TMO: I found myself shocked reading many of the stories in The Fahrenheit Twins. Partly thanks to decades of cheap Hollywood splatter movies, shock is not seen as a legitimate artistic exercise – we talk of something having’shock-value’. It seems to me, though, that much of your work is shocking,and that this is no bad thing. Was it your intention to shock the reader in places, and if so, to what end? Or am I just too sensitive??
Michel Faber: No, you’re not too sensitive. The reason my work can be shocking is that it genuinely gets to you – it penetrates your defences. Modern readers are very hardened creatures. They’ve seen it all, or think they have. Hollywood splatter movies are not shocking in any real sense: they startle you with loud noises and sudden activity. Books are equally guilty of this. Whenever I see a term like ‘shocking’ used on the back cover of a novel, I know it’s probably just a lazy, devalued figure of speech. In most cases, ‘disturbing’ merely means ‘unpleasant’; ‘life-changing’ means ‘momentarily thought-provoking’; ‘chilling’ means ’emotionless’; ‘heartbreaking’ means ‘sentimental’, and so on. I’d love to restore some meaning to these concepts.
TMO: To what extent are you a moral writer? It seems to me that you consistently face the reader with uncomfortable but intriguing truths, almost as a mode of instruction. There is, for example much harsh reflection on contemporarysociety within the stories in The Fahrenheit Twins (some prime examples being The Safehouse, and Eyes of the Soul).
Michel Faber: I’m a highly moral writer and I’m obsessed with uncovering the truths underneath the surface of things. All good writers are. Even bad ones pretend that they are.
TMO: Perhaps we’ve already touched upon these themes, but it seems to me there’s a very interesting exploration of science, mythology, and belief going on in the title story. Jim Crace, speaking about his novel Being Dead, said he, as a confirmed atheist, had wanted “to come up with a narrative of comfort for atheists in writing that book”. How important do you think ritual and myth are, in a post-religious society?
Michel Faber: Isn’t Being Dead a wonderful book? I’m always recommending it to people who haven’t read it. Like Crace, I’m an atheist. But I’m obsessed with humanity’s need for religious belief. This will be at the centre of my next novel. And of course the instinct for creating ritual and then pretending it came from somewhere else provides the thematic backbone for the title story of The Fahrenheit Twins.
TMO: Reading through the questions above, there’s little sense of how playful,and funny many of the stories in The Fahrenheit Twins are, albeit a fairlyblack humour. Does it bother you that certain tones in your work, such as that of alienation, seem to be more emphasised than others by critics? Perhaps humour is harder to discuss and evaluate?
Michel Faber: I’ve been extremely lucky with reviews, I think. Many substantial, worthwhile writers toil away virtually unnoticed for a lifetime, going to their graves clutching a handful of yellowed newspaper clippings. My work, from the moment Fish won the Macallan prize, has had an extraordinary amount of attention from the press. And most of it’s been glowingly positive, too. I’d have to be a complete egomaniac to complain about how critics haven’t understood me blah blah blah. Yes, it’s true that many reviewers focus on the ‘heavy’ themes rather than on the fun that can be had along the way. But maybe that’s because they’re worried that if they celebrate the humour, they won’t be doing justice to me as a serious artist. On rare occasions, a book of mine will attract a review that misses the point entirely. In a world that also contains George Bush, AIDS and global warming, this is hardly a tragedy.
TMO: You wrote a chapter in the Global Novel project, bringing together writers from 12 different countries to write one novel. It’s an interesting concept. How did you find working on it?
Michel Faber: The Global Novel is exactly what you’d expect twelve different writers separated by language barriers to come up with. It’s a fascinating insight into cultural differences, into translation, into the helplessly distinctive voice of each of the participants – and it’s a lousy narrative.
TMO: You were born in Holland, grew up in Australia,and now live in Scotland – can you identify with nationhood?
Michel Faber: Nationhood, like religion, is enormously important to most people, yet I can’t share it. In Under The Skin, I channelled my sense of being an ‘alien’ in Scotland into the character of Isserley.
TMO: If it’s not too cheeky, can we ask you about your future projects?
Michel Faber: One more novel, which, if I can do with it what I hope to, will combine the strongest aspects of all the others – the Dickensian sweep of The Crimson Petal, the weirdness of Under The Skin, the compassion and humour of my best short stories. After that, a non-fiction book about music. And after that, well… I suspect the planet will be in such a state of upheaval that we’ll have more urgent concerns than reading books.
The Fahrenheit Twins by Michel Faber is published in the UK by Canongate.