Every autumn, amid the flurry of new releases, there seems to be a single book that grabs more of the attention, steals more than its share of the limelight. That same book doesn't always win the big awards or even get unanimously good reviews, but it manages to capture the attention of the publishing community and those that report on it. It gets talked about. Sometimes for a long time.
Last summer I had a strong feeling that The Crimson Petal and the White would be that book for 2002. My first hint: prerelease copies landed on my desk (with a thunk: it's a big book) from New York and Toronto on the same day. Intrigued by the attention being shown to a fairly new UK-based writer, I started to read. And was enchanted.
The Crimson Petal and the White bypassed all its early hype. Victorian in tone and subject matter, the book managed to bring the intricate and carefully structured feel of the Victorian era while giving us a very modern glimpse at what might have gone on behind behind some of those tightly closed curtains.
It introduces us to Sugar, a brilliant and self-educated London prostitute who, though lacking conventional beauty, enraptures her customers with her wit, her grace and her ability to anticipate their needs. One of the gentlemen so enslaved is William Rackham, the dilettante son of a perfume manufacturer who, in his desire to possess Sugar completely and exclusively, finds the impetus to finally get down to the business of making perfume.
We meet William's brother, Henry, who is set on a course of saving London's poor from themselves; Agnes, William's crazy wife and Sophie, his practically invisible daughter. Most tellingly, though, we see the dirt and poverty of 1870s London streets, the comedy of manners in its finer drawing rooms and are brought home the fact that, though fashions and seasons may change, human nature doesn't.
Michel Faber, the creator of this sprawling saga was born in Holland in 1960. His family immigrated to Australia when he was seven. Faber majored in Old, Medieval and Modern English Literature at Melbourne University. While he never stopped writing, Faber didn't anticipate publication. "Everything went straight into the bottom drawer," he has written. "I assumed history would take care of it somehow (ah! the romance of being discovered after one's death!). In any case, I was too poor to get novels typed up."
So he wrote while doing various odd jobs -- "cleaning stairwells, cleaning houses, ironing, being a guinea pig for medical research" -- until he eventually became a nurse, an occupation he credits with contributing to a better understanding of humans and their nature.
Meeting -- and later marrying -- Eva Youren a decade and a half ago proved to be instrumental in Faber's ultimate success as a writer. It was Youren who encouraged Faber in both the creative and practical aspects of his work, even offering "to put stamps on the envelopes and to take care of all the messy procedures of submitting work."
Faber, Youren and Youren's two sons relocated to rural Scotland in 1993, a move that would lead to Faber connecting with Canongate Books, then a well-respected but smallish press who kept a sharp eye out for new talent. The international success of The Crimson Petal and the White combined with publishing this year's Man Booker-winning The Life of Pi by Yann Martel, has recently launched Canongate into the stratosphere of international publishing. But that's a different story. This story deals with Faber, his gentle genius and how a self-described "hermit" and "loner" came to write a book that seems likely to become a modern classic.
In person, Faber's voice delivers the traces of his background: you can hear all of his influences. A touch of western Europe, more than a smack of Australia and even a dash of the Scottish Isles in a voice that sounds, ultimately, quite distinctly -- if unplaceably -- British. His face is boyish -- earnest blue eyes, sandy blonde hair on the longish side of short -- and his manner self-deprecating. It's not that he seems surprised by the success of The Crimson Petal and the White -- he knows how hard he worked, for instance, and what it's meant to him -- but more as though the book has been far better received than he anticipated simply because, at heart, he is vaguely suspicious of the mainstream.
We recently chatted about some of the research that went into writing The Crimson Petal and the White; a possible future book that will feature Sophie Rackham as an adult; the film -- starring Kirsten Dunst -- based on the book that is now in the planning stages and why Faber doesn't have an agent.
Linda Richards: The Crimson Petal and the White is a huge book and the historical detail is amazing. It must have been a lot of research. What stands out?
Michel Faber: I found the Internet especially helpful. In particular, a Listserv I belong to. For instance, an apple grower is in trouble because the weather has suddenly turned very wintry and I thought: Well, what was the weather like in 1874? Am I just making this up? And this person sent me amazing information from a book called Taylor's Authoritative Apples of England, 1936. And it's got stuff in it like: There were not many commercial or domestic varieties of apples ready for picking in August. An exception would be Beauty of Bath, an early dessert apple grown by both private and commercial gardeners. ... The Beauty's unfortunate tendency to drop before fully ripe would probably have been more marked in a year like 1874. And that's the sort of info I had access to 24 hours a day. Just anything that you wonder about, somebody out there has written a book about it or knows exactly where to find the info.
