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Michel Faber

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The critically acclaimed and best-selling author of The Crimson Petal and the White

Michel Faber is Dutch by birth, grew up in Australian cities and now lives in a remote cottage in the Scottish Highlands. After studying English Literature and learning to read Anglo-Saxon, he worked as a nurse, a pickle-packer, a cleaner and a guinea pig for medical research.

Michel's startlingly original novel, Under the Skin (2000), which garnered accolades from around the world, was shortlisted for the Whitbread First Novel Award and was nominated for the Dublin Impac Award. His award-winning stories (Some Rain Must Fall and Other Stories, 1998 and The Fahrenheit Twins, 2005) and novellas (The Hundred and Ninety-Nine Steps, 1999 and The Courage Consort, 2002) are also attracting an ever-expanding readership.

The Crimson Petal and the White is Michel's second novel, published in October 2002. Twenty years in its conception, research and writing, this is a major work that truly rivals the finest Victorian novels for breadth, depth and sheer reading pleasure. Michel Faber's latest collection of stories, The Apple (2006), follows the lives of some of the characters first encountered in The Crimson Petal and the White.

In 2008 Canongate will publish Michel Faber's latest novel, The Fire Gospel, a contemporary retelling of the myth of Prometheus and a brilliantly provocative, entertaining indictment of our times.

INTERVIEW

Below is an interview in which Michel discusses his influences: Joyce, Vonnegut and, er, King Crimson . . .

[He responds to a correspondent who speculated about the writers who have influenced him. She was reading extracts from The Crimson Petal and the White, a novel set in 1875, and makes comparisons between him and James Joyce, Dylan Thomas and Thomas Hardy.]

'Hmmm, a flattering list: Joyce, Dylan Thomas, Hardy.

'Joyce is not a great favourite, although I like to ponder/savour individual sentences cherry-picked from Finnegans Wake every now and then. I regard it as the world's longest poem ... Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man has some lovely writing in it, but between you and me I can't be arsed with books about tortured young writers struggling to realise their destiny, having epiphanies that rescue them from the clutches of Philistinism, "how can they expect me to clean the stove when I have the soul of an Artist?" etc. (In The Crimson Petal, I have some fun with this, I can assure you ...)

'I've studied Ulysses in depth and still think it's a great and ground-breaking book, a brave and sincere trail-blazer - but also massively self-indulgent, baggy, and irritating.

'Joyce was a wonderful liberator, but his approach is dangerous for a writer to emulate, since he had a massive ego and was convinced that every word he wrote was sacred. Have you seen his annotated proofs? He scarcely ever deleted a word, just added screeds and screeds more stuff in the margins. He also believed that people should, and would, read novels with the same slow, studious pondering of every word and phrase that they bring to ancient scripture, which I think is a stupid thing for a storyteller to expect.

'My most intimate connection with Dylan Thomas's work is that I own a King Crimson LP called "Starless and Bible Black"!

'I read Hardy's Tess of the d'Urbervilles in the last year of high school and was quite enchanted by it. It was my introduction to the Victorian novel and to Victorian sensibilities generally.

'More importantly, I read Dickens' Hard Times too, and was extremely impressed. It led me to read a great deal more of Dickens' work, and do a semester-long seminar on him at uni as well. I love Bleak House in particular, but have also read David Copperfield, Great Expectations, Oliver Twist, The Old Curiosity Shop (all of which I much enjoyed) as well as Dombey and Son and Little Dorrit (which I found patchy). I've also dipped into Sketches by Boz and Pickwick Papers, but found them a bit too quaint, and Nicholas Nickelby, which didn't convince me.

'Anyway, it would be fair to say that I'm a big Dickens fan, and that I've learned a hell of a lot from him - as I hope The Crimson Petal bears out. If nothing else (and of course Dickens is much else) he's a wonderful antidote to the tyranny of "spare" prose in the modern American sense. (eg, I drove to the house. I knocked, walked in. There was nobody there. Nobody except the dead woman. etc etc). What I also found immensely useful and educational about studying Dickens was the wildly differing critical opinions of him. Every critic creates their own Dickens - fearless reformer, craven reactionary, anarchic force of nature, cosy sentimentalist, fierce intellect, self-educated bore, social realist, grand tragedian, slapstick comedian, etc etc.

'My own writing thrives on the plurality of conceptions of the world, and examining the way Dickens affects people of different temperaments and value systems is as good a way as any to confront and savour this plurality.

'The most influential books on me - books I have read over and over again, drawn to them as if for nourishment - are an odd lot.

'Most influential has possibly been John Berger's Ways of Seeing - not a novel at all (although Berger has written fiction) but a book of art criticism. The influence of these wonderfully perceptive and thought-provoking essays peeps out everywhere in my own work.

'Also very useful to me has been a comedy novel, Every Crook and Nanny, by Evan Hunter. It's a very slight book, by no means an attempt to write the Great American Novel. And yet, it has a way with comic dialogue I was very impressed with, and am still impressed with today - I read it again only a couple of months ago! It's taught me a lot.

'As far as serious fiction goes, I also learned a great deal from a collection of short stories by Robert Sheckley called The Same To You Doubled, in particular 'Pas de Deux' and 'Cordle To Onion To Carrot', which I've read and dissected many times.

'Thematically and in terms of authorial brio, I was very influenced by Kurt Vonnegut, particularly God Bless You Mr Rosewater, Mother Night and Slaughterhouse 5. My BA thesis was on Vonnegut, or more precisely on his readership and critical standing. In recent years, though, I've found it less rewarding reading Vonnegut, not just his inferior later books, but also the earlier ones I used to love. The mannerisms grate on me a bit now, and his avoidance of male/female intimacy and children makes me uneasy.

'Though I wouldn't say I was a big fan of George Eliot, and have never been motivated to read her other work, I did study Middlemarch at some stage and was much impressed by the structure of the book. Dickens' architecture is a bit ramshackle at the best of times, so it took Middlemarch to introduce me to the idea of a large novel that is extremely cunningly constructed architecturally. Balances, supports, symmetrical events, expansion and diminution. The first version of The Crimson Petal was very influenced by Eliot's grand neatness (if that oxymoron makes sense to you), though Petal is getting weirder, untidier and more organic in the rewrite I'm doing now.

'Finally, the book I have probably read the most number of times is a book of interviews with avant-garde musicians, called The Industrial Culture Handbook.

'All subhuman life is there.'

Copyright Michel Faber 2000