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Submit Response is a weblog by Jack Mottram, a journalist who lives in Glasgow, Scotland. There are 1308 posts in the archives. You can subscribe to a feed. This post was made on and belongs in the interviews category. The previous post was , and the next post is .

Michel Faber

Michel Faber’s latest novel is The Crimson Petal & The White. We talked to him about the challenges of writing a Victorian novel today and the questions of class at the centre of the book.

What was the genesis of the novel, where did it come from?

When I was at university I studied the Victorian era, and really enjoyed reading victorian novels, and learninig about the 19th Century in general. And, for most of my life I have lived in circumstances that other people would describe as poverty - it never really felt that way to me, because i don’t really need much to keep me going, and I was going to university with people who came from backgrounds of great privilige, and for me one of the things which drives The Crimson Petal is that clash between the marginalised working class anger of Sugar, and her hatred and mistrust of wealthy people, and the reality of that position when you move away from poverty and realise there are some wonderful things about being middle class. It’s great not to be in danger of your life, and it’s great to be taken care of in certain ways. That whole class confusion - that… who am I?

I’m sorry, I’m very inarticulate when I speak - I’m very articulate when I write, but because I don’t have those prepared answers we talked about earlier, because it would drive me round the bend delivering a little spiel, it does mean there’s a lot of umming and ahing and trying to think what i really mean.


I’ve always been very interested in that journey from a very alienated damaged past towards something that’s more functional, more connected to the rest of humanity, and that’s a very difficult journey for Sugar to make and it also involves her losing some of her identity and feeling as if she has sold out in some way, and yet on the other hand you can understand why she wants to do that.

And how did that suggest a Victorian setting, and the form of a Victorian novel?

I’ve been writing novels since I was a kid, and all the novels i wrote in my early teens would die after ten or forty or a hundred pages, because i would start them in a rush of enthusiasm, and i would think that that momentum would carry me through to the end, but i would get stuck and that novel would die. Then I got married, and my wife was also a novelist - my first wife - and she wrote novels in the same way, starting in a rush of enthusiasm and hoping that would pull her through, and she got stuck as well, and had terrible trouble, and i was watching her struggling. eventually I decided that there had to be a better way of writing a novel than this, and decided to write a Victorian novel, that was completely planned out, like a piece of well laid architecture or something, very neat, and everything at the start would reflect something at the end. I would know exactly what happened to every character, and when and where. I had this immensely complicated plan written up for it, virtually down to the paragraphs in the chapters. And it worked because i finished it. The original version of it was very neat, and the world view was very grim, very deterministic. Sugar, in the original version, dies a grisly death at the end. You know how at the start of the book there’s a cab crash with blood on the cobblestones, at the end of the book she died in a cab crash with blood on the cobblestones, so there was this whole idea that our fate is written in the stars and we have to live through this sort of circular scheme. When I grew older, and lived a lot more, and got together with my second wife, and generally became more light spirited and more connected with society, I couldn’t in all conscience have the novel that grim and that mean spirited, so i re-wrote it, twice. The third time that i rewrote it i gave the characters a lot of freedom. I thought, ‘I’ll give Sugar a chance, and see what she does with it.’ I didn’t know whether she would live or die, but it turns out taht she lives. And again, in the first version William Rackham is a complete shit, a complete, utter buffoon, and Sugar hates him from start to finish, there’s no idea that her relationship with him is anything other than exploitative and hateful. And I think life isn’t like that. Even between sugar daddies and prostitutes, things get confused, there’s a mutual dependence, a weird affection, people get used to each other… I thought it would be more true to life to have it that way.

Did the setting come from this decision to plot it so carefully, in a Victorian way?

It was partly that, partly that I was studying a lot of Victorian novels at the time. It was also partly that I like… Have you read any of my other books?

No, I’m afraid I haven’t.

