Michel Faber was born in The Hague in 1960, the only child to parents who each had children from previous marriages. In 1967 the Fabers relocated to Melbourne, mother and father spurred on by painful memories of the Second World War and a wish to divest responsibility for their elder children; in Australia they sought ‘tabula rasa’, the now fifty-four-year-old Michel puts it. While he has a warm relationship with his half-brother, he has never met his half-sisters.
This was not the only chapter of his personal history that Faber discussed at an event at the Wheeler Centre in early March 2015. Talking with Ramona Koval, he was frank and unguarded in disclosing the sorrow that has consumed him following the death of his second wife and companion of twenty-six years, Eva Youren, who succumbed to a rare form of plasma cell cancer in July 2014. The pair met in 1988, when Faber returned to Melbourne after training as a nurse in Sydney hospitals. He found a ‘room-to-let’ listing tacked to the window of Readings Books in Carlton; it was sufficiently cheap, he says, ‘because the floorboards had rotted through and there were fungi on the walls’. Youren, a tenant of that dilapidated residence, interviewed him for the room. Five years later they moved to Scotland together. They married in 2004.
Central to Faber’s new novel The Book of Strange New Things – his fourth, after the alien thriller Under the Skin, the Victorian brio of his voluminous bestseller The Crimson Petal and the White, and the trim farce The Fire Gospel (he has also published two novellas and three story collections) – is a loving marriage under threat. Peter Leigh is a Christian minister who is recruited by USIC, a nebulously defined corporate power that is establishing a base on a distant, habitable planet named Oasis, after the indigenous population request the presence of a pastor to teach them ‘the method of Jesus’. (One senses the Oasans’ interest in this has been inspired by Faber’s 2004 involvement with Médecins Sans Frontières and their ‘Authors on the Frontline’ project, which saw him reporting on the HIV/AIDS epidemic still rampant today, a full decade on, in Ukraine.) Bea, Peter’s wife and evangelical partner, does not meet USIC’s inscrutable criteria. Soon, entire galaxies separate them.
When we meet to talk in a noisy Brunswick café, Faber is kind, good-humoured and a little run-down. ‘Can’t you ask to be reimbursed by telling your editors that Michel Faber instantly demanded $50 worth of cocaine?’ he jokes when I admit to having left that very sum unclaimed in an ATM following an intended withdrawal en route to the interview. He measures his responses to my questions and hardly wastes a word, his speech echoing the elegant efficiency of his prose. Yet his answers seldom seem the product of rote.
KYD: Let’s begin with an ending: you’ve said this will be your final novel. Might grief have influenced this decision?
MF: The death of Eva confirmed the appropriateness of this being my last book. But when I was writing The Fire Gospel, when Eva was still well, I knew that it would be my second last. I talked about this being my last book with Eva, and she was very unhappy with that. She wanted me to continue writing novels. Bless her heart, she felt that the literary landscape needed more books by me. I don’t think it does. The body of work that I’ve produced is very diverse and the books are genuinely different from each other. I really feel that if I produced more novels, I would start repeating myself. That’s something I always promised myself I would not do.
KYD: Do you think that’s a danger inherent to being a vocational novelist?
MF: Being a novelist was never a career path for me. I wrote for about twenty-five years without submitting manuscripts. I just wrote them and put them in a bottom drawer. I covered my rent and food with nursing. That was the ideal job for me, because you could pick your hours. I would work only so much as to pay for my rent and food. The rest of the time I had off, to write and listen to music. For many, many years I was living very close to the breadline. So the whole idea of paying a typist a dollar fifty per page to type up a manuscript that would be very unlikely to be accepted just didn’t make sense to me. Because for a dollar fifty I could go to the record store and buy an LP. All these handwritten books just kept accumulating and being put in the bottom drawer. I never had fantasies of being a ‘literary star’. I saw myself nursing to keep things ticking over and producing this work. It was only when I met Eva and we started having this discussion about whether books are truly books if people aren’t reading them that my work ended up out there.