And it's on the Web.
Not necessarily on the Web. A lot of these scholars are working with dusty old tomes. But they have access to information. That's something that's really new with people writing historical fiction. Because you used to be bounded by what you yourself had managed to find in your local libraries or what you had thought of researching. But when you're a member of an Internet site like this you're getting like 30 e-mails a day about all sorts of topics to do with the 19th century and that in itself is interesting. And also there's the very specific feedback that you get.
You'd have to do a lot of footwork to come across that apple book, for instance, on your own.
Yes. Exactly. And that means that any historical book that was written before we had this technological miracle inevitably, I think, would have had more errors than a book potentially could have today.
Do you find that bogs you sometimes, though? Do you ever get the feeling you have too much information?
No. I have a really inviolable core as a writer. I know what I want to do with my characters. I know what's right and not right for the story. I have no trouble getting rid of stuff that I don't need or that I judge is wrong. And you know how a lot of people ask this question: Can you read other authors while you're writing? And a lot of writers say they can't because they'll get influenced by that style and it will bleed into their own work. Well, again, I'm not like that. I can read anything and it doesn't interfere.
The Crimson Petal and the White has been incredibly well-received. And it's gotten wonderful reviews. Were you surprised at its success? I mean, it's on everyone's bestseller lists and...
It isn't on the British bestseller lists.
No. Personally it doesn't bother me because I've got so many readers already for my work. And I never expected to have any readers at all. So the idea of hundreds of people, let alone thousands, reading my book...
Well, yes. But I think of it in terms of people standing in my back garden. All of them saying: Hello, we've read your book and we'd like to talk to you about it for a minute. And if you think of them all physically standing there, it would take an awfully long time to say hello to each person and have a proper conversation about the book. So once the numbers get over several thousand, it becomes an abstract. You can't grasp it or deal with it.
But I'm disappointed on behalf of my publisher in Britain, that it didn't make the bestseller lists. They took a big risk in publishing it. It's a big book, for a start. You were saying it's got such good reviews. It has received almost universally fine reviews. But there was one television program in England that completely trashed the book. Said it was rubbish. Basically said it was without any redeeming features. Terrible sex scenes, it said. And you didn't learn anything about the perfume business and characters were cardboard cutouts and so on. And it's possible that that had an effect at a crucial time.
In North America it's doing very well, though.
Yes! And, funnily enough, this panel -- this television panel -- used the success of the book in North America almost as a reason to criticize it. As if to say: Well, North Americans are dummies and they'll fall for anything. But we clever Brits can see through that.
What I was thinking, though, was that according to things I've read about you, all of the success the book has had has been a surprise, as you weren't really anticipating gaining a following until after your death. [Laughs]
That's true. Yeah. I've had a very blessed career, really because so much of my life I was too poor to submit my work and I wasn't particularly interested in doing so anyway. Then, when I met Eva and she began to support me -- because she was working full-time as a teacher then -- she offered to put stamps on the envelopes and to take care of all the messy procedures of submitting work. She really encouraged me to enter short story competitions. And I won several major short story competitions in the UK and then, arising from that, my publisher approached me and said: We love your work, how about you let us put out a book of your stories? So I actually sidestepped that whole young writer syndrome of sending off manuscripts, getting them rejected, trying to find an agent, getting an agent. I mean, I don't have an agent, still. I don't feel I need one. Maybe one day I'll bitterly regret it, but an agent is another person in your life. It's another relationship.
