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issue 29: March - April 2002 

see: short stories Some Rain Must Fall and Fish  

Michel FaberInterview with
Michel Faber
by Jill Adams


Michel Faber is the author of the short story collection Some Rain Must Fall, which received the Saltire First Book of the Year Award in 1999; and the internationally acclaimed novel Under the Skin [see TBR review, issue 19], now translated into several languages, which was shortlisted for the Whitbread First Novel of the Year in 2000. He has also recently published two short novels, The Hundred and Ninety-Nine Steps and The Courage Consort. His next work The Crimson Petal, set in Victorian England, is due out later this year.

Born in Holland in 1960, Faber moved to Australia when he was seven years old and later moved to Scotland where he now resides in the Highlands with his wife Eva. His bio reads that he has worked as a 'nurse, a pickle-packer, a cleaner, and a guinea pig for medical research.'

Under the Skin was recently released in Spanish translation. We contacted Faber just before he left on his trip to launch the book here in Barcelona. TBR is proud to have been the first to publish Faber in both Spanish and Catalan translations. We ran the surrealistic/futuristic story Fish in issue 9, which has proved a big hit with readers. In this issue we are pleased to present 'Some Rain Must Fall,' the title story from the award-winning collection. We’ve long been fans of Faber’s work and so it was a pleasure to chat with him about his latest novellas, Under the Skin, his short stories, and other diverse points of interest, such as his views on America’s 'war on terrorism' . . . .


TBR: In The Courage Consort you’re obviously having fun with the skewed world of contemporary art and promotion (specifically music, in this case), but I interpreted it that you’re playing with - one could say critiquing - some of the conventions it employs; ie., such familiar literary themes as the Gothic tale, the character of the damaged-woman-who-becomes-whole, and the structural set up of throwing a bunch of diverse characters together in an enclosed space to see how they interact. I’m wondering if this was your intention from the outset, if it even was your intention. It’s a grand tale in its own right whatever the case. Typical of your writing, it can be read on a variety of levels.
MF: Although I’m a highly deliberate writer who thinks carefully about the levels on which I want each piece to work and what its themes will be, that’s not what sparks the story in the first place. My stories always start with a feeling. A feeling that I want to evoke in the reader, a state of mind or spirit that I’d like you to be in while you’re reading it and especially when you’ve finished it. Once I’ve intuited what that feeling or that spiritual state is, I then think up a plot, scenario, characters, themes, etc, to evoke it.
      For example, when I wrote ‘Fish’, I wanted to inspire people with a certain kind of awe. I then started thinking about the way children can find magic and fun in surreal and difficult situations because they don’t have a rigid conception of what’s ‘normal’. The story grew from that, and ended up being a sort of allegory about war, as well as making some implicit observations about religious fanaticism. But all that came afterwards, while I was crafting the details – the original impulse was just to provoke awe.
      Similarly with ‘Some Rain Must Fall’, I wanted to create a state of tenderness, a deep recognition of how much we all need someone to tell us everything will be all right even though we know that some things can never be fixed. The exact note of poignancy I wanted to strike was as clear to me as a key on a piano. Then the story had to be found to convey it.

TBR: There’s a strong sense of mood, but beyond that there are many ways to interpret The Courage Consort, I think, which has proved a puzzlement to some critics. P.J. Harvey was recently asked if if she was happy letting people read between the lines of her lyrics, even if it meant being misinterpreted, and she said yes. How do you respond to that?
MF. I very much doubt if Polly Harvey is ‘happy’ when people grossly misinterpret her lyrics. I suspect what she really means is that she’s not going to dissipate her energy chasing up thousands of people to clear up misunderstandings. Similarly, if some demented soul reads a story of mine and misunderstands it totally, that’s disappointing, but I have to accept that a certain percentage of my readers are bound to misread my work. I could spend all day every day writing letters of explanation to those people, but I’d rather write more stories. Or play P.J. Harvey albums.The Courage Consort cover