KYD: What was the motivation to write in those days, if not to be published?
MF: For me, writing was equivalent to when people make music, or sculpt, or paint. It’s the attraction of making a fine thing, and looking at the thing that you’ve made and realising it’s good. I know that sounds like God looking at the created universe. But there is something in that.
KYD: This provides a good segue into The Book of Strange New Things. One thing which struck me about the book is the extent to which Peter embodies my own ideal of what a Christian should be. He’s referred to as a ‘people person’ at one point, in that he genuinely wants to ease people’s passage through life, to foster compassion and empathy, and the character who calls him this points out how unusual this actually is. Like yourself, if pressed, I’d identify as an atheist. And I’m certainly averse to proselytising, religious or otherwise. However, despite my antipathy toward Peter’s primary objective – to convert the indigenous of Oasis to Christianity – time and again I found myself thinking, ‘If only more religious leaders were like him.’
MF: Certainly the community on Oasis would not be able to accommodate a zealot, because a zealot would cause friction, and friction is precisely what they want to avoid. It’s such a chilled-out, lotus-eaters kind of environment. And they want to maintain that. So from a narrative point of view, Peter’s lack of zealotry makes sense. It is a very attractive version of the Christian that Peter embodies. It was important to me that he be attractive, because you’re in his company an awfully long time. You go on the journey with him, and he is very much your eye. I felt that trapping the reader inside a narrow-minded or an unattractively obsessed person would be asking too much. Because I already ask a lot of the reader, to travel this distance physically and philosophically. The book is challenging enough in the intensity of its sadness without making the reader suffer a tiresome protagonist.
KYD: Between your The Fire Gospel and now this novel, it’s clear that you’ve read the Bible very closely – especially the New Testament. Christianity obviously serves an important plot function in each. But is there a deeper attraction that keeps you returning to Christianity, and the figure of Jesus in particular?
MF: Christianity is integral to The Crimson Petal, too. The only novel of mine that it’s wholly absent from is Under the Skin since Isserley, its protagonist, has no interest in it. This suggests that I am not helplessly driven to put it in where it doesn’t belong, but that I do find it very compelling subject matter. Why? I don’t know. I mean, I can justify it thematically and argue its importance to our times, but I don’t truly understand why it fascinates me so.
KYD: Are Peter’s speculations about Jesus’ thoughts on sex and pleasure as suggested in the New Testament based purely on your own readings of the Gospels?
MF: I’ve known a few Christians who were comfortable with each other sexually, so I’m confident that Peter and Bea are not outlandish fabrications. But the main reason I made this couple sexually intimate was that, again, I wanted the reader to like them.
KYD: How crucial was Peter’s status as a reformed addict in the drafting of the book? You build the impression that Oasis is peopled by individuals who’ve risen from the skids. Yet contrary to what might be expected among such a motley lot, equanimity prevails – almost eerily.
MF: They’ve all reached the stage where whatever it is that they’ve passed through on their way there, none of it matters anymore. That is tremendously restful, but also kind of creepy. Because in some sense they are no longer human. Peter’s alcoholism performs a narrative function in that this is really a book about good people – benign people who are just doing their best. There’s no evil. The function of evil in novels is usually to make them exciting, because bad behaviour provides thrills. In modern culture, we’re seeing so many narratives based around gangsters and serial killers. That’s an easy way to keep people turning pages. I wanted my book to be a page turner. Yet it is about good people. So I had to find ways – some of them red herrings – to keep the reader engaged. So there’s this tension: will Peter start drinking again? Will he fall off the wagon? The temptations are so great on Oasis. Also, even though I myself haven’t been a drinker or a drug abuser, I do feel my wife Eva rescued me from a much darker plane of existence. In the book, I embody that through Bea’s converting Peter to Christianity.
