About The Author
Michel Faber is the author of the highly acclaimed The Crimson Petal and the White, The Fahrenheit Twins and the Whitbread-shortlisted novel Under the Skin. The Apple, based on characters in The Crimson Petal and the White, was published in 2006. 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.
His latest novel, The Book of Strange New Things, tells the story of Peter, a missionary who is called to go on the journey of a lifetime. Leaving behind his beloved wife, Bea, he boards a flight for a remote and unfamiliar land, Oasis, a place where he has been told the locals are hungry for the teachings of the Bible. It is a quest that will challenge his beliefs, his understanding of the limits of the human body and most of all, his love for Bea.
Exclusively for Foyles, we talked to Michel about the function of art, his love of Marvel comics and how eating our dead is both a logical and an impossible thing to do.
Michel Faber was interviewed exclusively for Foyles by Frances Gertler
Questions & Answers
You went through a period of not wanting to write fiction. Can you say more about this, and what brought you out of it?
At around the time that Britain was following the USA into the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, I got really fed up with people (and particularly writers) waffling on about the transformative power of literature. It was so brutally obvious that art makes no difference whatsoever to what happens in the world. I thought that the most dignified response to this was for artists to just shut up and stop imagining themselves important. It was a sulk, basically. In the end, I realised that the function of art is not to change the world; it's to offer compassionate, intelligent people some consolation and entertainment.
Peter has almost less in common with the other USIC workers than he does with the Oasans, even though on the face of it the Oasans lack emotions, are hard to distinguish one from the other and share almost no common ground with Peter. And yet it feels like something more than faith connects them?
There is a huge gulf between us and all others, whether they're our neighbours, parents, dogs, etc. It's not easy to be understood or to understand. With the Oasans, the gulf is so in-your-face, so undisguised, that in a way it helps. Peter is grateful for any communication that gets across. Plus, he finds the Oasans' lack of emotional drama relaxing. I can relate to that.
At the end of the book you pay tribute to the 'writers, pencillers and inkers' who worked at Marvel Comics in the 1960s and 70s. Did they instigate your interest in the fantastical and the alien, and perhaps even inspire you in other ways?
I always loved feeling disorientation and awe when I engaged with stories. Jack Kirby, Marvel's principal creator, certainly delivered in that department. But I don't think my novels are particularly comics-like. Not the published ones, anyway. When I was about twelve, I started a novel called In The Shadow Of The Condor, which was shamelessly ripped off a storyline in Daredevil.
Was a breakdown between Peter and Bea inevitable, given the vastly different upheavals they were obliged to experience while physically separated by a vast and almost unbridgeable distance?
I don't know, what do you think? Have you ever had a relationship run into serious trouble, and, if so, do you feel it was bound to happen, or that if you'd been spared a couple of really cruel bits of bad luck, everything might have been OK?
How far were their difficulties attributable to a failure of communication of the written word?
As a writer and intellectual, I'm torn between wanting verbal communication to be able to fix all problems, and being sometimes convinced that language means nothing whatsoever. The book arises from this conflict.
What accounts for the intense and unwavering faith of the Oasans, which contrasts sharply with the questioning of Peter and Bea? Is this something to aspire to?
I'd rather let each reader speculate about that one. Partly because any discussion of it would require me to give away more of the plot than I want to. I like the way Americans get upset about 'spoilers'. A book should offer some unsuspected thrills to its readers.
The Oasans are also capable of a kind of pure logic, for example, in their philosophical attitude to death. Is this state simply incompatible with being human, believer or not?
Yes, I suspect you're right. The most logical and appropriate thing for us to do with a loved one who's just died would be to eat them. It would mean we'd solemnly take them into our body, signalling our desire to keep them inside of us, it would mean we were celebrating and enjoying their flesh instead of letting it rot, it would be a ritual we could share with family and friends, etc etc. But we can't do it. We just can't. And, interestingly, in the book, Jesus Lover One can't do it either.
You've powerfully imagined a whole other world, including an evocative landscape, a different structure for days and nights, a source of food, and so on. How did you set about creating these details, and was this aspect the hardest or easiest to write?
It was largely instinctive. I let my instincts dictate a lot of what happened in this book, more than in some other novels I've written. But I also listened to lots of advice from my editors, principally my wife Eva (always my first and best editor), Francis Bickmore at Canongate and Zack Wagman at Crown/Hogarth. My original conception of the planet Oasis had just one species living on it and one source of vegetation. On an allegorical level, that was defensible - manna from heaven, and all that - but I was persuaded that this would annoy too many readers who wanted to believe in the setup more realistically. A planet needs an ecosystem. Creatures need to eat other creatures. Also, I recall a bit where I had the Oasans feeding Peter foods which struck Francis as being too much like our own, so I worked on that. I worked on lots of things. No one thing stands out as being difficult. The whole book was difficult, in that I wrote it while my wife had terminal cancer and my head and heart were full of that.
On the face of it, there are enormous differences between each of your books but some common threads emerge, for example, what it means to be human, the sense of the 'other'. Do you consciously start with particular themes or does the story drive you in the first instance?
Neither. I want you to feel a certain way. So I have to conceive a story that will make you feel that way. But you're right about the common threads.
Did you enjoy the process of seeing your books hit the screens, Under the Skin as a film and The Crimson Petal and the White as a tv series? Can you see The Book of Strange New Things as a film?
I've been lucky with adaptations so far. What I feared is that people would produce faithful, mediocre (or bad) versions of my work. Instead, my work has sparked very bold adaptations that have taken great creative liberties. My favourite film adaptation of all time is Coppola's Apocalypse Now, which captures the essence of Joseph Conrad's Heart Of Darkness while changing almost everything else about the book. Jonathan Glazer did something comparably exciting with his movie of Under The Skin. The TV series of The Crimson Petal was more faithful, although it did make some audacious (and wise) changes in order to fit it into four hours. More importantly, it was bloody good and got lots of viewers quarrelling about whether it was the best or the worst thing they'd ever seen on TV - always a good sign. And did you ever see the stage adaptation of my story 'The Fahrenheit Twins'? My original piece is really eerie and tranquil, whereas the stage version, adapted by Told By An Idiot, was high-octane physical theatre. I loved it.
Do you have another book on the go, and can you say more about it?
I believe that The Book Of Strange New Things will be my final novel. If I live long enough, I will write other sorts of things in future. At the moment, I'm writing poetry dealing with the grief of losing Eva. She died in July. She was the best.