I’ve written this book called Under The Skin, which is almost a thriller, set on the A9 in Scotland, about a weird woman who picks up male hitch-hikers. That’s a very different book from this. And i’ve written a couple of novellas written in a very spare style, with no words wasted. I like that, and i like to do that, but on the other hand i like writing prose taht is very descriptive, very rich. It’s difficult to get away with that nowadays, because American thrillers have had such an influence on what people think good prose is - everything is meant to be stripped down to the bone. I think Stephen King was quoted as saying, ‘Adverbs are your enemy - this whole idea that you should remain utterly simple. I think sometimes it’s good to have a big sumptuous meal of prose and really get lost in it, to have all the pictures put on for you, not having to imagine them for yourself, but to have them created by the writing. I thought if i did that in a Victorian novel, then people wouldn’t complain, because that’s what you expect in a Victorian novel.

I very much got the impression it must have been great fun to be writing like that…

Oh yes! It was fantastic fun to write! I read interviews with writers sometimes, where they complain about what hell it is to be a writer. [laughs] I can’t understand that, it’s the best job on earth.

Was there an awful lot of research involved though? One thing that really leapt out for me was these little detaials about the lives of Victorian prostitutes, things like that, and from what you’ve been saying it took a long time to write - was it one of these all consuming projects?

I did an enourmous amount of research, but didn’t actually use a lot of it. I don’t know if you’ve read manuy historical novels, but I’ve read some where I’ve been really pissed off by the writer desperately trying to let me know that they know something. They’ve put the work in, they’ve done the research, and you’re bloody well going to know that they’ve expended the labour on it. I made sure that when you read The Crimson Petal, you get just enough to give you a vivid picture, but it would never bog it down, so that the narrative would be moving along swiftly. I know that’s hard to believe given that it’s such a huge book, but i think that it’s character driven all the way, it moves. I don’t know how it got so long. Maybe I’m fooling myself, but i don;t think there’s any of that ‘Let’s pause here for some historical stuff.’

Well, there isn’t massive amounts of detail about Victorian doorknobs or whatever. When I was given the book to read before the interview, I sort of looked at it and thought… oh dear, it’s vast, but then it almost skipped along once I picked it up.

A lot of people have that response. They see the size of it, which is why there’s taht joke at the start where the prostitute says that you didn’t realise the size of me before you picked me up. When people get started, though, they do get through it, and they do enjoy it. Quite a few people have said to me that they reached the end and wanted more. That’s quite flattering.

With that little joke at the start, something I was interested in talking about is the narrator. I seems like every time you get involved in what’s going on, you’re pulled out of it, reminded that you are reading a book. What was the idea behind that trick?

That’s less so as the book goes on…

Yeah, but it’s definitely there, and… jarring…

Once you really start getting involved with Sugar and Agnes and Sophie and so on, I think there’s more of a sense that you are really part of the family, that you are living with them. In the early part of the book, before you’ve really got to know these people, I do really rub it in that you are a stranger, that you don’t know these people. Every book offers you this illusion taht you just pick it up, and you know everything, so it was fun to subvert that illusion.

Uh-huh. I guess what i noticed was that a Victorian narrator would normally remind you of his presence, would be there, but you have him offer choices to the reader…

In the first version of the book the narrator was a lot more know-it-all, but I thought it might be more true to life to have him be your guide but be unreliable. Like, ‘I’m going to take care of you, but, oh, by the way, I have to go now.’ There are a lot of tactics in the book that are designed to keep the reader engaged and interested. I’m very aware that in a book this big, if you don’t stay aware of what the reader needs or wants as tehy go through, then they’ll get bored, or start finding it heavyy going. Even though I’m a very serious writer, I don’t ike the idea of big worthy books taht people have on tehir shelf because it was nominated for the Booker or something, and they read 11 pages and think, ‘Well, this is all very interesting, but I’m not really smart enough for this, I’ll read this some other time, like when I’m old.’ If a book’s going to be big, it’s got to be really gripping and engaging.

One thing I thought when reading it, was ‘That’s a cool device, but it’s really starting to get on my nerves!’

