For me, literary festivals are a massive intellectual high. I like to pour myself into them and demand stimulation. They fizz me up; I start bouncing around, talking very quickly, and gesticulating as energetically as I can (given that I am usually holding a bag, a laptop, a coffee and several books). I arrived at the Strangely Human session in a state of high excitement, keen to hear Paula Morris interview Michel Faber. And then something happened.
Faber is a very serious man. Born in the Netherlands, raised in Australia, and currently living in Scotland, he is a writer of novels (lately The Book of Strange New Things), novellas, short stories, poems and non-fiction. His previous novels The Crimson Petal and the White and Under the Skin have been made into a very successful TV series and film respectively. He takes his writing seriously, and accords it respect and consideration when he speaks of it. He is grieving the death of his wife Eva, and he takes pain seriously too. He said there will be some people in this room who’ve come along to this session to take an hour out of their nightmarish lives. We sort of tittered uneasily, but he was, of course, serious.
What Faber did to me was force me to slow down. I stopped bouncing. At first I was bewildered, then slightly resentful (how dare he not be seeking to entertain me), then, eventually, grateful.
He read us three poems from his upcoming collection Undying: ‘His Hands Were Shaking’, ‘You Were Ugly’, and ‘Come To Bed’, about the illness and death of Eva. He had her red boots with him on the stage; he’s taking them to parts of the world she’s never been to. Those boots, the absence they represented, were painful. Across from him, Morris was crying. (She wasn’t the only one.) Faber himself seemed calm, measured. He said, “When an author comes to a literary festival I think they should be really there”, and he was.
Faber wrote The Book of Strange New Things while Eva was dying: “I wanted it to be the saddest thing I’d ever written”. It’s about a Christian minister who’s sent to a new planet to bring the word of God to aliens, leaving his wife behind on an increasingly disastrous planet Earth. It will be, Faber says, his final novel: “It’s clearly such a valedictory book”. (He’s considering writing for children in the future.)
There was the inevitable discussion of genre. In my review last year, I described The Book of Strange New Things as a novel at the literary end of speculative fiction (spec fic being science fiction, fantasy and horror). One of my pet peeves is when authors who write these kinds of books try to distance themselves from the ‘taint’ of sci-fi. I thought for a while this is what Faber was doing too. He said the sci-fi “furniture” is there to provide entertainment and thrills and magic, but it’s not at the heart of the book. But then he also went on to say how much comics – especially the work of Jack Kirby – have influenced him. “I wanted to bring that sense of wonder to my own books … that sense of stumbling into an exotic world.” He still reads comics for pleasure, without having “that post-modern analytical relationship” with them. “There’s nothing worse than a really dull work of literary fiction.”
One of the threads running through this year’s Auckland Writers Festival has been artists questioning what change art can effect. Faber says he doesn’t think books make changes in the world per se, but that there’s value in feeling not alone, and “if that’s all that literature can achieve, maybe that’s enough”. I think that’s plenty.
Attended and reviewed by Elizabeth Heritage
The Book of Strange New Things, published by Canongate, ISBN 9781782114086
Under the Skin, published by Canongate, ISBN 9781782112112
The Crimson Petal and the White, published by Canongate, ISBN 9781782114413