand why they wanted me to be eligible for that prize because it is the sort of book that might conceivably have had a chance. They were telling me, “Look, you can still be Dutch. You can have dual citizenship – it’s no big deal”…. But it was precisely at that point that Britain was following the USA into the Iraq and Afghanistan wars; it was just the wrong time in my life for me to be waving, what I felt would be waving a little British flag, saying “I’m one of you now”, when I was so disgusted by that whole enterprise.
AH: … There is… [a] sort of political slant to some of your work. I’m thinking Under the Skin, for example, darkly satiric of big business as well as representing the other [in a] sort of alien narrative… is that important, that sort of political slant that you bring to your writing?
Michel Faber: It got increasingly important for me… for a while. In the few years following The Crimson Petal and the White, I went on all the anti-war marches and I wrote journalism for The Herald you know, protesting about all this stuff… [but] clearly the role of writers and artists and intellectuals was that of total impotence. There was nothing we could achieve and politicians don’t read anyway, or they read bumf that’s given to them by their advisers, …but not proper books. After a while I got very despondent, very demoralised at the role that writers could have at times in history when very, very unwise and unfortunate things had been done. So, I actually withdrew for a long time from the literary scene. I went into an extended sulk, if you like.
I didn’t go to any literary events and didn’t write for a long time – just stayed at home in the Scottish Highlands, simmering. In 2008, my wife was diagnosed with incurable cancer and I knew that her opportunities to travel and to have adventures would be very limited. In the past, literary events had always been almost an excuse for us to go to a different country or a different part of Britain and to meet nice people and see different landscapes and just have an adventure. And I started saying “yes” again so that she could come with me. So, we went to some events in Scotland and we went twice to Italy and we went to Utrecht in Holland and to China. To the Beijing Literary Festival. And after those things, she became too ill to travel. But it meant I was back into the literary scene or the literary circuit or whatever you call it, and here I am. She’s dead now, very sadly, but I think she would have liked me to continue saying “yes” which is why I’m sitting here talking to you.
AH: … Thinking about that sort of public side of the writer, … you wrote a piece called “Dreams in the Dumpster of Language Down the Drain about the Iraq War” in 2006. But you’ve also written pieces…
Michel Faber: I also wrote a novella called “Bombshell” about all that and I told my publisher that I was writing it and he got very excited and he was already planning what it was going to look like and how he was going to publish it… He was thinking ahead. And then when I actually sent it to him, he really, really didn’t want to publish it. It was a novel full of the anger that I felt about Britain’s involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan. It was all set in Britain but it used various devices, basically to make you feel as ashamed as you possibly could be, and it took the reader to a very, very dark place and just dumped them there. There was no light, no hope, no transcendence. It was pure viciousness on my part to the reader in order to almost make it impossible for them to behave that way again. Like an extreme kind of conditioning if you like. And, you know, part of me wishes that that book had come out. No one would have ever bought anything by me again, I can assure you of that. If they’d bought it – “Ah, the new Michel Faber book. I liked The Crimson Petal so much…” they would never, ever have touched anything of mine ever again. But if I could have changed the way people voted, maybe. But I actually don’t think writers can do that. I don’t think it’s in their power. From another point of view, I’m glad it didn’t come out because I care about my readers and I want them to feel that they can trust me. They wouldn’t have felt that they could trust me after that one.
AH: Well, that’s what I was going to go on to ask you… touching on humanitarian issues. You also have written articles, about say the HIV/AIDS crisis in Ukraine in 2005. Do you think that public aspect of the social awareness that can be political or humanitarian or both at times – do you think that’s [it’s] important… being a serious, contemporary writer that has something to say?
Michel Faber: I think one of the wonderful things about fiction and literary fiction, in particular, is the sheer variety of approaches and voices. I don’t think there’s any onus on serious writers to prove that they are serious by writing about war or any other topic of current discussion. I think you can be just as serious a writer and write about fantastical things that are purely in your own imagination, that don’t seem to connect with the world out there at all. So I wouldn’t be judgemental of any writer writing about anything. The concern for me is that the writer wants to put things into the world that are not just using up trees and wasting paper. But what exactly is in the book is really for them to decide.
