An Interview with Jim Crace

Results of the storytelling urge:
Darwinian advantage
19th-century–style realism

An Interview with Jim Crace

Results of the storytelling urge:
Darwinian advantage
19th-century–style realism

An Interview with Jim Crace

Ben Ehrenreich
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In the most direct of ways, Jim Crace’s last four books have taken on, in order, God (Quarantine, 1997), death ( Being Dead, 1999), food ( The Devil’s Larder, 2001), and sex ( Genesis, forthcoming in 2003). Of course Quarantine, which is about Christ’s forty days in the wilderness (and which won him a Whitbread prize and made the shortlist for the Booker), is also about food and sex, or hunger and desire anyway, and Being Dead, which tracks in excruciatingly patient detail the decomposition of a murdered couple, is too—though the grub is the sort that worms prefer. The Devil’s Larder, a collection of sixty-four very short stories about eating, returns that act to its sensuous, life-giving and death-dealing roots, and Genesis, a novel about a man who impregnates every woman with whom he sleeps, unfashionably reunites sex with its fusty old pal procreation.

Crace does not shy away from the Big subjects. Without any ironic cover to hide behind, he stakes his ground around them and fills the enclosed territory with the most impossibly and perfectly detailed worlds cousins if not siblings of the fully imagined universe he laid out in his first novel, Continent, another Whitbread winner set on a familiar but distinct “seventh and shabby continent” of Crace’s own devising.

On the phone at least, Jim Crace has none of the sober and high-minded laconism you might expect from reading his prose. He’s a gloriously easy interview—it doesn’t take much prodding to get him going, and the words just topple on out in a loose North London accent. Crace is casually and joyously garrulous, self-mocking, almost boyishly ebullient. He spoke to me from his home in Birmingham, where he claims to lead “the most uninteresting biographical life of any writer.”

—Ben Ehrenreich


THE BELIEVER: Let me ask you a biographical question. You were forty when your first book, Continent, was published. Were you writing before that?

JIM CRACE: I was a general freelance journalist for the color magazines, the Sunday supplements, first for the Sunday Telegraph and then for the Sunday Times. I was just a jobbing, reliable journalist. I had a good living and I had a reasonable reputation because I could turn my mind to pretty well everything, but I was a very undistinguished journalist, truth be told. No one thought that I had a particular tone of voice. Nobody thought that I was making any new waves—it was just that I was very reliable and my prose was trustworthy but really nothing special. But I did enjoy it. My heart was in journalism and I would have stayed in journalism if I hadn’t had a political falling out with an editor.

BLVR: What was that over?

JC: It was over a report I did on the Broadwater Farm Estate in North London, which was a big housing project in North London where a policeman had been killed in a riot in about ’86, horribly murdered, beaten up by a mob. Some of them were black and it was largely seen as a black estate and a problem estate. Well I’m from North London, and I know that when I was asked to go and report on this “hellhole,” as it was described by the editor, that such places aren’t hellholes. Everywhere is complicated. In all working-class, mixed-race, badly-designed estates anywhere in the world, you’re going to have a whole set of problems and a whole set of virtues as well. So I came in with a report that represented this estate as being much less troubled than my editors wanted it to be. The overall editor spiked it just as it was going to press because he thought it was antipolice. It wasn’t.

It was just about the same time I had written my first novel, Continent, and I’d sold it for a lot of dollars in America. So when this falling out happened with my editor, I had the American dollars in my back pocket and they enabled me to be principled. The question I ask myself now is, “How principled would I have been if it hadn’t been for the American advance?” I suspect not very principled at all. But as it was I said, “Well, I don’t accept this. I’m not going to write for your magazine anymore,” and that was how I got into full-time fiction writing.

BLVR: Did you stop journalism altogether at that time?

JC: Absolutely. Like a lover spurned I was. Having been crossed once in my life, I thought, “I want nothing to do with you again.” Once in a while I do a very, very occasional piece for somebody if they really bully me, but I don’t do any of the real cutting-edge, chalk-faced journalism anymore.

