This month’s Monthly Book should keep you intrigued for the summer – it’s a novel of love and grief, a dystopian travelogue, a triumph of imaginative fiction with interests in story, language, the body, the environment and the power of belief.
My interview with Michel Faber and the transcript appears below.
Michel Faber was born in the Netherlands, grew up in Australia and now lives in the Scottish Highlands. His first novel, Under the Skin, was short-listed for the Whitbread Award for First Novel 2000 and long-listed for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award 2002. It was the basis for a recent film of the same name, starring Scarlett Johansson. His third novel, the best-selling The Crimson Petal and the White (2002), was an amalgam of just about every classic Victorian novel you’ve ever read, but full of steamy scenes of prostitution, madness, violence, poverty, and religious agony and ecstasy.
In A Book of Strange New Things, a Christian missionary, Peter Leigh, takes a new posting with a company called USIC. He is sent to a distant planet called Oasis, and his job is to preach to an alien life form, the Oasans, who live there. The Oasans have already embraced Christianity through a missionary by the name of Mark Kurtzberg, and they are thirsty for Peter’s message.
But Peter is forced to leave his wife, Beatrice, back on Earth. The separation is a wrench to their passionate and intimate connection, but it’s supposed to be only for a short time. The two are evangelising Christians together. Except for this new posting. No married couple have ever been this far apart.
They begin to communicate by way of intergalactic emails. Before long, Peter’s experiences in the colony on this strange planet – meeting alien life forms who communicate in a different tongue, trying to work out not only how his colleagues think but also how the Oasans operate – and Bea’s experiences on Earth – dealing with environmental disasters and civil unrest – make it harder for the man and his wife on Earth to keep their connection strong.
Rather than follow the tropes of science fiction, Faber offers a surrealistic imagining of what another life form might be like. As he told me in our video interview:
“I think that if there’s anything that sets this book apart from science fiction, if you like, it’s that I’m completely uninterested in the how of it. In fact, I had to tweak the book a bit once I’d written it after I’d got advice from other people. So, for example, my wife said, ‘Look, you’ve got this planet that’s only got one life form on it. You can’t have that. A planet needs to have an ecosystem; something needs to eat something else’ … but instinctively my interest was in the characters, what was happening between Peter and Bea, the ideas behind the book, and even more than the that philosophy and the sensibility in the prose. I was very interested in how you would feel as a result of having read this book. That’s what I always start with: what sort of state do I want people to be in as a result of having engaged with this book that I’ve written. Then all the other things follow: the story and the set-up and the plot.”
As you’ll learn from our interview, Faber’s wife, Eva Youren, was diagnosed with and battled cancer over the years this book was written. She died a few months before it was published. Faber explains the parallel between the fictional couple and his own personal situation:
“With Under the Skin, I was dealing a particular kind of alienation and I did that through an alien. And with this book … in a sense the person with the cancer is living on another planet. They are living on Planet Cancer, and you’re not living there with them. They’ve travelled somewhere where you can’t go. So that’s a distance already, to begin with. And you’re also anticipating loss, and I knew when I started this book that it would be about loss of many kinds. I didn’t know it would be the loss of Eva. So it was, in an eerie sort of way, anticipatory of that. And Eva and I both knew as I was getting closer to finishing the book that in effect it was going to be a goodbye, from me to her.”
I think you’ll enjoy The Book of Strange New Things, an engrossing and affecting book. The remarkable Michel Faber is deft in his use of both humour and philosophical thinking.
RAMONA KOVAL: Michel Faber, welcome to the Monthly Book.
MICHEL FABER: Nice to be here.
RK: I know it’s strange to be talking like this over Skype because so much of this wonderful —
MF: This is the first Skype interview I’ve ever done and I wouldn’t have done it for anyone but you.
RK: Michel, thank you. As I was reading your book, part of which is wonderful letters between the married couple who are separated not just by seas and land as we are but by thousands and thousands of miles – they’re on separate planets – it seemed OK that we’d do it like this. Because it seemed to be echoing something of what you were doing in your book. The book is called The Book of Strange New Things, in which a Christian missionary, Peter Leigh, applies for a posting with a company called USIC. [It] sends him off to a different planet; they call it Oasis, and his job is to preach to an alien life form, the Oasans. They’re very, very receptive to Christianity because they’ve previously been introduced to Christianity by the missionary who was there before Peter Leigh.
