Claire Sawers

Freelance Writer

Category: Books (page 1 of 4)

Interview: Michel Faber discusses his new book The Book of Strange New Things

A personal tragedy and his decision to quit fiction have brought Michel Faber to a turning point in his career. Claire Sawers meets a writer who is considering his own literary legacy

Michel Faber

The List
9 October 2014

When Michel Faber began writing his latest novel, The Book of Strange New Things, he knew it would be his last. What he didn’t know is that it would end up being not just a farewell to his career as a novelist, but also to his other half, Eva Youren (in their case, the term ‘other half’ is practically literal). Faber’s wife – his unofficial manager / literary editor / mentor / PA / friend, or to give her a more grandiose label, his personal saviour (the reclusive Faber once thanked her for ‘bringing me back to earth’) – was diagnosed with a rare plasma cell cancer, and sadly died in early July.

‘The book was conceived before Eva was diagnosed,’ says Faber who, when we meet in the living room of his Edinburgh flat, is wearing several days’ stubble and a threadbare Rammstein t-shirt. The chameleonic, addictive fiction writer is probably best known for his Victorian sex-work epic The Crimson Petal and the White, and alien sci-fi thriller, Under the Skin which was recently adapted into a film with Scarlett Johansson.

He may be a little subdued today, but Faber hasn’t lost any of his ability to casually drill deep into the conversation, mining it unexpectedly, hitting hard insights while talking about his cats, or a pair of shoes. He’s just back from an American book tour, and pulls out Eva’s red ankle boots from his not-yet-unpacked bag. He beams sheepishly as he explains how he photographed the shoes next to things Eva would have liked.

‘The book was always going to be about grief; grief at how we treat each other and the planet. Loss of precious human beings. But I wasn’t expecting to lose Eva.’ Faber always intended his final novel to be ‘a journey into the darkness’, relying on the reader’s trust as he led them, and himself, into unmapped territory. An ‘obsessive shaper’, his work this time was deliberately much less planned. ‘Always being in control of everything, I felt uneasy. Really good books need a chaos element, something weird or inexplicable.’

With supremely cruel irony, Faber has noticed before that his books sometimes end up being ‘anticipatory, almost prophetic’, and The Book of Strange New Things – about a Christian missionary’s voyage to another planet – was no different. In this part dystopian travelogue, part epistolary love story, Peter and Bea are separated while he goes to preach to the indigenous people of Oasis; a foetus-faced species who speak with otherworldly, asthmatic voices, sounding like ‘a field of rain-sodden lettuces being cleared by a machete’.

As Peter makes progress with the Oasan people, Bea is back on earth, witnessing it short circuit in freak weather disasters and spasms of civil unrest. ‘It’s an enormously sad book, obviously. Heartbreaking things happen in it. I was writing it, line by line, as Eva became incredibly ill, and later when I lived with her in the hospital where she died. But I didn’t think it would be fair to make it the ultimate feel-bad book. I couldn’t do that to people.’

Faber wanted to find some consolation, without straying into cheesy, sentimental territory. ‘So often the “uplifting” thing just ends up being really platitudinous. Pathetic and specious. I really wanted to avoid that.’ And he has. On the surface, The Book of Strange New Things reads like an Orwellian bad dream, if JG Ballard and Kurt Vonnegut found themselves wandering the sterile hallways of a space base filled with piped-in Patsy Cline songs, maggot-based hybrid foods and out-of-date lesbian porn mags. It’s a morose, matter-of-fact allegory on modern life, but one enlightened by Faber’s gentle, resigned wisdom. the-book-of-strange-new-things

‘I’m not normally superstitious,’ says Faber, ‘but I didn’t write any dedication in the front of the advance proofs. All the other books were dedicated to Eva, but for this one I was a bit spooked. I was very much hoping for a remission, that she’d live longer; it felt almost like inviting bad karma.’ The finished copies, to be published three months after her death, will say, ‘For Eva, always’.