BLVR: Just being spurned once is pretty good for a journalist.

JC: Yeah, I guess it is. But I was spurned politically. I’m a bit of a dogmatist where politics are concerned. I’m a very easy-going person in just about every respect in my life, but where my politics are concerned I’m a bit of a pain in the ass. I’m a kind of an old-fashioned, North Korean Stalinist where moral issues are concerned.

BLVR: Were you writing fiction all the while as a journalist, or just toward the end?

JC: I had done some short stories, I think three in about the previous ten years before Continent came out. One of them, a short story called “Annie, California Plates,” was set in America, a metaphorical story about this hitchhiking car with no driver and no owner, just touring America under its own volition. And that became quite a famous short story and caused quite a stir. When that came out in about ’75 or ’76, I, as a journalist, was receiving phone calls from publishers and from agents saying, “We’ll give you a contract, we’ll pay you some money to write a novel for us.” Everyone that I knew down at the pub had written a novel and couldn’t find an agent or a publisher, but I had no novel and I had an agent and a publisher.

I took an advance against my first novel, but I didn’t write it. My heart wasn’t in writing fiction. I spent the money. My editor at the publishing house would phone up and say, “How is the book going?” and I’d say, “It’s inching forward,” when it wasn’t inching forward at all. And he would say, “Oh, that’s okay, take your time.” But of course my editor at the newspaper would not have that attitude. The editors at the newspaper would say, “We want your article now. Get your ass into gear.”

BLVR: Was that a source of frustration?

JC: No, I was young and carefree and couldn’t give a shit really. I was a bit bothered that I had spent their money and hadn’t produced a book. But I wasn’t anxious about it. When I had free time, I did sit down and attempt to write a novel. The novel that I was writing was the novel that my seventeen-year-old self would have liked to have written. It was a political novel with a serious purpose, a polemical novel of the kind I admired by people like Steinbeck and Orwell, a novel that engaged directly with serious issues. But when I was writing that book—I don’t know how many thousands of words I got into it, but not many—it was like pushing a great, heavy weight up a hill. It wasn’t my natural voice. If I relaxed for a second, this great heavy stone would weigh me down and take me back to the bottom of the hill again. My natural voice was not a political voice, not a directly political voice anyway.

Maybe I would never have written any fiction at all at any stage if it weren’t for the fact that I was asked to review a Gabriel García Márquez novel at a time when the delivery date for my novel was way overdue and maybe I was a bit worried. I read this Gabriel García Márquez novel, which was called In Evil Hour, and I read several of his books at the same time in order to plump up my review. I thought. “This is good. I know it’s good. And I know this guy is heading for the Nobel Prize, but I’m not impressed by it and I’m not mystified by it, because I could do this with my eyes closed.”

What I recognized was that here was a man inventing a world for his novels from scratch, making up his history, making up his technology, making up his characters, not holding a mirror up to the real world in the way that a realist writer does, but making it up from scratch. That’s what I would do all the time when I was smoking dope or when I was down at the pub bullshitting with my friends. It hadn’t occurred to me before that that’s what you could do in fiction.

Of course, that’s a very traditional thing to do in fiction. If I’d thought about it deeply, I would have realized that all of the stories that exist in European culture, folk stories from the Beowulf legend to the sagas of Iceland to the story of the Minotaur—all of these things are made up from scratch. They’re not about a real world. Equally if I had looked at my experience of the Third World—I had lived in Botswana, I had lived in the Sudan, and I had traveled very, very widely as a journalist—those are the stories that you encounter, the puppet plays of Indonesia or the Anansi legends of Nigeria. Those were not mirror stories of the real world. The realist tradition is just European and it’s just recent.

BLVR: But very dominant.

JC: Very, very dominant. Which is maybe why I’m so unpopular in some quarters, apart from the fact that my books are crap, because I flout those conventions and traditions. But when I realized that this kind of storytelling could be resurrected, I sat down and wrote Continent very quickly. And I knew what the next three, four, five, six books would be because I’d found my voice. I was no longer pushing a heavy stone up a hill. I was pushing a balloon up a hill.

