by Hope Whitmore
Michel Faber is currently on tour to talk about his new book, The Book of Strange New Things, an apocalyptic novel of love, loss, and the end of the world. As he was writing it, his wife Eva, who died this past July, was diagnosed with terminal cancer. His grief remains clear, but so is his kindness — which comes across both in his novels and in his desire to put my friend Jonathan, who’d tagged along, and I at ease. We talked for a while about life, death, and Jonathan Glazer’s recent adaption of his novel Under the Skin into a tight, strange little film, among other things, like Gone Girl.
There’s something apocalyptic in your writing — the old guy at the bottom of the stairs in Crimson Petal and the apocalyptic stuff in The Book of Strange New Things.
You seem nervous. Are you all right? Don’t worry, I’m all right.
Thank you. So, the apocalyptic zeitgeist, is that something you’re kind of picking up on?
I’m not a soothsayer or a prophet. I have no idea what lies in the future, so I don’t know how concerned or otherwise we should be about global warming — I mean, obviously we should be concerned, but I don’t know how much is truly caused by humans; I’m not a scientist. So the apocalyptic elements in The Book of Strange New Things, they’re not so much because I’m interested in end times, but because I see them as almost symbolic of a wake-up call to individuals. The book’s purpose — if it could be reduced to just one purpose — is to make us cherish life more, the life that we’re given, these extraordinary bodies that we inhabit, and this amazing planet that we’ve been given to live on.
Does it fit in with your own religious beliefs? Like are you a religious believer or a humanist? What would you say you like identify with?
At this point, I would have to say I’m an atheist. I’ve made changes as the years have gone by. As Shakespeare says, that there are more things on heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy, but I’m not able to have faith in any kind of deity or guiding spirit. I’m interested in writing about people who do have that faith and I want to write about them sympathetically or empathetically, without mocking or denigrating them.
I had a religious upbringing — I was a Baptist when I was a kid — and my wife was a Jehovah’s Witness, so we both had that religious grounding, but we both left our faith and lived our adult lives as atheists. My wife, in particular, lived what I’d say was a wonderfully Christian life. She was one of the most inspiring Christians I ever knew, even though she stopped believed in Christianity any more.
She sounds like a lovely person.
She was, I was very privileged to be her partner for twenty-six years.
I’m sorry that she died. I’m really sorry.
Yeah, she had a very horrible and humiliating death, from incurable cancer. But I hope that she lives on in my behavior. At this point of my life, I don’t believe that she lives on in any specific spiritual form, and I don’t think her spirit is here with us in this room right now; she’s a canister of ash. But she had an enormous influence on me and she treated people very kindly and I really want to make sure that in the rest of my life I behave in a way that she would have liked to think that I could behave. Have you lost anyone whose very dear to you?
Erm, yeah, my brother died of a brain tumor when I was still quite young. He was older than me. I was nineteen — no, I’d just turned twenty. Cancer of the central nervous system. But he had it for like, twelve years and survived.
Jonathan: Yeah there was Lindsay, a friend who died in a car accident, I was nineteen.
This Lindsay who died in a car accident, the kind of grief there, is because when a dear friend of yours dies in a car accident, you remember them exactly as they were. It’s a particular kind of pain because you just cannot believe they’re gone — you spoke to them yesterday. How is it possible? How can they be gone when they were just talking to me yesterday? But you don’t have the pain of seeing someone deteriorate, day after day.
My mother’s friend, her daughter was killed in a car accident. She was talking about it and wondered if it was almost better if she’d had cancer because it was so sudden…
It’s a lose lose situation, and if her daughter had the opportunity to choose, she would have said it was so much better to be killed in a car accident.
It’s just what her mother was saying — she was upset at the time and I don’t think she meant it perhaps. But yes, grief and missing someone and that sense of wanting to reconnect with them, that’s a very big theme in The Book of Strange New Things.
