Movie and theater critic JP Hitesman gave me some unexpected news last week. Michel Faber, author of Under the Skin and The Crimson Petal and the White, will stop writing after the release of his upcoming novel The Book of Strange New Things.
Faber’s one of my favorite authors. I even had the opportunity to interview him earlier this year about the movie adaptation of Under the Skin. It was an impromptu correspondence interview, so we didn’t get the chance to meet, but his eloquent and well-described answers showed an author who was tremendously open to his work being challenged and reinterpreted by critics and other artists.
I sought out some articles about Faber’s oncoming retirement from novel writing. This New York Times feature is the most complete. Most agreed it was a reaction to the passing of his wife Eva from cancer, and hoped it’s just a phase that will pass. To me, that seems disrespectful of Faber and his late wife. I understand our impulse to want more from the artists we love and be disappointed when we don’t get it, but that completely misses the beauty of the moment.
An author always has a story in him, and that story belongs to him so long as he directs its course. Once he gives it over to the public, however, it ceases to be his. It belongs to readers and critics and theorists who will love it and hate it and pick it apart at the seams. That’s what gives us our best work. It’s not simply because of how good a writer is; a hundred thousand good writers have been lost to time.
What gives a work its brilliance and defines its meaning over time are readers themselves. Every story takes place a million different ways in a million different imaginations and carries a million unique interpretations. That story is not the author’s any more, it’s ours.
Sometimes an author has to keep that story in him. He needs that story to stay his own. He needs there to be one version, not a million. I imagine that might be how Faber feels, and if you’ve been through loss, you’ll understand why.
When I speak of ownership, I don’t speak of legal possession, but rather the possession of ideas: An audience can own a novel or a film or a painting forever because those can stand the test of time. Audiences change, and so that story of ownership changes and interpretations of art evolve, but that audience cannot own a creator. They are fleeting. They are the single element in any piece of art that we can never make our own.
Yet a creator can never own his art. It’s always given to an audience. He can’t own the meaning, he can’t own the interpretation, he can’t own how it will be understood in the future.
It’s beautiful when artists keep on giving until the day they die, but there’s a sadness to that, too. Conversely, it’s sad when an artist stops giving when he could still create, but there’s also a beauty in this. Faber deserves a chance to own his own stories. Everyone does, why should artists be any different?
To be as true an artist as you can is to give everything inside yourself to others, day after day, yet feel like it’s not enough. Every act of artistic creation is also an act of terrific loss. So long as that’s a positive motivation, and the well you’re pumping dry every day is being filled back up, art is a passion. It’s the rarest combination of vulnerability and invincibility.
When that motivation dwindles, for whatever reason, we shouldn’t be sad or angry that an artist has stopped creating. We shouldn’t make demands or insistently issue hopes. We should be joyous we got to enjoy what they’ve already made. Never be upset at a gift that’s been given simply because you wanted more of it.
Yes, there’s an element of sadness to Faber ceasing to write novels, and we shouldn’t deny that feeling. It just shouldn’t override the moment, because there’s also beauty to be found in it.
Don’t just imagine what else Faber, or any artist who moves on, could have given us. Imagine what he keeps. There’s awe in that. It’s an act of creation in itself. Let Faber create a story he wants to keep for himself, and don’t wonder at what it is. Admire that, for once, he gets to keep it.
You may not recognize Dan Gilroy’s name, but he’s been writing in Hollywood since 1992. Most recently, he wrote the story for the Hugh Jackman-starring, robot fighting Real Steel and the screenplay for Jeremy Renner’s crack at being Matt Damon, The Bourne Legacy.
It’s shocking that a movie like Nightcrawler emerges as his directorial debut. It’s a low-budget barn burner and dark comedy that focuses on character. Russ Fischer at SlashFilm interviewed Gilroy about what it’s like to write a sociopath for Jake Gyllenhaal.
