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The SRB Interview: Michael Faber – Scottish Review of Books
by SRB

The SRB Interview: Michael Faber

October 15, 2009 | by SRB

MICHEL FABER WAS BORN in 1960 in The Hague, The Netherlands. In 1967, he moved with his family to Australia, where he later studied, amongst other subjects, philosophy and English. After graduating in 1980, he held a number of casual jobs before training to become a nurse. In the mid-nineties he moved to Scotland. In 1996, he won the Macallan Short Story Competition with ‘Fish’. His victory aroused the attention of Canongate who published his first short story collection, Some Rain Must Fall in 1998. His first novel, Under the Skin followed two years later, and was shortlisted for the Whitbread First Novel Award. To date his largest success is the Victorian-set The Crimson Petal and the White, which was published in 2001, twenty years after Faber began writing it as a student in Melbourne. Faber’s latest novel, The Fire Gospel is published as another instalment in Canongate’s Myths series. It concerns Theo Griepenkerl, a Canadian academic, who, while in Iraq, discovers a number of parchments written by Malchus, a follower of Jesus, which throw doubt on the divinity of Christ. After his publisher forces him to change his pen name to Grippen, the parchments are published as a book which becomes a huge success. Theo enjoys the trappings of fame – until he is kidnapped. Colin Waters met Michel Faber in his Edinburgh flat earlier this month where they spoke about The Fire Gospel, popular and literary fiction, and Jack Kirby.

Scottish Review Of Books: In an introduction you wrote to a new edition of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol in 2005, you talk about “essential narratives”, which are “stories [that] embody a human truth so definitively we cannot think of the truth without remembering the story, and cannot imagine how people ever got by without it”. You give Prometheus as an example. What is it about that myth that so resonates with you?

Michel Faber: I doubt whether I’ve written any of those essential narratives myself, but then almost nobody has. Sometimes these immortal, indispensable scenarios are produced by writers who aren’t that good, technically; they’ve just been blessed with an extraordinary idea. The idea of Prometheus always impressed me, even when I was very young. Yet I wanted to subvert it. One of the defining aspects of a myth is how fearsomely unforgiving and hard-line it is. The tragedy must happen, the destiny cannot be escaped, you can only watch in horror as it unfolds. In all my work I’ve explored whether people can escape from an apparently hardwired destiny, like Sugar in The Crimson Petal and the White and her abusive childhood, the damage suffered by Siân in The One Hundred and Ninety-Nine Steps, the way Isserley is surgically doomed in Under the Skin. I’m interested in whether there is any way out, any leeway for emotional or spiritual escape. Partly, of course, because I’m wondering whether I can achieve that in my own life, given the way I was wired in my formative years. Again in The Fire Gospel, I’m looking at one of these set-ups where destiny is apparently pre-ordained. Does Prometheus really have to be punished so mercilessly and so eternally for this thing he’s brought into the world? I really enjoyed creating what I hope is a credible subversion of my hero’s fate when he’s chained to his Promethean rock – in this case, an armchair – and it looks like he’ll be murdered by fundamentalist loonies. Not only does he escape, but the fundamentalist loonies are more complex than we might assume. One of them is a decent man, who just happens to have some really weird beliefs. And I think that’s true to human experience. Even with the craziest person, if you can engage with them in a different context, and appeal to a side of them that’s not to the forefront when they’re proclaiming their faith, there can be a sincere human connection. At the end of the book I’m focusing on those human connections that suggest we can get along, that suggest there’s hope for the human race to muddle through. That’s how I subvert the Prometheus myth; not in

a clever-clever metatextual way, but in a humane way.

SRB: Some writers occupy a God-like position over their characters. Hearing you speak there though, I remembered an interview with you where you spoke about how The Crimson Petal changed between when you first conceived it and when it was finally published. Rather than acting as a God directing his characters’ fates, you made it sound as if you were giving your characters an opportunity to save themselves if they wanted to take it.

MF: Obviously to some degree it is a doublethink, because the author remains in control. When authors talk about how their characters “took on a life of their own”, they’re speaking metaphorically. We know damn well that characters are textual marks on a page and that nothing happens unless you write it. Even so, a narrative can feel natural or feel artificial. Some authors are attached to a

“My fear of being complacent or bored as a writer is reflected in the music I’m drawn to. I listen to avant garde stuff mainly.”

pre-existing agenda and will ruthlessly destroy or distort whatever gets in the way of that agenda. I’m interested in keeping my agenda as open-ended and responsive to human reality as I can. It’s a way of avoiding the drawbacks of being a skilled and self-conscious technician. There has to be an element of unresolvedness, randomness, chaos in my work, or else it’s too neat. A skilled author can produce something that looks organic on the surface but is pre-fab and tidy underneath. I don’t want that, as an author or a reader. I’ve got to give myself some scope for discovery and confusion, so that I learn something too. The book I’m writing at the moment is even more challenging than usual in that respect. For the first time ever I have no idea what’s going to happen from chapter to chapter. I only find out as I type.