It wasn’t planned that way. When I was hatching the book, I didn’t know that Eva was going to be diagnosed with cancer, but it certainly ending up being suffused with the anticipation of loss. The book’s about many other kinds of loss as well. It’s the book of loss to end all books of loss, but I tried not to make it an incredibly feel-bad book. I tried to make sure that it would be worth the journey and that you wouldn’t feel that you’d just been taken to a dark hole and dumped in it. Anyway, how did you feel about it?
It was very human, I liked the main guy. I thought he was flawed, almost naïve. It wasn’t like an affected naivety, but he made a choice. The idea you can choose that kind of naivety — maybe I’m not using the right word — but that you can choose to run on that trusting nature…
Well, the trust thing is interesting. When I was hitchhiking years and years ago, trying to get back to Scotland and I got stuck in Wales, it was late at night, about quarter to eleven, and I thought I was going to have to sleep under a tree or something. A car pulled up, and it was a woman. She took me into the car, and it was a tiny woman, a little bird-like woman — much more delicate than you are — with tiny wrists. She didn’t know me at all. I’m a six-foot-one guy, and I was totally laden with my anorak or whatever. We talked for about half an hour. I waited until she was relaxed enough in my company for her not to be freaked out by me asking this question, then I said to her: “Look, you don’t know me at all, you chose to pick me up late at night in the middle of nowhere. I’m a big guy and you’re a very small woman. I could have done anything to you, why do you do that?”
She said, “I don’t want to live in a world where I’m scared of people, so I decided that I could trust the world — that I could trust human beings — and that’s the principle on which I’m living my life.” I really, really hope that that hasn’t let her down.
I hope that worked out for her, because I’m not that trusting. I ran away from away from a guy in the street in who asked me directions at three o’ clock in the morning when there was nobody else about. I probably should have stayed and given his directions. Afterward, I thought, “What if he’s still out there and he’s still lost?”
Well, you know, he could be still out there and still lost. Or someone could have taken pity on him and given him directions. Or the next woman he asked for directions, he could have raped. But each of those scenarios — there’s an attitude you bring to it — an anticipatory attitude to that person, and Peter made that decision not to be cynical.
It must be nice, to just take people at face value, like the Oasans in the book. They’re just so simple — not simple, they have this very straightforward attitude. They just say how things are.
At the time I was hatching the book, I was very wearied by all the hidden agendas and neuroses of human beings. I think that one of the reasons I made up the Oasans was that it was like a fantasy of being able to hang out with people who were totally benign and totally un-ego-driven.
It’s good, but it’s kind of — it’s what makes humans what they are.
Of course it is. The Oasans, on another level though they are a bit like sheep, or bees in a hive. Human beings are wonderfully various and distinctive and memorable and a lot of what makes them that way is their dysfunctions and their neuroses; you can’t have one without the other.
I wanted to ask about the theme of alienation, in this, The Crimson Petal, and The White and Under the Skin.
The reader is an alien as well because at the very beginning of the book I warn the reader that you are an alien from another time and place altogether.
Well, I was a grossly alienated young person. I was had a very weird family upbringing and really didn’t have much in common with my peer group. The only friends I had were other very alienated people.
A lot of people who see themselves as alienated join a club of other people who are alienated in that way. They become punks or whatnot, and they all hang out together and share an anti-other people agenda. I was so alienated that there was no way I could join anything, or consider myself a part of anything. I didn’t get involved in drugs or drinking or things like that, because they seemed like conformist activities — things that other people were trying to be badly behaved in certain predictable ways. So I really was a fringe dweller and I wrote for many, many years — twenty-five years or something — without submitting my stuff. I just wrote it for myself and put it away.
When I got together with Eva, my wife, she was the one who inspired me to share it, to put it out there in the world. As a result of knowing her, I became a lot more connected with other people.
When I started The Crimson Petal and the White I was about eighteen, so I was the age of Sugar, and I carried that anger that she had. I finished it when I was in my thirties, so by that stage, I’d had that maturing as well, so that’s an interesting book, in that it’s got dual elements in it — the character has this emotional journey she has to go on very fast.
