Facing the music
His new short story collection confirms his reputation as one of our finest writers. But, MICHEL FABER tells James Smart, he is nearly ready to stop.
onathan Franzen notoriously told the New
York Times that he wrote his family epic
The C(n'reett'ons in a soundproofed room. with the curtains closed. plugs in his ears and a blindfold around his eyes. It's nice to imagine Michel Faber. hunched in his Highland home. penning The Crimson P’Nl/ and the White. his mighty and addictive Victorian saga. his ears empty except for the whistle of the wind and the voices of long-dead men and women.
It wasn‘t quite like that. 'I play music 14 hours a day.‘ he explains. ‘and one of the main ways I use music is to make damn sure that the emotional tenor and the atmosphere of my prose is definitely in the text rather than in my deluded imagination. So. for example. when I was writing The Crimson P’IU/ I was playing Miles Davis or krautrock [the experimental German take on psychedelic rock] constantly so that this whole lush Victorian atmosphere that I was creating was being fought against by the music I
was listening to. And similarly with the stories. if
I'm writing a really dark tale then I will play something really cheerful to make sure that the darkness is there.‘
The darkness is certainly there in Faber‘s latest work. The T‘il/III’II/H’i! Twins. a funny. sad and often disturbing collection of short stories. It is filled with characters beset by trauma: one man wakes up with no memory. another kills his girlfriend. a young couple are viciously scarred by a wildcat. and twins growing up in the Arctic circle discover that their family life is not as simple as they once thought. Following a vast novel that won plaudits from both holiday readers and literary critics with a quirky short story collection might seem like a bold artistic move. But Faber. who has written about aliens. archaeologists. prostitutes. avant garde music ensembles and ﬂying fish in the past. has never followed a predictable path.
‘One of the reasons I have stayed with Canongate. instead of going off with some conglomerate. was that there was never pressure of that kind. In fact when I wrote Under the Skin and it did well for Canongate. who were then an up-and—coming company. I was aware it had won certain readership for them and I said to Jamie Byng. the publisher. that I could write a book that was recognisany by the same author. or I could do this big Victorian novel. And he said. “Well. which are you keenest on?" At the time nobody was writing Victorian novels: there wasn’t this craze for them that there has been in the last few years. So I did that. and again after The Crimson Petal and the White it was understood that I would write whatever I wished. which is the way it has to be. When people approach my books I like them to have no idea whatsoever what‘s going to be in them except to have faith that whatever it is. it will be good.‘
In print. that might appear self-regarding. but Faber comes across as a thoughtful and likeable man. On our walk from the centre of town to his Tollcross flat. he talks enthusiastically about Edinburgh and the Festival and progressive rock. his slight mullet bouncing as we march down Johnston Terrace. At home. in a spartan flat whose rooms are mostly empty. except for a study full of books and music (but no TV). he plays a record by an obscure Japanese crooner. talks about Michael Cunningham’s new novel. and settles behind a table in his kitchen.
He is also candid about a life that has been full of movement. Faber was born in the Netherlands. but moved to Australia when he was seven with his parents. who left in ‘bitter circumstances' to ‘get away from previous marriages and previous children’. He left there in 1992. partly because the sunlight made his migraines worse. but also because he and his wife Fva found a farm in the Highlands. ‘She really fell in love with the place
and decided she wanted to spend the rest of her
life there. so we all emigrated] he recalls. ‘This is me. her. the two boys and the father of the boys.
‘I DON'T THINK THERE ARE ANY MORE NOVELS IN ME - I THINK AFTER THE NEXT ONE
I WILL HAVE SAID WHAT I WANTED TO SAY'
The boys' father lived in a nearby town and the rest of us lived on the farm.‘
The pair still live in the north of Scotland. but Faber has spent much of the summer in Iidinburgh. where he walks for several hours every day. and writes. He writes in Iinglish. and is labelled as a Scottish author by many observers. ‘When Canongate wanted to submit The Crimson P’IU/ for the Booker Prize. they wanted me to take British citizenship so that I would be eligible. I really don‘t feel in fact that I am any particular nationality. When I read a book that's written in Scots l have great difficulty reading it. So that alone is weird ifl try to consider myself a Scots writer. I am happy to live in Scotland and I am very happy to have so many Scottish readers. but I am by no stretch of the imagination a Scot or a Brit or even an Attstralian. I have a Dutch passport so I guess I‘m more Dutch than anything else. I feel like I am a citizen of some other planet.
It‘s a judgement that could easily be applied to his fiction. which often has a profound emotional charge. but tends to hold its protagonists at a certain distance. and frequently sets reality beneath the strangest of undercurrents. ‘All
Black’. for instance. from his new collection. positions a gay man‘s difficult relationships with his estranged wife. daughter and boyfriend against a sky that is fading to absolute. unnatural darkness. Faber says he has no idea what that darkness signifies. Elsewhere. the strangeness has a more literal explanation: in the shocking. darkly funny ‘The Smallness of the Action'. a womath sanity is undermined by her baby. She is. Faber explains. in the grip of post—partum depression.
Fans of Faber‘s weird. wonderful writing have more to look forward to. He is currently writing both a short work that takes up the plot strands of The Crimson Petal and the White. with Sugar"s charge Sophie grown into a young woman in 1908. and an epic novel which touches on the China of Mao Tse-Tung and the missionary projects of the colonial empires. ‘It’s about all the issues were dealing with in the world at the moment.‘ he says. ‘with the clash between rampant capitalism and Islamic fundamentalism. But with the chance to place those things in a very real and different context.‘
And then‘.’ It looks like we will have to bid goodbye to one of our finest writers. ‘I don't think there are any novels in me after this one.‘ Faber says matter-of—factly. 'I think after the next one I will have said what I wanted to say. Then I want to do the mttsic book la work of non-fiction about musicians who have bypassed normal industry routes] and that might be enough.’
It is a startling admission. but Faber has always done things his own way. and his work has shone as a consequence. The I'ithrenheit Twins contains a few gloriously resonant moments. when circumstances converge and characters smile. feeling so at ease with themselves and their world that all their troubles fade into nothingness. It seems Faber is looking for something similar. if not quite the same. ‘I’m not really talking about individual times of deep happiness that we all. if we are lucky. can have access to sometimes. I'm talking about being able to let go of unhappy memories and negative paranoid ways of dealing with bad experiences. Because we all get encoded when we are young. We are looking for clues as to how the universe works and we are taught how the universe works. and taught very erroneously sometimes.
‘Trying to unravel that uncoding is a lifetime's work. and I’m not convinced that fiction helps. it's just a by-product. I’m very proud of it. and I am very glad that people enjoy it. but I’d rather die really happy. So we will see what is required to make that happen.‘
With Mick Jackson, 24 Aug, 10.15am, £7 (£5); Imprisoned Writers, 24 Aug, 5.30pm, free; with Kamila Shamsie, 25 Aug, 4.30pm, £7 (£5).
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