SRB: I wanted to ask you to what degree of planning goes on before you write a novel as I read you planned out The Crimson Petal and the White paragraph by paragraph. Is this new book you’re working on a reaction to that sort of planning in the past?

MF: Writing is a technical skill, in the same way that a mechanic learns how to put together a car engine, or a carpenter can construct a table. If you practice enough, you work out how to complete certain tasks quickly and efficiently, and avoid errors. Your skills get streamlined. Now, there are two ways for an artist to respond to that. You can put out more and more artworks faster, because you have the technique down pat. Or you can choose a project that makes matters difficult for yourself again. Eric Clapton is a very fluent, facile guitarist when it comes to a certain kind of blues pop. He could put out an album of that stuff every week; he can do it in his sleep. But if Clap-ton were shoved onto a stage with a bunch of avant-garde jazz musicians, something more interesting might happen – for him and for the audience. My fear of being complacent or bored as a writer is reflected in the music I’m drawn to. I listen to avant-garde stuff, mainly. Stuff I can’t quite grasp, stuff I haven’t heard before. I want to offer people that same pleasure as an author. I’d be so ashamed if readers could pick up the latest Michel Faber book in a shop and already know pretty much what they were going to get before they opened it.

SRB: In the A Christmas Carol introduction, you wrote, “By recycling pre-existing material, Shakespeare seemed to endorse a view common in his time, which has become even more entrenched in the 400 years since: that all the truly essential stories are already in the bag”. Doesn’t the Canongate Myth series confirm this?

MF: Yes and no. A recycled idea can be done with such verve and vision that it seems startlingly innovative. Of course if we insist that the concept must be totally fresh and unheard-of, then almost nothing will pass muster, because everything has been discovered before. But it can be rediscovered differently. The fact that Shakespeare’s own plays were in some sense retreads bears this out. They feel original. If you retell a story that everyone knows, and the retelling is charged enough, special enough, it magically becomes new.

SRB: Returning to the “essential narratives”, you give four novels as examples – Frankenstein, Doctor Jekyll And Mr Hyde, Animal Farm, and Nineteen Eighty-Four. Of those four, two have supernatural or Gothic overtones, and all are fables of a sort. Your own books have often shaded into the Gothic. Why is it such books, from not what you’d call respectable genres, can reach out to the extent they’re known by people who rarely read while the literary fiction which attempts to closely map how people live their lives doesn’t have the same grasp on the popular imagination?

MF: One of the ways intellectuals define themselves is by their ability to derive pleasure from things that most human beings find boring. There’s something to be said for that. At the same time, if you’re making generalisations about literature, you have to include all literature, all the things that people like to read. And it’s an inescapable fact that the vast majority of people want thrills – big thrills. A frightfully intellectual novel in which an introspective academic wrestles with middle-aged ennui or the dilemma of whether he will attend a conference or not, or whatever, is not going to thrill the mass of humanity. And let’s be honest, such a book probably won’t last. It will get admiring reviews in the literary papers and it might get nominated for the Impac Prize, but fifty years from now, it will be forgotten. If you’re serious about creating narratives that will remain meaningful, you have to be honest about what people like and what the ingredients are for a durable yarn. I’m always looking for a fusion between profoundly serious literature, literature that invites people to engage with

Michel Faber: “It’s an inescapable fact that the vast majority of people want thrills – big thrills. A frightfully intellectual novel in which an introspective academic wrestles with middle-aged ennui is not going to thrill the mass of humanity.”

the most serious and complex issues imaginable, and giving people rip-roaring entertainment. And one of the most obvious ways to provide rip-roaring entertainment is to use “genre” elements: gothic, Sci-Fi, horror, Victorian romance. I don’t think there’s any shame in using them. I enjoy them. I use them with respect and relish. I read a lot of comics, always have, and one of the reasons I keep returning to Jack Kirby’s work on the Marvel superheroes, for example, is that these are big, brave myths. I find them more exciting than some of the solemn, self-consciously intellectual graphic novels that have been published in recent years and which it’s now socially acceptable for well-educated grownups to admire. Also, it annoys me when literary authors cherrypick elements of a disreputable genre to add a frisson to their own work, then go to great pains to loftily distance themselves from that genre. A deadly dull literary novel is not improved by having a ghost or a serial killer tossed into it. People will still be reading Dracula in a hundred years but they won’t be reading most of the books that have won the Booker Prize, and I think that more of our serious authors ought to put more thought into why that is and what they can do about it. A strong book, whether it’s well-written or not so well-written, should be haunting. I’m doing my best to write books that will haunt people.