TBR: I wanted to ask that question because I have a feeling I don't always give your work the intended interpretation. For me Consort works supremely as a deconstruction of certain literary conventions. I realize I'm imposing that interpretation, but that was the only way I could put it together. It brings up the question of whether or not a text can take on its own meaning independent of the author, I suppose, and I was wondering if you deliberately wrote with that kind of open-ended invitation to the reader. It appears you had a more specific purpose/vision and I picked up some wrong clues.
MF.I hope I don’t make you feel on a par with people who think that 'Fish' takes place under the sea with water-breathing humanoids, etc. Some interpretations are obviously more intelligent and fruitful than others . . . .
As far as your impulse to read Consort in terms of literary deconstruction goes, I have to say that none of my work operates on that level, at least not intentionally. I work hard to make each story function on as many different levels as possible, but that kind of metatextual level is not one of them.
I expect that if The Crimson Petal [due out this year] gets a number of reviews, at least a few of them will suggest that I'm commenting on, or playing with, the conventions of the Victorian novel, exploring the degree to which a writer in 2002 can and can't write a 'Victorian' novel, and so on. These questions are interesting and I don't scorn them by any means, but they're not questions that crossed my own mind when writing The Crimson Petal. I set a story in 1875, I got an enormous amount of satisfaction combining the richness of Victorian prose with some of the effects that have been rendered possible in modern prose, and that was that.
      You may have noticed that one of the narrative techniques I like to use is the third-person, authorial voice which is nevertheless suffused or infected with the emotions of the character I'm dealing with -- thus in Under The Skin, the book is ostensibly from an authorial perspective but really we're getting most things filtered through Isserley's consciousness. In The Crimson Petal, I do this a lot, but I alternate between different characters, so that the "authorial" perspective gives a different slant on the events depending on which character we're with at the time. The reader therefore learns that when 'facts' are stated definitively by the author, they may yet prove subjective and unreliable. Again, this technique may lead some people to conclude I'm deconstructing the notion of the author, which is fine and interesting, but not the reason I did it. I just wanted to offer the maximum insight into my characters, and give the reader maximum pleasure.
      That's not to say I will always succeed, of course -- the technique will no doubt annoy some people.

TBR: The contemporary avant-garde classical music theme in Consort is refreshingly fun and different. What was the inspiration?
MF: I wanted to convey how it feels to have been depressed and numb for a long time, and to come back to life. Catherine is like a soul waking up from anaesthesia. That’s scary, but inspiring too. I knew that the story would need a light touch, a sense of the absurd, and that there would be tension between intellectual and instinctive forces. So the world of avant-garde classical music was ideal. I love all that stuff, anyway – even when it’s dreadful.
      The literal inspiration for Roger Courage’s group was an interview I heard with an a cappella ensemble on Australian radio seventeen years ago. I always wanted to write a story about them, but it took me a long time before I had the right feeling to put at the heart of it.

TBR: I see Brian Eno on the cover blurb; how did he get involved with the book?
MF: I exchanged a couple of letters with him about ethnomusicology some years ago, but I doubt if he remembers that. After I wrote Consort, I suggested a list of people Canongate could send the manuscript to – Eno, Robert Wyatt, Scott Walker, Elvis Costello – interesting people who have a connection with the musical mainstream but who spend most of their time on avant-garde peripheries. I don’t know if Canongate ever managed to track down the others, but Eno had already been featured in Canongate’s anthology of diarists, The Assassin’s Cloak, so I suppose contacting him was easier.

TBR: In the 121 pages of Consort you create several memorable characters. From just a few deft strokes you give us these terrific portraits.
MF: Thank you. I do my best.

