Faber was born in The Hague, Netherlands. He and his parents emigrated to Australia in 1967. He attended primary and secondary school in the Melbourne suburbs of Boronia and Bayswater, then attended the University of Melbourne, studying Dutch, Philosophy, Rhetoric, English Language (a course involving translation and criticism of Anglo-Saxon and Middle English texts) and English Literature. He graduated in 1980. He worked as a cleaner and at various other casual jobs, before training as a nurse at Marrickville and Western Suburbs hospitals in Sydney. He nursed until the mid-1990s. In 1993 he, his second wife and family emigrated to Scotland. Faber’s second wife Eva died of cancer in July 2014.
In Scotland, Faber is considered a Scottish author, or at least "Scottish by formation" (the term defining eligibility to enter the Macallan Short Story Competition, which Faber won in 1996). The fact that most of Faber’s literary prizes, like The Neil Gunn Prize, The Macallan Prize and The Saltire First Book of the Year Award, were won in Scotland, that Faber lives in Scotland, and that his works are published by a Scotland-based publisher, all lend credibility to this view. In Australia, Faber is considered an Australian, because of his long residence there, because almost all of his schooling was completed there, and because some of his short stories are set in Australia. In the Netherlands, he is considered Dutch, except by those who are unaware of his origins. (Faber's works are translated into Dutch by professional translators, not by Faber himself.)
In 2001, when the publication of The Crimson Petal and the White was imminent, Canongate urged Faber to become a UK citizen so that the book could be submitted for the Booker Prize, which was at that time open only to authors holding Commonwealth passports. Faber declined, as he did not wish to become British at a time when the British government was preparing to follow the United States into war on Afghanistan and Iraq. Faber's citizenship remains Dutch. He identifies himself as no particular nationality, and the themes, scope and style of his literary work are not characteristically British, Australian or Dutch, but broadly European.
Faber wrote seriously from the age of fourteen, but did not submit his manuscripts for publication. Many of the short stories that appeared in his debut collection, as well as earlier drafts of The Crimson Petal and the White, were completed during the 1980s and stored away. Another novel completed in this period, A Photograph of Jesus, remains unissued. During the 1990s, with the encouragement of his second wife, Eva, Faber began entering – and winning – short story competitions. This led to him being approached by the Edinburgh-based publishers Canongate Books, who have published his work in the UK ever since.
Faber’s first published book was a collection of short stories, Some Rain Must Fall, issued in 1998. Of these stories, the title piece had won the Ian St James Award in 1996, ‘Fish’ had won the Macallan Prize in 1996, and ‘Half A Million Pounds And A Miracle’ had won the Neil Gunn Award in 1997.
The first of Faber’s novels to be published was Under the Skin (2000), written in, and inspired by, the Scottish Highlands. Like much of Faber’s work, it defies easy categorisation, combining elements of the science fiction, horror and thriller genres, handled with sufficient depth and nuance to win almost unanimous praise from literary critics. It was translated into many languages (17 by 2004) and secured his reputation in Europe, as well as being shortlisted for the Whitbread First Novel Award.
Faber’s second published novel was The Hundred and Ninety-Nine Steps (2001), set in Whitby. The original hardback edition included digitally manipulated colour photographs; these were absent from subsequent reissues. Radically different from Under The Skin in tone and theme, The Hundred and Ninety-Nine Steps attracted mixed reviews.
In 2002, Faber's 850-page The Crimson Petal and the White was published. Set in 1870s London and principally concerning a 19-year-old prostitute called Sugar, it was described by some critics as postmodern while others echoed the assertion (made in an early review) that it was "the novel that Dickens might have written had he been allowed to speak freely". Twenty years in the writing, the book showed Faber’s admiration for Dickens’ prose and George Eliot’s narrative architecture, but its themes were informed by feminism, post-Freudian awareness of sexual pathology, and post-Marxian class analysis, as well as by unrestricted access to Victorian pornographic texts that had been suppressed until the late 20th century. The Crimson Petal and the White was a bestseller in the USA, Italy, France, Holland and Belgium, and a steady seller in most other countries.
In 2004, as part of the Authors on the Frontline project, Faber travelled to Ukraine with Médecins Sans Frontières, to witness MSF’s intervention in the HIV/AIDS epidemic there. Faber wrote an article for The Sunday Times, published in January 2005. MSF had originally contracted each of the 14 authors involved in the project also to produce a piece of fiction, inspired by their frontline experience but not necessarily on the subjects dealt with in their Sunday Times article. These stories were to be published in an anthology, but MSF’s negotiations with the intended publisher broke down before most of the authors had begun their fictional pieces. Faber’s story, ‘Bye Bye Natalia’, was eventually published in the July 2006 edition of Granta and then chosen for inclusion in the 2008 edition of The O. Henry Prize Stories, an annual anthology dedicated to writers who are deemed to have made "a major contribution to the art of the short story".