Yeah, I knew that it would get on people’s nerves if it kept going like that…

I’m not sure what I’m trying to say, here. I suppose, like you say you’re very concerned with making the book readable, but that sort of tricking and playing around with the reader, even alienating them - was that something you wanted to do? I don’t mean that you meant to do that in any sort of malicious way, but…

It’s acknowledging that it’s difficult to get to know people, I think. It’s difficult to get access to people physically and emotionally, and so there are obstacles in your way if you want to get to know these characters. But once you’ve got your little foothold, or found your first person to latch onto, then it gets easier. In a way that reflects what happens with Sugar. In the same way that you get a little grip on one character as a reader, you have a foothold in that world, and it’s not so tricky, for Sugar, once she has a little foothold in the Rackham family, things get easier for her.

So your mirroring the experience of the characters in the writing?


When it comes to the characters, all the characters, for me anyway, there isn’t anyone that you can really root for…

It depends, some people adore Sugar. And some people really feel for Agnes, which surprised me, because I would have though people would just want to slap her across the face, repeatedly! I suppose they identify with her being so trapped.

That’s what I mean. With Agnes, I was half, ‘God, pull yourself together woman!’ and half full of sympathy with her being stck in this hideous position. Or with William Rackham, he’s a total idiot a lot of the time, but… I liked him, at the beginning at least. It struck me that you emphasised the fact that everyone is a bit… grubby.

Everyone is a bit grubby, but on the other hand, they are all desperate to transcend, to leave their damage behind and fly up and be something better. I think we are all like that, and I think the book is very respectful of that journey.

I think… It’s not that you can’t follow along with the characters, but everyone is a bit repulsive.

I don’t know, do you find Emeline Fox repulsive?

Erm, well, no… not repulsive, but I never became fully attached to her, or anyone, but I was empathising and sympathising with everyone without liking them. Even the minor characters, like the two writer who keep popping back up…

That’s interesting. It may be that you’d have a similar response to Under The Skin. In that this woman picks up tehse male hitch-hikers on the A9 and does fairly awful things to them, and in that novel I deliberately keep people’s sympathies on a knife edge. So, as soon as you start feeling for the hitch-hikers, I’ll give you a particularly horrible guy, so you think these people are scum, so you’ll feel for her, but then I’ll have her do something particularly reprehensible. It’s that balancing of sympathy and repulsion.

I mean, I suppose, that in a novel of this sort, you tend to latch onto someone and cheer them on from the sidelines, but with this book I didn’t. Did you?

Well, every character in this book is me, so they’re all aspects of me, so in taht sense i want them all to get what they want. That yearning taht they all have to transcend, to become happier and better people, taht’s very close to my own heart. A lot of readers are passionate about Sugar. One of the people working for my American publisher came to my editor and said, ‘You’ve got to tell me - is Sugar going to be alright?’ As is my editor would know! There is that sense of wanting to know how things turn out for her.

Yeah, I see how with Sugar being right at the center, she is the character you are meant to be rooting for. I mean, is that how you see it? Is she a heroine?

I don’t really believe in heros or heroines in that sense… I’m very allergic to the whole Hollywood ethos, as you can probably gather. I think each one of us could be described by a third party as either a wonderful human being or a grubby little shit, depending on what lihght they had seen us in, or how theyt were disposed to us. I think taht’s human reality, and I respect that in the characters. Sadly, I think a lot of us are damaged, and Sugar is damaged, and so is William. No one in the book has had good parenting, all the parents are dead or absent or really awful, like Mrs. Castaway. So… taht’s another thing that runs through the book, people are looking for someone to take care of them. I think the New York Times review as a sugar daddy…

It’s a good pun…

Well, it is, but ‘sugar daddy’ isn’t in my vocabulary - is it an Americanism?

Yeah, I think so.

It’s a very appropriate pun, she is looking for that.

You say that all the characters are aspects of yourself, and there are these themes, so… is it autobiographical?

It’s the most autobiographical, which sounds bizarre because it’s a Victorian novel set in 1875, but… I think that idea of being very alienated, being on the margins of society, and looking at all those middle class people, those connected people, and saying ‘I hate you all, I despise everything you stand for!’ That was very much me when I was 18 years old. That energy you get from anger and from pitting yourself against everything that is conventional and benign, it isn’t enough to get you through life. Eventually you do want to be more connected, and accepted. You don’t have the energy any more to hate, to rail against everything. That tension is very much in the book.

