It’s virtually impossible to pigeonhole author Michel Faber, as his new collection of short stories The Fahrenheit Twins ably demonstrates. A collection of seventeen wildly different stories that change genre almost as often as location. From the Scottish highlights through to humid Jakarta; from biting social satire through to science fiction. It should come as no surprise, though, to long term followers of Faber’s work. His first collection of short stories, Some Rain Must Fall was published in 1998. In 2000, he published his first novel, Under the Skin, a dark mystery about a young woman abducting hitchikers in Scotland. Two novellas followed. One Hundred and Ninety Steps focused on a nightmare plagued archaeologist and could, according to the Guardian, “give Conrad a run for his money”. 2002’s The Courage Consort follows the (imaginary) seventh best known acapella group in Britain to a Belgian chateau. He is, though, perhaps best known to date for his huge novel (in size, scope, and indeed sales), The Crimson Petal and the White, a lavishly detailed ‘Victorian’ novel chronicling the life of a prostitute called Sugar. ‘Victorian’ because it was inspired while studying at University the Victorian greats like George Eliot and Dickens, but the novel was also a thoroughly modern take on an era filled with social and cultural tension. “A melodrama without the melodrama,” as C.P. Farley put it.
He has been described as one of Britain’s most daring and original authors, but, his personal history is, almost characteristically, more complex than this label allows. He was born in Holland, and moved to Australia at an early age (he spoke only Dutch until the age of seven, though this is a fact he tends to downplay when talking about his writing). In 1992 he moved to Scotland, where he has since lived.
Three Monkeys Online were lucky enough to exchange a number of emails with Mr Faber recently, to discuss The Fahrenheit Twins.
99% of the fiction that’s in the bestseller lists today – all the Tony Parsons and Nick Hornbys and Ben Eltons; all the chicklit – will be totally unreadable in a couple of decades’ time. I’m not talking about quality, I’m talking about basic comprehension. Each page would have to have copious explanatory footnotes.
TMO: Agreeing to the interview, you wrote “now let’s visit The Fahrenheit Twins“. It’s a phrase that charms and intrigues. I read it as if the collection, as a whole, takes on a personality or character, as if it were a place or a person that we could visit.
Michel Faber: I said “Let’s visit The Fahrenheit Twins” because I was tickled by the thought of us helicoptering to their polar hideout. Of course I know that the twins are only words on a page, and I’m certainly not the sort of writer who talks to his characters or harbours any illusions about the creative process. But at the same time, I think it’s juvenile and arrogant when literary writers compulsively remind their readers that the characters aren’t real. People know that already. The challenge is to make an intelligent reader suspend disbelief, to seduce them into the reality of a narrative. Readers have invested deep emotions into my books, particularly The Crimson Petal and Under The Skin. I respect that relationship and I believe that those characters have integrity; I know what they would or wouldn’t do in a given situation. They deserve to be treated as human beings.
TMO: Do your books assume for you a particular identity once published? How would you describe the character of this particular collection?
Michel Faber: Overall, this collection is darker than my debut in 1998, Some Rain Must Fall. I haven’t necessarily grown more pessimistic or gloomy in the seven years since, but I’m less likely to write lightweight pieces. There are several stories in Some Rain Must Fall – Half A Million Pounds And A Miracle, for example – which are charming and funny and well-written, but quite slight. If I found myself conceiving a story like that now, I would abort it before it got to the page. Nowadays, I only want to write things that will shake people up quite profoundly, move them deeply, change the way they see the world. This tends to mean that it’s the more serious pieces that I expend my time and energy on, because they’re more substantial.
That said, I did worry that this collection would be too dark. Initially, I was thinking that it wouldn’t include The Fahrenheit Twins in it, because that story had already been published in another book in North America, and I didn’t want to cause headaches for my American and Canadian publishers. But then I realised that the story was essential to this collection, for the humour and transcendence that it brings to the book as a whole. And in the weeks leading up to the deadline for the editing of the collection, I worked round the clock to get two more stories into it: Explaining Coconuts and Mouse. Mouse in particular gives the book a burst of the gentle humour it needs.
TMO: How much do the Fahrenheit twins weigh on the rest of the stories in the collection? It seems to me their characters, and story, are almostemblematic, giving a unifying theme to the other stories. Or is it just that a book, by default, must have a title, and this was as good as any?
Michel Faber: No, it was deliberate. The book is a journey from alienation towards a tentative connectedness. The Fahrenheit twins, peculiar and slightly creepy though they are, are children with lots of inner resources, lots of juice. They see life as a big adventure. By contrast the protagonist of the first story, The Safehouse, is emotionally depleted; he sees himself as marooned somewhere beyond the end of all adventures. By making The Fahrenheit Twins the title – and concluding – story in the collection, and giving the twins’ hopefulness the last word, I’m trying to tip the balance towards optimism.