MF: Kurtzberg was the name of the missionary who was there before.
RK: Mark Kurtzberg, in fact. And I’ll talk about him in a few minutes. But [Peter is] very close to Beatrice, his wife; they’re going to have to be – not for very long – they’re going to have to be separated, but he takes off. From the things I know about you, the things I’ve read about you, you’re a bit like Peter. He says he’s not good with gadgets, at one stage. You write yourself about how Brian Eno wrote some music for the reading of one of your short stories, and you were still in cassette mode when podcasts had been invented, and I wondered at your audacity at writing about inter-planetary travel, new biology, imagined life forms. Did you think you’d have to imagine how these things actually worked, as well as the “what” of it? Did you imagine the “how”, or did you not care about that?
MF: No. And I think that if there’s anything that sets this book apart from science fiction, if you like, it’s that I’m completely uninterested in the how of it. In fact, I had to tweak the book a bit once I’d written it after I’d got advice from other people. So, for example, my wife said, “Look, you’ve got this planet that’s only got one life form on it. You can’t have that. A planet needs to have an ecosystem; something needs to eat something else.” And I thought, Yes … Well, I resisted that idea for a while, but then I realised that probably for a lot of people that’d be necessary. So I put some other life forms on the planet, which allowed me to write scenes like the one where the insects consume Jesus Lover One’s body, and so on. So, you know, it was all very positive, that advice that I got, but instinctively my interest was in the characters, what was happening between Peter and Bea, the ideas behind the book, and even more than that the philosophy and the sensibility in the prose. I was very interested in how you would feel as a result of having read this book. That’s what I always start with: what sort of state do I want people to be in as a result of having engaged with this book that I’ve written? Then all the other things follow: the story and the set-up and the plot.
RK: And what state do you want me to be in, reading this book?
MF: It’s difficult for me to talk about without giving away spoilers, as the Americans call them, because there are a number of reveals in this story, and I do like the idea of readers approaching a narrative, having no idea where it’s going, and being kept guessing. So it’s a tricky one to answer without giving away too much, but I suppose I wanted you to feel gratitude for these miraculous bodies we’ve been given. I think we are not sufficiently grateful for these extraordinary flesh vehicles we’re in. I mean, I don’t know if you can see this, but on my arm …
RK: Yes, I can see something there. Oh, you’ve got a sore. Have you had an accident?
MF: I was grooming my cat just before I went on this book tour, and she didn’t like me pulling at the knots in her fur, and bit me. Now, if I do that to an apple, that’s it: it’s the end of that apple. And we have these extraordinary vehicles we’re privileged to inhabit, which fix themselves; they just heal. You can do any number of things to them: you can bruise them, cut them, burn them, and they just get better. To a large extent, we are living on such a planet as well. We can injure the planet, we can pollute it, and then if you pull back a bit, it sort of heals itself again. And it’s literally miraculous. It is counter-intuitive. It shouldn’t work that way, and yet it does. I guess I wanted to instil a bit of wonder and a cherishing – of both our bodies and of the planet, as a result of having been on this journey.
RK: Well, this is not the first time you’ve written about aliens. Your first novel, Under the Skin, [which] has been pretty loosely adapted into a film with Scarlett Johansson as the lead alien, is an example of this. When you invent a life form, and I want to talk about the life form you invented, does the planet come first – like it must in real life?
MF: No, as I said: how I want you to feel comes first, and then I have to figure how the characters and set-up are going to make you feel that way.
RK: But you invent an alien in many ways: it can be a kind of insect; it can be kind of like a person. It can look like us; it can not look like us.
RK: The choices you’ve made are actually quite wondrous. You’ve created aliens without faces like ours, whose body language we can’t really read because it’s covered up. But also we can’t really read their expressions. And this is marvellous because —
MF: Well, they have no expressions as far as we can see because they don’t have faces in any way that we can decode. I think there are two things going on there for me. Firstly on a metaphorical level, when we engage with the “other”, particularly the foreign other, we tend to be very ignorant of what they’re about. I mean, it’s extraordinary the way we can mount a multitrillion-dollar invasion of another country in order to effect regime change, or kill people, or whatever our agenda is there, without speaking the language, without knowing who these people are and what they’re thinking. There’s an enormous amount of alienness in our own world, and I didn’t want to have aliens such as you often encounter in mainstream science fiction – the sort of Babylon 5 thing, where the alien speaks like a kind of diplomat or something. “Live well and prosper.” You know, that kind of thing. I wanted the aliens to have really no way of communicating with us, or us with them. And that was the motivation behind the extreme language gap between the humans and the indigenous population.