I'm very much a loner and I relate to one person at a time. The fewer people that I'm really intimate with, the better. So from that point of view I felt I didn't need an agent. And, also, the main functions of an agent as I understand them is to, one: tell you that you're great and you're going to make it and, again I believe in my work. Secondly, they help you get published. They actually get the manuscript read by someone at a publisher's. And, again, my manuscript got read without that. They also demand more money on your behalf. And I don't need more money than I've already got. I've had a roof over my head for the last 20 years as a writer. I love secondhand records, but they cost, like, a dollar each. I don't smoke or drink, I don't drive a car, I don't want fancy gadgets. All I really want to do is sit in a room and write and listen to music. It doesn't take much money to support that lifestyle. And I live in the middle of nowhere. I live in a tiny hamlet 40 miles north of Inverness. So I don't have to worry about high rents in New York or London or whatever. So, again from that point of view, I don't need an agent saying: This is ridiculous, what you're offered as an advance. My client wants five times that. You know, I don't need that. For example, I've got an agreement with my British publishers, Canongate, that when they're dealing with foreign publishers they will choose the publisher that is most passionate about the book and that they think is going to publish it best, in the sense of -- you know -- the text will be treated with the most respect, the translation will be best, it's understood between us that they will not choose the publisher that offers the most money. I mean, some of these Eastern European publishers, they offer like 200 pounds for a book, which wouldn't pay for Jeffrey Archer's drinks bill -- well it would now, but he's in prison. [Laughs] But you know what I mean. It's great. If they really believe in the book and they want to publish it and it's going to be read in another language then I'm happy. What do I need people to be screwed for, for an extra... [Shrugs]
So, in effect, your publisher acts as your agent in that case. Because dealing with foreign rights stuff would be no fun. But they do that for you.
One of the things I've heard a lot in relation to The Crimson Petal and the White is that it was 20 years in the writing. I'm sure there's a story around that.
I started it when I was 19.
You really did?
Yeah. Sure. It was the first novel I ever finished. I'd been trying to write novels since I was about 11. And I remember standing in the school playground reading bits of a very bloodthirsty western novel called In The Shadow of the Condor, which is based on a comic book. And I was reading these bloodthirsty accounts of Mexican cowboys shooting each other and blood dribbling out of the holes and all this kind of thing. Very 11-year-old male stuff and it was just very appealing to me to live in these fictionalized realities.
I kept starting novels and not finishing them. Like I'd write 10 pages, 20 pages, 50 pages. There was one science fiction novel which I wrote about 120 pages of. Then each time they'd just die. They'd run out of steam. Because when you're young you grow up so fast and every year it's a big leap of maturity. You look back at what you wrote the year before, you realize it's crap.
So all these novels kept just dropping dead. And I thought: Well, what does it take to actually finish a book? How's it done? I was studying the Victorians at university and reading books like Middlemarch and thinking about how neatly it's constructed. It's so architectural. Everything is balanced and schematized and everything at the beginning is tied up at the end and all the events at the start are mirror images of things that happen at the end. And I thought: Well, this may be the way to do it. To make sure that it actually gets finished, you plan everything obsessively. Just make sure you know where you are at every paragraph. And I planned The Crimson Petal like that: very, very carefully.
With a lot of attention to structure.
[Nods] A lot of attention to structure, yes. The original version of it was very, well it was a circular structure, for a start. You know how it begins with this cab crashing and there's blood on the cobblestones? A body gets carried away and you're not sure who the body is. Well, at the end of the original version, Sugar tries to get away with Sophie -- just as in the final version -- she arrives at Caroline's house. Clara, the disgraced servant, hasn't been able to find respectable work and is working as a prostitute at Caroline's house. She and Sugar meet each other on the stairs; there's this big gothic moment of recognition, Sugar gets spooked, runs out into the street without looking where she's going, a carriage comes along, kills her, Sugar's blood is all over the cobblestones, her body gets carried away, Sophie is screaming... typical sort of Hardyesque deterministic ending. The idea that, you know, the gods already know what going's to happen to you and you're fucked, but you don't know it. [Laughs] So it was very, very neat, the original version. In the original version, Mrs. Castaway is William's mother. She's the woman that got thrown out of the family home, she couldn't do anything, became a brothel madam. So William and Sugar are sort of siblings. It's like incest.
But that didn't make it into the final version.
No, no, no. All these things, some of them I just decided were too contrived and that would alienate readers, because we're accustomed to more psychological realism these days than in the days of the Victorian sensation novel. And other things I changed because they were just too harsh. They were too cruel, they were too dark. When I finished the original version of the book I was still in my late 20s and I had a lot of growing up to do. And I did grow up a lot, became a nurse and learned a lot more about people, fell in love with Eva and that relationship was very nurturing. Very good for me. Very encouraging. And I saw her relating to her children and realized that family life doesn't have to be the nightmare that I had always thought family life was doomed to be.