AH: You don’t feel that there is this huge social responsibility on writers necessarily to voice opinions about things that they think are socially unacceptable? But do you think that because you’re a writer, because you’re established, and you have this audience that you’ve already mentioned, do you think that gives you this sort of stage to be able to do that, whereas otherwise you wouldn’t, necessarily? And people are more willing to listen to you because being a respected author is, in some ways, quite a privileged position?
Michel Faber: I think there’s a great many writers who have shown a great deal more interest in engaging with political issues and with trying to change society than I have. So, I really think I’m very small fry in that area. I think that writing, generally, serious writing, literary writing – one of the things that it could potentially achieve is that the reader becomes more mindful of understanding “the other”, the person who is not like them. Going on from that interest, from that sense that there’s a world of human beings out there who function very differently from me, I want insight into them. Maybe if someone truly intuits that, they would be less interested in bombing someone in another country that they’ve never met who speaks a language that they don’t understand. I know that’s a very small ambition for literature to achieve, but if it can achieve that, maybe that’s as good as it gets.
AH: Well, it’s small in the example, but it can be much more universal than that. It doesn’t have to be about bombing someone from somebody else’s culture. It can be about cultural sensitivity as well, on a much sort of broader scale.
[Short discussion on Marvel comics and graphic novels.]
AH: I said when I was introducing you that Under the Skin, when it was released, was described as sort of genre-defying in that it doesn’t necessarily slip into any of the genres that obviously influence it. It isn’t completely science fiction, it isn’t completely sort of thriller, it isn’t completely horror et cetera. So, if I were to walk into a Waterstone’s with one of your novels, I can’t place it in one of their sections. It has to go under “F” for Faber, really. Is that your way of sort of keeping your novels unique in a sense – in not having them adhere to all these genre conventions? Is that very conscious?
Michel Faber: Well, I would love all the books to just be under “F”, as you say. In a review that David Robinson wrote in The Scotsman, I think, he said that every now and then, a book comes along where you don’t want to tell someone anything about it, you just want to say, “Trust me. Read this. Don’t ask me what it’s about. Just read it.” And I would love all my books to have that status with the people who love them, and the booksellers who are selling them, because what I really want to do is take the reader on a journey to the unexpected. For them to start reading the book… [but] have no idea what it’s going to be about, what genre or genres it will be and, even when they’re beginning to read it, not knowing where it will take them. But just trusting me that it will take them somewhere interesting, somewhere thrilling and somewhere transcendent, [and that] the journey will be worthwhile for them. But, you know, we live in the real world. Books have to be classified. Booksellers have to put them in a particular place. Various kinds of websites have to put a genre title on them. And I guess one of the few good things about the word “literary fiction” is that it’s so vague…. [there may be an] expectation that it’s going to be done to a high standard [but]… everything else is up for grabs. And that’s good.
AH: Yes, I agree… you recently said that The Book of Strange New Things is going to be your final novel. And in some ways it is a farewell to the novel as a form. Is that correct? Is that how you think about it?
Michel Faber: Yes, I mean it’s a farewell to many things. It’s a farewell to our planet if you like because it addresses all the things that we have done to our poor planet and it’s a farewell to my wife who died shortly after I finished it. And in a kind of Prospero-breaking-his-staff kind of thing in The Tempest, it’s a farewell to novel writing and, you know, I think I’ve produced enough. There are quite a few books out there. I think if someone wants to spend a great deal of their life reading Michel Faber books, there’s quite a stack of them. And, you know, the short stories as well, which I’m very, very proud of. There are people who read only novels and don’t read short stories, and, if this is the last novel and they truly are hungry for more Michel Faber stuff, then maybe they would investigate the short stories in the end. I never wanted to be the sort of author who just puts out books because that’s what I do – every few years, it’s about time Michel Faber put out another book. I felt I had a certain number of books in me that would all be different from each other. And I think I’ve pulled that off as many times as I can pull it off without beginning to repeat myself. And, yes, it’s enough.