Were you mapping out those ideas in the book as they came up for you?

Yeah, the experience that Sugar has in the book mirrors the growth that i had over the 20 years that i wrote different versions of it.

Um… I wish I was one of those journalists who has all their questions written out in advance! Um…

Well, you can be silent for a while.

Um, well, I’m not sure how to ask this. Since we’re talking about autobiographical things… I know you’re perhaps not overly keen on talking about your life as was, but people do want to read about it… so, how much has your - i don’t know the word for this - unconventional life informed this book?

Um, um (long pause) There’s one experience… I’ve been reluctant to bring this up, because in a sense, I worry that it would be naff to be bringing this up in an interview with the Big Issue…


It might sound like i might be tailoring what i say for the radership of the Big Issue. I did spend a short time homeless in London, in the early 80s. My first wife and i did try to emigrate to England, but we didn’t manage to find work or accomodation, and had to go back to Australia with our tails between our legs. I had neglected to get a re-entry stamp for my passport, so when we got to Heathrow, they just didn’t let me go. Apparently, if Heathrow lets you go to another country, and they aren’t obliged to take you, then Heathrow has to pay the cost of deportation. That’s how it works. So I had to get this re-entry stamp, and was stuck in London. Not for very long, but I spent that week sleeping in parks, and in doss-houses with skinheads and so on. Of course this was in the Thatcher era, so there was a very sharp division between the haves and the have nots, sharper than now. I wouldn’t exchange that experience for anything. It was difficult but very constructive. I think that experience of the struggle of surviving, of finding a place to sleep, finding something to eat, does inform that early part of the novel. (long pause) I think also the fury that Sugar has against the ruling classes, and that she’s going to blow the lid off everything with her novel. This novel that’s going to take revenge on behalf of the working classes… that’s something I was fuelled by. It was always such a weird mix. On the one hand i had that anger and that alienation, but on the other I went to university and was reading books all the time, and not living… what i would consider a grim existance. I mean… it’s hard to talk about. Because i don’t drink or smoke or take drugs, or have expensive objects that i want, all i really need is a roof over my head and enough food to eat, and that’s acheivable if you have any sort of job, or if you are on the dole. Even if by other people’s standards i was poor, i always felt comfortably off. I’m confused about this. I’m sorry I’m being so inarticulate about all this. I think, becasue i grew up in australia where there isn’t so much of a class society, I was about 20 years old before i figured out i was working class. I had always thought that if you read lots of books and stayed in school that meant you were working class. It was only when i grew older and people asked what my parents did - my mother worked in a factory and my father worked in a car spare parts place - that i realised, ‘Oh,gee, i must be working class.’ I guess in Britain you already know by the time you are 8 years old or something. Maybe you do in Australia too, but i was just so out of it…

Right. From the interviews I’ve read with you, the potted biography I’ve picked up… these character is in the book are outsiders, they are changing their surroundings. Even William say, he’s an outsider…

Well, he thinks he’s an outsider…

‘Outsiderness’ though, suffuses everything in there, in the book…

Well, I was taken away from Holland, against my will, when I was seven, and taken to Australia, and even though I’m very happy that I grew up there. I got a very good education there, and socially it was a very good place to grow up, it’s a more socially enlightened, more feminist sort of place that Great Britain, I believe… but still, it didn’t feel like my home. I was desperately unhappy with the weather! I’m a real snow and rain person. So I felt like an alien there, and of course now I’m in Scotland, I don’t fit in here either. Scotland has been very good to me as an author, but i certainly don’t feel Scottish. It’s weird - when i read from one of my books which has Scottish accents in it, I can’t do the accents. I’ve written it, but i can’t even deliver it, that’s how disassociated I am. I can do a cockney prostitute accent pretty well! That’s the only one i can do. Sorry, how did we get onto that?

Being detached. Sorry, I hate this - I don’t know you, this is stuff that I’ve picked up from clippings - but there are these themes in the book, no neccesarily the class thing, but that all the characters in the novel, they are separated from where they want to be, or they are separated from someone…

But aren’t we all separated from where we want to be?