BLVR: Do you not think of Continent as a political novel?

JC: They’re all political, my novels, but they’re not street political. They’re not leaflets, not placards. They’re bourgeois fiction. They’re rhythmically written. They’re full of metaphor. The working-class blokes from North London like me once admired novels that were clarion calls in the way that The Grapes of Wrath was. It had a subject matter: identifiable poor people. It had an agenda, which was how these problems could be met. It had villains, the capitalists and the landowners. It was directly applicable to the state of America at the time, whereas my books were much more dislocated than that. My seventeen-year-old self, if he were to walk into my converted garage, which is what I’m sitting in at the moment, and look at my books, would sneer at the books I write now. Part of my seventeen-year-old self is still kind of perched on my left shoulder, sneering at what I do.

BLVR: Do you pay him any heed?

JC: I do, because first of all it stops me from being too grand, although I’m sounding pretty grand to you on the phone, but I’m just being cooperative. It stops me from falling in love with my own voice. It reminds me that if my seventeen-year-old self would not like my novels, then why should anyone else? So it stops me from being chippy about bad reviews or people who just take against me. The literary world here and in America, but particularly here, is full of people who are bruised and paranoid because they don’t feel they’re loved enough. That way madness.

BLVR: What do you think is behind the prevailing obsession with realism? I’m thinking of the sections in The Gift of Stones (1988) where the narrator talks about the importance of lies, and how liberating they are, and it seems to me that’s what fiction is and should be. That’s the wonderful thing about your work, that you create these very complete and detailed lies.

JC: Well it doesn’t have to be that. I am a great admirer of the realist tradition. I admire people who can do things that I can’t, and I don’t have those skills. When I read Philip Roth talking about the leather industry in New Jersey, I’m never going to listen to a man talking about that in the pub, but he’s such a great realist writer that it floors you. My position about literature is not a criticism at all about anybody else’s work or any other traditions. It just happens to be my voice. But my voice, I think, comes out of something that is ancient and stitched into humankind as a species. Storytelling isn’t just the formal version, which is what we do, of writing things down and having them published. That’s only for 1.1 percent of the population of the world and that’s only for the last couple of thousand years, since the written word. The printed word is much newer of course. Storytelling is ancient and the reason it’s stayed with us is because it gives us a Darwinist advantage, because if storytelling and narrative as part of our make up didn’t give us that advantage, they would have died out. What advantage has it given us?

First of all, unlike all of the other creatures, humankind can reimagine and reinvent the past, and learn lessons from it, and retell the past to its own advantage. When you get back to your wife and you want to tell a lie about where you’ve been, you can do that. If you want to amuse friends then you can do that, but equally it can give you a historical perspective. The other thing it can do is enable you to invent the future, to throw narratives forward so that you can have a sense of what might happen, so that you can be ready for it when it does happen, can plan the trajectory of your life. This narrative ability is in my view the twin of that other distinguishing thing that cuts us off from all the rest of the species of the universe, that is this heightened consciousness that we have that allows us to understand that we are going to die, that we are mortal, that the universe is wondrous. We need to have narrative to help us deal with the great weight that such consciousness gives us.

I don’t believe in the muse and I don’t believe in any pretentious things like that, I hope, but I do believe that there’s a kind of a goblin of storytelling that has been our companion for thousands and thousands of years, and when my stories abandon me and start to tell themselves under their own volition and their own energies, that’s what is happening. I’m stitching into some species instinct. In the same way that birds or foxes can find water by species instinct, I can find stories.

BLVR: In The Gift of Stones, it’s tempting to read the character of the storyteller metaphorically. He’s lost his arm and can’t take part in the drudge work of the other villagers, and he develops this craft of his own, of telling lies and telling stories. Do you think it’s right to read that in the metaphorical sense, that the writer has to be somehow crippled and excluded from the drudgery of reality that everyone else is forced to take part in? It’s a romantic notion.