AH: … Is it a decision that you took during the writing of it or before the writing of it? Did you have an inkling that this would be your last extended sort of prose?
Michel Faber: Oh, yeah, I knew when I was writing The Fire Gospel, the book before this, that it was my second last. And I knew when I was writing this, that it was the last. And my wife was very grieved about that. Partly because she was always a never-say-never kind of person but also because she wanted there to be more books by me out there. So that was a point of sorrow between us. But as she read more of the book – because, of course, she read it chapter by chapter – as I was handing the chapters over, she understood more and more, the various things the book is a good-bye to. And, of course, once she was dying… the fact that the book was also a farewell to her became understandably very meaningful to her. So, yes, for all sorts of reasons, I think it’s appropriate that it’s the last one….
I mean whenever journalists or critics or authors talk about how the novel is dead or what comes after the novel, I heave a sigh because there’s young people coming up all the time who are going to re-invent the wheel. And that’s good. That’s what young people are for, you know? To re-invent the wheel. History is a huge sifter. A lot of the novels that are being written now by the Philip Roths of the world who are considered to be the be-all and end-all of literary fiction – a lot of that stuff’s going to be forgotten. Statistically, it has to be forgotten because almost everything does disappear down the plughole of history…. History will take care of that. I suspect the novel form has a lot of life in it yet. But my particular bit of that history, I think I’ve done what I needed to….
I certainly wouldn’t say no to writing more short stories. And if, in time, I have written enough stories of sufficient quality to fill a collection, then there might be another collection of those. I’m writing poetry at the moment, dealing with the grieving process of having lost Eva. Eva left behind a great deal of writing of her own in various states of completion, some of it almost final draft, and some of it little more than notes. I might collaborate with her posthumously on that material. We did discuss this while she was still alive. I don’t know whether I’ll be able to. She had a very different mind from me and a different style and I’d want to honour what she was trying to achieve. It’s possible that in time I’ll be able to do something along those lines. There are also non-fiction books that I might wish to write which would not be of interest to most people…
AH: … Do you think is the mental block there is about short story? … Are there more nuanced differences in the way you would approach writing a short story than you would, writing a full-length novel?
Michel Faber: Well, there’s two aspects. There’s the public’s relationship with stories and the writer’s relationship with stories…. I think that, in order for short stories to be revived, it’s really up to the reader. Often publishers are blamed or bookstores are blamed but ultimately, people vote with their feet or whatever part of them is engaging with books. And I think if more people signalled that they really want to read short stories, then there would be more of them. In terms of my relationship with writing them, I’ve never worried about the length of a thing when I approach it. I listen to the narrative to see what it wants to be and sometimes that’s just one page and that’s then optimal for that piece of fiction and sometimes it’s five thousand words. And sometimes fifty and sometimes five hundred thousand words… [It] then gets tricky when you interact with the world because, for example, short story prizes… will have an upper ceiling of two thousand five hundred, three thousand words…. If you write a short story that’s six thousand five hundred words, there’s nothing you can do with it. You can’t submit it to short story prizes – it’s too long. You can’t send it to magazines because they’ll all say it’s too long; it can’t be published as a stand-alone book because it’s too short. For me that’s not a creative problem, that’s a marketing problem; but what it means of course, is that there’s a lot of people out there whose ideal form might be the six thousand five hundred word piece of fiction. And those people are not writing that: they are either writing something that’s shorter than they really need to be writing, in order to truly show you what they can do, or they’re pumping air into it like just gas expanded into something that can be sold as a novel. And there’s an awful lot of padded novels out there. I know that they could lose two hundred pages easily. But then they’d be too short for marketing purposes. So I think that’s a problem that as a culture I hope we can address one day. It’s really not an ideal situation we’re in….