SRB: You wrote a letter to the TLS disputing traditional distinctions between ‘popular’ and ‘literary’ fiction – what was the gist of the letter?

MF: In the nineteenth century there was much less distinction made between popular and literary fiction. Sure, some books were commercially successful and some were unsuccessful. But I don’t think that Dickens or Hardy or Conrad saw themselves as having to choose a side. It’s really only after Joyce and TS Eliot that this dichotomy

sprang up, where unpopularity became the hallmark of serious literary worth. If the masses were reading a book it must be rubbish and if a book was appreciated by a tiny few it must be truly fine. That’s a dangerous distinction to make. Each time a literary lion writes a boring book, another “average” reader is driven into the arms of Tony Parsons or Danielle Steel. You cannot revolutionise people’s tastes by boring them. What I’m trying to offer with a book like The Fire Gospel is a story that functions on as many levels as people are ready for. You can read it as an adventure about a man kidnapped by religious fundamentalists. You can think it’s just a romp about a greedy author who gets his comeuppance. But there are more complex thrills to explore if you choose. The deeper you go, the deeper the book will allow you to go. That, for me, is what distinguishes a good book from a bad one. You can dig your spoon into it and there won’t be the disappointing clunk of hitting the bottom of the bowl.

SRB: Would that cover The Da Vinci Code?

MF: Well, I’m in a tricky position here. The Da Vinci Code is a pop culture phenomenon. I don’t want to come on like a literary avatar who’s rescuing this alternative-life-of-Jesus stuff from the clutches of a contemptible commercial author. That’s exactly the kind of intellectual pomposity I find most tiresome. If someone wants to read The Fire Gospel as a spoof of The Da Vinci Code, that’s fine. But for me it’s also a book about faith and humility and hubris, a book about the urgent necessity of well-educated people to see themselves as part of the human race – and let’s face it, the human race is a very large community that includes lots of dumb people who believe a lot of bizarre things. If you’re going to be like Theo and disqualify everyone around you as not measuring up to your standards of rationality or your sophisticated musical taste, that does not make you an exalted, God-like figure, it actually means you’re in deep shit. We share the world with hordes of people who aren’t like us and we need to get along together. We can’t afford to fantasise about a little clique of intellectuals on a raft, floating on a sea of stupidity.

SRB: One of your ongoing preoccupations, I think, is dislocation and displacement. Is fame, or huge success, as it’s presented in The Fire Gospel , the ultimate dislocation?

MF: I don’t feel comfortable talking about this. There are so many other authors who’ve explored that theme better than I have, because I don’t know that much about celebrity or the hunger for success. I live an almost monastic existence. I take a glimpse of celebrity culture and magnify what I see. A modern Prometheus would be invited on the chat show circuit, so that’s where I put Theo.

SRB: Theo is forced by his publisher to adopt a nom de plume and so is dislocated even from his own name.

MF: A lot of my work is about the construction of identity; how people put themselves together with the ingredients they’re given. Sugar of course is not Sugar’s own name; it was imposed on her. Characters in my books often ask themselves, Who can I be? Can I get away with being someone different? Theo deals with that in his own way.

SRB: In The Fire Gospel there’s a suggestion a writer has to sell a piece of himself in addition to selling whatever story the book contains. Is publishing a book today then, to use another myth, something of a Faustian pact?

MF: Yes, the Faust myth is definitely in there. And this imperative to package yourself and develop strategies to sell your book was something I was very uncomfortable with when I was doing the tours forThe Crimson Petal. An interview like this, where I’m talking about things I haven’t spoken about before, and I’m hesitating and stumbling and trying to figure out what I really think, that to me, although it’s painful to some degree, is more interesting than delivering a spiel that’s purpose-built to market the book. Towards the end of my touring for The Crimson Petal, I had read certain passages of the novel aloud many, many times, and I’d been asked what attracted me to the nineteenth century many, many times. In the end, you feel you’re reheating a freeze-dried product. I just couldn’t hack it. I’d never wanted to be famous anyway. I’d written for decades without trying to get published, so when it did happen it was unexpected and bemusing. I felt increasingly uneasy, and that was one of the reasons I withdrew and stopped promoting my work. Now, through the character of Theo, I’m looking at the paths I was invited to go down that I didn’t go down. And rather than get all self-righteous about it I thought I’d spoof it, make it fun.

SRBThe Fire Gospel is the first of your longer pieces of fiction with a male rather than female at its centre, I notice.

