I had an interview in this weekend’s Sunday Times with Michel Faber, the author of Under The Skin, The Crimson Petal and the White, and the recently announced Saltire book of the year The Book of Strange New Things.
We spoke about the grieving process after the death of his wife Eva last year, his pacifist beliefs and his growing sense of belonging in Scotland thanks to the Saltire win. Not before time – he has lived in the Highlands, near Tain, for more than 20 years, but has always felt something of an “alien” he says, and has never really integrated.
The Sunday Times piece can be found here, or a slightly longer version is also available after the fold.
It didn’t make the piece, but he also spoke very interestingly on the writing process – particularly the no-nonsense approach he took to his first book The Crimson Petal and the White (he wrote the first version as a student, although it was not published until after his critically-acclaimed ‘debut’ with Under The Skin). Having started, but not completed, many novels, he decided to very carefully structure his next attempt, taking inspiration from the Victorian novels he was studying for his literature degree (particularly, Middlemarch) – down to the paragraph, even. After which he could work through the plan very diligently, marking off his progress as he went.
The book went through two or three redrafts, but the back of the work had been broken. It was published in 2002 and received rave reviews, later being adapted as a TV series for the BBC starring Romola Garai. He has retained this highly structured process through his later books, although he has spoken elsewhere of making efforts to allow his latest novel more space to grow “organically”.
Tories get under the skin of Faber
Michel Faber, bestselling author of Under The Skin and The Crimson Petal and the White, doesn’t believe in party politics, but there is one party that he truly can’t abide: the Conservative party.
“On the surface they are these humane, moral, guardians of freedom” he told The Sunday Times in an interview at his home in the Highlands, “but the deeper you go, the scummier it gets”.
Faber, a “thoroughgoing pacifist” has been roused to anger in the wake of the British airstrikes on Syria. He has watched through his fingers as the Prime Minister marches the country towards a war he cannot support. “When you get a contemptible little blowhard in a suit like Cameron, puffing himself up and saying ‘we can’t just do nothing, we must do something’,” he continued, “the something that he thinks of to do is not something useful or practical or moral. It is dropping bombs on people he’s never met, or who you’ve never met.”
It is an unusual display of anger from a man who normally speaks in a cool, measured tone, words falling smoothly into place like Tetris pieces. Last week he sent a copy of his latest – and, he says, last – novel, The Book of Strange New Things, to Number 10 in protest, with a sarcastic note suggesting that “if you drop it from a plane, you might hit a Syrian”.
But he expressed frustration his and many others’ vociferous opposition will make no difference. “These horrible little men are going to do what they want to do anyway.” He has since had to stop reading about it, he said, before the whole episode “poisons his soul”. Instead he will direct his attention into a project closer to home: keeping alive the memory of his late wife Eva Youren, who died last summer after a long battle with multiple myeloma, a rare form of cancer.
One would never wish bereavement upon anyone, but it does seem almost excruciatingly unfair that Michel should be forced to face life without Eva: his partner, muse and great love who, for 26 years, served as the most direct link between the introverted author and the outside world.
It was she who pushed him to publish his work, after years of writing fiction only to stow it away in a drawer, unread (“I felt there was a sort of god of literature that reads all the unpublished books that people write. If you passed muster with the god of literature then that was enough. She said: ‘That’s utter bullshit.’”) It was also she who led him to Scotland, after she fell in love with a farm near Portmahomack that would later become the setting for Under The Skin (recently adapted as a film starring Scarlett Johannsen).
A book of poems charting her death and the grieving process is to be published by Canongate next summer. They are eviscerating, red raw; full of the horror and bathos that together make up the days of the terminally ill. He reads one aloud that turns an unforgiving eye upon a blinking, trembling Highland haematologist whose hands were shaking as he “lifted up your dress/ and took the sample from your spine”.
Locally, he concedes, the doctors did what they could, but Eva’s experience of the Western General Hospital in Edinburgh was “disastrous” – something he attributes to a “clash of personalities” between her and her specialist, rather than intrinsic problems with the NHS, but bad enough that they switched to the private hospital in London where later she spent her final months. (NHS Lothian said it was “sorry to hear” of his concerns and asked him to get in touch.)
He and Eva believed in speaking directly, and confronted her death head on as it approached. So in some ways, he says, he feels that he has done his grieving already. But if the grieving process is complete, another phase has begun: one of memorializing or something more complicated, more akin to a literary revival.
He has begun work on an “enormous” biography of Eva, “of no literary merit” and not for publication, that speaks of a violent and emotionally abusive childhood. “It’s a potentially limitless labour, and though of course it will be limited in the sense that I will do other things, if I didn’t have anything else in my life I could just work on this 14 hours a day, 365 days a year, for the foreseeable years to come.“
When – if – it’s finally complete, another project awaits – that of producing a posthumous collection of her short stories, edited by him. She was a skilled writer in her own right, winning the Neil Gunn short story prize two years before him. And although he doesn’t believe in God, or in any form of the afterlife, “it allows me to have more of a sense of remaining with her spirit.”
It is this great loss that appears to have precipitated Michel’s decision that there are will be more novels to come.
The declaration provoked horror from the literary establishment, and seems almost a perverse decision after so much success; only last month The Book of Strange New Things, in which a Christian missionary is dispatched to preach to the citizens of a distant planet, won Scotland’s most prestigious literary prize when it was named the Saltire book of the year. The book is also in the process of being adapted for UK television.
But – “I don’t get excited about stuff like that. I’m pleased. If it happens it will be a bittersweet phenomenon because Eva will be dead and not able to see it come to fruition.”
He gets excited about “private things… that happen between me and people that I care about”. So while recognition has been gratifying, and disappointments – such as being passed over this year for a Booker nomination – still register, he has an emotional distance to his career successes.
Nevertheless he was “immensely moved” by the Saltire win, when he saw “how passionately engaged the Scottish reading public and the Scottish literary culture has been with my work”. He has always felt like something of “an alien”, without nationality – Faber, now 55, was born in Holland, moved to Australia in childhood and followed Eva to Scotland in his thirties – and has never truly integrated. But at the awards ceremony “there was such warmth, and acceptance, and support – in every sense of the word support – coming from those people.
“It was a very special night,” he continued. “I came closest to feeling Scottish I’ve felt in my whole life.”