KYD: Peter talks about addicts’ unease with praise: they feel it creates an impossible standard for them to live up to. This is very astute. How did you earn your insight into the psychology of addiction? Were your days as a nurse inspirational here?
MF: I didn’t work with addicts directly. I did psychogeriatric nursing: people who were frail and old and couldn’t take care of themselves, but who also had severe mental problems. To be brutally honest, I think the understanding of that which you’ve perceived in the book is more to do with my own insights into being a depressed person myself – someone who has at times suffered from anxiety disorders, and a far from ideal relationship with the universe.
KYD: That’s why this struck a chord with me: I’m a depressive myself.
MF: How old are you?
MF: Depression is fantastically boring. I wonder if this is something that has helped you? It can happen if you’re a depressed person that you reach a point where you’ve been through it so many times that you think, ‘Actually, can we just skip it this time? Because I know that there is a day after this. I know that despite my system telling me that this is a complete crisis and the universe has to end, it’s not going to. So why not skip the depressive episode and go on to the next day?’ Have you been able to get in touch with that?
KYD: That’s only become a possibility for me in the past twelve months. But that realisation is galvanising. I think a major part of chronic depression is the burden of an amorphous shame or guilt that becomes stultifying. It crushes you. For a very large part of my life, I found it impossible to take compliments, like Peter did when he was an alcoholic. Because if you’re genuinely depressed, they feel dehumanising: they seem like a means of denying you the full gamut of a human personality. It’s like the very kind person who’s paying you them is in fact employing them as a measure to keep you in check. A friend says to you, ‘You’re such a good person,’ and you construe it as a loaded compliment. As if what they’re really saying is, ‘This is the role I’ve assigned you and you’d better not do anything to challenge that or else.’
MF: This book is so tender and tolerant and compassionate. I would hope that it somehow penetrates this tragically counter-productive response to kind words that so many of us have – not just depressed people, but people in general – of ‘Okay, I’m putting on a good front here. But if you only knew how worthless I am. If people could only glimpse the true shitness of my soul, they would feel utter contempt for me. I must maintain this front.’
KYD: You explore that explicitly with Henry in The Crimson Petal and the White. And something Peter shares with that character is the way that so-called ‘perfect Christian conduct’ becomes increasingly impossible for him to uphold, in thought especially. He begins having malicious thoughts about the pathologically benign humans who occupy the USIC base. At one point you write, ‘He must cling to sincerity. It was all he had left.’ But it’s a false sincerity; he might not be sexually celibate, but he’s neutered himself emotionally and in thought. He has, in effect, swapped one behaviour-modifying addiction for another.
MF: One of the other ‘page-turning hooks’ in the book, if you like, is the nagging insinuation that he might after all be some sort of psychopath – that he might be manipulating people with a very charming and sincere exterior. Did you at any point wonder about that?
KYD: Of course. Despite Peter’s forthrightness throughout in disclosing the depths of manipulation and self-abasement which he’s sunk to at various points in his life, if you have a reformed addict as your protagonist, he becomes the walking embodiment of Chekhov’s gun in the first act. You’re waiting for one of two things: either his spectacular lapse back into alcoholism, or for the suspicion which you mention to be proven correct.
MF: Oh, good!
KYD: We’ve touched on the vast sadness that permeates this book. You write very precise, elegant prose. Yet there are passages of the book where the full rawness of its humanity are allowed to flare up. You achieve this formally, through the device of Bea’s emails – or ‘Shoot’ messages as they’re called in the book – to Peter. Over the course of the novel, as her distress increases, her emails become correspondingly frantic: proper grammar falls away, typos abound. Many of these messages are replicated in full. These passages have a destabilising effect on the reader, nested, as they are, among the very formal prose that characterises the rest of the book.
MF: Did you find Bea irritating? Some people find her enormously irritating.
KYD: No. I found myself annoyed by the way Peter would try to console her by quoting scripture verbatim. That he couldn’t engage with her as a fellow human animal, or at the fundamental level of one soul communing with another – she is the woman he loves, after all – and instead felt obliged to uphold the airs of his station as a Christian minister and husband… That annoyed me. I felt Bea was the real human core of the novel. Was that your intention?
