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
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.
Weve long been fans of Fabers 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 Americas 'war on terrorism' . . . .
TBR: In The Courage Consort
youre obviously having fun with the skewed world of contemporary art and promotion
(specifically music, in this case), but I interpreted it that youre 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. Im wondering if this was your intention from the
outset, if it even was your intention. Its 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 Im a highly deliberate writer who thinks carefully about the
levels on which I want each piece to work and what its themes will be, thats 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 Id like
you to be in while youre reading it and especially when youve finished it.
Once Ive 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 dont have a
rigid conception of whats 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: Theres 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 shes 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,
thats 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 Id rather write more stories. Or play P.J. Harvey
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 dont 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
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.
Thats 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 its dreadful.
The literal inspiration for Roger Courages 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 dont know if
Canongate ever managed to track down the others, but Eno had already been featured in
Canongates anthology of diarists, The Assassins 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 youre offered an elaboration on the characters as they stand in a
first draft? Youve mentioned before that Eva was an inspiration for scenes or
characters (which makes me think of Véra and Nabokov) and I wonder how the two of you
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 didnt 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 couldnt 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
didnt 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 didnt want to tackle
how Isserley was feeling after the rape. Eva persuaded me that the reader mustnt be
denied access to Isserleys emotions at such a crucial time, so I went back and tried
again. What you see there wouldnt 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.
The Hundred and Ninety-Nine Steps, set in Whitby, England, the protagonist Siân
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 café. And the reader winces as an
American boy asks his dad if theres a McDonalds in town. These modern
incursions that encroach on us from all fronts. . . I take it you feel quite strongly that
theyre spiritually wounding on the whole, correct?
MF: Theyre spiritually wounding to Siân, 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 didnt 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: Siân also says: Dont you ever get tired
. . . of this ever-so- modern fascination with psychopaths and sick deeds? It cant
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 its the basis of much of the worlds 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 Im 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,
its all the more important for fiction to re-sensitise them and make them care
TBR: The character of Isserley in Under the Skin
elicits empathy from the reader. And yet shes an alien who lures men to an
underground abattoir where theyre shaved, caged, fattened and turned into sausage
for the home planet. Thats a rather amazing feat. The reader questions his/her own
empathy. What can be learned from this confusion of sympathies as one critic
MF: In order to change the way we think about anything important, we need to be
genuinely stirred up. Isserleys 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. Thats
much tougher than taking a theoretical stand.
TBR: Isserleys 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 dont know why I took them to
heart more than articles about other things. I think its partly because I love the
natural female body so much, Im outraged that people feel compelled to distort or
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 wasnt perhaps the novels raison dêtre
- a call to give up the practice of meat processing and meat in our diets. Its more
than that, of course, but you make a strong case for vegetarianism. What exactly are your
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. Were 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 its
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. Weve gone from cutting a
few trees down to make a house, to destroying the Amazon rainforests to provide pulp for
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 . . . its amazingly
diverse and each story is a little gem. I recommend it to friends all the time.
MF: I hope theyre still your friends!
TBR: Ha! No, havent 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
MF: Im fascinated by the way some people are able to get over terrible events
quite quickly, while others are haunted and permanently scarred. Theres 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, dont 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, dont 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 cant 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.
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. Its like when dockworkers are watching a fishing boat come into
dock they dont marvel at the ships 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. Thats 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 youve 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 didnt try to
make money from it. Doing peoples 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: Dont worry about whats 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. Dont expect
wealth & fame; expect to gain mastery of your art.
TBR: Youre 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. Youll find out if
its 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
Oh dear, Im 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 Britains social services, not to
help foreign fanatics slaughter each other.
c. best-kept secret about the Scottish Highlands
If youre from Europe and you want to have a good time, you need to bring your
d. best fuel for your imagination
It doesnt need fuel, although I wouldnt mind a cup of tea right now.
e. the near death of Charing Cross Road and the independent
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. Its no use wanting a small feminist or antiquarian bookshop to
exist but never buying any of their books. Its 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. Thats like complaining about McDonalds
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 didnt use it. Would you like to cut Sony down to size?
Just figure out which pop album or computer game theyre counting on to maintain
world domination and dont buy it.
h. Americas war on terrorism
Its like the war on drugs and the war on poverty. You
cant 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
i. some living icons
Im not into hero-worship. I love to see intelligent people behaving with poise
j. three things youve yet to do of the non-writing variety
 get drunk
 learn to drive
 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,
see: short stories
Some Rain Must Fall and Fish