TBR: I notice in your acknowledgements that you thank your wife Eva for helping with the characters of Ben and Dagmar. How does this process work? You say, I have in mind this young, independent- minded German female . . . and it goes from there? Or you’re offered an elaboration on the characters as they stand in a first draft? You’ve mentioned before that Eva was an inspiration for scenes or characters (which makes me think of Vra and Nabokov) and I wonder how the two of you work together.
MF: I knew that in order for the Consort to have the kind of internal tensions that would bring them to boiling point, they would have to be fundamentally incompatible people. Yet I didn’t want to fabricate arguments and conflicts out of nothing – I liked the idea of each member already having some personality traits that were beyond my control – as if they were real people I couldn’t bend to my authorial will. So, I wrote a list of the Consort members, with names, ages and minimal descriptions only. Eva was then invited to come up with backgrounds and hobbies for them. The things she suggested for Catherine were all wrong for the woman I had in mind, and I didn’t use any of them. But for Dagmar, she suggested mountaineering as a hobby, and for Ben, she suggested he was once a cox in a rowing team. These things, although they seemed so unlikely in members of a classical vocal ensemble, felt instantly ‘true’, and they sparked those characters to life.
Eva helps me in many ways. She gives me very detailed feedback on whatever I show her at the end of each writing day. Occasionally I try to get away with a short-cut that saves me tackling a difficult challenge, and she always spots this. The original version of Chapter 9 in Under The Skin was only a few lines long, because I didn’t want to tackle how Isserley was feeling after the rape. Eva persuaded me that the reader mustn’t be denied access to Isserley’s emotions at such a crucial time, so I went back and tried again. What you see there wouldn’t have existed but for her.

TBR: Consort is in set Belgium, near your native country of Holland. You actually grew up in Australia, however, and now live in Scotland - are they equally home to you and/or do you feel the outsider in each country?
MF: I feel equally at home AND an outsider in each of these countries.

199 stepsTBR: In The Hundred and Ninety-Nine Steps, set in Whitby, England, the protagonist Sin bemoans having to write her notes (copying the words from a damaged 18th-century manuscript as she carefully extricates the rolled pages) on a cheap notepad with a Star Wars actress on the cover, the only one available in town. She also cringes at having to listen to ‘Top Forty gibberish’ in a local caf. And the reader winces as an American boy asks his dad if there’s a McDonald’s in town. These modern incursions that encroach on us from all fronts. . . I take it you feel quite strongly that they’re spiritually wounding on the whole, correct?
MF: They’re spiritually wounding to Sin, but she must learn to find a dignified and inviolable place inside herself rather than investing all her ideals in the world ‘out there’. Crassness and commercialism and ugliness have always been with us; there never was a golden age when it didn’t exist. Whenever I get upset about dumbing-down of the media or the horrors of multinational corporations, I try to remind myself that I can choose to live by different principles.

TBR: Sin also says: ‘Don’t you ever get tired . . . of this ever-so- modern fascination with psychopaths and sick deeds? It can’t be good for us - as a culture, I mean. Filling ourselves up with madness and cruelty.’ Are these sentiments close to your own heart? and does it pass as an indictment of much contemporary fiction (and certainly film, TV and the media)?
MF: This is a complex issue. Humans have always been fascinated by violence and misbehaviour – it’s the basis of much of the world’s great literature. And of course, The Hundred And Ninety-Nine Steps also uses murder as a narrative ‘hook’ – as did Under The Skin. In both books, it turns out that what the reader thinks is murder is really something more complex. Maybe I’m kidding myself, but I hope that at least some of the people who bought Under The Skin bought it because they mistakenly imagined it was going to give them cheap thrills of a violent kind, and then were taken on a journey to a much more humane and thought-provoking place. I think that at a time in history when so many people are desensitised and cynical, it’s all the more important for fiction to re-sensitise them and make them care again.

TBR: The character of Isserley in Under the Skin elicits empathy from the reader. And yet she’s an alien who lures men to an underground abattoir where they’re shaved, caged, fattened and turned into sausage for the home planet. That’s a rather amazing feat. The reader questions his/her own empathy. What can be learned from this ‘confusion of sympathies’ as one critic put it?
MF: In order to change the way we think about anything important, we need to be genuinely stirred up. Isserley’s actions hurt us – get under our skin – precisely because we identify with her and want her to be OK. Feeling disapproval for Hollywood-style ‘baddies’, or compassion for people who are presented in a very sentimentalised way, is easy. But in real life, we are challenged to feel compassion for people we dislike or fear, and to reject evil behaviours in people we love. That’s much tougher than taking a theoretical stand.