Faber’s second collection of short stories The Fahrenheit Twins was published in 2005. Its opening story, ‘The Safehouse’, won second place in the inaugural National Short Story Prize (since renamed the BBC National Short Story Award) in 2005.
Wary of being pigeonholed, particularly in the USA where The Crimson Petal and the White is by far his most popular work, Faber vowed never to write a sequel to his bestselling Victorian novel. However, he did write a number of short stories featuring characters from The Crimson Petal and the White, in scenarios that pre-dated or post-dated the events of the novel. While not a sequel (the novel’s controversial ending was allowed to remain definitive and the fates of the heroines Sugar and Agnes were left undisclosed), the stories offered additional perspectives on some of the characters’ past and future lives. Issued first in Italy, by Faber’s long-term Italian publishers Einaudi, the stories were issued by Canongate in 2006, as The Apple.
Faber’s novel The Fire Gospel was published in 2008 as part of the Canongate Myth Series. Inspired by the myth of Prometheus, it tells the story of a scholar of Aramaic called Theo, who steals an ancient 'gospel' describing the death of Jesus, from a bombed museum in Iraq. The book gently satirizes the publishing industry.
Faber’s sixth novel The Book of Strange New Things was published in 2014. The novel tells the story of a British missionary to an alien world. After its publication, Faber announced that he would retire from writing novels. In an interview at Waterstones Trafalgar Square, Faber said "I think I have written the things I was put on earth to write. I think I've reached the limit". In June 2015, "The Book of Strange New Things" was named a Book of the Year by World Magazine.
In the years 2001 to 2004, Faber reviewed books for the Scotland on Sunday newspaper. Throughout 2004, he wrote a regular feature for The Sunday Herald called ‘Image Conscious’, analysing the layers of meaning, intent and association in various photographs. Since 2003, he has reviewed for The Guardian, mainly choosing foreign fiction in translation, short story collections, graphic novels and books about music.
In 2004, Faber travelled to Ukraine with Médecins Sans Frontières, as part of MSF’s ‘Writers on The Frontline’ project. In this project, 14 authors visited MSF projects in remote parts of the world, witnessed the emergency medical care MSF delivers, and wrote an article for The Sunday Times Magazine about it. Faber’s Sunday Times article, ‘Heart of Darkness’, concerned the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Ukraine and was published on 9 January 2005.
In 2006, Faber contributed an essay, ‘Dreams in the Dumpster, Language Down the Drain’, to Not One More Death (Verso/Stop The War Coalition), a collection of pieces examining US and UK involvement in the Iraq War.
Under the Skin has been adapted into a Scottish Film in 2013. This was directed by Jonathan Glazer and starred Scarlett Johansson. It premièred at the Venice Film Festval on the 3rd of September, 2013.
- Under the Skin (2000)
- The Hundred and Ninety-Nine Steps (2001)
- The Courage Consort (2002)
- The Crimson Petal and the White (2002)
- The Fire Gospel (2008)
- The Book of Strange New Things (2014)
- Some Rain Must Fall (1998)
- The Fahrenheit Twins (2005) also published (without the titular story) as Vanilla Bright Like Eminem
- Bye Bye Natalia (2006) collected in Granta 94 - On the Road Again: Where Travel Writing Went Next
- The Apple: Crimson Petal Stories (2006)
- Walking After Midnight (2009) collected in Ox-Tales: Water
- Dreams in the Dumpster, Language Down the Drain (2006) collected in Not One More Death
- Saadi, S (13 May 2000), "Infinite Diversity in New Scottish Writing", ASLS Conference, The Association for Scottish Literary Studies, retrieved 13 April 2008
- Middlemiss, P, Matilda, Reviews of Australian Books (29),
Austlit, The Resource for Australian Literature, lists Michel Faber… so I feel safe in being able to include him..
- Hughes, K (28 September 2002), "Books", The Guardian.
- Ox-Tales, Oxfam[dead link]
- Page, Benedicte (23 October 2014), "Michel Faber: 'This is my last novel'", The Bookseller.
- "Four books of the year", World mag, Jun 2015.
- The Crimson Petal and the White at the Internet Movie Database
- Pulver, Andrew. "Venice 2013: Under the Skin heads triple bill of long-awaited films". The Guardian. Retrieved 2014-08-21.
- "The Book of Strange New Things". Radio 4. BBC. 6 October 2014. Retrieved 11 October 2014.
- Faber, Michel (Sep 2002), "Interview", 3:AM Magazine
- Koval, Ramona (2008-11-25), The Book Show on The Fire Gospel (transcript) (interview), ABC Radio National.
- Michel Faber, Canongate, archived from the original on 2008-03-18.
- Michel Faber at British Council: Literature