SO far, Michel Faber has had a productive pandemic. “I concentrated just as normal,” he tells me as we hunker down on a picnic bench near The Meadows in Edinburgh, normally thronged on a sunny August day like today but in the absence of festival-goers peppered now with socially-distanced locals only.

The sole coronavirus-related set-back he suffered was to his planned birthday bash: the Dutch-born Australian turned 60 in April and had intended to celebrate in a restaurant in Amsterdam, where he had been due to take up a writer-in-residence post. He even had a well-appointed flat organised, located above a bookshop. The birthday happened – time doesn’t stop in a public health emergency – but none of the rest of it did.

“That was disappointing. But apart from things like that, lockdown has been very, very easy for me because I live in my burrow and I think about stuff and I write. You don’t need to be sociable for that. You don’t need businesses to be open. So it was life as usual.”

Faber, best known as the author of cult sci-fi novel Under The Skin and weighty historical thriller The Crimson Petal And The White, has even managed to publish a book. It’s called D: A Tale Of Two Worlds, and it’s the reason he has travelled to Edinburgh from his home in Folkestone. The tented village that is the Edinburgh International Book Festival may be gone from Charlotte Square, but the authors are not and filmed interviews are being conducted for the book festival’s impressive online iteration. Faber’s will be one of them.

The D in the title stands for Dhikilo, Faber’s 13-year-old heroine, but also for Dickens, he being in large part the cause of the novel’s creation. Faber was approached by the publisher Transworld to write something to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the author’s death, and D is what he came up with. “I suspect they were hoping I would write something Victorian because of the Crimson Petal And The White,” he laughs. “But I thought ‘There’s no way I want to go back there’”.

Instead he wrote his first ever children’s book, one set (initially at least) in Cawber-on-Sands, the fictitious Kent town in which Dhikilo has lived with her adoptive parents since her arrival in the UK as a refugee from Somaliland. Faber chose Somaliland as Dhikilo’s country of origin because it’s one of only a handful of countries in the world which is recognised by virtually nobody (another is Transnistria, a thin strip which sits on the border of Moldova and Ukraine and which Faber has visited).

“I wanted Dhikilo to be the ultimate stranger in a strange land, the ultimate uprootee,” he explains. “So not only does she come from another country, but even the country she comes from doesn’t exist as far as most people are concerned.”

When the letter ‘d’ begins to disappear from the alphabet, Dhikilo is drawn into an adventure which requires the help of her eccentric former teacher Professor Dodderfield – former, because he is supposed to be dead – and which takes her through a portal and into the land of Liminus. Here she meets the Magwitches, the Quilps and the Spottletoes, and goes head to head with the Gamp. Anyone with even a passing knowledge of Dickensian characters should recognise one or two of those names.

D is a wry, fast-paced adventure with a likeable heroine which mashes up elements of The Wizard Of Oz, Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland and CS Lewis’s Narnia books. But it into that Faber stirs some very modern themes, to the point where he feels the novel can be seen as “a kind of primer about politics for young readers”. One theme is climate change while another – unsurprisingly, given the book’s conception during the Brexit referendum – is tolerance of other people.

“When I say that the book is a plea for tolerance that makes it sound as if it’s plaintive and it isn’t. It’s a fun, upbeat adventure. But I’m hoping that one of the implicit messages, if people get fond of Dhikilo, is that they’re fond of her as a person because she’s great. The subtext there is: ‘Look, does it really matter where people are from? It’s clearly going to matter to them, but does it matter in the wider scheme of things what label we put on them, what nationality we pin on them? Can’t we just look at them for what they have to offer as human beings?’.

Faber may continue to write undisturbed in his Folkestone “burrow” and pursue “life as usual”, as he puts it, but many things in his life have changed. For one, he has turned away from the news, despairing of politics and, in particular, of politicians.

“There is this delusion amongst privileged Westerners that they’re somehow doing something about the evils of the world by being informed about them,” he says. “Being informed by drip-feed means you’re just putting poison in your blood stream. I really don’t see who it helps.

“Put it this way. I marched in the Brexit protests and I marched because I felt that lending them my body in that protest made me feel better morally, that I’d made that stand. But I’m under no illusion that me marching made any difference whatsoever to the policy of government. I think one of the problems we have at the moment, particularly for young people who are trying to figure out whether they want to be politically active, is how very obvious it is that the powers that be will do whatever they have decided to do, regardless.”

Now he just turns off. He ignores the latest Johnsonian inanities and disregards the onslaught of incontinent Trumpian blurts.

“It’s not doing my mental health any good. I can’t stop these people doing what they do. I can’t reform the political system. All I can do is get depressed about the low calibre of our leaders. So I just decided to stop reading about them, because they’re egomaniacs anyway and it just feeds their egomania.”

Another change: Faber has stopped writing fiction for adults – or rather he is planning to stick to a promise he made to himself six years ago.

“I always felt that I had a certain number of novels in me and a certain number of genres that I could play with convincingly and that I would run out of areas that I was good at,” he explains. “I haven’t done crime but I’m fundamentally uninterested in crime so it wouldn’t be right for me to try and write a crime novel. But I tried most of the other genres. I didn’t want to be the sort of writer who just keeps banging them out because it’s my job to bang out books.”

Although he’s currently working on a non-fiction book about music and may well turn again to children’s fiction, the intention remains for his 2014 work The Book Of Strange New Things to be his last novel for adults.

“It encapsulated and summarised pretty much everything I’ve have been saying in different ways throughout my career and I thought it was a pretty good place to end it. There are lots of things in that book that feel quite valedictory.”