RK: You invent this way of communicating with them, a way of describing their voices and the language they use: “They who speak with otherworldly, asthmatic voices, sounding like a field of rain-sodden lettuces being cleared by a machete.” And you can hear it! I mean, it sounds to me like a whoosh whoosh whoosh, something like that.
RK: And you use this strange orthography, I think that’s the word, isn’t it? It looks a little bit like Tibetan, or something, to my untrained eye.
MF: It’s a purpose-designed language. When I first wrote the book in my own typescript on the computer, in order to have those characters that stand for the sounds that the Oasans cannot make – because they don’t have vocal chords, they don’t have larynxes – I took Thai characters because it was the easiest thing to find on the internet. So whenever there was an “s” sound or a “t” sound or a “c-h” sound, I would put a Thai character. The purpose there is it’s not an alphabet as we know it. So it is very alien to our lives. But because I know that there are Thai people in the world and I don’t want to risk one of these characters meaning “your grandmother” or something …
RK: Or “bottom”.
MF: Yes. We designed a purpose-built Oasan alphabet. Well, not alphabet, but system of pictography or something.
RK: How exciting for a writer to get a book where you can design these characters as well as use the ones that we’ve got in English.
MF: Mmm hmm. Sure.
RK: Quite apart from when it gets translated into many, many other languages. It’s quite a thrill, isn’t it?
MF: Um …
RK: It is for me. Maybe not for you?
(MF and RK laugh)
MF: Without wanting to throw a dampener on our interview, the whole notion of what’s a thrill and what isn’t, it’s become complicated for me recently because, I don’t know if you know, but my wife, Eva, died.
RK: I know, yes.
MF: She died in July. Ever since then, everything exciting or nice in my life – there is that poignant sense that she’s not there to share it with me and we shared everything.
MF: So I’m enjoying sitting here, talking to you, seeing you after whatever it is, 12 years, since we last saw each other. But obviously I’m feeling very sad that Eva isn’t sitting next to me, also seeing you.
MF: And I feel that way about every aspect of what I’m going through now, the publication of the book, how beautiful the cover of it is, you know – all those things which would have given me unalloyed pleasure before, it’s now mixed.
RK: Mmm. Well, the book, you were writing it while she was not well, and it’s also about distance and how a couple who are so used to doing everything together, and having experiences together and being able to think about what they mean together, and creating a history with each other together, and how they would find it hard to maintain their closeness if their lives are diverging. Bea is back on Earth, and all kinds of social and environmental catastrophes are being dealt with by her while Peter is in this strange and wondrous and utterly consuming landscape. In a sense, it’s about grieving about what has been lost, as they start to go on their separate travels, isn’t it?
MF: Sure. Yeah. Uh … Go on.
RK: Oh well, you go on, I mean …
MF: Um. Hmm.
RK: While I was reading it, I was imagining you writing about your own future, in a way.
MF: Yes. My books are very, very personal to me, and even though I don’t write strictly autobiographically, in the sense that I would never write a novel about a Dutch guy who emigrates to Scotland and blah blah blah, I am dealing with things that I’m struggling with, that are bothering me.
With Under the Skin, I was dealing with a particular kind of alienation and I did that through an alien. And with this book, I don’t know how much cancer has impinged on your life, it impinges on many, many people’s, but in a sense the person with the cancer is living on another planet. They are living on Planet Cancer, and you’re not living there with them. They’ve travelled somewhere where you can’t go. So that’s a distance already, to begin with. And you’re also anticipating loss, and I knew when I started this book that it would be about loss of many kinds. I didn’t know it would be the loss of Eva. So it was, in an eerie sort of way, anticipatory of that. And Eva and I both knew as I was getting closer to finishing the book that in effect it was going to be a goodbye, from me to her.
RK: And she read it?