Religion and sexual politics
AH: The Book of Strange New Things…is a really beautiful novel but it perhaps deals with issues of love and faith in a much more direct way than some of your previous work. Do you think that’s a fair comment?
Michel Faber: Yes… In The Crimson Petal and The White, you’ve got two characters who are very sincere, committed Christians, Henry and Emmeline, but they are subsidiary characters. Most of that book is about sexual politics, really. It’s driven by a very feminist motor. In The Hundred and Ninety-Nine Steps, it’s partly set in a monastery but it is very much about something else. I’m addressing issues of faith in The Fire Gospel but that’s partly a satire of the publishing industry and the religious element of that is like a sub-plot almost. Whereas … [The Crimson Petal] is very squarely dealing with what religious faith does for people, what the lack of God means. So, yes, I think it’s a fair comment that it’s more direct.
AH: So I was going to go on to ask you about sexual [politics] and relationship[s]… generally in your work, it’s presented in some ways in quite sort of unhealthy ways. But in this, Peter and Bea, their relationship, it seems much, much more stronger, much, much more hopeful in a lot of ways. Even though there are these intellectual differences that mark their relationship at times; there’s obviously a huge sort of geographical gap between where they are that puts a certain amount of strain upon the relationship (as it would for anyone). But, was it very important for you, thinking of this novel as a novel that is really about saying good-bye to a lot of things, as representing this very hopeful, strong relationship.
Michel Faber: Yes. I mean even before Eva was diagnosed, I had already been become… uneasy about how many of my stories… seemed to be presenting a view of sexual relationships that was quite cynical… [and] sorrowful… I felt I was in danger of becoming an author [for whom]… sexual relationships [in fiction] are just doomed. Whereas, you know, I had had this twenty-six year marriage with Eva… and we had enormous respect for each other. So I thought it was time that a novel of mine paid homage to the possibility that people could have that sort of relationship. So even before she got ill that was very much the plan for this book…. But then of course it became charged in a different way when it was clear that we were going to lose each other.
Transience, science fiction and a planetary consciousness
AH: That’s a really strong aspect of the novel. I really liked it. But going back to what we talked about initially, about ideas of your emigration informing your writing. Once again, there’s sort of the issue of lives that are lived in a sort of transient space going on here. Even the section that you read out earlier with the sort of airport stuff and the really nice observations about the Prayer Room and even driving on the way to the airport, you’ve got another hitch-hike standing at the side of the road which I thought almost signals back to Under The Skin… Is that something that’s really fascinated you, the sort of transient aspect of living?
Michel Faber: I think I have different agendas for each book but in this book, without wanting to give too much away about it, one of the things that grieves me is that we have tended to treat this planet as if it is a transient stopping off place that we can trash on our way somewhere else. And, of course, there’s a whole tradition, particularly in science fiction… that space is our future. We were born to go. We’re going to migrate to the next place. A). I don’t think it’s going to happen and B). I think that if it were to happen, we wouldn’t be able to cope. I think we need to think very carefully about how we can remain here and live out our time here rather than assuming that we can just trash the earth and go somewhere else. The personnel who are living on this alien planet are… transients themselves – they’re emotional, intellectual transients – and that, when you get to know them better, is actually quite scary. Because it’s a very special kind of person that can live with that kind of rootlessness.
AH: One of the most intriguing aspects of the novel for me anyway, as an English student, is the playful use of language… do you have a Tolkeinesque English that you made up?
Michel Faber: No… I don’t know what they’re saying to each other; I don’t know what it means. I want the reader to want to know what it means but not to be able to. I want that frustration.