JC: Oh god, I guess that romantic notion is true, but I’m very resistant to talking openly about the romance of the writer. On a personal level I try and avoid that, because I think that it’s sort of self-serving, but I also think that being able to write and tell stories isn’t the only way to skin a cat. The important thing in everybody’s life is that they should have some sort of transcendence, whatever it is. What cut that character in The Gift of Stones out from the rest is that the rest have relinquished their imaginations by turning inwards upon themselves. The storyteller, because he’s lost his arm and is forced to ask questions, is the person who seeks after truth, and it happens to be that the truths are provided by the lies.

But of course they are metaphors. Everything that I write is a kind of big, clumsy, heavy metaphor. I can’t help it. If you encounter a little stone on page 3 of my novel, it’s going to turn into a metaphor by page 19. By page 119 it’s going to be driving you mad with its significance.

BLVR: There is this mythic resonance in your work, something you don’t find in more realist work.

JC: That’s true and that’s the second reason that people don’t like my work. That’s reason number two for not liking my books, the mythic resonance that comes across to some readers as grandiloquence. It can be mistaken for hectoring sometimes, and being over-moralizing. But I am a moralizing writer. If you were to meet me in a pub or something, I’m as ir

onic as the next man, and self-conscious about being serious with people, but my novels are as unembarrassed about seriousness as you’re ever likely to get in any English novel. They really do take big subjects and go at them and are moralistic about them. Since William Golding, no one has been more pompously moralistic in novels until you get to my stuff.

BLVR: You said that when you wrote Continent you saw the next six novels laid out before you. Even Genesis occurs on that same seventh continent that we saw in your first book. Some of the names recur. Deliverance Park is there again, and there are all these people who appear and reappear, Mondavy and Alicja Lesniak. How much do you self-consciously see this discrete world as existing throughout all of your books?

JC: The writing life in Birmingham isn’t as glamorous as it might be in other parts of the world, and I’m sitting in my room entertaining myself. I’m having a bit of fun, inventing certain things and keeping them alive for awhile, like Mondavy, like manac beans. Alicja Lesniak appears in two books because the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture had an auction two years ago in which people were able to buy the right to appear as a character in one of my novels. Alicja Lesniak paid a lot of money and I thought that she’d been cheated by only having a tiny section of The Devil’s Larder. I thought, “Oh dear, I felt guilty about this, I better make her a character in this new book.” As it turned out, she was a wonderful character. It was very serendipitous.

What I will say is that there is something that people are starting to call Craceland. But Craceland is not busy with great coaches queuing up outside to see how fat I’ve become. Craceland is not one exact place. What it is in each book is a different abstraction of the real world that I hope is so real in your mind that you feel you can go down to your local flight office and take a flight to it today. I hope that the town in Genesis, for example, is so convincing, even though it doesn’t exist anywhere in the world, that you feel it must be somewhere that American Airlines will take you to. But it’s not the same town as Arcadia (1992), and the coast-line of Being Dead is clearly not the same coastline of sections of Continent. But Craceland, if there is a Craceland, has these things in common. They are parallel universes. They are places that exist in tandem with the real world. They’re not other worlds, they’re not speculative worlds in a way that science fiction is, they are just invented places that sound as if they should coexist with our places.

BLVR: And they are related to them. Your characters talk about trips to America and to Europe.

JC: Absolutely. I want my readers to be dislocated when they read my stuff, to be fooled into thinking that this invented world is something very familiar to them. Of course the advantage for me is if I do set a book about sex and love in a place that doesn’t exist, critics will say, “Why didn’t you set it in Leeds or Lima or Los Angeles, because sex and love exist in those places?” It definitely exists in Los Angeles. But if I do that then I have a photographic duty to get Los Angeles right. I can’t make things up about Los Angeles, and therefore my plot will have to be shaped to a certain extent by what the real Los Angeles would demand. Well I’m such a schematic writer that I don’t want to have external demands on my plots and my characters and what I want to say. By starting from scratch, by inventing everything from the bottom up, my novels can go exactly where I want them to go, and if, to take an example from Continent, I need to have a tribe of people that only procreates once a year and all together, the world isn’t going to provide that, but I can. This gives me a complete carte blanche to do what I want with my books.

