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Out of a drawer and into the limelight

Michel Faber mopped floors as his Victorian tale languished. But there's a happy ending.

October 25, 2002|Michael J. Ybarra | Special to The Times

SAN FRANCISCO — When Michel Faber finished his first novel, "The Crimson Petal and the White," a dozen years ago, he did what he always did with his writing: He stuck it in a drawer. Faber had spent eight years scribbling a rich and lovingly detailed story about a 19th century hooker and her rise through London society, but he couldn't afford to hire a typist to turn his longhand chapters into a manuscript suitable to submit to a publisher.

He never really wanted to do anything other than write but, without a publisher, he always had to find other work. He mopped stairs; he changed bedpans; he went on the dole, all the while scrawling away on scraps of paper.

"I wrote for 25 years without submitting my manuscripts," Faber says. "I just put them away."

But over the last five years, those manuscripts have come flying out of his drawer with a vengeance, making Faber a literary star, first in Great Britain where he lives and now on this side of the Atlantic as well. "The Crimson Petal," which Faber dusted off and revised a couple years ago, was recently published by Harcourt, all 834 pages, and has sent critics swooning (it also broke the toe of a Scottish bookseller who dropped a copy on his foot).

"A big, sexy, bravura novel that is destined to be surpassingly popular," wrote Janet Maslin in the New York Times. "A banquet of a book, a literary feast of such extravagance that you would have to be a very picky person not to feel deeply satisfied by it," wrote a critic for the London Sunday Times.

"It's hard to believe," Faber says, sitting in a hotel lobby here with his wife, Eva Youren, while on a book tour. "I think there must be some huge mistake."

At 42, Faber is tall and thin, youthful looking and pale, with a mop of thick hair falling into his eyes. He makes easy eye contact but has a habit of looking out the window when talking about his writing, as if he were gazing into some other realm instead of an empty street.

"I was afraid that if I didn't take care of the narrative and characters at all times, that people wouldn't last the distance," says Faber, who can sound confident about his work and at the same time surprised that anyone else would share his opinion. "I wanted to engage and pull people through so they wouldn't put it down. Do you know what the most common response is? I hear from readers all the time that it was pleasurable and painless and that they could have used another 800 pages."

Faber's story has proved as seductive as Sugar, the androgynous hooker who resembles her literary creator in more ways than one.

"But it isn't simple submission and depravity that Sugar provides," Faber writes. "Submission and depravity come cheap. Any number of toothless hags will do whatever a man asks if they're given a few pennies for gin. What makes Sugar a rarity is that she'll do anything the most desperate alley-slut will do but do it with a smile of child-like innocence. There is no rarer treasure in Sugar's profession than a virginal-looking girl who can surrender to a deluge of ordure and rise up smelling like roses, her eyes friendly as a spaniel's, her smile white as absolution."

Sugar rents her body to the world but really lives in her own world -- in the novel that she's writing about her life. That more or less is Faber's own story.

"I never expected writing to support me," he says. And although he says that he's enjoying his success, Faber can sound almost put out by the fact that people are buying his books. "I don't regard myself as part of any literary scene," he says to the window. "I'm very unsocial. I love to just disappear into my own little world."

He was born in Holland and moved to Australia when he was 7 with his parents, who were both fleeing failed previous marriages. "I was horrified," he recalls. "No one seemed to be speaking Dutch. I remember telling my mother after the first day of school that I was never going back because they were all speaking a terrible language. I was always longing instinctively for snow and ancient architecture. Australia never felt like home to me."

While at the University of Melbourne, Faber read George Eliot's "Middlemarch," was inspired by the discipline and craft of the plot and decided to write his own Victorian novel. "The great Victorian novels, Dickens especially, come to life before your very eyes," he says. "Modern writers are suspicious of that kind of richness. American suspense writers especially have had a big influence. There's an idea that everything has to be functional and spare."

Over the years Faber spent working on the book, he married and divorced, went to nursing school and worked in a rest home and a hospice to support himself. "My favorite job was mopping stairs," he recalls. "It was ideal: complete brainless work. You start at the top and work your way down. You could just think of other things in between."

Most of what he thought about was writing.

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