Summer holidays, like The Hateful Eight, tend to drag on a bit. So luckily I had a couple of things to break up the usual routine of home and work with an occasional trip out the house (usually to Inverness). This time around, I attended a conference celebrating the work of Dutch-born, Australian-raised author Michel Faber, who is based in the Highlands of Scotland. In fact, he lives about 11 miles from where I live. And while I haven’t read much of his work (2 short stories at this point), I was very interested in seeing the conference and the man himself.
I should mention I have meet Mr. Faber prior this conference. In late April this year, I attended (along with a few of my friends from college) a screening of the film adaptation of his debut novel Under the Skin. After the screening, there was a Q&A with Faber and he talked about his thoughts on the film, the mind set around the writing of the original novel and about his wife, who died of cancer a couple years ago. I even asked him if he was conscious of The Man Who Fell to Earth, either the novel or the film adaptation, when he was writing the book (both were in my mind as I was doing a college project on them). He said he wasn’t inspired by it, but thought it was good film none the less. He signed my copy of the novel and I went on my merry way, or as merry as you can be after watching a movie about a woman preying on young fit men around Glasgow.
So, with the preamble out of the way, let’s talk about the conference itself.
To begin with, I had to be registered by the volunteers (a couple of my friends). I was given a snazzy badge with my name on it.
Look, I’m important.
After being registered (and spending £13 on Faber’s new poetry collection), I took my seat next to my friend Caz and waited for the conference to begin.
Faber himself started the proceedings by talking initially about the subjects of the talks & keynotes and how they relate to his career. But what he did after that was the most interesting. He gave the audience a whistle-stop tour of his unpublished works. While many were rightly discarded (his first novel he wrote sounded atrocious in a good way, he even said it had as much rejiggering as Michael Jackson), one novel, Bombshell, a reaction against the British involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, had a lot going for it. He decided not to publish it at the recommendation of his publisher and his wife. While I understand the sentiment, I wish he would have a crack at it again, but he said to me, when I suggested the idea to him, that it wasn’t likely. But it was interesting to see a side to an author that is usually unseen by the public at large.
Afterwards, the first panel began. This panel focused on his best known novel, The Crimson Petal and the White. The first talk, done by Dr. Lin Petterson of the panel discussed the idea of women philanthropist’s and vague gender lines in Victorian London in relation to the novel. It was interesting to hear this talk; despite the fact I haven’t read all of the book. The next talk (done by Jim MacPherson, one of my favourite lectures in the college) looked at the novels narrative voice in relation to primary sources and key historiography on the Victorian age, suggesting it was inspired by the writing of Henry Mayhew. It was an interesting look at the novel, as well as a promotional piece for a new module that I may take up if it is available in fourth year. Last talk of this panel by Prof. Silvana Colella looked at the novel through the prism of the critical response in another country, in the talks specific example Italy. It’s rare to get another cultures take on a novel of the English language so I was interested in this idea. The speaker of the talk used examples of bloggers and vloggers to illustrate these points. Hey, wouldn’t it be funny someone used this blog for academic arguments? I feel sorry for the poor bugger that does.
After a quick tea break, the second panel began. This one focused on Faber’s latest novel, The Book of Strange New Things. The first talk by Kate Wilkinson was about the passage of time in the book, seen as a comment on the hyper speed interaction we have in the current climate. The second talk by Dr Sarah Dillon was about affect theory in relation to the novel (don’t worry about it guys, I was at the talk and I haven’t the foggiest idea about what the talk was about). The final talk by Rodge Glass was the most surprising of the day, it was a form of fan fiction. Yeah, Michel Faber fan fiction. The story used a similar structure to what the novel entailed, letter correspondence, only it is a text that doesn’t get sent due to lack of signal. It was a very interesting take on the novel, one I thanked the writer on the following day at lunch. After that, the first day of the conference had adjourned. I made my way to have dinner with a couple of my friends at Bella Italia and afterwards to my dad’s girlfriends to crash for the night.
After nearly being late for day two, I arrived with half an hour to spare before the keynote of the day. This keynote by Dr Timothy C. Baker dealt with how animals in Faber’s work are not necessarily anthropomorphism, but just animals with animal thoughts and feelings. It was an interesting talk and one I would think about when reading animal centric Faber stories.