BLVR: Genesis seems like the most explicit return of any of your books to the world that you set out in Continent, not just in terms of place, but the political instability of that world, its military juntas, its riots and unrest. What brought you back to that world? Was it recent political events?

JC: The way it works for me is that the first prompting is the subject matter. I’ve written two novels which are clearly Darwinist in their impact—Quarantine, which to some extent denies the existence of God, and Being Dead, which denies the existence of anything after death. I’m very much a socialist-Darwinist in my views. However, it’s always occurred to me that Darwinism has a really gaping hole in it. It doesn’t work with humankind. You can’t judge human beings by their ability to reproduce themselves. Look at Kenya, which used to have the greatest Darwinist success. Back in the seventies it had 9.8 live births per woman, but clearly it wasn’t making Kenya a successful nation. So I thought, “What would happen if I could take a character who was pretty much a failure in every respect in his life except in this one respect—that he was able to pass his gene packet on with incredible ease?”

That was the starting point. But clearly as a book it isn’t about Darwinism. That starting point disappears and the reason it disappears is that when a book gets going, it abandons your original intention. The fun for me is turning up each morning in the office and seeing where that goblin of storytelling that sits on my left shoulder will lead me that day. You don’t want to go along with it all prescribed, you want to go along and have an adventure, and the adventure it led me on was not about Darwinism. This book was about first of all the gap that exists between the imagined world of humankind and the real world. And that imagined world is no better exemplified than in our sexual lives, because we are always imagining alternative sexual scenarios even when we are living out the real ones, and there’s a big gap.

That big gap causes a lot of problems, and that big gap causes a lot of fun, and that big gap is central to our makeup. So clearly the book is about storytelling: the sexual stories that we tell ourselves, and the fact of love-making, which is different. Then it becomes another book about narrative. Masturbation, for example is not any more important to me in my life than it is to any other male, I don’t suppose. Not that I really know, but I’m guessing. But masturbation as a tool for storytelling is fantastic, because masturbation is all about telling stories to yourself, and not only are you telling stories to yourself, but you’re getting a result from it, in other words, semen. And you’re getting an orgasm, you’re getting sexual relief. It’s quite extraordinary. Of course the storytelling that I’m doing rebuffs other stories, and the story that is rebuffed by this book is mostly the Hollywood story about how people are when they’re making love, how people are when they’re in love, how people are when they’re reproducing themselves. In Hollywood people have multiple orgasms and their orgasms coincide. All of the blemished people don’t have great times and aren’t the heroes and the heroines, but all the unblemished people are virtuous and successful. This book wants to combat that. I wanted this book to be complicated and full of blemishes and for the characters to be difficult and unvirtuous and partially unattractive in the way that we all are.

Whether or not I succeed I don’t know, but there’s always this problem for me, that people read my books and feel that I’m very cold, that my books are cold and pessimistic. I’m always immensely startled to hear this, because I think my books are really sentimental and immensely optimistic, but I think that optimism is only worth having if it is taken from a very dark seam. You have to travel deep in the mind to find it. Optimism of that kind is a really valuable, diamond-hard optimism. But the Hollywood-based optimism that says that good things happen to people who are good looking isn’t worth having. My optimism has to be worked for.

BLVR: You do relentlessly take apart the sort of romantic optimism that would believe that sex is the moment when two people truly connect. In each of the sex scenes in Genesis the two partners are desiring and expecting completely different things from it and are interpreting it in completely different ways. They’re missing each other completely rather than connecting.

