Michel Faber interview - The Crimson Petal and the White
The author and his wife Eva Youren on the forthcoming BBC adaptation
’As consumers of culture, we’re both quite cold fish,’ says Michel Faber, linking eyes over the living room with his wife Eva Youren. She’s stretched out on a windowseat a few feet away. She nods wordlessly in agreement. ‘We tend to see what the author or filmmaker is doing,’ Faber carries on, ‘but we stay quite…’ He pauses, as he often does, finding the best-fitting word. ‘Detached?’ Youren offers. ‘Yes, detached,’ he echoes.
Faber has just watched the TV adaptation of The Crimson Petal and the White. It’s a four-part series, which will be on BBC 2 this month. Faber’s original novel – published nearly ten years ago – introduced Sugar, a Victorian prostitute. Nineteen-years-old, with a ‘masculine intellect’, she has an almost mythical reputation for doing whatever a man wants, where other whores would draw the line.
Like his teen heroine, with her unflinching approach to her job, Faber took a fearless, access-all-areas approach to writing her story. He followed Sugar through an epic, 800-odd pages, letting readers peer under her clothes at her sharp shoulder blades and ‘immature bosom’, look on when she faked it with a punter, then watch her afterwards squatting over a chamber pot filled with a home-made contraceptive mix.
The book was full of sordid detail and grotesque plotlines about DIY abortion and mental illness. Although Victorian authors would have been reaching for the smelling salts, Faber filtered the squalor of London in 1875 through a modern lens, to make something entertaining, intelligent and totally addictive. He was typically meticulous in his research – papering the walls of his study with original Victorian maps of London, and joining online forums to geek up on everything from weather reports, lavender harvesting and treatments of the time for female hysteria. He ended up redrafting the book three times to make sure it was accurate. Layers of microscopic detail made it real, but it was the characters – flawed, infuriating, fascinating – that got readers hooked.
So what did Faber make of the TV version? ‘Because I don’t have a television,’ he says, ‘I don’t know where things are at in terms of censorship – so I don’t know how brave they’ve been.’
‘But, if we’re not getting hung up on “have we actually seen ejaculation?” – I think it’s honest about how a sexual relationship of that kind might work, rather than rolling mists pumped out by dry ice machines – and people in crinolines and tails approaching each other through the fog. They’ve been very clever. I think they’ve done an extraordinary job with it.’
Was it not difficult, I ask, to hand over such a labour of love to a TV team, and risk them potentially butchering his masterwork?
‘No,’ is his simple comeback. ‘None of those 800 and something pages are lost. The book is still there if people want it. This is a different project.’ He compares it to the time when he went to the Barbican to watch a stage production of his short story The Fahrenheit Twins by theatre company Told By An Idiot.
‘It was wild and wacky. Really high-octane; so much fun, so inventive. I was happy; my story had given birth to this separate entity. It loses some things and it gains some things, and again with the TV series. Sure, [the BBC version] is darker overall than the book, it’s got more of a thriller pace to it, and there are elements of the book that are magnified to provide more televisual tension.
‘But I’d like to think if I’d hadn’t written the book, and if I was a TV watcher, I’d turn it on and be intrigued, and think, “This is very powerful, I’m going to stick with it”.’
Perched on the sofa in his Edinburgh flat, Faber talks slowly, leans close, concentrates hard. He is utterly engaged and engaging, nothing like the elusive, obstinate figure who gave up the literary scene a few years ago, refusing to do interviews. A self-confessed ‘privacy junkie’, it’s only recently that he’s become more comfortable with the meet-the-media side to his job.
Both Faber and Youren are impressed with the BBC’s handling of the novel that he is most famous for. When Faber heard Sugar was being played by Romola Garai, he did a YouTube search. ‘I saw this trailer – for a film where she played a version of egotistical Victorian novelist Marie Corelli [2007's Angel]. She was completely bats, off her head. Romola did it very well. But that was the bodice and flouncy gowns, sweeping through ballrooms kind of thing. They could have done that with The Crimson Petal and thankfully they didn’t.’