AH: No, it’s a really nice playing about, almost like you see partial words, and they’re sort of scribbled out particular letters. I think it’s a really effective way of doing it. Maybe this is me placing too much emphasis on certain elements but there seems to be a somewhat conscious allusion to perhaps Heart of Darkness or a sort of wider Conrad influence on the novel – not only in terms of the sort of colonisation of “the other”, as it were, but there was the disappearance of the previous missionary who’s called Kurtzberg so was that something that you were.
Michel Faber: Absolutely. I mean I’ve read Heart of Darkness. Usually I read just one book by each author…. In his case, I read two. Heart of Darkness and The Secret Agent, so I must have liked him…. Heart of Darkness is in there and, of course, Apocalypse Now, Francis Ford Coppola’s adaptation of Heart of Darkness in a Vietnam context is in there. And that’s what that “Kurtz”, “Kurtzberg” thing is alluding to. But it also alludes to Jacob Kurtzberg. Jacob Kurtzberg was the true Jewish name of the man who re-named himself Jack Kirby and produced all those amazing Marvel comics in the 1960s, and basically made up everything that you’ve been seeing on Hollywood screens for the past ten years or something but didn’t get any money out of it.
AH: So it’s almost like a sort of double nod in two different directions that relate to some really influential people that you looked to.
Michel Faber: For me, I think that a good novel – you should be able to zip along the surface of it and be turning the pages, curious to know what happens next and then it should also have lots of layers, which, if you’re inclined to re-read it or you’re inclined to find out more about it, you can dig. And there’ll be more to find. But it shouldn’t get in the way while you’re reading it, you know, on the surface. That’s what I’ve tried to achieve with all the books, and equally so with this one.
AH: … The landscape of Oasis is very, very barren, especially in the sort of contrast, with Beatrice’s narrative of the natural disasters that are happening on earth. Is there an overt environmentalism going on in there?
Michel Faber: Well, there again, I’m not a scientist. I don’t know what’s going to happen in terms of climate change. The book is not predictive in that sense but I’m using climate change and natural disaster as a metaphorical wake-up call for people to cherish what it is that we have, while we’ve got it. That’s not just in the case of the planet, cherishing the planet more before we possibly lose it, but also cherishing our own bodies because they are very miraculous things too. And I think we have too little appreciation for the bodies that we’ve been given by nature or God or whatever has given that form to us. It’s pretty extraordinary that we have it and, yeah, we should treat it better, I think.
AH: … But finally, because I am sort of conscious that time’s getting on, your work has been adapted several times – there are several adaptations now of your work out there that are creeping into the public consciousness more and more perhaps…. And already The Book of Strange New Things has been adapted into a set of fifteen radio segments for BBC Radio 4.
Michel Faber: Yes, and it’s going to be a TV series, I’m told… I’ve been very pleased with the adaptations, so far. I’ve been very, very lucky. If you’ve studied the history of adaptations of books, the usual thing is for the author to be bitterly disappointed. So, yeah, it was a very, very strong TV series, amazing film Jonathan Glazer made. There was also a delightful stage adaptation of The Fahrenheit Twins…. I think I’ve been very, very fortunate and maybe part of the reason why I’ve been fortunate in that area is that I’ve totally left them to it. I haven’t got involved. I haven’t tried to write the scripts. I haven’t meddled in the process at all. I’ve just let them do what it is that they do. And gone to the cinema when it’s ready or watched the DVD on my computer in the case of The Crimson Petal because I don’t have a TV. And I’ve been delighted each time.
… the history of literature since the invention of cinema has been a history of bitter disappointment and writers never seem to learn from the humiliations of previous writers. They all think it’s not going to happen to them and I guess I just felt it probably would happen to me if I got involved so just stepped back.
AH: Yes, I have watched the TV series. I’ve also seen the film and I think that they are very good. even though (especially the films) they are more loosely adapted perhaps than the TV series. But Michel it’s been a pleasure. So one again, thank you very much for your time. All the best for the coming event this afternoon at the Festival, and for wherever your work takes you next. Thanks.
Michel Faber: Thank you.