MF: Yes. For most of 2013, because she had become very, very ill and I was her carer and obviously very, very distraught, I wasn’t able to write the book. I was several hundred pages shy of the end, and I felt that my task, my challenge, was to accept that the book would never be written, that wouldn’t it be nice to finish the book but sometimes – can we say “Shit happens” on your program?
RK: We can say “Shit happens”, yes, absolutely.
MF: Yeah. Obviously I felt grief about that, but you know, [there are] more important things in life. Eva was very, very attached to the notion of the book being finished. She loved it; she worked on it with me a lot, and she said, “Look, just write six lines a day. You can manage that. Just six lines.” I did write six lines a day, and for quite a number of days I wrote only six lines.
So at that rate obviously I would never have finished the book either. But then after a while I got momentum and the book did get finished, and not only that but she worked on it with me; she edited it. She was always my first and best reader. And I put into effect a lot of advice that she had about it. She also knew that it had been accepted for publication in Australia and the USA and the UK, and she even knew that there was a buzz around the book, because there is, but she didn’t live to see it published.
RK: Peter and Beatrice used to preach the Bible together before he went off to this other planet. He arrives, and, as you said, Mark Kurtzberg had been there before him, the previous preacher.
RK: And Mark Kurtzberg was the one that did the first work on translating the book.
RK: Which is the Bible. And it just reminded me, I was once in Central Australia and interviewing some Bible translation people there and there was this one guy who said that —
MF: For Aboriginal languages?
RK: Yeah, that’s right. He was working with either Yankunytjatjara or Pitjantjatjara people, but he said that they really like the Old Testament much better than the New Testament because they really like Moses travelling in the desert.
RK: But they were really confused because they never tell you what direction they’re travelling in. They’re always wandering around from here to there but they don’t say where it is. Because none of them ever get lost in the desert – [being lost] for 40 years, they couldn’t imagine it. They thought it was really funny. And then, so you were thinking about how you translate the word into a planet where they don’t have many things that they do have in the Bible. Can you talk a little bit about that?
MF: Well, this is an immensely sad book, and I felt that if people are going to go on that journey, this ultimate book about loss, then it can’t be the ultimate downer. You can’t do that to readers. You’ve got to give them some fun as well as some consolation and some transcendence. And one of the humorous aspects of the book obviously is this translation issue of how Peter can paraphrase the King James Bible, avoiding, first of all, the letter “s”, the letter “t” and “c-h”, and then how can he do it so that there’s no sheep, there’s no fish, there’s no lambs. (Laughs) No staffs. All that stuff. Rivers. All these things that they don’t have. So the sheer absurdity of that project, I think, offers some much-needed humour.
RK: I really like the way you have this white mushroomy plant called white flower that they harvest for foodstuffs, which can turn into anything. It reminded me of the manna from heaven in the Old Testament.
RK: But also there’s something Enid Blyton-ish about it too, a land of make-what-you-want, you know, in a way. But I wondered whether you could read that little bit about how they harvest the white flower. Could you do that? Have you got that there?
MF: I’ve never read this before, so excuse me if I stumble.
As for white flower, there was, he learned, a catch to its wondrous versatility. Each plant had to be individually and frequently assessed to ascertain …
… and set off.
RK: The Jesus Lovers – he finds it so difficult to tell the difference between one Oasan and the next, so he calls them Jesus Lover One and Jesus Lover Two.
MF: Well, he doesn’t call them Jesus Lovers; they do that for him. It’s very generous of them. Because they recognise that because they are genetically absolutely identical he is going to have trouble telling them apart. So they wear different-coloured robes – some of them are in pink or green or lavender and so on. And then they identify themselves for his sake in the order of their conversion, so you’ve got Jesus Lover One, Jesus Lover Two, etc. And he’s particularly fond of Jesus Lover Five, who he assumes to be female but doesn’t actually ever know what gender she is.
RK: In the back of the book, you acknowledge the inventors of alien worlds who worked at Marvel Comics during the 1960s and ’70s. Tell me about how they entered your life.
MF: Well, when my parents decided that they wanted to leave their other children behind in Holland and start a clean slate in Australia with just the one child, they —
RK: There’s a story there, I’m sure.
