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Novelist Michel Faber - interview

Fans of New Zealand-bound Michel Faber who were stricken when he stopped writing novels might find solace in a work in which he brings to life unfinished stories by his dead wife.

Michel Faber: not a writer to keep “knocking out” novels. Photo/David Rose/Rex/Shutterstock
Michel Faber: not a writer to keep “knocking out” novels. Photo/David Rose/Rex/Shutterstock

In the final days of her life, Eva Youren asked her husband, novelist Michel Faber, for a word count. She wanted to know exactly how much of a long-planned story collection she had produced; how much was still to be written.

“She wanted to be reassured that she’d produced a lot, despite her lifelong struggles with writing,” says Faber, from his home in the Scottish Highlands. “She acknowledged that some of the stories needed ‘work’ and that I would have to ‘edit’ them, but we didn’t discuss exactly what this work or editing would consist of. We had other things to worry about in those final weeks.”

That “work” and “editing” has evolved into an unorthodox, poignant collaboration between two writers: one alive, the other lost to cancer. Since Eva’s death in July 2014, Faber has slowly been completing her partly written stories.

Some are mostly Eva’s work, others Faber’s. If Faber finds a publisher for the collection, he’ll credit her as Eva Faber. “She relished being officially married when we finally got around to it … she would undoubtedly have signed her ­stories that way if she’d lived long enough to see them published.”

It’s unusual to shine the spotlight on the unpublished work of a spouse when an acclaimed writer comes to town. But Faber fans attending his sessions at the Auckland Writers Festival in May will understand the significance of this project, perhaps even find solace in it. They know there will be no more Michel Faber novels; his sixth, the wondrous and much-applauded The Book of Strange New Things, is also his last.

At the time of its publication in October 2014, Faber announced that this book said all he had to say to adults. Readers and fellow writers were dismayed. Author and friend David Mitchell tried to convince him that he might change his mind further down the track. Mitchell suggested that Faber couldn’t yet “see the yous you will be evolving into”.

But some 18 months on, Faber is as sure as ever about the decision. “I had a sense of a body of work that would not repeat itself, that would touch upon all the genres I was interested in, that would say important things and not waste trees,” he says of the final work. “I always knew I could never be the sort of writer that just kept knocking [novels] out.”

Faber with his wife, Eva Youren.
Faber with his wife, Eva Youren.

The Book of Strange New Things tells the story of an evangelical minister who signs up to a mission to spread the gospel to the inhabitants of another planet. His wife stays on Earth; the two communicate via a kind of email system that accelerates their estrangement.

It’s hard to argue with Faber’s assessment of the novel’s expansiveness. It’s a story that might be categorised as science fiction – yes, there are aliens – but it’s also a penetrating exploration of religious, environmental, sociological and psychological impulses. Finally, it’s an achingly beautiful love story. Critics saw it this way too, describing it as genre-defying and defiantly unclassifiable.

It was not Faber’s first foray into ­science fiction. Under the Skin, his first novel (2000), also explored the emotional and physical territories located between humans and Others. That story featured an extraterrestrial who posed as a human and harvested hitchhikers as a food source. In between the two novels were six other works of fiction, including two short-story collections and the astounding The Crimson Petal and the White, an epic tale about a Victorian-era prostitute.

Faber believes one of the reasons The Book of Strange New Things feels like “an appropriate novel to end on” is because it brings the alienation he introduced in Under the Skin full circle.

Under the Skin expresses the darkest, cruellest, most horrible aspects of being Other, whereas The Book of Strange New Things, while still recognising that we all live on different planets, is the most tender, compassionate, ­connected book I’ve ever written.”

The Book of Strange New Things was conceived before Eva became ill. “The separation I had in mind originally was the way I lived on Planet Art, producing my writing in the sacred privacy of my study, while she [Eva] lived on Planet Earth, dealing with all the crap of mundane existence.”

Any reader familiar with Faber’s personal story, including the sickness and death of Eva, with whom he moved from Australia in 1993, cannot help but acutely feel the author’s parallel journeys into sadness, one playing out on the page, the other in real life. Faber acknowledges the personal affected the prose. Once Eva became sick, he says, the book evolved and tackled much more profound kinds of separation.

“Ultimately, of course, the living and the dead. And loss. The book became so overpoweringly about loss.”

The novel leaves its readers feeling as though they, too, are lost; dislocated, stranded elsewhere. This devastating yet utterly satisfying response is in part due to matters unresolved at the end of the story. Without spoiling the tale, it’s fair to say that all aspects of belief – religious and otherwise – receive a thorough audit.

Under the Skin on screen.
Under the Skin on screen.

Faber has previously described his younger self as a militant atheist, but his views these days have softened, if not shifted. “I would love to think that Eva is still around somewhere. I don’t believe she is; I believe she’s a canister of ash in my spare room. But The Book of Strange New Things tries to honour the humane and poignant aspects of religious faith, the deep longing for there to be someone looking after us.” His decision to bring Eva’s creative work, which also includes paintings and photographs, into the public sphere is, he says, based on a wish to create another type of afterlife for her.

During 2015, Faber turned to poetry to express his grief. He published, in a small non-commercial print-run, an eight-poem pamphlet called Poems for Eva. The poems were selected from a bigger collection, Undying.

Poetry, he says, has served a purpose for him but will not continue to be his genre of choice. “Eva’s illness and death and my grieving afterwards were the things I was meant to write poetry about … I can’t see myself five years from now writing poems about cherry blossoms … I’m not a poet, I just wrote a bunch of powerful poems about a very specific thing.”

And powerful they are. Don’t Hesitate to Ask takes a sledgehammer to the empty, literally help-less conventions of grief ­etiquette; others conjure up, through bathos, the reality of day-to-day existence without a loved one and the futility of asking why that person has been taken. There are online recordings of Faber reading this poetry; his anger at being robbed of a longer life with Eva is barely suppressed.

Public events have always been challenging for this self-confessed former recluse. But in this sphere of life, too, Eva continues to hold sway.

“Eva was worried that after her death I would disappear into my burrow and just database mp3s all day. The best way to honour her is to be more connected with other humans. She helped me so much with that, and if I became an alienated recluse again it would be like saying that her influence was just a temporary detour in my life.”

Meanwhile, the development of Eva’s collection continues. Faber has finished four of the stories and expects the project to take at least three more years to complete. There is, he says, a big variance in the ratio of her words to his across the stories. “A couple of the stories went through many drafts while Eva was alive and she saw them through to a standard she would have been proud of. Others were in rougher shape, and others barely begun.

“She just ran out of time.”

Faber, who so enjoyed creating hybrid beings – part human, part Other – agrees that he and Eva have together created a hybrid author.

“I can’t pretend to be Eva, particularly if I’m producing wholly new material to fill gaps. But Eva’s stories are autobiographical and mine never were. It’s enough to remind me constantly that I’m not doing my own thing.

“What intrigues me is that the people who have read them don’t perceive any difference in style or sensibility between the one that’s 99% Eva’s prose and the one that’s only 15% her prose. That makes me feel that I’ve managed to preserve something essential.”

Michel Faber will be speaking to Paula Morris on May 15 at the Auckland Writers Festival and holding an opening-lines workshop on May 14.

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