MF: It was. Bea was based quite substantially on Eva. But Eva found her irritating! [Laughs] That was something I had to negotiate quite carefully. The response of readers to the book has been varied. Some readers find him weak, spineless, and feel very much in solidarity with her. Others dislike her for failing to see what a wonderful man he is and want her to stop bothering him with all of these things he can’t deal with.
KYD: Each of those perspectives feels ungenerous to me.
MF: I think my books function as tests of what sort of universe each reader feels that they’re living in. This is brought out particularly by my open-ended endings. For example, at the end of The Crimson Petal and the White, readers have shared with me their absolute conviction that after the last page, Sugar gets apprehended by the police, Sophie is returned to the Rackham household to have a miserable continuation of childhood, and so on. They are implacably convinced of that. Because in the universe they live in, happiness is impossible. Whereas other people, having finished The Crimson Petal and the White, are completely convinced that Sophie goes off and lives happily ever after in a paradisal other country. It’s an interesting spirit level!
KYD: Do you find readers are often compelled to append their own conclusions to your books?
MF: Yes, but I like that. It’s a collaborative process between the book and me and its reader.
KYD: Do you do that as a reader when you encounter an open ending?
MF: No. As a reader I don’t speculate. Even as a writer I don’t speculate. I don’t know what happens after the last page, and I don’t need to know. The mysteries that are in my books, particularly The Book of Strange New Things, which is probably the most instinctive book I’ve written… I myself am just as in the dark as you are.
KYD: You did discuss this last night at your event at the Wheeler Centre, how you had to disabuse yourself of the tendency to play the puppet master over your characters and story to approach this novel as ‘a journey in the dark’.
MF: When you’re sufficiently skilled as an author, you can make things compelling which are fundamentally unsound – which are not true to human life, and don’t have genuine wisdom or depth or insight. You can make those shallow and specious things compelling simply by the power of prose. That’s something that I’m wary of.
I want my books not to distort human truths. There’s the bit in the novel where Grainger and Peter are in the car together, and she says, ‘That’s kind of corny, isn’t it?’ And he says, ‘Most true things are corny: we just dress them up in sophisticated language so as not to be embarrassed’. I think there’s a lot of that, particularly in ‘serious’ literature. I would like my books to have the courage to connect with dead simple truths that five-year-olds can understand.
KYD: I wonder then, do you ever find yourself feeling hemmed in when writing? Do you ever feel compelled to write in a more self-consciously stylish fashion, if even only to prove that you can? I suppose I’m enquiring after the size of your writerly ego.
MF: I’ve written a few short stories that have taken those flights. But definitely with this book, given that I knew it would be the last novel, I really wanted a sense of ‘let us not talk falsely now for the hour is getting late’. In the modern world, especially with the internet and the colossal number of books that are being published, there are so many words being spewed out everywhere, and so much discussion, that I felt an ever more urgent imperative to only focus on things that matter. And when you do that, clearly you end up with love and death.
KYD: The question of alienation is something I’d like to address. Arguably, it’s the central theme of all of your novels. This is the second of your books after Under the Skin to deal explicitly with extra-terrestrials. Other authors address similar themes and questions as do you by focusing on the experiences of migrants or refugees, say, or the mentally ill – geographically isolated or displaced, or socially disenfranchised human beings. Is there a neutrality, socio-politically speaking, that endears you as a novelist to the literal alien?
MF: I feel it’s more universal. It means there’s no danger of my being seen to be making some socio-political comment on Islamism, say. Especially since I’m not a tremendously erudite socio-political analyst. I don’t feel it’s my place to dissect that. Also, I want my books to be exotic and thrilling, and that is one way of taking people on a journey that they could not possibly have in a more real-world context. I don’t want to bore people, but I don’t want to write flashy prose. One way of achieving entertainment in that context is by taking people to an intrinsically startling or discombobulating place and then treating that very calmly and realistically so that the pace slows down and they can really be there, really live through it at a human rate.