JC: But still they want the best for each other. Still they mean well. Poor old Lix gets it wrong again and again. He’s not even good in the sack. But in his way he is loved, and this is the great optimistic thing. The orchestral crescendo does not happen all the time every time. But at the end of this, he’s wantonly creative. Out of all of these ambiguities and out of all the equivocations that represent his personal relationships, there are unavoidably, undeniably, six children, and they are a massive, real achievement. Six children capable of love. I could’ve written a great love affair and the reader perhaps wouldn’t have felt so disconcerted by it, but they would hardly have been challenged by it either.

BLVR: If my math is right, you were twenty-two in 1968. How much did you share Freda and Lix’s radical aspirations?

JC: I’ve been a political activist all my life. I come from a socialist, atheist family. My father’s values run through me like blood really, and I hang onto that for dear life. I’m the most uncompromising, progressive, lily-livered radical you ever will encounter and I don’t want to let any of that go. In the sixties I was really busy. I spent my youth chasing ideals rather than girls. My daughter, when I tell her about it, thinks I was a really sad old fart. I’m still active politically. I still think that politics is more important than literature. I’d much rather talk about my political beliefs than I would about books.

BLVR: How much do you think anxieties about the crackdown on civil liberties in both the UK and the States over the last couple years seeped into the way you described the world in Genesis, with its unrest and military rule?

JC: I wasn’t thinking of the Muslim world and I wasn’t thinking of 9/11 when I was writing the book. The promptings for those sections of the book probably come from the fall of the Iron Curtain and from the dystopias in South America and in Asia. I don’t think that it’s a post-9/11 book. The post-9/11 book is the book I’m writing at the very moment.

BLVR: It feels at times like Prague.

JC: It’s sort of like Prague, but of course it’s not actually a Communist regime. There are suggestions that it’s a wayward capitalist regime. I really mixed it up because I didn’t want it to sound like anywhere particular. I went to Budapest after I finished the book and I thought, “Oh my God, there’s a big river and there’s an island in the river which sometimes floods. This is just like the invented town of my book.” And then a month or so ago, my wife and I went to Toulouse and I thought, “This physically could be the town of my book.” Exactly the same happened with Arcadia. I read it in Sydney and people said, “Oh, that’s about our city.” I read it in Singapore recently and people said, “How did you get Singapore so perfectly?” I read it in Toronto and had exactly the same response. Instinctively, I tried to go for a place which seemed like everywhere and nowhere all at once. But I don’t think you can find much of a template for Genesis. It’s come out of the politics of the last ten or fifteen years, the democratization of the eastern countries and the southern countries.

BLVR: Tell me about the new book.

JC: The new book is called The Pesthouse. It’s a novel set in America’s medieval future. It’s a sort of anti-science-fiction book, because in science fiction normally what happens is that our global view of things expands to the cosmic. Science gets more complicated and technology gets more capable and it gets us in a deep mess. But in this book, exactly the opposite happens. Rather than the global expanding to the cosmic, the global contracts to the local. The machine has stopped and the American people are once again gathered around the fires with their faces warm in the coals and their backs cold against the night.

BLVR: How far along are you?

JC: I’m going to deliver it next winter, so I’m about a year away. It’s such a fun book to write. It’s a dystopian book, but it’s not an anti-American book at all. It takes place in America because American landscape and American history lend themselves so well to a kind of retelling, or an undoing. Also America is wonderfully and admirably at the cutting edge of technology and science, and to see that community robbed of all of those crutches is much more interesting than robbing, say, Papua New Guinea of science and technology. Of course it’s also happening in America because America is a country where the certainties have been recently robbed, and this is a novel that will come up with a narrative of uncertainty, so to that extent it is a post-9/11 book. I’m a great lover of America. I could reinvent myself in America. I love American landscape and I love American literature. I love American generosity and warmth. I love the fact that if you look at the credits of an American movie or if you look at the list of people who died in the Twin Towers, you are in no doubt that this is a country that’s been stitched out of people fleeing other countries and finding huge opportunities. Everybody in America has a story to tell. I just adore that about America. But I do not like American foreign policy. And I don’t like American tea. ✯


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