I was delighted to get an exclusive and in-depth interview with Michel Faber for this blog and I am happy to share it with you.
Michel Faber is an award-winning author born in the Netherlands in 1960. His family emigrated to Australia in 1967. Although he began writing in his teens, relocating to the Highlands in 1993 marked the beginning of his literary career. His short story ‘Fish’ won the Macallan/Scotland on Sunday Short Story Competition in 1996. His first collection of short stories, Some Rain Must Fall (Faber 1998), received the Saltire Society Scottish First Book of the Year Award, and his debut novel, Under the Skin (Faber 2000), received the Whitbread First Novel Award.
Several more novels, awards and a poetry book later, he is now considered “a master of the spine-tingling page-turner and a writer whose imagination visits the strangest of places and makes them real” (The Scotsman).
A lot of his work features outsiders and misfits, often with cultural and linguistic misunderstandings, perhaps reflecting his uprooted childhood and subsequent emigration. He claims, “there’s nowhere in the world that truly feels like home”
Geoff: How long have you been writing, and what prompted you to start?
Michel: When I was a small child, everyone predicted my future would be in the visual arts because I was precociously skilled at drawing. But as soon as my family emigrated to Australia and I learned the English language, I began writing fiction. My first book (a handmade booklet of maybe twelve pages) was written when I was eight. I was attempting to write proper novels from about eleven onwards. I would read extracts to my schoolmates at lunchtimes.
G: Were you inspired or influenced by other writers (if so, who)?
M: There were books I loved. I can’t say if they influenced me. Presumably, they did. C. S. Lewis’s Narnia novels were a big thing for me when I was twelve or so. Alan Garner’s The Weirdstone of Brisingamen. An Australian novel by Ivan Southall called Ash Road, about children on the run from a bushfire. But the thing is, I read everything. Everything that was around. I couldn’t walk past a piece of paper fluttering around on the street without picking it up and reading it. As an older person, I was a big fan of Kurt Vonnegut. But I was already developing my own style by then.
G: Of the various places you have lived, which was your favourite or most inspiring and why?
M: I lived for a week in Romania in 1990, in a small town called Satu Mare. I was happier there than I’ve ever been anywhere. I don’t know why. Other than that, I’ve been most settled in Folkestone. The twenty-five years that I lived in the Scottish Highlands were obviously a significant and special part of my life, but they are also bound up with the depression I suffered from then. I did love and appreciate Tarrel Farm but the intense relationship that Isserley has with the Scottish landscape in Under The Skin is really my late wife Eva’s, not mine.
G: To what extent does your environment influence your writing?
M: I can write anywhere as long as I have privacy and a home and freedom from stress. It’s not particularly relevant what’s outside. I wrote The Crimson Petal And The White, a huge Victorian novel set in London, in a succession of shoebox flats in Melbourne. Of course, my location may occasionally feature in my work. Under The Skin is set in Ross-shire and D (A Tale Of Two Worlds) is set in Kent. But I’m writing about an inner landscape, really.
G: Your first novel Under the Skin, was made into a film which The Guardian declared ‘best film of 2014’. What do you think of the adaptation?
M: Superb. The book is strong in a different way. I see my novel as a springboard for Jonathan Glazer’s film rather than a print version of it.
G: To what extent were you involved in the TV adaptation of The Crimson Petal and the White? Were you on set during any of the filming & if so, what was that like?
M: Not at all. Although years later, we ended up staying in Romola Garai’s flat for a while when Eva was having cancer treatment in London. Sadly we didn’t see any of the filming. We were invited several times. We didn’t grasp that a lot of the interior scenes were going to be shot in Canada so by the time those came round, logistics were against us. A similar thing happened with Under the Skin. We were invited to witness the filming of the final scenes, with the alien in the forest being pursued by the park ranger. Eva was very ill by then, barely able to walk, and the prospect of travelling to a forest outside Glasgow was too daunting.
G: Do you attempt to get messages across to your readers? Are you trying to challenge their perspectives or beliefs?
M: I don’t use the books as a soapbox, but in another way, my values are in every sentence. I want my books to be accessible and enjoyable, but at the same time, I want to challenge my readers to go somewhere different intellectually and philosophically from where they might usually go. I think it’s very rare for a book to actually change a person. People claim they’ll “never be the same again” after reading certain books, but I think they just feel that way in the afterglow of having finished reading the thing. How many books truly put a person on a different path?