The interview’s safe on big spoilers but you’ll get more from it if you’ve seen the film. Among other things, Gilroy talks about what it’s like to write without a character arc.
For our own site’s review of Nightcrawler, read here.
A few weeks ago, I had the privilege to ask a few questions of Michel Faber, the author of Under the Skin and The Crimson Petal and the White. He had responded to my review for Jonathan Glazer’s film adaptation of Under the Skin, starring Scarlett Johansson. Scotland’s a long way away, so after confirming it was him, I ran things pretty informally in the comments section. I enjoy correspondence interviews because, as you’ll see, they allow for more considered responses.
Without further ado, the interview, beginning with his response to my review:
Michel Faber: This is among the more interesting responses I’ve read so far to Glazer’s film of my novel. The film is indeed experimental and, quite apart from admiring its intrinsic merits, I’m relishing the fact that such a thing has infiltrated the marketplace and reached moviegoers who might not otherwise have got detoured so far outside their comfort zone. This is analogous to what I tried to do with the novel, which lulled readers into thinking it was a conventional horror-thriller before taking them on a very different ride altogether.
Gabriel Valdez: Thank you, Michel! It’s an honor that you took the time to respond to my review. I’m a fan of how you approach genre as a form to be molded into something new rather than strictly followed. I am curious – many authors dislike when so many liberties are taken in adapting their work. It sounds like you’re quite the opposite. Do you feel as if Glazer using the bones and tone of the novel to create the film’s own message is more important than holding to the narrative details that you established? What kind of input did you seek in that process of turning Under the Skin into something so different?
Michel Faber: When readers read a novel – especially novels as visceral and visual as mine – a kind of movie plays in their heads, and the specifics of character and atmosphere (the book’s ‘casting’ and ‘cinematography’, if you like) are controlled by the author. So I would hope that anyone reading my novel would be pulled into my novel’s distinctive world rather than (mis)perceiving the book as a prose version of Scarlett Johansson’s performance in Jonathan Glazer’s film. In other words, the book remains what it is no matter what other versions are out there.
My main concern about Glazer’s movie (and, before that, the BBC series of The Crimson Petal, and the stage adaptation of The Fahrenheit Twins) was that they should be strong works of art in themselves. A mediocre or weak adaptation that tried to be faithful would have upset me; a strong adaptation that took wild liberties made me very happy. I’ve been lucky so far. My only regret is that Jonathan Demme wasn’t able to get his version of The Courage Consort off the ground, as I think that might have made a lovely movie too, especially if a good ensemble cast had improvised it.
For me, the ideal book-into-film adaptation of all time was Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. Ruthlessly unfaithful and yet true to the essence.
Gabriel Valdez: Apocalypse Now answers the next question I was going to ask. I’m always curious about editing, for both writers and filmmakers. It’s the stage at which the connective tissue of a piece comes together, often in ways you don’t initially expect.
For someone who researches so painstakingly, do you find that the story is written in your notes before you even begin the narrative in earnest, or is it still coming together even as you edit? I’m also curious about the point of diminishing returns as a storyteller. Your language can be so precise – is there a perfect ideal of the story that you feel you achieve, a stopping point where you sit back and acknowledge the story’s right where it needs to be…or could you just go on editing forever?
Michel Faber: Because I write on computers, the distinction between notes, drafts, and editing blurs. Also, different pieces are tackled in different ways: The Crimson Petal was rigorously planned while my forthcoming novel The Book of Strange New Things was allowed to develop more instinctively/organically. Under the Skin was somewhere in between.
As for the editing/finessing process, it could indeed go on forever. When I do public readings I often stub my toe on things in the prose that I wish I could change. Some authors hate being pushed by editors to (re-)engage with their text once they’ve “finished” it; they’ve lived with it too long already and are desperate to move on. I respect that. But in my case, I’m happy to keep working on it to make it better, as many drafts as it takes.