MF: In the same way that I don’t want to repeat myself in interviews and in readings, I don’t want to repeat myself as a storyteller. That’s partly why I’ve tackled different genres each time. But despite the different genres, one thing that readers and reviewers remarked on was that I tended to have female protagonists. Journalists would ask me whether I felt more empathetic with females than males. So a change was overdue. The Fire Gospel has a male protagonist, and the novel I’m working on now also has a male protagonist – albeit a much nicer person than Theo. That’s another challenge – a good person. The hero of my novel-in-progress is a Christian and I don’t take the piss out of him for being a Christian. He just is a Christian. And so far, all of the other characters in the new novel are well-intentioned, none of them are evil or vicious. This surfeit of goodness provides me with a tough challenge, because books about good people are often dull.

SRB: The myth I thought you were referring to originally was Jesus. Certainly, the book within the book would fit that description wouldn’t it?

MF: The Jesus and Prometheus stories have a lot in common. I find it intriguing that both Prometheus and Jesus suffer wounds in their sides. Being chained to a rock is similar to being nailed to a cross. The concept of giving the human race an immensely precious yet dangerous gift, which results in grotesque punishment – there are so many parallels. I’m enduringly fascinated by the Jesus story. One thing that I haven’t encountered yet in the early responses to The Fire Gospel is a strong recognition of the poignancy of the sufferings of Jesus, or any sympathy for the faith of Malchus. Personally, I do find that aspect of the novel moving. It’s odd to me that someone can read the book and declare it to be a delightfully amusing satire on the book trade, and not seem to notice that it’s also a deeply heartfelt expression of religious yearning. I mean, it’s OK; I’m not complaining. The book is delivered into the hands of each reader and it is what it is to them.

SRB: It’s been ten years since your first book, the short story collection Some Rain Must Fall, was published. Ten years, incidentally, that coincides almost entirely with New Labour’s reign. I think your books have hit on something that affects us, in the West anyway, or should affect us more during this past decade; the sense that we’re not so far removed from the craziness we’ve unleashed or seen in other parts of the world. For example, there’s Siân’s injuries which she sustained in Bosnia as seen in The Hundred and Ninety-Nine Steps, in The Courage Consort the composer has inherited money made from the sale of arms, and now in The Fire Gospel, we see, briefly, the Iraq war.

MF: In fact I wrote a novella about the Iraq-Afghanistan debacle a few years ago. It was called Bombshell and was never published. Political issues really inflame me, but it’s a matter of figuring out how to deal with them in fiction, so that I have a chance of colouring the political perspective of a reader without hammering them over the head with my views. Bombshell hammered the reader over the head. In that sense it’s perhaps just as well that it wasn’t published. If someone is going to change their political perspective as a result of reading a book, it’s better if they feel they’ve come to that conclusion as a result of seeing how life really works rather than being swayed by a very manipulative piece of dogma, even if it’s a dogma I agree with. The Iraq war is very much there in The Fire Gospel, but hopefully, people may come away from it with more compassion for the radically different packages human beings come in, more recognition that we have to tolerate the wacky, damaged people we share the planet with. And if readers do emerge with a greater sympathy for the human race as a whole, then maybe it will make them less likely to vote for political parties that believe problems can be solved by killing people or squashing faiths.

SRB: Was it yourself who decided not to proceed with Bombshell or was it your publisher?

MF: Jamie Byng at Canongate was very excited about publishing the book – until he read it. The reason he gave for not putting it out was that he felt it wasn’t good enough.

Which is the best possible reason a publisher can give. I reread it recently. I still think it’s strong. It works very differently from my other work, as indeed it should. One thing I concede, though, is that if it had been published, a lot of people would have felt enraged, because it’s an abusive, poisonous little book. I think a lot of people would have sworn never to read anything else by Michel Faber ever again, because of how Bombshell made them feel. It would have been career suicide. But at the time I quite fancied committing career suicide. I thought that if I could make even a few people incapable of supporting a future war, that would be more worthwhile than hanging on to my fan base. But Canongate baulked and I didn’t offer it to another publisher. My wife had serious misgivings about it, too, which made me doubt the book’s validity. She felt it was unfair on readers. She pointed out that it did exactly what I’d been so careful not to do with Under the Skin, which was take my readers to a horrible place, dump them there, and allow them no way out. It was important to me in Under The Skin to offer some transcendence. There was no transcendence in Bombshell. It was a book worthy of George Bush.

SRB: Where was it set? Iraq?

MF: It was entirely set in Britain and it was entirely played out within a family. It was the Iraq war played out within a family. It was a fiendish piece of work, designed to make people feel as ashamed and uncomfortable and distraught and soiled as possible. Maybe I’m deluding myself and I failed in that objective and that’s why Canongate decided not to go ahead. I’ll never know. But the odd thing is, a lot of how I felt about the war ended up being expressed in The Fire Gospel. The grief and the outrage are mixed into the comedy. Serious fun.

Michel Faber
Canongate, £12.99 pp208, ISBN 1847672787

The Fire Gospel is reviewed in the reviews section of this issue of SRB by Suhayl Saadi

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