G: How does writing make you feel? Is it energising or exhausting?
M: It can be either, depending on the stage of the project. When you’ve been doing it for as long as I have, you learn to recognise that you’ve been bogged down in despair and exhaustion many times in the past and always got through it. You’ve pushed through to make a really strong piece before, so you should trust that you can do it again. The most difficult part is composing the first draft. The fun part is rewriting and editing.
G: How many drafts do you usually go through before you are happy with what you have written?
M: As many as it takes. I know that sounds like a glib or dismissive answer; it’s not meant to be. Every created object either works or it doesn’t. If it doesn’t work, you tinker with it (or re-think it) until it works. Some of my short stories came together quite effortlessly. It was just a matter of polishing the prose a bit afterwards. Other projects have been an immense labour. I think one of the things that holds mediocre writers back from achieving better work is that they don’t have the stamina to keep re-engaging with a piece which has problems. They leap into every new project with high hopes and buoyant energy, and then when the going gets tough, they get frustrated and tired and despondent and restless. They want the damn thing to be finished so that they can move on to something else. Each rewrite feels like an imposition. Then finally they let the thing go (either by sending it to the publisher or by abandoning it) because they don’t want to live with it anymore. This is not the way to write a good book.
G: How does your mood affect your writing?
M: I have a skill and I have what it takes to do the thing I do. If I’m very sick I can’t work because when you’re very sick you can’t do anything. (This applies to depression too). If there’s a lot of stress in my life I can’t work because I’m pouring all my time and energy into dealing with the stresses. Other than that, I just get on with it whether I’m feeling sad or happy or neutral. If the scene I’m writing is a happy one and I’m feeling sad while writing it, it doesn’t become a sad scene. I make it what it needs to be. Similarly, if I’m writing a heart-rendingly sad scene, a scene of psychic devastation, I can do that when I’m in a cheerful state of mind. Writing for me is not an act of emotional venting, it’s the creation of works of art. I have a duty of care to them.
G: How do you feel about the other aspects of being a writer: teaching courses; writing reviews; book launches/readings; literary festivals?
M: I enjoy teaching but the preparation for it takes up a lot of time so I don’t commit to it often. Also, it’s a highly social activity and I have to pace myself in that respect. I used to enjoy writing reviews but spent far too much time on each one and eventually stopped doing it. Book launches, readings and literary festivals are a joy and a privilege. I get to meet my readers, to whom I owe a debt of gratitude.
G: Do you have any words of advice for aspiring authors?
M: Very few people have what it takes to be good writers but that’s like saying very few people are cut out to be professional athletes or photographers. Yes, it’s true, but it doesn’t mean that we can’t enjoy running or swimming or taking pictures. Writing can be an excellent hobby; it can be fun and it can be a venue for expressing one’s emotions and ruminations. I’ve met people on writing courses who’ve been going on writing courses for years and making modest progress and enjoying being stretched and challenged. They will never be professional writers but the activity is of value to them and that’s fine. But if you have ambitions to write great books, that’s a different ballgame and you will need a combination of innate talent, huge commitment and appetite for hard work.
Many thanks to Michel Faber for granting me this interview.
2020 D: A Tale of Two Worlds
2016 Undying: A Love Story (poetry)
2014 The Book of Strange New Things
2009 Ox-Tales: Water
2008 The Fire Gospel
2007 Vanilla Bright Like Eminem
2006 The Apple
2005 The Fahrenheit Twins and other stories
2002 The Courage Consort
2002 The Crimson Petal and the White
2001 The Hundred and Ninety-Nine Steps
2001 Shorts 4: The Macallan/Scotland on Sunday Short Story Collection
2001 Crimewave 5: Dark Before Dawn
2000 Under the Skin
1999 Snap Shots: Ten Years of the Ian St James Awards
1998 Some Rain Must Fall and Other Stories
2015 Saltire Book of the Year Award
2001 Arts Foundation Award for Short Story Writing
2000 Whitbread First Novel Award
1999 Saltire Society Scottish First Book of the Year Award
1997 Neil Gunn Prize
1996 Ian St James Award
1996 Macallan/Scotland on Sunday Short Story Competition