PW: The proof copy of The Crimson Petal and the White includes the legend that this book was twenty years in the writing, editing etc. It's an intriguing legend this. Can you tell us a little more about its (pre)history?
MF: It's no legend. I started it when I was about twenty-one and finished the final rewrite of it last year. The original manuscript, stiff with white house paint (I couldn't afford Tipp-Ex) is in a box at my feet under my writing desk. That noise you hear is me kicking it gently. The original version of the book was very bitter and Hardyesque. Sugar died a grisly death at the end. William was a much nastier piece of work. As the years went by, I became a more compassionate and less cynical person, so in the later versions of The Crimson Petal I treated my characters with more generosity and good humour.
PW: The freak shows visited by William Rackham and the Victorian pornography we glimpse on Sugar's wall: how much actual research did you undertake into "period" (ie nineteenth-century) pornography, and did the -- ahem -- performers we glimpse through the inebriated eyes of William Rackham (the armless violinist, the farting impresario) actually exist, in one form or another?
MF: The Victorians loved porn and produced mountains of it. As for the freak performers, they existed too. The armless violinist was a British sensation and the champion farteur was a Frenchman called Le Petomane, slightly after the period in which Petal is set. Fashionable ladies went into gleeful hysterics at his performances and had to be carried out by ambulance-men.
PW: In The Hundred and Ninety-Nine Steps, Sian says to Mac "Trust Me" -- two words repeated by Sugar to a weak and ailing William Rackham close to the beginning of The Crimson Petal. It's an interesting thing that. Trust. I get the sense that you wish your readers to trust you as you hurry them along the highways and byways of olde England. How important is the trust between an author (or a narrator) and a reader? (Have we seen the last of that great postmodern conceit -- the unreliable narrator?)
MF: I'm delighted you've made this observation as it's central to my work and no interviewer has noticed it before. Trust is absolutely precious, and its betrayal horrifies me. I do want readers to trust me. And yet I don't want to offer them a safe, predictable ride. The literary scene seems to be divided between "trustworthy" authors who give their fans a Big Mac that's totally unchallenging, and more ambitious authors who treat their readers with high-handed indifference. I want to earn the reader's trust while remaining unpredictable. I take the reader to some dark and emotionally uncomfortable places but never just for the sake of it. And I do care about how you're feeling on your journey. Many people have remarked on how readable and engaging they found The Crimson Petal despite its great length. That wasn't accidental. I thought very carefully about how to keep the reader intimate and awake.
As for the unreliable narrator issue, what's more important than an individual character's voice is the spirit of the book as a whole. The "narrator" of The Crimson Petal may be unreliable but the book delivers.
To be honest, I'm not impressed when authors rub their readers' faces in the fact that a book is only an artificial construct, that characters are not real, that it's all an exercise in deception and intellectual conceit. There's nothing new or clever about this. Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy did it to perfection two hundred and fifty years ago. Or you can go even further back, to Piers Plowman. It's Borges and Burroughs, written on parchment by a medieval monk.
PW: Tennyson appears time and again throughout your work (he provides the epigrams to both Under the Skin and The Hundred and Ninety Nine Steps and if I'm not mistaken the title to The Crimson Petal is taken from a Tennyson poem), and yet you're not afraid to admit criticism, albeit through the voices of your characters (Sugar and William Rackham express concern at Tennyson's modern direction upon their first meeting). What are your feelings about Tennyson and his work? What significance, if any, does the poem have to The Crimson Petal?
MF: The poem has no direct significance to The Crimson Petal, I just liked the symbolism of crimson and white petals -- blood, sexual immorality, purity, snow, the perfume business, and so on.
Tennyson wrote far too many poems, just as Bob Dylan has written far too many songs. Quality control slips and then your detractors can point to all the rubbish you produced. The best of Tennyson's work is sublime. 'In Memoriam' is one of my favourite poems. Queen Victoria's too. It would've been nice to snuggle up next to her and share our favourite bits, so to speak.
PW: On its release, Some Rain Must Fall was praised in The Times for the fact that "Each of the fifteen stories has such an entirely different voice that the book reads like the work of different writers." And, while it's true to say that each of your novels contain further evidence of this array of voices (for example, if you put The Courage Consort and Under the Skin side by side, you may be tempted to argue the case for there being different writers working on each book), I think The Crimson Petal is the first novel you've written that contains a similar Babel to that first collection of short stories within its pages. Do you agree? Or am I talking hogwash?
MF: No. Under The Skin was filtered almost exclusively through Isserley's consciousness, and the two novellas are filtered through the consciousness of Siān and Catherine respectively. The Crimson Petal is much grander in scale and I think that if I'd served up eight hundred and fifty pages of one character's consciousness that would have got tiresome. My next book will be another collection of short stories so that should be another Babel for you to explore.
PW: Can you tell us any more about the new collection of short stories? Is it a collection of stories that have already appeared elsewhere or stories that you're in the process of writing now?
MF: Some will have appeared in magazines and anthologies over the last few years. Others will be new. I liked the range of moods and tones in Some Rain Must Fall and am keen for the next collection to have a comparable diversity. A lot of my recent and/or unpublished stories are very dark and disturbing, so I'll wait until I have more funny and gentle-spirited ones before I do another collection. I wouldn't want people to think I'd moved into Purgatory since they last heard from me.
PW: Zadie Smith said recently that she feels there is a trend among modern novelists (she cited Jonathan Franzen and David Foster Wallace as good examples) to lead the reader on, presenting details and directing plots in such a way as to give the reader the expectation of the kind of denouement you'd get on TV and then, when you'd least expect it, refuting that expectation. The Crimson Petal does that in spades (I remember thinking, somewhere toward the end of the book, oh my God, Sugar is going to die, only for Sophie -- William Rackhams' young child -- to voice a similar concern). Red herrings abound. How conscious were you of planting potential plot developments knowing that they were not going to be developed?
MF: Very conscious. When a reader fears for a character's welfare, it's a reminder of how much you care. And of course it's a hook to keep you reading. As for Zadie Smith's more specific comments, I haven't read Franzen or Wallace and I don't watch TV, so I wouldn't know about trends.
PW: Given that (if HBO were to take an interest) The Crimson Petal could be filmed in the occasional style of a ten-part BBC period costume drama (albeit a ten-part BBC period costume drama that would have more in common with the sex, violence and swearing to be found in an average episode of The Sopranos), I wondered if this was present in your mind as you were writing: the idea that this COULD be TV, were it not for . . . water being fired from a quim, for one thing?
MF: TV is never present in my mind, not when I'm writing nor at any other time.
PW: Without giving too much away, The Crimson Petal ends rather abruptly. Any plans for a further volume at some point in the future? Or have we indeed heard the last of young Sugar?
MF: I've toyed with the idea of writing a novel set during the first or second World Wars, which could feature a thirtyish or elderly woman called Sophie who had a very unusual late-Victorian childhood. We'll see if this idea ever comes to life.
PW: Last but not least, I was wondering what you've been reading recently and whether there was anything specifically that you would or could recommend.
MF: Being Dead by Jim Crace is the best novel I've read in some years. In a lighter vein, anyone who hasn't read Edward Gorey's The Unstrung Harp may be delighted to discover this wicked little gem.
Peter Wild's interview with Michel Faber is published in collaboration with Bookmunch. To read the first half of the interview go here.