TBR: Isserley’s alien body has been reconstructed to pass for the body of a human, but it leaves her wracked with pain. You say that when you conceived the book, you were thinking a lot about plastic surgery and what women put themselves through. How did you come to dwell on this topic?
MF: The simple answer is that there were – and still are – a lot of articles in newspapers and magazines about it. But I don’t know why I took them to heart more than articles about other things. I think it’s partly because I love the natural female body so much, I’m outraged that people feel compelled to distort or mutilate it.

TBR: I have read that you are not a vegetarian, which came as a surprise after reading Skin. It sure put me off meat for a while! I had to ask myself at one point if this wasn’t perhaps the novel’s raison d’tre - a call to give up the practice of meat processing and meat in our diets. It’s more than that, of course, but you make a strong case for vegetarianism. What exactly are your views?
MF: Under The Skin is a work of literature and not intended to be an "argument" for anything. However, I do have strong feelings on these issues. I believe human beings are by nature omnivores, like rats and bears. We’re designed to eat whatever we can scrounge, including some meat every now and then. The question is how much, and by what means we obtain it. I respect the decision of vegetarians to stop eating meat for moral reasons; I think that if you personally couldn't bear to kill an animal, you shouldn't eat it. I could kill a cow, so I'm at peace with eating a slice of one occasionally. The trouble with our carnivorous society is that we have millions of people eating vast amounts of meat but not wanting to take moral responsibility for how it’s produced. Animals can be cruelly treated and even genetically turned into monsters, as long as it all happens in secret and the result is disguised in a neat supermarket package. Our use of meat is rather like our use of wood. We’ve gone from cutting a few trees down to make a house, to destroying the Amazon rainforests to provide pulp for junk mail.

TBR: Your short story collection Some Rain Must Fall contains themes varying from the surrealistic/futuristic through contemporary personal and domestic explorations to a bizarre life-after-death scenario . . . we have a Polish girl in England, an American teen in Bharata, an abused Aborigine . . . it’s amazingly diverse and each story is a little gem. I recommend it to friends all the time.
MF: I hope they’re still your friends!

TBR: Ha! No, haven’t lost any yet!
The title story focuses on an elementary teacher-psychologist, who is called in during crisis situations in the classroom. Can you tell us about the inception and development of this story?

MF: I’m fascinated by the way some people are able to get over terrible events quite quickly, while others are haunted and permanently scarred. There’s something mysterious about spiritual recovery, about being able to give and receive comfort. My puzzlement about that brought this story into being. Some people assume that it was inspired by the tragedies at Dunblane in Scotland or Columbine in the USA, but I wrote it before those happened.

TBR: Your short story ‘Fish’ from the same collection is one we often recommend to new writers as an example of sharp prose, originality and ‘show, don’t tell’. The reader simply accepts that sharks swim through the air, no justification wanted or needed. Under the Skin escapes a reliance on explanation also. Genre fiction such as Sci -Fi and futuristic often tends to get bogged down by ‘explanations’, does it not?
MF: The ‘show, don’t tell’ principle is especially important in a story that explores the psychology of a child, as ‘Fish’ does, because children have to process the world as they find it, with no instruction manual. Children have to accept bizarre situations all the time, because they can’t change the way the weird wide world works. Sharks swimming through the air, an abusive father, a mother losing her job – these are all comparably non-negotiable phenomena.
Under The Skin      In Under The Skin I went to great trouble to avoid any Sci-Fi explanations, any talk of space ships, warp speed, take-off, etc etc. Isserley is a worker supplying raw materials for the food industry. The arrival of the transport ship is a totally ordinary and humdrum phenomenon to her. It’s like when dockworkers are watching a fishing boat come into dock – they don’t marvel at the ship’s engines and admire how the mechanisms work; they just want the damn thing to arrive so they can get a job done.
The more the writer tries to force the reader to regard something as amazing and special, the more suspicious and bored the reader will become. The reader needs to feel that the weirdness or the beauty or the horror in a story has an independent reality from what anyone says about it. That’s an illusion, of course: the writer is responsible. But the illusion is essential. You have to believe that Isserley was a real person and that Michel Faber met her before you did and that you had the chance to meet her through him.

