Continuing London Literature Festival, Michel Faber and Stephanie Merritt sat down in front of an enthusiastic audience in London’s Southbank Centre to discuss Faber’s two latest books – The Book of Strange New Things and his first published collection of poetry, Undying. Both of these books came from an incredibly difficult time in his life – the novel was written during the period his wife Eva was battling with incurable cancer, and the poems were written in response to her illness and death, and the grieving process that followed.
Naturally then, conversation turned to Eva frequently throughout the evening. He spoke of her determination that he should complete his novel and desire to be involved in the editing process as she had been with his previous works. The poems that came to him during the final months of her illness are very frank, almost brutal – a style that is rare in poetry on this topic. His intention had not been to publish them, he spoke of feeling that it would be perverse not to write them down. It was only when he read some at events that he realised they were affecting people, that it was not just him offloading.
He spoke heartbreakingly honestly about his failing memory, and the fact he is already losing parts of their early marriage. It was something they were both aware of and had to come to terms with. He is writing her biography for the family so he will have that when the memories fade but most poignantly he keeps her memory alive in the way he behaves – not reverting to how he was before they met. He also commented that this loss of memories means he does not have the same tools that many authors draw on – mining their youth for inspiration for their novels.
Faber spoke often of his wife but what also became clear was his passion for effecting change in the world. He sees his novels as always having multiple layers, that they always have a political or social angle. He spoke of his anger and feelings of helplessness in major political decisions such as the Iraq wars. He was so disillusioned by what he referred to as ‘humans and their incurable stupidity’ that he stopped writing for a while and then thought of writing a novel purely about aliens, with no human characters. Although this idea proved impossible it did feed into The Book of Strange New Things. In contrast to the norm for human characters in sci-fi he made his almost supernaturally tolerant, as he believes they would need to be in such situations.
The conversation then turned to deeper topics still – questioning if we need the bad in life to have the good, if being a bit messed up is an essential part of what it means to be human. He also tackled the question of religion. Both himself and Eva were brought up in religious homes but lost their faith. He makes it quite clear however that he would not make fun of religion, that the faith involved is something he wishes he could have. He spoke of the terror of living in a world where there is nobody to look after us. The ideas of loss and how to deal with it are themes in The Book of Strange New Things.
The talk wasn’t relentlessly heavy however, he also touched on his writing habits – not particularly rigid as some writers claim to maintain, he writes until there is no more, and perhaps unusually for an author, only rarely reads fiction. He also mentioned that he has no intention of writing another adult novel, partly because he likes to write in different genres to make it interesting for his readers, and has used them all now (except crime). For those feeling bereft at the idea of no new Faber prose to devour – he aims to turn his attention to Young Adult writing and produce something utterly magical.
We may have only had an hour but Faber was fearlessly honest about his views on the world and his personal tragedies. It was fascinating to hear how he approaches his writing and admirable how present he is in the real world, how deeply he clearly cares.