Michel Faber on otherness and ethics in his creative process

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Michel Faber is the acclaimed author of numerous novels and short story collections. He was shortlisted in 2000 for the Whitbread award for Under the Skin which was later adapted into a film starring Scarlett Johansson in 2013.

Michel’s wife of 26 years, Eva, was his support and inspiration and had a great influence on his writing. She died in 2014 after a 6-year battle with cancer. Michel’s poetry collection, Undying: A Love Story, (2016) was written during and after this time and commemorates this period.

He is interviewed here by Edge Hill Student.

During live readings you always read something new and unpublished. What are your reasons for doing this?

A reading is a special event and the audience should be rewarded for bothering to turn up. If I do exactly the same thing in Edge Hill as I did in London the week before or will do in Edinburgh the day after, that's disrespectful to you, as well as boring for me.

In an interview in The Guardian you stated that you ‘don’t think literature can actually change what happens in the wider world.’ Do you think that writers still have an obligation to speak out against injustices?

I think writers have an obligation to produce the best writing they're capable of. As for injustices, writers are human beings & citizens like everyone else, and there will be times when they feel compelled to speak out. I've done that in private & in public and I don't make a distinction between the two. What I would love to know is whether a reader who claimed to be my biggest fan would be capable of changing their mind on a political issue because I articulated an opposing view from theirs. I suspect not.

In an introduction to Under the Skin, David Mitchell mentions Isserley’s ‘extreme otherness’. Isserley doesn’t belong to the planet that she inhabits and, although she works with people of the same species, she has been transformed beyond recognition. Do you think that moving countries at a young age contributed at all in your creating of such a misplaced character?

Sure. But I think it's possible for a kid to be relocated many times and not get alienated, if they have a strong sense of belonging in their family. I didn't have that.

Under the Skin has also been read as having a vegetarian message, although you have stated that this wasn’t your main intention. In The Book of New Strange Things, during a screening process, Peter is forced to ponder the ethics of eating baby chicks. Is animal consumption something that interests you or is this coincidental?

On our planet, there's a food chain: everything eats and is eaten by something else. There's nothing intrinsically evil about that. But the way we treat animals is revealing of how we treat our fellow humans. When workers at the KFC factories kick wretched battery chickens around, they're exhibiting the same desensitisation to suffering as concentration camp guards. Also, it's troubling when anyone regards themselves as having a more exalted right to live & thrive than another person. I see a moral continuity between that arrogance and torturing monkeys in a lab supposedly because you're researching cures for human diseases. And I speak as someone whose wife died of cancer.

In The Book of Strange New Things the title of each chapter is the last line of the chapter. What were your reasons for doing this?

On a thematic level, it's like a fulfilment of Biblical prophecy. You're tipped off at the start and, lo and behold, it comes to pass. But it's also fun. The reader may speculate how the title can possibly turn up as the climax. But then they get caught up in the narrative and it takes them by surprise each time it comes. I hope.

You excel at writing naturalistic exchanges between your characters. What inspires your dialogue?

The naturalism is essential for the thing to work. My scenarios and settings are quite exotic. They're the stuff of genre fiction. But I have a literary readership -- the sort of readership that might be reluctant to read about extraterrestrial settlements or Victorian brothels. If I offer them the sort of godawful dialogue that Isaac Asimov or Barbara Cartland came up with, they won't come for the ride. It's got to be real and human, and then they'll venture out of their Roth/Franzen comfort zone.

That's the technical, tactical answer. The more instinctive answer is that I enjoy making something good, and it's more satisfying to write strong dialogue than weak dialogue.

The Book of Strange New Things was optioned for adaptation by Amazon in 2017. It was published by Canongate.

This interview was conducted over email between July & August 2017 by fiction editor Harriet Hirshman. Questions were provided by Harriet Hirshman, Luke Thurogood, Francesca McMahon, Emma Blemings & Robert Edge.