MF: I’m not going to write that story, I’m really sorry. I don’t write that kind of book. But, you know, this whole area, this whole notion, of problematic parenting, it’s all there in The Crimson Petal and the White. It’s all dealt with there – I don’t have to talk about it more autobiographically.
But anyway, we arrived at Tullamarine [Melbourne Airport], [I was] seven years old, and they bought me a Casper comic, which was dreadful, of course, as Casper comics are, but I was very excited to have this comic. And it really sparked an interest in comics in the English language. It was really the way I learned English. I got heavily into Marvel comics, particularly in that era when Jack Kirby was drawing most of them.
Jack Kirby’s real name was Jake Kurtzberg, and I decided with this book that I wanted to thank particularly him, but also his fellow creators, the people who did the artwork, actually, more than the scripts, because comics were always very poorly written but they have this very exciting, vibrant and endlessly inventive artwork. That really sparked my imagination and gave me a great deal of pleasure for many, many years, and still does.
So the pastor as you mentioned who preceded Peter to Oasis and who has disappeared under mysterious circumstances is called Kurtzberg. It is an homage to Jack Kirby; it’s also, of course, a reference to Kurtz in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and to Kurtz in Apocalypse Now, the Coppola film, because all those narratives lie behind this book.
RK: Do you see this as a religious book? Or morally instructive, at least? Or something like that?
MF: Do you have religious faith?
RK: Um … Well, what a hard question. (Laughs)
MF: It is, isn’t it? Yeah.
RK: It’s a hard question. I’m a rational thinker and a trained scientist, but I don’t know everything.
MF: Uh huh. Do you see yourself as purely a parcel of meat?
RK: No. But yes. But no. (Laughs)
MF: No. But yes. But no. I guess this is a book for people who are struggling with all that. Because total materialism is pretty terrifying, and yet on some level you suspect it is the truth. But it’s unbearable, and yet we have to bear it or ignore it or find a way around it. And this book really does tackle all those issues of the consolation that religious faith will give to people, and, yes, the terrors of true atheism, if you’re going to embrace atheism to the max.
I’m an atheist myself. I believe that I’ve lost Eva forever. I don’t believe there is a heaven or I’m going to meet her again, and I don’t think she’s around. But that’s … it is actually intolerable. And the book, I think, simultaneously confronts that but also offers consolation. Well, I hope it does. Did it offer consolation to you?
RK: Yes, absolutely. That’s why we’re talking about it. I think it’s a wonderful, marvellous book.
MF: Thank you.
RK: We spoke once before about a book you wrote in a series of reworked myths that Canongate did. Yours was called The Fire Gospel and it was a sort of reworking of the Prometheus myth, where Zeus was so angry that Prometheus has stolen the fire and given it to us mere humans he binds up the thief and allows an eagle to peck out his liver for all eternity – that’s just reminding people who are watching this. Because just when you thought you have no liver left, he gets a new one every day.
RK: And it goes on and on. But in your book, Prometheus was a Canadian academic called Theo and he’s in Iraq for his university, inspecting a museum when a bomb goes off. It kills the curator and destroys a statue, releasing nine scrolls of Aramaic text that had been hidden inside. And he happens to be an Aramaic scholar, and he steals the documents, which turn out to be the memoir of Malchus, the first-century Christian convert and witness to the Crucifixion. And I think you said to me then that you were like Theo in a sense, that you were not a believer but … and you say you lost your Christian faith when you were a young teenager but you believed even back then that there was something in religion, that it was here to stay, and people needed it.
MF: Yeah. I took Malchus very seriously. OK, there’s fun in the book, but I didn’t rubbish his faith. This book, The Book of Strange New Things, is even less satirical. I mean, The Fire Gospel, for all its underlying serious intent, is a comedy, and it’s a short book, and it’s an entertaining ride.
This book is a great deal more serious and there’s a great deal more sorrow behind it. I think once you get really serious, then taking the mickey out of religion is such a cheap shot. There are so many books out there written by clever atheist intellectuals taking cheap shots at religion – Christianity, whatever the religion may be – and that can raise a laugh from other clever intellectual people (laughs) who feel that they have evolved beyond needing religion. I didn’t want to add to that pile of books. Life can do things to us that – you know, we can be taken to places where we really cannot bear it, and we need to think about what can possibly help us, and sometimes there is nothing to help us except faith in something impossible, and I really wanted to honour that rather than to take the piss out of it.