KYD: Can you talk a little about the strain of ‘Westerner’s guilt’ that runs through the book? It’s embodied most strongly in Bea’s correspondences to Peter. It soon becomes apparent that back on Earth, social entropy is escalating at an alarming rate, as is the occurrence of natural disasters. In her Shoot messages to Peter, Bea is constantly qualifying her problems with relativist statements. She describes watching visceral news footage of Biblically-scaled calamities while eating liquorice allsorts on the couch and says, ‘Of course, my troubles are nothing compared to this…’
MF: Bea and Peter both struggle with this relativism. Bea feels guilty enjoying the comforts of privileged Western life while people in the developing world are suffering almost unimaginable hardships; Peter finds it difficult to remain interested in Planet Earth because he is on Oasis and it all seems so far away – and indeed is. Through the course of the narrative, Bea’s own plight becomes desperate as conditions in England degenerate to the point where they’re just as calamitous as in the overseas countries she formerly felt pity for, while Peter’s disconnect becomes worse and worse as he spends more time away from Earth.
I’m making some analytical observations about compassion fatigue – the limitations of our minds and hearts to truly empathise with the problems of people who are ‘worlds away’ from us, the degree to which the notion of a global community is a luxury of the pampered Western middle classes, et cetera. But my main objective with this stuff is something else. I’m using the calamities, social entropy, environmental disasters et cetera as a metaphorical shadow of the trouble in Peter and Bea’s relationship. In the same way that it becomes difficult to care about a tsunami on some Pacific island when you don’t know anyone there, and the numbers of dead are too big to comprehend and you don’t have any pictures, Peter loses his grip on his wife’s emotional reality because he’s too far removed from her. The book asks so many questions about love – love of all kinds – and one of those questions is, ‘Can we really love a person whose day-to-day life is not real to us?’ By the time Peter has been on Oasis for a while, it’s almost as if he wants to love Bea only in the abstract, the way he loves God. But that’s not the kind of love she needs. It’s probably not the sort of love our planet needs, either.
KYD: What you’ve just said speaks to how strongly your books focus on different kinds of female experience. The first two novels are essentially highly imaginative feminist texts.
MF: With this book, again, because I knew this would be the last, I had been becoming self-conscious about the notion that Michel Faber writes books about strong females, and that the men are the problem, shall we say. That’s partly because my own background is from the feminist 1970s. Those were my formative intellectual experiences. But it’s more than that. I became uneasy about the fact that I myself had had this twenty-six-year-old marriage with someone who loved me, and who I loved. Yet in my novels I seemed to be implicitly arguing that it cannot work between lovers. So I wanted a book that celebrated and affirmed that two people can love each other, and that it can work. In this work the relationship is not used as a metaphor for any kind of exploitation or evil. It’s purely two people who love each other. I thought it was high time that my work contained that.
KYD: You say your sense of men being the problem came from your intellectual beginnings in the feminist 1970s, but not only that. Can you elaborate?
MF: When I was eighteen years old, I wore kohl, I had long hair and I walked around Brunswick wearing harem pants. I was as female as you can get while still having a penis. It’s been a slow journey from that honorary femaleness to feeling comfortable as a man. Now, I’m a middle-aged-to-aging ‘bloke’. I think The Book of Strange New Things acknowledges that journey to some extent.
Michel Faber has written eight books. In addition to the Whitbread-shortlisted Under the Skin, he is the author of the highly acclaimed The Crimson Petal and the White, The Fire Gospel and The Fahrenheit Twins. He has also written two novellas, The Hundred and Ninety-Nine Steps and The Courage Consort, and has won several short-story awards, including the Neil Gunn, Ian St James and Macallan. Born in Holland, brought up in Australia, he now lives in the Scottish Highlands.