The acclaimed author on his new fantasy for young adults, what made him choose a heroine from Somaliland and why he’s not interested in writing realist fiction – or reading it
Interviewed by Anthony Cummins
Michel Faber, 60, is the author of three story collections and five novels, including Under the Skin and The Book of Strange New Things, a tale of interplanetary travel written during the terminal illness of his late wife, Eva Youren (the subject of his first book of poetry, Undying). Born in the Netherlands, raised in Australia, he moved to Scotland in 1993 and now lives in Kent. His new book, D (A Tale of Two Worlds), is a young adult fantasy about a 13-year-old girl on a quest to find the letter D after it mysteriously disappears from the alphabet.
The author’s note to D says you began it 35 years ago.
In the 1980s, I attempted to write a children’s book called Woman With Long-Tailed Lloriphole. Many years later, I read the only two salvageable bits that had any kind of life to my girlfriend, the author Louisa Young, and her daughter, Isabel, and I felt, there’s something to be done here. When I was approached to write something to commemorate the 150th anniversary of Dickens’s death, I’d just moved to the south of England and it was gearing up for Brexit; I fancied writing a children’s book addressing issues of where we’re supposedly from and how much that matters, so I went back to the only book I’d ever attempted to write for kids.
What made you choose a heroine from Somaliland?
I wanted to have a character from a country that didn’t officially exist. I wouldn’t presume to write about Somaliland; Dhikilo leaves Somaliland when she’s a baby and grows up in basically an all-white town in Kent. That makes her very much an odd one out and I’ve always been an odd one out. She is curious about her heritage, but not in a dysfunctional way – I didn’t want her to be miserable.
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Because you wanted a contrast with the issues driving the book?
There’s a danger that if you have [non-white] heroines struggling, people get the sense of a non-white heroine equaling heavy stuff. I felt the most positive thing I could do was have this non-white heroine who is just a kid going on an amazing adventure. That was also part of my agenda with Brexit: there was so much emphasis on where people were from and where people should be. The message of D is, can we forget that for a minute and just look at the person in front of us?
Were you conscious that YA fiction is sometimes charged territory?
I’ve encountered that since writing the book and that’s been very stressful for me. Sensitivity readers wanted to remove the racism that Dhikilo encounters in Gampalonia [after she steps through a portal into the land of Liminus]. I think there is an element of white people second-guessing what black people might find offensive; that, in itself, is problematic.
As well as being an adventure, D is a very literary novel.
There are lots for scholars to chuckle over, but Dhikilo is having her own adventure and Dickens is irrelevant to that. If you’re a kid, the [character of Dhikilo’s teacher] is [just] Professor Dodderfield, not Dickens, and [his shape-shifting dog] Mrs. Robinson is [just] this magical creature… you don’t have to know about Dickens’s mistress or any of that.
Crossing between worlds is a familiar theme for you.
D is about yet another stranger in a strange land, but it’s very different from my [other] books. I wanted this to be spirit-lifting, [despite] the undercurrent of darkness [when Dikhilo visits] the land of Gamp.
Which is a dictatorship?
In some ways, D is a primer about politics for youngsters. When the letter D first disappears, it looks as if the only damage will be that speaking and reading get more difficult. But after a time, things that are judged to have too many Ds in them start to disappear too: dogs, dentists, doctors…
Have you ever been tempted to write straight realism?
I don’t read fiction so I can’t generalize, [but] novels that don’t have anything fantastical in them don’t appeal to me. I grew up on Marvel comics. I love creatures and planets and transmogrifications; I don’t want to write about a couple whose marriage is falling apart because of the stresses of not being able to work because of COVID. It’s partly why I’ve played with genre: historical, gothic, sci-fi. If I were writing realist novels people would quickly figure [them] out: “Oh my God, another Michel Faber book and it’s about fucking alienation, again.”
Described by Neil Gaiman as "glorious", D: A Tale of Two Worlds by Michel Faber is a celebration of friendship and bravery for free-thinkers everywhere – out 17th September. Here's the man himself signing umpteen copies in the glam PRH offices last month… pic.twitter.com/816ylK5Op5
— Tabitha Pelly (@tabithapelly) September 3, 2020
You really don’t read fiction?
I used to review for the Guardian, partly to force myself to read a book from beginning to end: my usual practice from when I was 18 onwards was to just read maybe 15 pages [of a novel] to get a sense of how the author handled nuts-and-boltsy things like pace and description. [Eventually] I did think it was important, sometimes, to read the whole book, and [reviewing was] handy in that sense. Then when my wife, Eva, died… she was a great reader of fiction. She would read the books I was reviewing and we would talk about them. When that side of my life went, there didn’t seem any point anymore.
What are you reading at the moment?
Garth Cartwright’s Going for a Song, a history of record shops in Britain, for the absolutely vast nonfiction book I’m writing about all the supposedly naff music genres: autotune pop, extreme death metal, Christian rock…
So you aren’t writing another novel?
I’m not going to write any more serious [fiction] for adults – The Book of Strange New Things still feels like an appropriate place to leave [that]. There are unfinished stories of Eva’s that I’d like to finish as a kind of unusual posthumous collaboration; I’ve done four of those. But if I finish the music book, I’ll be doing well: my deadline is probably the year 3000.
D (A Tale of Two Worlds)by Michel Faber is published by Doubleday on 17 September (£16.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p over £15
MICHEL FABER is an internationally bestselling and award-winning author of critically acclaimed novels, novellas, and short stories, including The Crimson Petal and the White, The Book of Strange New Things, Under the Skin, and the poetry collection, Undying- A Love Story. His latest work of fiction, D (A Tale of Two Worlds) is a modern-day Dickensian fable which commemorates the 150th anniversary of Charles Dickens’s death. As well as tipping its hat to Dickens, it acknowledges its debt to James Thurber’s The Wonderful O, C. S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia, and Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Michel Faber was born in the Netherlands, grew up in Australia, spent twenty-five years in the far north of Scotland, and now lives on the south coast of England.