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Interview With an Author: Michel Faber

Daryl M., Librarian, West Valley Regional Branch Library,
Author Michel Faber and his latest book, (A Tale of Two Worlds)
Author Michel Faber and his latest book, D: (A Tale of Two Worlds) Photo: Pal Hansen DD

Michel Faber has written seven other books, including the highly acclaimed The Crimson Petal and the White, The Fahrenheit Twins, and the Whitbread-short-listed novel Under the Skin. The Apple, based on characters in The Crimson Petal and the White, was published in 2006. He has also written two novellas and has won several short story awards, including the Neil Gunn, Ian St. James, and Macallan. Born in Holland and brought up in Australia, he now lives on the south coast of England. Faber’s latest novel is D: (A Tale of Two Worlds) and he recently talked about it with Daryl Maxwell for the LAPL Blog.

What was your inspiration for D: (A Tale of Two Worlds)?

A number of things fed into the book. Back in 2016, I was asked to write something to commemorate the 150th anniversary of Charles Dickens’ death. The British public had just voted to leave the European Union. For progressive thinkers in the UK, this was a shock equivalent to the way progressive thinkers in America felt after the 2016 presidential election. During the anti-EU campaign, a lot of xenophobia was stirred up and there was a marked increase in acts of hatred against citizens who supposedly didn’t “belong” in the country. So I wanted my protagonist to be a “foreigner”. That’s nothing new for me, of course. A lot of my protagonists have been misfits and aliens—sometimes literally aliens from outer space. Dhikilo comes from Somaliland, which, for the people in her community, might as well be another planet.

Are Dhikilo, Nelly/Mrs. Robinson, Professor Dodderfield, or any of the other characters in the novel inspired by or based on specific individuals?

Dhikilo isn’t based on anyone else; she’s very much her own person. Professor Dodderfield is Charles Dickens. (Is that a “spoiler”?) Mrs. Robinson is Dickens’ mistress Ellen Ternan, AKA Nelly Ternan, who married a chap called Robinson after Dickens died, thus becoming Nelly Robinson. Of course, in my story, hundreds of years have passed and there’s been some supernatural intervention, so Dickens is not dead and Mrs. Robinson is no longer human. But clearly, they still care about each other.

Throughout the book, Dhikilo meets various tribes of creatures, who are all inspired by characters in Dickens’ books. The Quilps, for example, are inspired by Daniel Quilp in The Old Curiosity Shop. And so on. I should make clear that these references are just there to provide extra fun for adult readers who know their Dickens. It’s not important for younger readers to notice them or to have read anything by Dickens. Dhikilo’s story has its own integrity.

How did the novel evolve and change as you wrote and revised it? Are there any characters or scenes that were lost in the process that you wish had made it to the published version?

I started a version of it in the 1980s. Its heroine was called Miriam, a middle-aged, rather depressed white schoolteacher. So you can imagine the spirit of the book was very different from D, which is so buoyant and adventurous. I threw away most of the earlier book, keeping just two scenes—the Professor’s highly suspicious funeral and the heroine’s first meeting with him and his weird companion. I’m glad I discarded all the rest—it was terribly boring.

The Land of Liminus shares a number of attributes with The Land of Oz. Was the work of L. Frank Baum an influence or inspiration in your creation of The Land of Liminus?

I’ve never read the Oz books. I've seen bits of the Judy Garland movie on YouTube many years ago. So the resemblances, whatever they may be, are purely coincidental. A much more substantial influence was The Wonderful O, by James Thurber, a very funny, playful novella about a bunch of pirates who take over an island and ban the letter ‘0’. It’s a very different kind of book from D, but I’d recommend it to anybody.

What’s currently on your nightstand?

A pile of non-fiction books about music, because I’m writing a non-fiction book about music.

What was your favorite book when you were a child?

I had a traumatic childhood and don’t really remember it. I have no idea what books I read; my mother certainly didn’t read to me. As a teen, I loved the Narnia books by C.S. Lewis. Their influence can be seen in D, too.

Was there a book you felt you needed to hide from your parents?

My parents and I had a distant, alienated relationship. I doubt they took any interest in what I read and I certainly wouldn’t have bothered to hide any of my reading fare from them.

What is a book you've faked reading?

I never fake anything. Honesty is so much more interesting than pretense. When people pretend to have read books they haven’t, it’s to impress other people. So the crucial question is: Why do I need to impress other people? Books are for one’s own nourishment and enjoyment.

Can you name a book you've bought for the cover?

In the 1970s, there was a trilogy of sci-fi novels by Isaac Asimov called Foundation. The three Panther paperbacks, if you laid them side by side, displayed one joined-up Chris Foss's painting of spaceships. I got all three books so I could gaze at the image. The novels themselves were pretty dull and Asimov was completely hopeless at writing about women, which I noticed even when I was 16.

Is there a book that changed your life?

There have been many. Kurt Vonnegut’s God Bless You, Mr Rosewater was one. John Berger’s Ways Of Seeing was another. The Industrial Culture Handbook, an anthology of interviews with avant-garde musicians, was a third. The list goes on.

Can you name a book for which you are an evangelist (and you think everyone should read)?

I don’t tend to press books on the unwilling. In any case, I live a fairly hermit-like existence and don’t see many people. My fondest hope is that one of my own books should become so precious to a reader as to inspire them to recommend it to their friends.

Is there a book you would most want to read again for the first time?

I seldom re-read books. I’m too busy listening to new music.

What is your idea of THE perfect day (where you could go anywhere/meet with anyone)?

The perfect day would be spent alone in my study, as usual, but with my writing flowing ten times more easily than it usually does! I do take joy in going for walks and—occasionally—traveling overseas, but I don’t have preconceived notions of what I want to happen; I take it as it comes.

What is the question that you’re always hoping you’ll be asked, but never have been? What is your answer?

My favourite questions are the ones I never imagined being asked. And of course, I can’t know what my answer would be.

What are you working on now?

A non-fiction book about music. I’m looking at all the aspects of music-making that sophisticated, metropolitan, agnostic, Anglo people never mention when they discuss music. Which is a huge amount of stuff!

D: (A Tale of Two Worlds)
Faber, Michel