RK: I think you said in that conversation we had years ago that the people actually who are going to offer you a room in their house or pick you up from the street or help you when you’re down, it’s going to be the Christians, it’s probably not going to be the atheists. And that’s been your experience, I think.
MF: Ah, yeah. I’m sure there are atheists out there who would be most insulted by that and say that, yes, if they were walking on the street and they saw someone lying in the gutter who appeared to be high on drugs and in a perilous state that they would obviously rush to help that person, and I’m sure that’s true. But I don’t think we have entire teams of atheists roaming the streets looking for people in trouble. And, you know, there are teams of Christians who are looking for people who have slipped through the cracks and who are in dire straits. It’s not right for me to make fun of that.
RK: Is the Bible an important book for you, on a daily basis or a weekly basis? I mean, what’s your relationship with it, with the text?
MF: Um, well, I think many writers enjoy reading parts of the Bible purely on a prose level, because it is this very weird hybrid of Greek and Hebrew and antiquated English. It has a bizarre ring to it. I think Nick Cave, for example, has built his literary career on a love of that kind of language, and I’m not immune to that either. I do return to it for that reason. But no, it doesn’t offer me consolation in my daily life. I don’t open the Bible to see what advice I might stumble on as to how to cope. I have to cope in other ways.
RK: Michel, I read that you say you’ve written your last novel, that this will be your last novel. Do you really think so?
MF: Yeah. I knew when I was writing The Fire Gospel that it was the second last, and I knew when I was writing this one that it was the last. Eva was very upset about that. She really wanted me to continue writing novels. So it got to the point where I promised her never to say never. But she’s dead now, and you know … It is the last one, and that’s partly because I wrote novels for her anyway. It was that wonderful project together where we would work on it together, and we can’t do that anymore. But it’s also because I wanted each book to be fundamentally different from all the others. There are only a certain number of times that I can pull that off before I start repeating myself, and I think I’ve pulled it off the number of times that I was able to. And there are quite a lot of books out there for people to investigate if they want.
One of the bizarre things is that so few people investigate short stories because short stories just aren’t in fashion. I’ve had people come up to me at literary events, saying, “Oh, we love The Crimson Petal and the White. We’re just so desperate to know what happens to those characters. Please, please, could you write a sequel?”
And I say to them, “Well, I’m not the sort of writer who writes sequels, but there is a book of short stories called The Apple in which you meet some of those characters again, at different times of their lives, and you are able to figure out some of the things that happened.”
Their eyes glaze over. Not interested, you know. They drift away from the table. Because it’s short stories. And I find that so puzzling (laughs). So there are several books of short stories – there might be another one in the future, depending on how many stories I write in the coming years – and there are a number of novels. So if people want to read all my work, it can keep them busy for quite some time.
MF: I never wanted to be the sort of writer who just puts books out because that’s my job. I felt that I had a mission, if you like, to bring a certain number of special things into the world. I think I’ve done that, and it’s time for me to do something else.
RK: What will it be?
MF: Right now I’m writing poetry, dealing with the grieving of losing Eva. That’s very in-your-face poetry. I’ll have to think very carefully if I want to put that out in public. At the moment, that’s what’s suggesting itself for me to write.
Eva also left behind a great deal of artwork. She was a very, very talented photographer and artist. In the coming years I’d like to make more people aware of that. I don’t know if I can get it published in some way, or get it exhibited, but that’s going to be a focus of mine. She also left behind a lot of unfinished writing, and, again, I’d have to think about whether it would be appropriate or possible for me to collaborate with her on that after her death.
Between those endeavours and downloading billions of MP3s and doing all my music obsession stuff, that’s probably enough for what life remains to me, ‘cos I’m 54 now.
RK: You’re a baby.
MF: I don’t think any male in my family has made it past 60, so I’m not going to make any assumptions.
RK: Well, you don’t have to make any assumptions about this book. It is a wonderful book; it is a very touching book. You’ve done a beautiful job. It’s a great homage to Eva.
MF: Thank you.
RK: And thank you so much for speaking to me across the land and the waves and the air, and it’s good to see you again, Michel.
MF: You too. Thanks a lot. See ya.