So, I just thought that original vision -- that nightmare vision of a cruel universe that's out to get you -- wasn't fair. Wasn't fair on the universe, wasn't fair on the characters. So I rewrote the book from the ground up. I questioned everything: all the basic assumptions. It was almost like giving the characters free will and seeing what they would do with it. I kept this basic Victorian architecture but then let them grow up within it. Sophie became a much more interesting little person, because in the original version she was just an angel. There wasn't anything wrong with her at all. She was like a little doll.
And she is an interesting character.
Yes, yes. She's already a little bit crazy, because she's inherited Agnes' obsessiveness. And she's absorbed some quite unpleasant values from William, as well. I think, as a result of being with Sugar, she'll be interesting. She'll be OK. And Sugar: I didn't know if Sugar would survive. I just let her do what she was going to do and just watched how she managed. And I'm very, very pleased she survived because I've grown fond of her.
You're pleased with the result of two decades, then?
Yeah. [A smile.] Yeah.
Your first novel, Under the Skin, came out in 2000, didn't it?
Which is quite recent, considering the size of this new novel.
Well, I've put out five books in three years.
That's a lot. Stuck in that room with your records.
There was one point when I was working 12 to 14 hours a day, staring at a PC screen seven days a week. It's not healthy. But I did get a lot of work done.
Listening to Krautrock?
Yes. And Miles Davis. This is probably the first Victorian novel that was written to a constant background of Krautrock and Jazz fusion.
The commonest response that we get to the book is, when people see it, they think: No way, it's too big and I don't like long books and life is too short. Just at the sight of it. And then when they start reading it, before they know it they're at the end and they're like: Is that all there is? I could have had more of that.
Earlier you said: I think Sugar is going to be all right. As though you'd given thought to where she might end up. Does that mean you're toying with the idea of a sequel?
I wouldn't write a sequel, as such. But I'm toying with the idea of writing a novel set around the time of one of World Wars in the 20th century. I quite like the idea of having Sophie in it. By the time of the first World War she'd be in her 30s or something and by the Second World War she'd be a very elderly lady. And I like the idea of having this character who you know a bit -- because you knew her when she was a little girl -- but then all this time has passed that you know nothing about and then you meet her in a different century. And Sophie would have memories so you'd learn something about Sugar, but I don't know how much.
Are you working on anything now?
I'm not working on that book. I'm just thinking about it. The main thing I want to do in the next six months or so is relax and space out, play lots of music and not feel pressured to do anything. The next book will be a collection of short stories. But I've written five books in three years and I've had a lot of contact with the rest of the world which is unusual for me, because I'm such a loner. And as a result of the success of my books I've been doing lots of interviews and traveling a lot, meeting lots of new people. Because I'm basically a hermit, that's very difficult for me to digest. It takes me ages to process all that. So I feel I need a long space where I'm not actually doing interviews or working on anything that has a deadline. I want to take some time off.
But the next book that will come out will be a book of short stories. I don't know how long it will take. I've already got enough short stories for another collection. And they're very strong short stories but a lot of them have a really dark, unsettling side to them. One of the stories which I'm sure will go into the collection is the postpartum depression story. It affects women who've had postpartum depression very, very deeply. And there's a lot of stories that are powerful in that way. But I don't want the whole collection to have that same spirit hanging over it. I want there to be gentler stories in it as well and stories that are funny and lightspirited. So I want to make sure that I've written a few more of those by the time I'm ready to pull the collection together.
My first collection, Some Rain Must Fall, was very varied. Some of the reviews of that book said it was like the work of 15 different writers, each submitting their best short story and it being published in an anthology. It is very, very, various. And I like that. And I'd like the next collection to be similarly varied.
Yet, for your longer work, you seem to be drawn to the historical. Are you?
No. The Crimson Petal and the White is the only historical novel I've written.
But you're planning on another.
Well, the 20th century is only historical because for the last three years or so it's been over.
I tend to think of things written now but set in 1980s as being historical, in a way. Because we're looking back from here at the way a time was. And writing it in a way that touches people.