It’s interesting to compare this with film-making, particularly the semi-improvised sort of film-making that Glazer employed in his movie of Under the Skin. If you’re filming scenes with people who are not actors & unaware that they’re being filmed (as happened in various scenes of Under the Skin) or if you’re filming in unrepeatable weather conditions (for instance the scene where Scarlett’s alien observes the people drowning in the wild surf, which according to Glazer was a totally flat, calm ocean on the days when they weren’t filming), you are at the mercy of the footage fate gives you. You can edit it obsessively in the editing suite, to finesse the rhythms and juxtapositions, but the raw material is what it is. Whereas a novelist can change the raw material.
One of the reasons Apocalypse Now is such a successful movie is that Coppola and his team were able to adjust, and make creative use of, the many things that didn’t go as planned during the shoot. So instead of clinging to their original vision of the movie and allowing it to be sunk by the disasters that eroded that vision, they changed the vision to incorporate the fiascos. Novelists are free to discard three months’ worth of writing and all they lose is time. Film makers don’t have that leeway; they need to work with what they manage to capture in a limited time frame.
Gabriel Valdez: I had no idea they hadn’t searched out such a rough stretch of sea just for its wildness. So much of the film really is capturing lightning in a bottle.
How do you feel about the reader or viewer taking ownership of the work once it’s out of the author’s (or filmmaker’s) hands? My reading of the movie Under the Skin, for instance, relies on analyzing multiple scenes but really hinges on a sound cue. Especially under someone like Glazer, whose imagery and editing is exacting but who values improvisation, it could have been Johansson or himself or Mica Levi who saw that opportunity in the storytelling. They might all look at that moment as hammering home a different message; certainly critics have taken a variety of meanings from it.
I’m sure you’ve had moments when critics and readers have derived meanings from your work that were different than intended. Your novels have many overarching themes, but they also have these very natural moments when we catch characters in a scene that might not be crucial to the narrative, but is absolutely crucial to inhabiting the world, in feeling and sensing the texture and pace of a place. Those are very accessible moments and can invite readers to start attaching their own, personal meanings to your work. Do you enjoy when readers extrapolate something different from what you intended? Is it frustrating that readers may miss some of your own meanings or are you proud that your work lends itself to such flexibility? Or a combination of both?
Michel Faber: If you go to Amazon and browse through the readers’ responses to novels – any novels, whether simple or complex – you will soon be overwhelmed with evidence that most people are looking for very personal resonances in a book and will rate it solely according to whether it hits that spot. Often, what the author intends the book to be “about” is dismissed as irrelevant, or not even noticed.
An analogous thing happens with music, where, for the average listener, a song is “good” if it reconnects them with an emotionally significant phase of their life – and even then, maybe only a few of the words of the lyric rather than the whole thing. Notoriously, zillions of people cherish The Police’s “Every Breath You Take” or Baby Bird’s “You’re Gorgeous” as swooningly romantic anthems, playing them at their weddings as “our song”, when in fact the lyrics are, respectively, about creepy stalkery possessiveness and about the sexual exploitation of a model by her photographer.
As a novelist, I have to accept that some readers just won’t “get it”. I’ve put the book into their hands and it’s theirs to consume as they wish. Other readers will understand what I’m trying to achieve, and that’s gratifying. And other readers will see things in the work that I wasn’t aware of when I was writing it but which, on reflection, I realise are valid. It’s just like a friend pointing out something about your character that you hadn’t noticed yourself.
In any book, I hope to strike a balance between stuff that I weave very deliberately into it, and stuff that ends up in there for deep, unconscious reasons. Readers and critics can sometimes alert me to things that I am helplessly or instinctively channeling, and I’m always intrigued when that happens.
I want to thank Michel Faber once again for taking the time to respond to my review for Under the Skinand answer a few questions. Under the Skin comes out for DVD/Blu-Ray on July 15. I encourage you to see it; it is the best film I’ve seen in the last two years.