From the Depths
It's this desire to experience what Faber, 42, calls "the places where average citizens live" that drove him during the 20 years he spent working on Petal, which follows Sugar—a prostitute "with a brain in her head"—through 1870s London. After extensively researching everything from the era's Christmas traditions to its smells ("burnt mutton fat and chocolate, roast chestnuts and dog piss," reads one description), Faber has produced what University of Toronto Victorian scholar Mary Ellen Kappler calls "a masterpiece of accuracy."
Critics call it a masterpiece of artistry as well. The New York Times hailed Petal as "a big, sexy, bravura novel," and Columbia Pictures optioned the film rights for a six-figure sum, with Kirsten Dunst set to star. "I'm happy," Faber says, "but the numbers are too big to deal with."
Perhaps that's because he's used to having so little. During his 20s, Faber was so poor he shoplifted to eat. "I recall being followed round a supermarket by a store detective," he says, "while a blueberry Danish defrosted inside my trousers." Unable to afford writing supplies, Faber scribbled parts of Petal on the backs of letters and spent a week living on London's streets—a stint that later proved helpful when he needed to convey "that sense of being vulnerable in this unfriendly place."
The only child of Henk, a mechanic who died in 1986, and his wife, Elisabeth, a homemaker, Faber moved from Holland to Australia with his parents when he was 7—leaving behind a half brother, his mother's son from an earlier marriage. "I got the idea," Faber says, "that a child's place in a family is a shaky, conditional thing." Alienated from "the notion of community," Faber cultivated the outcast role, rarely bathing and "radiating such disdain that it was difficult for people to come close." Instead, he turned inward, writing his first novel (about space-traveling mice) at 10.
After studying English at the University of Melbourne, Faber married a fellow writer (a long estrangement led to a divorce in 1988) and took a series of part-time jobs—telemarketer, nurse, medical guinea pig—to support his writing. In 1987 he met Eva, now 47 and a high school teacher, when he answered her ad seeking a boarder. The two wed a year later, settling in the Scottish Highlands with her sons Ben, 18, and Daniel, 16—a transition that proved tough for Faber, who contemplated suicide and would disappear for days searching for the "complete isolation" he felt he needed to work. (His other works include the well-received 2000 novel Under the Skin.) "I found him once on a neighboring farm lying under a bed of leaves," Youren recalls. "He was in great pain."
Eventually, however, Faber says he "became more forgiving of my frailties. Being screwed up becomes boring." Today, he "goes to great lengths to make experiences special," his stepson Daniel says, like making invitations for the boys' birthday parties.
Faber isn't likely to switch to the store-bought kind. Despite his newfound wealth, his only wish is to go on living his life—one that makes him so content, he gave Petal a happy ending after killing off Sugar in an early draft. "My old view of the universe has been proved wrong," he says. "I am doing the job I love, in a house I like, with someone I love who loves me. It can't get much better than that."
Eileen Finan in Scotland
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