Well, I did write [an unpublished] book set in the 1980s called A Photograph of Jesus. And, you're right: it is historical now. And yet, in another way, it's such a short time ago.
In the 80s, a lot of writers were looking back at the 60s in a historical way because there were so many catalysts for change. And that was only 20 years before. And now we're looking back 20 years, again, at all the shoulder pads and mousse.
Well, you say shoulder pads and mousse and, of course, that was a feature of the 1980s, but in another way history has already been distorted and rewritten because there were a lot of very passionate ideological movements during the 80s. There was more mass protest about things like nuclear disarmament in the 80s than in the 60s. But in the 60s all that stuff was considered terribly newsworthy because it was new and there were naked people with flowers and so on. Whereas, by the 80s, I think people just decided that decade was going to be labeled the "me decade" and it was going to be about shoulder pads and mousse. So anything that didn't fit that was considered, you know, not newsworthy, not notable.
I'm constantly discovering weird things like, there were so many hippie communes during the 80s that were actually functioning, actually working, in ways they had failed to work in the 60s. But, again, these people were totally ignored. They just weren't considered where it's at. I think one of the nice things about the way I've approached history in The Crimson Petal is that I've focused on things which you don't necessarily think of as being part of that age. But everything has always happened to everybody. Forever. So it's all there.
What surprised you the most in your research, or while you were writing?
I guess the biggest surprise about the Victorians for me is how hungry they were for experience, for thrills. They have this reputation of being very staid and pompous and straitlaced and repressed. And, sure there was that side to them, [but] in many ways the Victorian age was the beginning of that whole 24 hours a day thrill culture. They loved to get thrills constantly and the 19th century saw the whole explosion of consumer goods, mass spectacles, just this whole capitalist idea of being able to get everything you could possibly want, whenever you wanted it, in whatever form you wanted it, at a choice of prices. I've used the metaphor a couple of times that Victorian London was like the Internet, made flesh on the ground. It was that profusion of stuff being done by people at all levels. I hope that I've captured a bit of that in the book.
There's also an almost filmic quality to the book. And all these beautiful segues where, you know, the carriage passes and the scene changes and they miss each other and all that. It's beautifully done.
Thank you. It's deliberately very cinematic.
Well, that sounds like a segue! Have they come calling yet?
Well, I don't involve myself in that side of my career. That's handled by Canongate, my British publishers. I'm told that the film rights have been sold or leased or something to Columbia. [Laura] Ziskin [Spiderman] will be producing. And the female lead of Spiderman [Kirsten Dunst] is going to be in it.
It should be an interesting process for you. To watch your work interpreted for film.
Hmmm. A lot of the best films get made from quite short works. They're obviously just going to be very selective. They'll probably get rid of a number of characters, for example. Maybe they'll get rid of Henry and Emmaline, which would be a shame, because that's the whole side of Christian sincerity in the book. I think that's very important as a balance for all the cynicism and the sexual exploitation. But, yeah: they're probably likely candidates to be zapped.
You said they're Christian sincerity in the book. Are they symbols?
Not in that crude way, but I have tried to do justice to the complexity of Victorian society. And, yes on the one hand they were an enormously exploitive, bullishly capitalist people. But on the other hand they were genuinely trying to reform society and undo some of the damage that the industrial revolution had done. Because one of these misconceptions, again, about the Victorians is that they created the industrial revolution. Whereas, it had all been done.
When Jane Austen was writing these terribly genteel romances set in the countryside, that's actually a very blinkered picture of what England was all about. Already those sort of ancient forms of life had been bulldozed and replaced by the engines of the Industrial Revolution. And by the time you get to the 1870s, the Victorians are already registering, recognizing how much damage has been done by this huge engine of progress. And they were already trying to fix it. They were already trying to engineer and tinker with it and undo a lot of that harm. In many ways the 1870s are an age of tremendous reforming energy and social idealism. I think that's an important side of the book which may be left out in a movie version. But we'll see. We'll see.
How long was the manuscript for The Crimson Petal and the White?
About 300,000 words.
That's finished? The book is 300,000 words, or the manuscript was? Or was it the same?
It really was pretty much the same. I don't hand in manuscripts that I'm unsure about. And I have almost infinite appetite for returning to a work. Fixing it and tinkering with it. I only really let it go when it's right. | November 2002
Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine and the author of several books.