Michel Faber: Mih-shell Fay-ber
Interview with Michel Faber
The Crimson Petal and the White seems to begin with you, the
writer, personally addressing the reader and then leading him or her into the
intimate details of characters and events. The entire effect is somewhat like
voyeurismin effect gazing into a crystal ball to view another's secrets. Did
using this technique help with character development as you, too, stepped back
to view their lives?
It's actually not so easy to figure out whose voice it is that's addressing you at the startwhether it's the author, or a lady of the night, or the book itself. Whatever it is, it lures you into the world of 1875 until you're in too deep to pull out, and then leaves you to fend for yourself. I use the metaphor of a novel being like a prostitute, promising the reader a good time, promising intimacy and companionship. Ironically, even though you feel at first that you're being strung along by this beguiling voice, you do end up getting everything it promised you. And more, I hope.
I can't agree that the effect is one of 'voyeurism'. Voyeurism implies that you're watching something from a safe distance, with no emotional involvement required of you. The Crimson Petal is a very moral and humane book, not in the least flippant or insincere. Voyeurism is spiritually cold and I try my best to give all my work genuine warmth.
Q: Your written depictions of the environments, clothing, and social activities of the people in this world are incredibly visualgraphic even. And you conducted a great deal of research to achieve this. What sources of historical material did you find most useful in creating the visual descriptions of this era?
We're very lucky that the Victorian era was the first age of photography, because photographs capture so much, including things that the photographer never meant to capture. Victorian painting has also helped me enormously, plus of course I've read hundreds of books. In the later rewrites of Petal, I joined an online forum called VICTORIA, which was superbly helpful. In the end, though, the Victorian London in my story is a vision from my imagination, in the same way that the Scottish highlands in my earlier novel, Under The Skin, were a personal vision. Every writer uses the "real" world as raw material for creating his or her own universe.
Please explain the underlying meaning of the title of the book, The Crimson Petal and the White.
It comes from a Tennyson poem that begins "Now sleeps the crimson petal, now the white". But the poem has no particular relevance to my story. I like the complexity of associations suggested by crimson and whiteSugar is a "scarlet woman" but she is mistaken for an angel by Agnes Rackham, and is also desperate to move into a new life that's respectable and innocent. Agnes is, by birth and inclination, pure white, but is troubled by the phenomenon of blood. William uses and destroys petals of both colours in his profession of perfume manufacture.
The ending of this wonderfully written book is both happy and unhappy. Does this add more reality to the story than a traditional happy ending or an unexpected tragedy?
In its early versions, the story ended tragically. I was manipulating the characters like prisoners, knowing full well what their fate would be. As I've grown older I've come to the conclusion that life doesn't have to be a deterministic nightmare. I gave Sugar a chance to rescue herself and she took it.
In The Crimson Petal and the White, you generate remarkable empathy between reader and characterand not just the main charactersSugar's prostitute friends, William's carefree writer friends, the maids, the carriage drivers, the local elite, the pious. All can be pitied, admired, or at the very least understood. The effect seems to inspire open-armed acceptance of all creatures. And yet few of the book's characters feel this same "social acceptance." Is this type of acceptance only possible in a book, or can it exist outside of "fiction?"
I don't know. One of the most absurd tragedies about us as a species is that each of us is convinced we're misunderstood, alone, a misfit. There doesn't seem to be anybody in the world who feels they're what a standard-issue human being ought to be. Literature reminds us of this paradoxour specialness and our commonality.
Interview reproduced by permission of the publisher, Harcourt Books.
Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.
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