After a tea break (oh, aren’t we awfully British?), the third panel began. This panel dealt with philosophy (aka, something I don’t usually spend my Friday morning thinking about). The first talk was from Rebecca Langworthy, one of the organisers of the conference. Her talk detailed how nature and the self featured in Faber’s work, focusing mainly on Under the Skin and the subsequent film adaptation. Next talk was done by UHI lecturer (and unknowing heart throb) Ian Blyth. He looked at the short story “Fish” from the Some Rain Must Fall collection (one of two short stories I actually read before the conference). He discussed that while the reality of the story isn’t reality to the reader, it is to one of the main characters of the story, Kif Kif (apparently related to the French phrase “C’est kif-kif” (“It’s all the Same”), but Faber debunked this after the talk saying it was inspired by a bass player of a band from the 60’s/70’s). The last talk of the panel was done by Oliver Langworthy, discussing Under the Skin in relation to 4th Century ideas of skin and The Fall of Adam & Eve. It was interesting to see how the two could interact, and I thought he did a good job linking the two.
After this, it was time for lunch. It was here where I thanked Rodge Glass for the piece of Faber fan-fiction the previous day, which he seemed very happy about the compliment (aren’t I just a super guy?). It was also here that I talked to Faber again and surprisingly, he remembered me from the Under the Skin screening. It was here when I asked him about the possibility of rewriting Bombshell. I also got him to sign my copy of his poetry collection and asked for a photograph with him, which you can see below. Thanks to Caz for taking the photo.
Lunch over, and panel four began, this time discussing genre in connection to Faber’s work. Dr Matt Foley opened proceedings by discussing The Crimson Petal and the White in the context of the Gothic. Foley explained he used to teach this as part of a module on Modern Gothic novels at Sterling University, with students not sure if it was a Gothic or not. He brought up examples of Gothics throughout the talk, from The Monk by Matthew Gregory Lewis to the film adaptation of Rebecca by Alfred Hitchcock (which he noticed me nodding at appreciation of that fact). It was probably my favourite talk of the day and possibly the conference, if anything because it came with a reading list. So, more books to cause debt. Yay!
After that, organiser of the conference, programme leader of the Literature degree at the UHI and lecturer with the funkiest hair colour Kristin Lindfield-Ott did a talk on how Under the Skin fits in to the genre of the Modern Scottish Gothic. After trying to dispel the notion of genre, she goes on to discuss if the events in the novel aren’t real, why are the locations? This is more interesting to me as, like my lecturer, I live in the area where the novel (not the film) is set. It was great talk, probably more down to my familiarity of the area rather than the novel. The final talk of the panel was done Dr. Nick Prescott, who discussed how suspense fiction (particularly the fiction of Edgar Allan Poe) features in Faber’s work, citing The Courage Consort and the title story of The Fahrenheit Twins collection. Another favourite, more due to the fact he referenced the film Blue Velvet and the fact that Faber collaborated with Brian Eno, but hey, I’m easily pleased.
Tea break (plus a discussion about Eno with Faber and a photo with the organisers and Faber) and the final panel began, this time looking at adaptation. First up was Christian Dymond, discussing Under the Skin as a more spiritual continuation of the ideas of Faber’s original novel, rather than an adaptation of the piece. It was interesting way to look at the film, despite me not reading the book. This was followed up by Andy Hageman’s look at Under the Skin, this time looking at it from an ecological perspective, comparing how both the film and the novel use the landscape to highlight themes and characters. This interested me, in part, as in a past life, I was a Science student before I moved to Literature. The final talk of the conference was done a Natalie O’ Keefe of UHI, discussing the adaptation of Faber’s work in context of The Crimson Petal and the White. Starting with the idea that fidelity isn’t a useful way of looking at adaptation (a viewpoint I agree with), she carried on by discussing key processes of the adaptation of Crimson from the set and costume design to the script. After doing a module on adaptation, this was a welcome talk.
And, after closing remarks, the conference was done. Two days of intense talking. The Olympics of nerds, though everyone was a winner. I enjoyed myself and thought all the talks were interesting. It would probably have been even better if I had actually read his books before the conference, but at least I have a reason to read them now. Plus, Michel Faber is a really nice guy. Till my next blog post, bye bye.