‘Eva said she’d like a dedication. This one was very precious to her. She’d worked on it a great deal, as with all the others. It’s obviously valedictory, and about saying goodbye to the flesh.’ As the person who initially jumpstarted Faber’s career and coaxed him out of his crippling shyness, Eva was ‘distraught’ at the prospect of him giving up writing fiction. ‘She was worried about me just shutting myself away as I tend to do. But I’m trying to say yes rather than no, and I want to live the sort of life she’d have liked me to live after her death.’

Although Faber says he’s written his last novel (‘Most books and works of art disappear down the plughole. If one of my books is destined to be remembered by anyone, it’s probably already out there’), he’ll continue writing poetry and non-fiction, with plans for a book on music theory ‘which will probably appeal to 178 people in the whole world’. He also talks of an intriguing plan to possibly ‘collaborate’ with Eva, and add to some of her own unfinished writing. ‘We discussed that. We had some wonderfully precious and intimate times and the relationship definitely deepened towards the end. It’s hard to think that might be extinguished.’

The Book of Strange New Things is published by Canongate, Thu 23 Oct.
Read the interview at The List here

Interview: Caitlin Moran

The List
7 July 2014

3.3 billion feminists – that’s what journalist and author Caitlin Moran would like to see, and she’s continuing her crusade in Edinburgh as part of a comedy tour promoting her debut novel.

‘Options for teenage girls can be limited when it comes to role models,’ Caitlin Moran is explaining, while battling a hangover that she says is threatening to bring on a ‘tiny ladylike vomit’ any minute. A female journalist came to Moran’s house the night before to interview her for Dutch Elle and they ended up draining a few bottles of wine. ‘I need a crisp sandwich – that usually helps,’ she adds, bulldozing on with her chatter – which, like her prolific writing and tweeting, has the ebullience of an agitated can of lager. And perhaps the same potential for fun, or carnage.

Moran is smart, insta-matey (‘Let’s suffer through our hangovers together, darling!’) and never far from an anecdote about crotches / trade unions / feminism / her heroes.

‘Options for teen girls seem to be: “Be sexy”, or “Be a bit stupid”, or “Be a lesbian”,’ she eyerolls. ‘I need way more options than that. Come on!’

Moran’s clearly given it a lot of thought – not only is she mother of 11- and 13-year-old girls, but she’s also just published her first novel, How to Build a Girl, written from the point of view of a 14-year-old ‘fat girl in a council house’. Moran’s author’s note states: ‘Like Johanna I came from a large family, in a council house in Wolverhampton and started my career as a music journalist as a teenager. But Johanna is not me. [ . . .] It is all fictitious.’

Moran’s synopsis of the book goes a bit like this: ‘You know that awkward and uncomfortable feeling when you’re a teenage girl? You think it’s all about your thighs? It’s not about your thighs. You need to change the world.’ (The last bit would probably get caps lock if she was tweeting.)

Moran’s on a literary tour just now. The first half of her show covers the book (‘Perfect hobbies for Johanna, besides masturbation and listening to rock ’n’ roll, are fermenting a revolution,’ she soundbites). Part two is Moran’s ‘raucous, dirty comedy’ and childhood memories – for example, the time teen Moran wrote a regular column for The Observer. When they failed to publish a column for four weeks, she faxed The Times, who took it, and have published her ever since. ‘I love The Observer but you expect to read about Marxism and feminism there. It feels more naughty writing about them in The Times.’

Moran is bringing her feminist politics to Edinburgh, with accompanying merch, displaying the Rules of Feminism. ‘Rule No 1: Women = Men. No 2: Don’t Be a Dick. That’s It.’ (Proceeds go to a women’s refuge, of course – she’s not a dick.)

Speaking of heroes, she still can’t get over that Girls creator Lena Dunham is a huge Moran fan. Dunham halted filming in Brooklyn when they met to announce to the crew, ‘This is a very important feminist from the UK!’

Tina Fey is another comedy and feminist role model for Moran. ‘Who’d have believed ten years ago she’d be debating massive feminist issues on Saturday Night Live, making it incredibly funny, while getting huge ratings? Good on you fucking Fey. I love you, man!’