Um, you do meet these impossibly happy people… What I’m trying to get at is… I’ve read about your personal history, things that you have gone through…

One of the things that i always keep coming back to in all my fiction is that as soon as you get to know someone a little bit, more than just saying hello to them in the street, you already start to realise how weird they are. I have this theory that there is no normal, there are no conventional, happy, well adjusted people out there. Some people can play that role more convincingly, but under the surface, people are as weird as hell, just bizarre. I’m confident that if i got to know you for six months say, you would be an extremely bizarre character, and that everybody is.

Ha, yeah. I’m alarmed by anyone who isn’t… I guess, from what i’ve read, perhaps your life… Sorry, I never like doing this psychoanalytical approach to reading someone’s novel, I mean, it’s a work of the imagination. But i think i have to ask…

It is a work of the imagination, and i’m a highly deliberate wrieter. Everything I allow to stay in my work in the final draft is there for a damn good reason. It’s there because i’ve been able to justify to myself what it’s doing there, what purpose it’s serving there. There’s nothing that’s there just because I have a bee in my bonnet about something or because it happened to me, so i have to revisit it. I’m not that kind of writer, I’m a crafter and a story-teller…

I guess because of the way the book is… never mind. From what you just said, was it a difficult book to write?

I wrote about 150 pages of it, and then my life got very stressfula and complicated. My marriage fell apart. All the menial jobs that i had been doing to support myself dried up. I had been working as a cleaner, and the work got very unreliable, so i decided i needed a regular job that i could depend on, so i trained to be a nurse, and nursed for a number of years. Of course when you are working you have less time to write, so it was quite a while before i could get back to the book. Once my life was more sorted I wrote the book very quickly and i wrote about ten pages a day, no, sorry, ten pages a week..

I was going to say!

Numbers are not my strong point. Once the first version was finished it was sheer pleasure all the way. You have this thing that already exists, and you just have to fix it and tinker with it. It’s as if someone else has written it for you, like a previous self, and they say, ‘What can you do with this?’ I find that enormous fun.

The polishing and the tweaking, that takes the longer time?

Yes, yes. It’s wonderful to get up in the morning and know what’s waiting for you, what you have to be getting on with. It’s just… ideal. Most people who’ve got jobs don’t enjoy them very much, so if you’ve got a job that you enjoy very much and every day you have different challenges, you know that you’re in charge, and you know that you are up to the challenges… I can’t think of any better way to spend your time…

Posted at 5pm on 12/01/03 by Jack Mottram to the interviews category.
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  1. I really enjoyed the book and was very engrossed with all the characters. And the description of the class distinctions was powerful. BUT, the ending confused me .. surely Sugar and Sophie did not go off to find or live with Agnes. Or is this going to be the start of a sequel? .. I am fascinated!

    Posted by Brigid Sawyer at 6pm on 06.05.03

  2. I thought the Crimson Petal and the White was a fabulous book.

    Is Michel planning a sequel?

    Posted by Carole Field at 1pm on 02.07.03

  3. I’ve had a few emails asking the same thing, so I’ve mailed Michel to ask him. My guess: no! I’ve not read them all, but I’m guessing there’s a few other titles you’ll like

    Posted by Jack Mottram at 5pm on 02.07.03

  4. I’m not curious about the ending of The Crimson Petal and the White….I am FURIOUS!!! After going SO far as to read an 894 (or 895) page book (which I could not put down by the way) I reached the end and thought “What??” I don’t belong to a book club, I don’t want to ask myself questions about what may have happened - I feel that the author should have supplied that. I want to know if Agnes is dead or alive, I want to know if William married Mrs. Bridgelow, I want to know where in the world Sugar & Sophie ended up…hmmm…did Not like the ending.

    Posted by miia illiano at 2am on 06.10.03

  5. I’m not curious about the ending of The Crimson Petal and the White….I am FURIOUS!!! After going SO far as to read an 894 (or 895) page book (which I could not put down by the way) I reached the end and thought “What??” I don’t belong to a book club, I don’t want to ask myself questions about what may have happened - I feel that the author should have supplied that. I want to know if Agnes is dead or alive, I want to know if William married Mrs. Bridgelow, I want to know where in the world Sugar & Sophie ended up…hmmm…did Not like the ending.