I get quite interested in whether someone who’s damaged and alienated and scarred and embittered can get better — whether they can learn how to love other people, learn how to be a human, if you like. It’s easy to write books describing alienation; you can wallow in it, and it ends with some huge alienation tragedy where the person gets killed or kills other people. What I’m interested in is how much room there is for connecting with other human beings, and when I do that in my fiction, it’s not cheesy or sentimental or false. I want the books to be true, deeply and naturally true, and yet to transcend in some way — not the sort of artificial halo transcendence that’s imposed on other writing.
You write also about lost connections. William and Sugar have this almost-connection but they don’t because he just can’t get over his — they almost have a proper relationship that moves past master and prostitute.
Yes, that is deliberate — the almostness of it — and in the first version of the novel that I showed Eva, William was actually more of a shit. Eva said, “You’ve got to make him more…not lovable exactly, but you’ve got to suggest his potential for being compassionate or” — what is the word I’m looking for?
She said that if you make him more sympathetic then the reader will imagine that he’s more capable of making that sort of change, and then when he lets her down, it’s worse. It has more impact. It’s like, “We expected more of you; we thought you could do it. You’re almost there and yet you didn’t have what it took to take that extra step.” That was really why it was like that.
It was clear that he wanted to but couldn’t. I found that sad. In Under the Skin — I’ve forgotten the guy’s name — but Isserley and the son of the Amlyss Vess…
It was an almost-connection. You’re right. She’s so damaged, and again, you know, in that book I’m using physical symbols to literally embody psychological or emotional truth; she is physically scarred and damaged because of the surgery that’s been done to her, and he is undamaged because he’s in the animal form that Isserly should be in too. That’s the big, unreachable boundary between them, because she’s been taken somewhere where he doesn’t have to go; he’s privileged in the sense in that he’s undamaged.
But in The Book of Strange New Things, I wanted to show a relationship where it wasn’t almost — where it was for real, where they can have genuine intimacy and, with no doubt or cynicism about that, they are two people who love each other and who have made that love work. That’s partly because in my other work I’ve had these almosts and the almostness has tragic potential. But, even though there is tragedy in this book, I didn’t want to be too negative about the love of those two people. It’s difficult without spoilers obviously — I don’t want to talk about what happens to Peter and Bea — but their love is shown to be tested and there is a very big distance between them, but they do love each other very much, and their love is genuine. I don’t know what you think happens after the last page of the book, but I think he goes back. I don’t know if he finds her. I hope he finds her.
Why is there this sort of division between genre fiction and literary fiction? Why do you think this is?
It’s not a distinction that existed once upon a time. If you are Charles Dickens, who are you writing for? Are you writing for curious readers or are you writing entertainment for the masses? The question wouldn’t make very much sense to him, as he was trying to write the best story he could. Since then, an artificial divide has sprung up between genre fiction, which people write in order to get pleasure — and which people dismiss as just a cheap thrill — and literary fiction, which is like eating a macrobiotic meal. It’s supposed to do you good, but it’s not necessarily going to give you any thrills because it is very, very chewy and dry. I want to write books that are thrilling and take people to other places emotionally or even physically. I want them to feel that they’ve gone on quite a ride, and I’m happy to use all the techniques and ingredients of the people who write science fiction, of the people who write gothic fiction, romance, historical novels, or whatever. I don’t think that’s incompatible with writing something deep and that’s going to stay with people after they’ve finished reading.
I don’t want to be bored as a reader. I read some of these very well-regarded literary books that have won literary prizes and I find them dull. One of the criticisms that people have about genre fiction is how forgettable it is — you read one, and then two months later you come to it again, because you can’t remember what you have and haven’t read. But sometimes you’ll see a highly praised literary book and it will say on the back, “unforgettable,” “life changing,” whatever, and I really want to grab hold of the reader or the critic or whoever said that five years later and say, “OK, tell me what you remember about this book, how unforgettable has it proved to be? And tell me exactly how it changed your life? How are you fundamentally different now as a result of reading this book?” Sorry I’m going on at length.