Now it’s Moran’s turns to rally the troops. It’s been fairly effective so far, apparently. ‘People have got married, and started up feminist societies after meeting at my book signings,’ she beams.

‘There are 3.3 billion women in the world,’ she continues. ‘So potentially 3.3 billion different forms of feminism. Some want to campaign against genital mutilation, others to talk about relationships and pants. I see it as a big patchwork quilt – we all need to take a little square and contribute a small bit in making things better for women. Feminism isn’t something you read about. You take part in it. Come along and be a feminist with me! Admittedly in a very drunken environment …’

Caitlin Moran appears at the Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, Fri 11 Jul. How to Build A Girl is out now, published by Ebury Press.
Read the original interview here

Oliver Postgate – Seeing Things: A Memoir

The List 
4 December 2009
4 stars Continue reading

Pieter Waterdrinker – The German Wedding

The List
19 November 2009
4 stars Continue reading

Interview: James Ellroy

The List
4 November 2009

Blood’s a Rover is most ‘redemptive, romantic and accessible’ to date

Iconic US author James Ellroy has just reached the end of an epic literary trail. Claire Sawers speaks to the man who creates history within a cultural vacuum Continue reading

Ryan David Jahn – Acts of Violence

The List
30 October 2009
4 stars

Ryan David Jahn’s first novel takes a rusty knife and taps into the same vein that gore fans like Quentin Tarantino or Frank Miller love aiming for. Continue reading

Barbara Kingsolver – The Lacuna

The List
15 October 2009
3 stars

What really went on in the household of Frida Kahlo and her painter husband, Diego Rivera? Continue reading

Frankie Boyle – My Shit Life So Far

The List
1 October 2009
4 stars

Apparently, Glasgow’s cherished cheeky-man Francis Boyle showed a talent for ‘the offensive non-sequitur’ from a young age. Continue reading

JM Coetzee – Summertime

Scotland on Sunday
6 September 2009

 
This book brings to mind question and answer panels that pop up in Sunday magazines. “What three words would friends use to describe you?” a celebrity is asked, in the hope that loved ones will sum them up in a bite-sized and revealing way. In Coetzee’s case, the answer might be spineless, sexless and bookish, or perhaps gentle, reclusive and remorseful, depending on who he asks.

The South African author realises that for a truthful appraisal, he needs several character references. Summertime, the final part in his “fictionalised memoir” trilogy, continues his autobiography in the third person, where colleagues, relatives and lovers do the talking. Written as if Coetzee is already dead, the author sends an imaginary academic researcher into his past, to interview those who knew him well.

 

Julia, a married woman whom he had an affair with during the 1970s, first spots “John” in the supermarket. Baking brownies for this shy, scrawny oddball takes Julia’s mind off her own cheating husband. Although she tells the researcher how important her fling with John was, she realised they would never be in love. To Julia, real love requires two people fitting together like “an electrical plug and an electrical socket”. John, however, wasn’t designed for love; “wasn’t constructed to fit into or be fitted into. Like a sphere. Like a glass ball.”

Coetzee, 69, is in beautifully reflective mood here, tenderly mulling over what he has achieved, or more poignantly, not achieved. He wants forgiveness from his father, and understanding from disappointed girlfriends, as he looks back on his life with modest melancholy. It is hard to tell what successes he glosses over, as he seems more comfortable dwelling on his shortcomings.

This process of warping the truth, often painting himself in a worse rather than better light, allowed Summertime to make the Booker Prize longlist again this year as a work of fiction. Coetzee’s rewritten memoirs reveal a strangely sincere, self-critical and romantic man, drawn to poetry and classical music in apartheid-era South Africa, where “real men” laughed at his long-haired, vegetarian ways, and dismissed him as a pretentious wimp. Whether he likes it or not, Summertime shows, once again, he is an intense, outstanding and very enjoyable talent.

 

Harvill Secker, £17.99

 

Click here to listen to JM Coetzee reading a passage from Summertime for the New York Review of Books.

Interview: Susie Orbach

The List
20 August 2009

Planet of the Shapes

Susie Orbach tells Claire Sawers how the battle against body fascism is a never-ending struggle Continue reading

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