    Posted by miia illiano at 2am on 06.10.03

  6. Miia - I agree! I charged through the last 50 pages, even though it was 1 a.m. on a work night, and when I’d finished I couldn’t sleep because I felt empty and bewildered… I didn’t even get Henry was dreaming of having sex with Emmeline when he snuffed it - only when I’d read the passge a further two times to try and understand how the hell that had come about did I twig… aah - I’m always the same with fiction; I want to barely think and relax, not be unravelling puzzles at every turn. If you haven’t yet, and need satisfaction after your frustration, read “The Pillars of the Earth” by Ken Follett – as much of a page turner, as huge, but all plots squared off at the end. Much better.

    Posted by Emma Dove at 12am on 21.04.05

  7. Miia, I’m with you regarding the untied ends. I read the last page again and again, presuming William died - or was that me, just willing it to happen… I adored the book, and have bought it as a gift for others to share the joy, but I saw no point in Henry’s demise and desperately wanted to know what became of Sugar and Sophie.
    Would love to see a Volume 2.

    Posted by Pamela at 9am on 29.06.05

  8. I too and frustrated. I just finished this book as a book on tape and had to keep rewinding the last side to make sure that I didn’t miss something….WHERE IS THE END….Sophie, Sugar, Agnes….what happened…

    Please finish the story!

    Posted by Julee at 8pm on 25.01.06

  9. I am also furious at the ending! Scratch that….WHAT ENDING???? I think it is irresponsible to get a reader so involved in characters and then leave them hanging…there is NO ENDING to this book…

    I will NOT read another of his books. I loved The Crimson Petal and The White. Until the last page. I do not appeciate investing that much time and emotion in a novel and then being left empty.

    Posted by Sally at 2pm on 09.05.06

  10. 895 compelling pages and then??????When is the sequel? Are we just supposed to guess what happens to Sugar and Sophie? I may assign this to my Egnlish class and have them all take a stab and writing the “real” ending.

    Posted by Linda Carpenter at 3am on 27.04.07

  11. I am torn. I too felt so cheated and frustrated by the ending that was not an ending. It all seemed so incomplete. With that in mind I would quickly devour a sequel. On the other hand, leaving me to wonder about the many possible fates for Sugar, Sophie, Agnes, William and Emmeline has been intriguing. Part of me wants a sequel, part of me wants to continue exploring the possible endings. I only truly enjoy a book that requires me to think about human nature. Motives, emotions, reactions…..the why and the wherefores…that is what captures me as a reader.

    Posted by Vicki at 2am on 06.08.07

  12. This is the first novel I have ever read…I don’t like to invest time into a “story”, but I couldn’t put it down. I was up until 2 or 3am every night and reading it at every opportunity I could…I finished it in less than two weeks for crying out loud!!! My husband was so irritated by new “hobby” of reading before bed, with no snuggle time for him…this book caused a lot of arguments, but all I wanted was more!! I was very disappointed with the end, because like many have said, there was not an end. I am compelled to write a sequel if Mr. Faber doesn’t…I’m sure it would make a ton of profit and satisfy so many out there that have invested so much…not only time, but emotions. While Mr. Faber has left my imagination running wild, I would like to see how he sees it in the END!!! So, with that, I’d like to say, please, please Mr. Faber, give us an end.

    Posted by Maryann at 9pm on 09.10.07

  13. I too am so frustrated, how could you lead us along with all these people and leave us not knowing how they got on, did Agnes end up with someone kind caring for her, did she die of the tumure? Did that awful manwho had such a kind side end up with the scheming woman only to find he had commited bigamy(yes please) What happened to Sophie and Sugar, will Sophie turn up a lovely young lady and rescue her poor old pa? I can’t believe we could have been left in the lurch like this and I won’t get any more of Michel Fabers books unless there is a sequal. Now to the book shop and find the Ken Follet mentioned by Emma Dove

    Posted by Maggie Freeman at 4pm on 20.08.08

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