TMO: Let’s talk about the short story format. Faulkner wrote: “Maybe everynovelist wants to write poetry first, finds he can’t, and then tries theshort story, which is the most demanding form after poetry. And, failing at that, only then does he take up novel writing”. Simplistic perhaps, butthere does seem to be a grain of truth in this, in the sense that the short story seems to hold less esteem in popular culture compared to the novel,and yet is arguably more difficult to master. As someone who has writtenbrilliantly in both forms, what draws you to continue writing short stories, as opposed to concentrating solely on novels?
Michel Faber: Faulkner was a great writer but he had a weakness for making grand, macho pronouncements. The one about poetry, short stories and novels has the air of expressing a definitive truth until you actually think about it, and then it evaporates. I could just as well argue that ‘poetry’ is the easiest form of literature to write, because anyone with a glimmer of talent can be struck by a flash of inspiration and write eight short lines that nail something to the page. I’ve read some brilliant, amazing poems by children, inexperienced writers who’ll never go on to write novels or have any kind of literary career. They get an idea and in fifteen minutes it’s caught. Magic. Obviously it’s not possible to write a novel in that sort of burst of inspiration; it requires months or years of focus. Raymond Carver (who, as you probably know, was a fine poet too) used to say that he wrote short fiction because it was the only thing he could manage in the few hours between his exhausting day-job and sleep. Whether he would have written novels if he’d had more time is another question.
Ultimately, I think writers gravitate towards what they do best. Carol Ann Duffy knocks out superb poem after superb poem, so there’s no point in her worrying about equalling Anna Karenina. Some short story writers are pushed by their agents or publishers to write novels when they really have no apt
itude for longer fiction. I’m good at both so I do both. I would never presume to rank one form of art higher than another.
TMO: One big difference between a novel and a collection of short stories is the amount of control the author has in how the reader approaches the book. Likean old vinyl album that has to be listened to in its entirety, with the novel one must start at the beginning and read through to the end. If we take Under the Skin as an example, within that novel the timing and order in which you released information to the reader was crucial. When I read ashort story collection, though, perhaps perversely, I tend to dip in and out, straying from the order in which the stories appear. How independent of context are the stories in the collection?
Michel Faber: Readers who read a short story collection from beginning to end have the additional fun of noticing how wisely – or how badly – it’s been put together. But I have to admit that I tend to read collections the same way you do. I often tackle the shortest pieces first, or the ones that have the most intriguing titles. If a collection is good, though, its reader will be compelled to read all the stories eventually.
As for your comparison between novels and vinyl albums, it doesn’t allow for the ‘Ringo factor’ – that is, the tendency for listeners to skip the Ringo tracks on Beatles albums. If a novel goes slack in the middle, people will start skipping pages. Basically, the consumer wants to have a good time all the time, and the artist needs to decide how to deal with that.
TMO: There’s a line in one review of The Fahrenheit Twins, from the Independent, that, to my mind, perfectly captures the breadth and vitality of thecollection: “Michel Faber displays the storyteller’s almost promiscuousdelight in diversity of theme and setting, moving across time and genre and squandering imaginative capital that most novelists would hoard.” How fair an assessment is this? Do you delight in genre hopping?
Michel Faber: It’s true that I can’t see any need to hoard imaginative capital. Ideas come easy. The hard labour is the hours and years of struggle with the treacherousness of language. As for genre, I don’t really think about it. I don’t read genre fiction myself, can’t understand why people would want to devise rules for what fiction should or shouldn’t encompass. When I conceive a story, I never consider what ‘genre’ it’s going to inhabit, I only think about its spiritual tenor, its defining atmosphere, the particular effect I want to have on the reader. Then I use whatever techniques seem appropriate to achieve that.
TMO: Vanilla-Bright Like Eminem is a brave title and conceit for a short storywhen most ‘serious’ writers avoid pop-culture references in their work. The story freezes a moment, while the central character looks backwards and forwards in his life. It works brilliantly, but what about twenty years from now when the Detroit rapper may have been consigned to the dustbin of pop-music history (even given that the Eminem reference is tangential)? Writers, I would contend, always have an eye on immortality for their work, even if only subconsciously – is this a deliberate sabotage of that impulse?
Michel Faber: An excellent question, which was very much on my mind when I was writing the story. I carefully ration the amount of pop culture in my work, for precisely the reasons you outline. A few years ago, I wrote a wicked little tale called Life On Other Planets, about a man who gets stuck in a lift with a woman whose conversation is entirely derived from TV shows and gossip magazines. It was a very funny story – more chucklesome than most of my work – but it was doomed to get swallowed up in the fog of history very quickly. And I knew it when I was writing it. A few years before that, I’d written another story called England Rules, a satire on Tony Blair, William Hague and the Dome. It was published twice – the editors of the second magazine liked it so much they didn’t care that it wasn’t exclusive to them — and everyone who read it thought it was delightful. It would be unpublishable now; its half-life has expired.
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. People are willing to put in that sort of work into classic literature – Shakespeare, for example, or George Eliot – because the rewards are so great, but they won’t bother when it’s something whose appeal was very superficial to begin with.
However, I’m wary of becoming the sort of author who self-consciously disdains the minutiae of the modern world, the things that define ordinary people’s reality. That’s snobbish and dull. I’m always uneasy when I read some Booker-nominated tome that seems to be set in Literatureworld. So, in my serious work, I do my best to integrate pop culture in such a way that the references enrich the reading process but don’t get in the way if the reader doesn’t understand them. The characterisation and narrative momentum and thematic development should be vivid and compelling in their own right. There are a lot of pop culture references in Under The Skin but they are mystifying to the alien Isserley, so they work whether the reader understands them or not. Similarly in The Courage Consort, Catherine feels somewhat left out when the people around her are discussing pop culture, so the reader can identify with her all the more if those references grow more obscure with the years. In Vanilla-Bright Like Eminem, it doesn’t matter so much who Eminem is: what’s important is that he means such different things to the boy and his father. But in fifty years that story may need a footnote explaining what rap music was. That’s OK. If a work of art is strong enough, people will be prepared to do a bit of work to get the most out of it.