The Beatrice Interview

Michel Faber

"I think I've been writing ever since I was introduced to the English language."

interviewed by Ron Hogan

"You told me once you'd never looked at a sunset properly," Michel Faber's wife, Eva, mentions to him during our interview in his rooms at the Gramercy Park Hotel. He readily admits that his city upbringing was such that "it's only in very recent years that I've actually begun to notice what happens to the sky when the sun sets." In his first novel, Under the Skin, he's certainly done a fine job of describing sunsets and other natural conditions in the region of Scotland where he makes his home. The novel looks at the Scottish landscape through the eyes of Isserley, a mysterious young woman who...well, in order to share my discussion with Faber about the book at length, I'm afraid I'll have to give away some crucial spoilers. If you haven't read the book yet, and want to be surprised, you probably shouldn't read much further. (But do read the book at once, I urge you.) Isserley is an unusual looking woman who picks up hitchhikers, drugs them, and then takes them back to the farm where she lives so that they can be processed, for "vodsel" meat is a delicacy for the "human" race on her home world. The conflicts she deals with, though, aren't much different from those many Earthlings experience, including a deep alienation from her coworkers and a resentment towards the class iniquities that have forced her to take such degrading work. There aren't many details about the alien civilization from which she comes, though: "I was very careful not to talk too much about her own world and the various technologies," Faber says, "because the more you talk about those sorts of things, the closer the book gets to science fiction and I'm really not interested in the furniture of science fiction, the window dressing of it. One of the big strengths of science fiction is the idea of the parable, the moral parable--and to some degree, Under the Skin is a parable, but, I think, at its heart it's a character study."

RH: Why did you choose to set this novel in the part of Scotland where you live?

MF: I grew up as a city kid in Melbourne and Sydney and never had much of an appreciation for nature, never had a particularly strong response to the Australian landscape. It wasn't until I came to Scotland that I really was opened up to how beautiful the world could be, and a lot of Isserley's sense of discovery in the book is my sense of discovery on coming to Scotland.

RH: You very effectively portray her reaction to a new, alienating landscape. How alienated did you feel, dropped into the middle of Scotland?

MF: That alienation goes way back, long before I came to Scotland. I was born in Holland, and my parents decided to start a new life in Australia, so they took me with them and left behind my brother and sister from previous marriages, tried to just obliterate all that history and start completely afresh in a new country. As a child, I had a sense of my past having disappeared. It was wonderful to be introduced to the English language, but I did feel very alienated to begin with.

As a teenager, as many teenagers are, I was very alienated from everything. I lived very much at the periphery of society for many years. So, alienation is one of the constants in my early life--but, I think, since I've been with Eva, my wife, and also, because I worked for a long time as a nurse... Those two things brought me a bit closer to the human race and gave me a bit more empathy with other people. In my work, I think, there's still all the aftershock or aftereffects of all that alienation, but with an extra dimension of concern for other people and empathy and humaneness.

RH: And writing has been a longtime passion for you.

MF: I think I've been writing ever since I was introduced to the English language. There was just something about it that instantly connected with me. Even at primary school, I remember standing in the playground reading installments of a cowboy novel I was writing aloud to some other children. All through my teenage years, I was starting novels, got inspired to do about 100 pages before collapsing. Then in my twenties, I finally figured out how to not only start them but to actually finish them.

RH: Had you read a lot of science fiction?

MF: In my younger years, I read everything I could get my hands on, anything that had print on it. I read a lot of classic literature and a lot of genre fiction. I read a lot of science fiction, but also romance, "women's" books, so to speak, thrillers, everything. All the literary greats as well, Dostoevsky, Dickens, and Eliot, Hemingway, the Bible I've read a lot, the Norse sagas, just everything.

In more recent years, because I'm writing so much, it wouldn't be unusual for me to write twelve hours a day. Once I finish a stint like that, I don't really want to read another book. I'd much rather go for a walk or have a nice meal or do things with my wife. So, I read very little nowadays.

RH: So when you sit down to write, you don't say to yourself, "I'm going to write a science fiction story, or this kind of story or that kind of story."

MF: Absolutely not. I really deplore the idea of labeling anything. I think most of the really special things in this world can't be put into a box, can't have an easy label put on to them. It was very important to me to find publishers who wouldn't market Under the Skin as a thriller or a science fiction book, and I've given up some quite lucrative offers from publishers and agents who wanted to push me in that direction. I think the real beauty of a term like "literary fiction" is that it really doesn't mean very much; all it means is that it's likely to be well written, which is fine with me. Other than that, it doesn't arouse expectations in people as to what they're going to be served up, and I think that's the best way to approach a book as a reader.

