Making literary fiction exciting: Michel Faber – Auckland Writers Festival 2016

Michel Faber
Michel Faber (Image supplied)

Michel Faber’s novels defy easy categorisation. He has written in genres as varied as historical fiction (his novel The crimson petal and the white, is set in Victorian London), horror, and science fiction.

Born in the Netherlands, Faber’s family moved to Australia when he was 7 years old, and he describes himself as something of an outsider, an alien, an outlier. He now lives in Scotland, which for a migraine sufferer, has a much more overcast and hospitable environment.

When he sat down to talk at the Auckland Writers Festival with Kiwi writer Paula Morris about his work (and life), I was woefully unprepared for how raw and heartbreaking the conversation would become.

Cover of The book of strange new thingsThis unexpected poignancy was largely due to his discussion of the loss of his wife Eva, who died in 2014 from cancer. Her diagnosis was made while he was writing his latest (and what he claims will be his last) novel, The book of strange new things, and he admitted that her illness had an affect on how the book developed. The novel has a dystopian, futuristic setting, with a pastor sent to a far-off planet to minister to the indigenous population there. He is separated from his wife and themes of love and loss permeate the tale.

Although the setting is sci-fi one, this Faber says, is just “the furniture”, and to some degree is there for the entertainment aspect. At its heart the story is about human beings, faith and love. Though he lost his faith himself when he was 11, he still feels that religion has a purpose for being and he’s interested in what it gives to people.

Religion is intrinsically ridiculous but there is a reason that people have needed it.

The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber
The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber, Flickr File Reference: 2016-05-15-IMG_1939

Regarding the adaptations of his books for the screen, he was very happy with The Crimson Petal and the White,  and on such good terms with the star Romola Garai that he stayed at her house at one point when they needed to be in London for treatment for Eva. He’s even happier with the film version of Under the Skin, starring Scarlett Johansson.

His feeling regarding literary fiction is that it should be interesting and entertaining as well and that’s what he tries to achieve with this books. There’s a risk, he says, that literary authors will write for the entertainment of other literary authors thus forcing ordinary readers towards entertaining but not very good fiction, that doesn’t give them anything of depth.

He doesn’t want people to regret, after several hundred pages, reading his books – “how pointless is that?”

There is actually nothing worse than a really dull work of literary fiction.

Shortly after the session started, a member of staff appeared carrying a pair of red women’s ankle boots. They were placed next to Faber’s chair, he uttered a quick thank you and carried on with what he was saying. Later on as Paula Morris asked him about what Faber would be working on in the future, since no more novels were in the pipeline, he talked about the projects that involved his wife and explained the mystery of the red boots.

His next projects will be working on Eva’s unfinished short stories as well as writing a biography of her life, not for publication, but for the family. As for the boots, he was taking them to parts of the world to which she had never gone and taking pictures of them in contexts in which he thought she’d be happy…

Then he read several poems from a new book called “Undying” (due out in July) which deals with Eva’s illness, her death, and the grieving process. And this was when everyone started crying. In particular, the poem “You were ugly” which describes the physical changes to Eva’s appearance in illness is brutally honest and heartbreaking with its revelation that after death those changes are forgotten, that her beauty returns. Even Paula Morris was seen to be dabbing her eyes after that one.

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Going off the diet in honour of the wedding

A Fraction of the Whole by Steve ToltzAs someone with a low boredom threshold, an overly busy life, and who travels to work by bus, it has become very necessary over the past few years for me to read fairly short portable books.

Also it’s ideal to choose one that is light enough not to cause too much pain in the evening when I fall asleep mid-sentence and it falls on my nose.  Yet I also demand my reads to be unpredictable and intriguing, so while Mills and Boons are the perfect size for me their content sadly is not.  Lean protein is the thing.