A Solaris-style investigation of love, separation and loss, The Book Of Strange New Things tells the story of a man who leaves his wife on earth to become a missionary on a distant planet. It returned Faber to the genre of science fiction of course, always one of his most artistically profitable, but the novel’s themes had a tragic real world, real time echo too because 2014 marked another sort of separation: Eva, Faber’s wife of 26 years, died in the summer of that year after a long battle with cancer.

“After Eva died I knew that my time in that house in the Highlands was over. It was tough practically, to take care of myself in the middle of nowhere, and also that whole eco-system that we had had – the nation of two in the middle of nowhere – was gone. I knew that in the long run I needed to be in a town where I could just walk down the street and buy myself some groceries.”

He considered moving to Edinburgh but by then there were too many digits in the property prices. It was a city of ghosts, too. Memories of Eva, always present, become even more vivid in the capital, a city they both knew well. “There’s various stations of the cross,” is how he puts it. “If I was to go to the Botanical Gardens, for example, I would pass the place where Eva bought her wigs when the chemotherapy made her hair fall out and it is astonishing how many such places [like that] there will be dotted across the city.”

But why Folkestone?

“In the end I just decided to move to a completely different kind of place. And I really did. I did it just before the Brexit vote and I had no idea that that vote was going to go as it did. So suddenly, a couple of months after relocating, I was in basically the heartland of it. But it’s a very interestingly mixed place. It’s a town of many towns. You have all the die-hard, set-in-their-ways oldsters. And you have the hipsters moving in. There’s still a lot of poverty and social problems, but then I grew up in inner city areas in Melbourne so that’s all familiar to me.

And after so many years living in Scotland, how does the country look to him now from his vantage point on England’s south coast?

“My relationship with place is always dislocated,” he says. “I always feel like I’m an alien wherever I am. My connection with places is through people, so it’s on that level that I feel fond of places. But my heart does not lift when I see particular bits of landscape or cityscapes. I don’t have that sense of ‘Oh yes, I’m home, I want to kiss the ground’. I’ve never felt that about anywhere.”

Alien is a word Faber uses a lot, to describe himself (several times), to describe Dhikilo, to describe other characters in other novels (though to be fair, they often are aliens).

“There’s all sorts of psychoanalytical theories you could bring to that,” answering my next question before I have asked it. “Because I was taken away from the rest of my family and uprooted from the Netherlands and taken to Australia when I was very young, it’s possible that on some level I decided I would never get really bonded to a place because you’re going to lose it, you’re going to get taken away from it.”

Faber may like to preserve (and occasionally buff) his outsider status, hold fast to his “burrow” or refer to a “nation of two” but he’s no misanthropic loner. He still has friends aplenty in Scotland – he’s been staying with one set in Edinburgh – and he’s in the capital today with his London-based partner Louisa Young, a fellow novelist whom he met shortly after Eva died.

Like him, Young was grieving at the time. Her former partner, the musician Robert Lockhart, died in 2012 aged 52 and she later poured her grief into an acclaimed memoir, You Left Early: A True Story Of Love And Alcohol. Faber also memorialised his grief, though he took a different line by publishing a book of poems in 2016 titled Undying. “It wasn’t planned or intended as a book,” he says. “I wrote a couple of poems when Eva was still alive, on her death bed, literally. Then I just kept writing poems in the months after she died.”

He read some of these at events publicising The Book Of Strange New Things and only decided to publish them as a collection because “they had a very powerful effect on the people there. At that point I realised they could actually help people because they tackle grief in a way it isn’t often tackled. I decided to stop writing them in 2015 because I didn’t want to be writing clever poems that just happened to have grief as a subject matter … I wanted them all to still have that shock of loss in them.”

Five years on the shock of loss has faded in Michel Faber’s own life, or at least it has dulled to something other than shock. “In time you lose the bad stuff as well as the good stuff,” he tells me. And he quotes something somebody else once wrote, along the lines of grief being a hole that things grow around. “I don’t think you ever pass beyond grief,” he says finally. “You just live with it in a different way”.

D: A Tale Of Two Worlds by Michel Faber is out now (Doubleday, £16.99)


Under The Skin

In 2013 Sexy Beast director Jonathan Glazer turned Faber’s 2000 science-fiction novel into an award-winning film starring Scarlett Johansson as an alien who tours the Highlands picking up hitch-hikers – though not in a good way. Ahead of filming, Glazer said he “absolutely didn’t want to film the book” but did want to make the book into a film. Faber loves the result, but what does he think Glazer meant? “I think he meant that he didn’t want to feel that he was slavishly attempting to reproduce what the book did, but he wanted to use the book as a springboard for making something extraordinary,” he says. “He certainly did that. I think it’s a film which will grow in stature as time goes by.”

The Crimson Petal And The White

Faber’s 2002 historical novel about a prostitute named Sugar was turned into a four-part television drama starring Romola Garai as Sugar and Chris O’Dowd as her lover, William Rackham. Shirley Henderson, Mark Gatiss, Gillian Anderson and Richard E Grant also starred. “I don’t have a television and I don’t watch television so I can’t judge how much better it was than other things on offer,” says Faber. “But it seemed damned good to me – such a huge book, very cleverly and effectively condensed into four episodes.”

The Book Of Strange New Things

Faber’s 2014 sci-fi novel was turned into a 10-episode radio play for BBC Four shortly after publication and in 2017 Oscar-winning Scottish director Kevin Macdonald adapted it for Amazon under the name Oasis. An hour-long pilot was produced and screened but when Amazon Studios head Roy Price was forced to quit after becoming embroiled in a post-Weinstein sexual harassment claim, the show fell by the wayside and wasn’t picked up for a series. “The project fell apart, which is a shame,” says Faber.