RH: The language in the early sections of the book needs to be very precise, then, because of how you drop subtle hints that Isserley is not entirely like other people, but remain ambiguous about her true nature.

MF: This is going to be one of the big challenges if and when the book is filmed. When you read it as a book, you're given only a certain amount of information at a time and you revise, as you read, your ideas about what she might look like or what her kind might look like, according to the information given. I don't know how that would be done in a film; they'd have to spill the beans much earlier than I do.

RH: Did you model her "human" race on any particular type of existing creature?

MF: Well, Isserley's face is based to some extent on a cat we loved very much that died about a year and a bit ago. I'm very happy for each reader to have their own picture in their head of what exactly the humans looked like in the book. In my mind, it was a sort of cross between a cat, a dog, and a llama, but I wouldn't be upset if other people had a different picture, as long as what they see is lush and furry. I thought of their proportions as equal front and hindquarters because to me it adds to the horror of what has been done to Isserley. She is really designed to be equally weighted on each pair of legs; because she's been made upright, the alterations are much more agonizing for her. There's also the irony about her having been modeled from sexy magazines which are already a distortion of what an ordinary human being looks like. When I conceived the book, I was thinking a lot about plastic surgery and the whole idea of women voluntarily allowing themselves to be carved up and reshaped to a cast master, as if their selves, as they were, weren't good enough.

RH: The book provides a unique twist on the debate over vegetarianism. You force the reader to look at what is done to animals bred for consumption in a new, more emphatic way.

MF: As a society, we've grown so far away from the original notion of the farming of animals where you put an animal out to pasture and allow it to have some sort of life and eventually, you kill it, and you eat the meat pretty much as it was on the animal. The things that we do now to animals in order to produce a certain quality of meat . . . they're really science fiction things that we do to them. I'm sure in the US you heard about the BSE scare in Britain, which was a result of basically forcing herbivores to eat dead meat. It's an extraordinarily transgressive thing to do, biologically, to make cows eat ground pig products, or whatever it was that they were forcing the cows to eat.

But of course Isserley, whose job it is to gather the vodsels, has it really tough as well. I deliberately keep the reader's sympathies balanced as much as I can. As soon as your sympathy tips towards the plight of the vodsels, I'll put something in that reminds you how vulnerable Isserley is and how much she is just trying to get by doing a tough job.

I just think it's desirable to live with open eyes and to do or not do things because of an informed choice. The book is an invitation for people to make up their own minds about certain issues and to find peace with the choices that they've made. It's certainly not a tract for vegetarianism. In fact, I'm not a vegetarian myself. I eat very little meat, much less than most people who eat meat, but I don't think what this book is about is to dissuade people from doing anything.

RH: As you're continuing to write, do you hope to continue sort of mixing up the same types of imagery and genre conventions?

MF: Well, the next book that will come out in the US will be the short story collection that came out first in Scotland, Some Rain Must Fall.Several reviewers of the short stories remarked that it was as if they were written by fifteen different writers. So, yes, that variousness that you just described will still be very much there. The book after that, though, the next novel, is set in 1875, is so very different again from Under the Skin.

RH: So there's not going to be any danger of anybody pegging you as a science fiction author or . . .

MF: Absolutely not. The danger, of course, will be that many readers will fall in love with this book, and then when the next book isn't anything like that, they'll just run away and my literary career will begin and end with Under the Skin. But I've spent most of my life well below the poverty line, so if I cease to sell books, that's really not going to change my relationship with the universe. If it all ends after this one, I'll still think I've been fortunate.

RH: So, for the most part, you have a satisfying life beyond the writing.

MF: Well, like all of us, I have emotional damage from things in my past that interferes with my ability to be as happy as I'd like to be. I do suffer from depression, but yes, I'm a very, very fortunate person. I live in a part of the world that is stunningly beautiful. I have a wonderful wife who I get along with in every conceivable way, and she's also a very fine critic, who gives me wonderfully focused and honest and intelligent feedback on the things that I write.

You know the part where Isserley is talking to the hitcher who she thinks later is called Pennington Studio and they have this conversation about "life is shit"? His life is completely down the toilet, and she is put in the unusual position for her of having to defend life. That, to me, is a central scene in the book. I do think it's a wonderful planet. We're very lucky to be on the world and for the world to be as it is. And yet, because of what we do to each other, and what our parents do to us and so on, we can still be so damned miserable, which is so perverse, but that's the way it is.

BEATRICE Suggested further reading
Jonathan Lethem | Complete Interview Index | Richard Rhodes

All materials copyright © Ron Hogan