Besides Garai’s knock-out, tart-with-a-heart performance – one minute a conniving cynic, the next a soft-hearted diamond in the rough – Gillian Anderson (of The X Files fame) also appears as brothel madam Mrs Castaway, while Shirley Henderson and Richard E Grant play a do-gooder prude and sinister doctor. Probably the most unexpected star though is Chris O’Dowd – The IT Crowd’s gormless geek – as William Rackham, the reluctant perfume heir who vainly fancies himself as a literary heavyweight. A connoisseur of prostitutes, with a soft spot for rough sex, Rackham reads about Sugar in More Sprees in London, his brothel guidebook, and tracks her down.
Rackham was one of the characters that Faber rewrote several times before the novel was published, and he’s ‘completely delighted’ with O’Dowd’s performance.
‘Originally William was more villainous,’ Faber explains. ‘But with Eva’s urging I made him more complex and more likeable, which in a way makes him more villainous still. If someone’s a cartoon villain you can dismiss them, but if they behave despicably but you kind of like them, they really get under your skin. You have this sense that they ought to be able to do better, and yet they’ve let you down.’
Faber often takes his wife’s advice on his writing – in fact it was Youren who put his unpublished short stories in stamped envelopes and offered to post them. She was instrumental in launching his career.
‘Michel didn’t want to be published at all,’ Youren remembers. ‘I think there are very few people who are writing full-time and don’t have a burning desire to be published. That conversation went on for six or seven years between us and finally, he agreed to send off some stuff.’ She smiles with one side of her mouth. ‘He was very stubborn.’
His wife is still one of his biggest fans – which is why she won’t let him give up on writing, as he’s worried he might do. Three years ago Youren was diagnosed with myeloma, a rare and terminal plasma cell cancer. Although she was originally given three months to live, she has undergone chemotherapy and a bone marrow transplant, and survived.
‘You can imagine that had a huge impact on me, and on us,’ Faber states. ‘She’s doing brilliantly now. It’s still going to kill her. We don’t know when. But looks like she’s going to be with us for some years yet.’
It’s a bittersweet listen. Youren tells me about a surprise birthday gift Faber gave her three years ago – thinking it would be her last. He asked musician friends to compose a piece of music for Eva, and gathered fresh material and covers from Brian Eno, Faust, Throbbing Gristle, Baby Dee and others onto a CDR that he gave her.
‘I think that’s the most astounding gift ever,’ says Youren. ‘The most amazing gift in the world.’
‘I’m obviously carrying stuff with me in my head all the time now,’ says Faber. ‘It means that that empty space that I’m accustomed to when I’m writing is hard to find.’ He’s currently working on another novel, set in the future, but isn’t sure he’ll ever finish it. He hopes he can.
‘I tend to process emotional stuff very, very slowly. I’m still dealing with some of the feelings that Eva and I were feeling when she was first diagnosed. Whereas she’s a much healthier creature emotionally than I am, and she lives each day for what the day offers.’
The day we meet, Youren and Faber have just got back from a literary festival in China, which Faber went to partly for his wife’s sake.
‘One of the reasons Michel got involved [in the literary scene] again was as a gift for me,’ explains Youren. ‘So that I’d be able to travel with him. I’ve always wanted to go to China,’ says Youren, who has a son living there. ‘I mean, if I’d already died, I have my great doubts he’d have gone.’ Later in the year Faber is doing a writing residency in Utrecht, and Youren will go too.
‘It’s definitely not a Paul and Linda McCartney thing,’ Faber insists though. ‘We spend lots of time apart too.’
‘You can’t be together all the time,’ Youren says with a head-shake. ‘You need time to develop and grow on your own. We both love our own company.’ When Youren is down in Edinburgh receiving treatment, Faber is up at their home in Ross-shire, listening to and databasing his music. ‘I could spend the rest of my life just discovering music, and not doing any writing. It’s displacement activity,’ he explains. But they stay in touch; he sends photos of what their cats are doing, she sends photos she’s taken or short stories she’s written.
‘I want to read Michel’s work,’ Youren says. ‘It improves the quality of my life. And I know a lot of people who feel the same way.’
The Crimson Petal and The White will be shown on BBC 2 at 9pm on Wed 6 Apr.