No, no, it’s interesting. [I mentioned that I’m reading Gone Girl, a novel that some people (who haven’t read it) have called “trashy.”]
I’ve not read that. I don’t really read much fiction of any kind now; I mainly listen to music. When I was younger I read everything. I had a friend at school who I think was probably gay but not admitting it yet, and her specialty was sublimated lesbian-style fiction. There’s lots of it out there, you know, and anything that had print on it I would read. Having done that for a number of years, I’ve now stopped reading much any kind have been concentrating on writing books and on just playing music, of which I have a massive collection.
It’s really varied what I like listening to — it’s pretty much everything which doesn’t have much chance of getting played in the radio. I really like electronic music. My favorite kind of music is probably what you would call rock. I like Caravan, Coil — it’s very sad that they’re both dead now. In fact, Peter Christopherson, who was leader of Coil, contributed a song to a CD which I made for my wife for what we believed would be her last birthday. I contacted all these musicians whose work she loved. The last track on the album, which was also the track that played at Eva’s funeral as the coffin was being conveyed into the flames, was a piece by an Italian musician called Franco Battiato. I don’t know if you’ve heard of him; he’s one of the major people who does Italian pop rock, and classical music. He’s done everything. He’s really old, but he started in the late sixties and had an absolutely marvelous career but is almost unheard of in this country.
It’s really difficult when you’re buying music magazines and journalists are shuffling the same hundred albums. It changes very slightly in that token albums from the past fifty years trickle in there, but it often comes down to people trying to decide whether this year it’s going to be the Beatles, Revolver or Red Velvet, and there’s such a world of music out there that people haven’t discovered. A lot of it is inspirational and stuff, and I wish that, especially in the internet age where we have access to so much, people were more curious about what’s out there.
Please, can I ask you what you thought of the adaptations of The Crimson Petal and The White and Under the Skin?
I was delighted. I never wanted my books to be adapted faithfully. My biggest fear was that there would be a faithful but mediocre or bad version of one of my books. What I wanted was for my books to spark off something extraordinary in a different medium. I liked the series of The Crimson Petal and also the Jonathan Glazer film of Under The Skin. It does some things that the book doesn’t do, like at the very end where that horrible horrible forestry worker or whatever he is literally rips her skin off. For me, that’s saying something quite fundamental about rape, the violence of it and the exposing of someone inside — the book isn’t about that, it’s about something else. And I thought she was extraordinary. Because I’m not much of a movie goer, I’d only seen her in Lost in Translation. She was sweet in that, but she was playing a very sweet person, so I thought, maybe they’ve chosen an actress who was appropriate for playing someone sweet and I wasn’t sure she was up to the challenges of a role like Under the Skin, but she absolutely was.
She got that balance of the scariness and the literal alienness — but also the naivety, particularly at the end where people are tracking her down, and she’s like a little animal that’s under attack.
That evening Jonny and I attended an event in an old church hall, where Faber talked with Stuart Kelly, a literary journalist, about his work. Faber said that he will not write any more novels; he wanted all his works to be so different to one another as to be unrecognizable as works by the same author. Also, he explained, Eva had always been there in the writing process, reading the books with him as he wrote them, and without her it wouldn’t be the same. He will, however, write short stories, revisiting the characters from his novels at points in their past and future.
At the end of the talk, he read two poems he wrote in the wake of Eva’s death, one about the flat they bought together before she became ill — a flat which eventually she couldn’t reach, since the stairs proved too difficult. As he stepped off stage, I wanted to say something, but the words don’t appear. He touched my hand, then walked away to the table where he signed books.
Hope Whitmore is a young writer who currently wanders between London, Edinburgh and Carcassonne.