My heart sank when I saw the size of A Fraction of the Whole by Steve Toltz on the holds shelf, after my sister heartily recommended it, claiming she was going to marry its author.  I texted her along the lines of “What are you thinking? I can’t read a book that big these days!”  But she, with possibly a smaller attention span than even me, insisted.  And if Steve was going to become my brother-in-law, I felt I should flex my muscle if I could find it, read on my side and undertake the journey.

And what a ride it is!  A great intriguing unpredictable story, no wonder it was short-listed for the Man Brooker Prize 2008, and no wonder Philip blogged enthusiastically about it.   This is the kind of book that makes you wonder how the author could possible top it.  Go Steve, and stay in Australia where you are safe from ever having to meet my crazy sister.

With my new-found strength in book reading, and the realisation that I can cope with reading a fat book in bed at night, as long as its nutritious, and put a light one in my handbag for the bus trip, I have a more balanced diet.

So which fat books do you think are worth the risk?   I recommended the very weighty tome The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber to a friend recently, and it has been great fun hearing her describe how she manages to read it in bed without damaging herself.

PS I got back at my sister by recommending to her the book by the man I am going to marry.  Any guesses?  Clue: the book is a fat one and is by another Australian.  I think there will be a double wedding.  Just as soon as I’ve finished Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and my muscles are in top shape.

The Fire Gospel

I demolished The Fire Gospel by Michel Faber in 2 sittings. That’s possibly not much of an achievement since it’s just over 200 pages, but the 2nd reading was sitting up in bed in the middle of the night – and I literally could not stop. The hero Theo Griepenkerl is a bit of a knob, but somehow you follow along his adventure anyway. He’s visiting a museum in Iraq when a bomb goes off.  An ancient statue falls over and breaks open … to reveal papyrus scrolls in its belly. So far, so Dan Brown.

But this ain’t The Da Vinci Code. Theo hops off with his lucky find, and translates the scrolls – written in Aramaic by Malchus, who has a different perspective on the New Testament events. Like Theo, Malchus is a bit grotty and all too human. It’s him who has his ear cut off by the High Priest’s guards as Jesus is arrested.

The story follows Theo’s publication of this fifth gospel, named the Fire Gospel because of the reaction to it. Faith is lost, and found. In a neat section of imaginary Amazon feedback, a reader says:

 … before I read your book I was saved and steadfast in the  Lord. I thought Jesus was holding me in his arms like a baby. Now I am lost and alone. I can see that Jesus was just like me and nothing more, ie , a bunch of bones and guts covered in skin.

This is a visceral read – literally – blood, guts and the byproducts of humanity – and immensely powerful for it.

Book geekdom – new books from Peter Ackroyd and Michel Faber

London
London

You know you’re a book geek when you punch the air, yell “YESSSS” and get generally all excited when you find your favourite author is coming out with something new.

And this week I’ve done it twice. First I heard about Peter Ackroyd’s The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein. Ackroyd is amazing – he combines the rich detail of historical fiction with literary style and technique of the highest order.  The first book of his I read was The last testament of Oscar Wilde, a retelling of the last days of Wilde in Paris. These are novels to lose hours in, and he specialises in endings that are almost spiritual and transcendent.

Ackroyd is very much a man of letters, and has written biographies of figures such as Thomas More and Charles Dickens, and books for children and teenagers. Oh, and a biography of the city of London no less.

The Apple
The Apple

Michel Faber has also written a book set in Victorian times – The Crimson Petal and the white is a big, swirling book detailing the life of Sugar, a 19 year old prostitute. The Apple is a collection of short stories that revisits some of the same characters.

His new book is called The fire gospel. It sounds a bit crazy:

Theo Griepenkerl is a modest academic with an Olympian ego. When he visits a looted museum in Iraq, looking for treasures he can ship back to Canada, he finds nine papyrus scrolls that have lain hidden for two thousand years. Once translated from Aramaic, these prove to be a fifth Gospel, written by an eye-witness of Jesus Christ’s last days …

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