share


Interview with Michel Faber

MICHEL FABER’S RANGE OF SUBJECTS – from child abuse to drug abuse, from avant-garde music to leaking houses – is as wide as his gamut of characters: be they Scottish kids, Victorian prostitutes or creatures from other planets, they each speak in an unmistakable, fine-tuned voice. His first collection of short stories, Some Rain Must Fall, published in 1998, was followed two years later by Under the Skin, a novel made into a film in 2013. The Crimson Petal and the White, over 800 pages long, became a bestseller soon after it was published in 2002. In the run-up to the book’s publication his publisher, Canongate, suggested he apply for British citizenship so it could be eligible for the Booker Prize. An opponent of the imminent war in Iraq, he refused.

 

Faber’s other books include The Fahrenheit Twins, a 2005 short story collection, as well as his latest – and, he claims, last – novel, The Book of Strange New Things. In it, a Christian minister called Peter is sent to the planet Oasis to preach to its natives. The project is run by USIC, a big corporation whose purposes remain unclear till the end. Peter’s beloved wife Bea, not allowed to follow him, stays on the troubled Earth; their correspondence interweaves with a third-person narrative describing Peter’s mission and his earlier life. Like all Faber’s books, this one is dedicated to his wife Eva Youren, who died shortly before it came out, in 2014.

 

Faber was born in Holland in 1960, brought to Australia as a child and has lived in Scotland since 1993. We met in London, where he was on the occasion of his book tour last October; our conversation took place in a flat not far away from Chepstow Villas, one of the settings of The Crimson Petal and the White. Faber had to call me earlier that day to confirm our meeting as he had no means of checking his emails while on the road. When I arrived he showed me his basic mobile phone and said that he’d only used it a couple of dozen times in his entire life. He didn’t have a laptop, and I offered him mine as he still needed to check his emails, but there was no wi-fi connection in the flat, so we proceeded with our interview.

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— One of the characters in The Book of Strange New Things, Peter’s predecessor, the first man ever to preach to the Oasans, is called Kurtzberg. In the acknowledgements you say it’s a nod to ’that pioneer of new universes’, the American comic artist Jack Kirby. Could this character also be read as a reference to Mistah Kurtz?

A

MICHEL FABER

— Of course Kurtz is in there too – in both his Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now incarnations. All my books are multi-layered, but I try not to load them up with the metatextual signposts that call attention to their multi-layeredness.

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— Peter eventually starts preaching to the Oasans in their own language. I tried to decode your Oasan passages, but failed. Could you read some of them for me?

A

MICHEL FABER

— No, I don’t have a glossary, I have no idea what he’s saying to them or what they’re saying to him. And I can’t read it – I have a larynx and a tongue and vocal cords; the Oasans don’t. I’ve been working with the avant-garde musician Andrew Liles, who is these days basically half of the group called Nurse With Wound. He offered to organise some technology for me, whereby I could do readings from The Book of Strange New Things and whenever I had to do an Oasan voice I would press a foot pedal, and my voice would be distorted in a particular way. But the distortion pedal just didn’t sound right. The problem has now been solved, sort of, by default. I’d hoped that technology could come to my rescue but in the end, I was asked by radio interviewers to read out particular sections of the book and I was obliged to do it with my voice alone. I pronounce these ‘unpronounceable’ letters in a strangled manner, trying to keep my tongue immobile. It sounds nothing like an Oasan, but it sounds tortured, which I suppose is better than nothing.

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— One of the questions you’re supposed to ask a writer in an interview like this is about the way they physically write. I feel it’s especially apt in your case – I don’t even know how you produced that Oasan script.
A

MICHEL FABER

— In my original type-script on the computer the Oasan characters are from the Thai alphabet. In the final copy you’ve got here they are specifically designed by Canongate. I’m 54 now, I started writing in the days before computers and didn’t have a typewriter, so my manuscripts show a very characteristic twentieth-century progression: I handwrote The Crimson Petal on foolscap paper, which isn’t manufactured anymore, I wrote it with a ball-point pen in a very tiny handwriting, and because I was unaware that Tipp-Ex had been invented I would use white house paint to make the deletions, which would mean I would have to wait 45 minutes for the house paint to dry, and I would touch it with my finger to see if it was dry yet, and so on. Then as soon as computers were invented I used computers. I now compose entirely on computers, so there’s no such thing as a draft anymore because I’m constantly revising as I write.

 

We should probably talk in the past tense now. The way I used to work is that I would write a chapter and I would print it out for Eva, my wife, and she would read it and she would give me feedback, and we would discuss it in great detail for hours or days. And then I would go back and see which of her suggestions I could draft into the next version, and then I would print it out again and show it to her, and so on. But now that she is dead, that’s not going to happen anymore. Also, I believe that this is my last novel. So…

 



ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR


Anna Aslanyan is a journalist and translator. She writes for a number of publications - including 3:AM Magazine, the TLS, the Independent and the LRB blog - mainly about literature and arts. Her translations from Russian include Post-post Soviet? Art, Politics and Society in Russia at the Turn of the Decade, a collection of essays focused on Russia's contemporary art scene.


READ NEXT

Features

Issue No. 20

Editorial

Features

Issue No. 15

A Weekend With My Own Death

Poetry

December 2016

Three Poems