TBR: You said that you’ve been writing ever since you were introduced to the English language. At what point were you able to begin making a living at it?
MF: About a year ago. In other words, thirty-five years after I started writing stories in it. But then, I must admit that for most of those years I didn’t try to make money from it. Doing people’s washing and ironing is a much more reliable source of income than offering a story to a magazine.

TBR: Any advice for new and emerging writers?
MF: Don’t worry about what’s in fashion. Write the stories you wish existed, for your own pleasure. Remember that human beings and the world are always weirder and sadder and funnier and more complex than they seem on the surface, so try to be true to this in your writing. Rewrite humbly and conscientiously. Don’t expect wealth & fame; expect to gain mastery of your art.

TBR: You’re currently working on The Crimson Petal as well as another short story collection. How are these two works progressing and can you tell us a bit about them? Is the collection as diverse as your first?
MF: The Victorian novel is finished. All 967 pages of it. You’ll find out if it’s any good in October – or I could bring a bit of it to Barcelona with me to give you personally, if you like!
The next collection of short stories will probably have quite a few music-related tales in it. But the range of emotions and characters will be just as diverse.

TBR: Off the cuff . . .

a. some differences between the Scottish, Dutch and Australian personalities
Oh dear, I’m no good at this sort of thing. It sounds like the beginning of a joke, and I can never remember jokes.
b. word of advice to Tony Blair
Stop waging war in my name. I pay taxes to fund Britain’s social services, not to help foreign fanatics slaughter each other.
c. best-kept secret about the Scottish Highlands
If you’re from Europe and you want to have a good time, you need to bring your own food.
d. best fuel for your imagination
It doesn’t need fuel, although I wouldn’t mind a cup of tea right now.
e. the near death of Charing Cross Road and the independent bookseller
The rents in Charing Cross Road are fearsomely high. If the British government were interested in culture, which it emphatically is not, it might consider lowering the rents in favour of independent booksellers. But see answer to next question…
g. Bertelsmann and the publishing monopoly
Ultimately, the only thing that will reverse the triumph of megacorps, chains, and branded blandness is lots of individuals choosing alternatives. Anti-monopoly legislation is a good thing but in the long run what gives monopolies their power is that consumers buy the product. It’s no use wanting a small feminist or antiquarian bookshop to exist but never buying any of their books. It’s no use talking about how vitally important small publishers are if most of the books you actually buy are mass-market bestsellers from giant corporations. That’s like complaining about McDonald’s while eating a Big Mac. If and when our culture is ready to consume less trash, independent retailers and independent publishers will thrive.
     An example: The megacorp that made the dismal Star Wars: The Phantom Menace invested a colossal amount of money into it, presuming that millions of people would queue like sheep to see it no matter how bad the movie was. If people had stayed home, the company would have gone bankrupt – one less purveyor of garbage! People had the power, but didn’t use it. Would you like to cut Sony down to size? Just figure out which pop album or computer game they’re counting on to maintain world domination – and don’t buy it.
h. America’s ‘war on terrorism’
It’s like the ‘war on drugs’ and the ‘war on poverty’. You can’t shoot or bomb these things into extinction. You have to accept that they will continue to exist, and figure out the most humane and sensible way to limit the harm that they do.
i. some living icons
I’m not into hero-worship. I love to see intelligent people behaving with poise and dignity.
j. three things you’ve yet to do of the non-writing variety
[1] get drunk
[2] learn to drive
[3] learn to speak Spanish
The last of which I'll be reminded of, to my sorrow, in a couple of weeks from now.
Till then, best wishes,
Michel


see: short stories Some Rain Must Fall and Fish

The Barcelona Review 2002

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tbr 29              march - abril  2002

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Michel Faber: Some Rain Must Fall
Jackie Kay: Physics and Chemistry
Mark Winegardner: Halftime
Jean Harfenist: Pixie Dust
            
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