NEW YORK Nov 13 Michel Faber's newest novel, "The Book of Strange New Things" which he says will be his last, is intergalactic in scope, chronicling British pastor Peter Leigh's mission to Oasis, a far-off planet where an alien race thirsts for the Gospel.
Leigh was summoned to liaise with natives by a corporation operating on Oasis, and communicates with his wife, Bea, through email-like messaging.
The couple's faith in God, and each other, is tested as natural disasters threaten Earth and the enormous distance takes an emotional toll.
Faber said the book, a case study in distance and pain a decade in the making, was inspired in part by the loss of his own wife, Eva, to cancer.
The author of six novels, Faber is most famous for 2002's "The Crimson Petal and the White," a Dickensian story that was adapted into a BBC miniseries.
Faber spoke to Reuters about religion, loss, and his future.
Q: How did the book come to be?
A: I could talk for an hour about the things that fed into this novel, but the main thing that resonates from it now was not in the air when I conceived it, losing my wife Eva to cancer. I was a few chapters into writing when she was diagnosed. So, a narrative that initially found metaphors for the distances between races, cultures and faiths also became a book about the distance between a person living on Planet Myeloma and their loved one who isn't.
Q: Talk about the role of religion in your life?
A: I was brought up Baptist. Eva was a Jehovah's Witness. We were both atheists by the time we got together. True atheists are the tiniest of tiny minorities and will always be. I used to hate religion. In older age, I've come to accept it as a member of my family. A crazy member, sure, but still family.
Q: Why write from the perspective of a sympathetic Christian missionary?
A: Religion is where people turn when the truth is unbearable. That sounds glib, but imagine how you would feel if some stranger grabbed you by the shirt and yelled in your face: "Listen, you're just a piece of meat, a lump of molecules, you grow like a vegetable for a few years and then your sap dries out, you rot and turn to compost, and nobody cares. Get over it."
That's a very brutal message. It's no wonder we yearn for there to be more to life. In my work I try to treat that yearning sympathetically.
Q: You are Dutch-born, Australian-raised, living in Scotland. Do you feel you are without roots? Did that help inform a novel about alienation?
A: My only home was with Eva, wherever she chose to live. She's dead now. I have no idea what country I'll be living in five years from now, if I'm still alive. It doesn't matter.
Q: The novel at times presents the universe as a conscious force, dividing and uprooting us. Do you view the universe this way?
A: If the universe is essentially random and meaningless, there are nevertheless many phenomena that are difficult to explain, lots of weird patterns and strange confluences. If you hold tight to your friends and loved ones, things will happen that give you the sense, perhaps deluded, that something is holding it all together somehow.
Q: The Oasans are a unique people. How did you develop their image?
A: I wanted them to be truly alien. Aliens in fiction tend to be just humans with latex attachments and funny accents. I was interested in the truly foreign, the ungraspably other. I'm interested in that moment when the 19-year-old American soldier tries to communicate with a 19-year-old Afghan and realizes they have no idea whatsoever who or what they're dealing with.
Q: Your writing cuts across genres. Is it challenging carving out a new niche with each new book?
A: My American publisher gets upset when I say this, and so did Eva, but "The Book Of Strange New Things" is my last novel. I wanted all my books to be very different from each other and I've pulled that off as many times as I could. I hope this novel is a satisfying and appropriate finale. I did my best. (Editing by Patricia Reaney and Marguerita Choy)