Interviews

Jim Crace, The Art of Fiction No. 179

Interviewed by Adam Begley

Jim Crace is a liar. His novels are peppered with invented detail cunningly disguised as fact: Tarbony trees, Boulevard Liqueur, manac beans, Panache automobiles, swag flies, a wise old poet named Mondazy. A careless reader will mistake the make-believe for realist detail—which is all part of the plan.

   Jim Crace is also stubbornly honest. He insists that his books are wholly invented, that his life is too dull and contentedly settled to make decent fodder for fiction. He lives with his wife in a very ordinary house in a suburb of Birmingham, England. One of his children is just finishing high school, the other is already at university. He’s an avid gardener. A fit fifty-seven year old, he likes a strenuous game of tennis.

   And Jim Crace is secretive—he says so, bluntly. He won’t share his private life with his reading public. Anyone who has met him can tell that there’s a great deal going on inside, a furious boil of ideas and emotion. Crace relaxed is still an intense experience.

   He once pointed out to me that his first four books are about communities in transition. Continent (1986), a novel in stories about an invented continent struggling with the dislocations of progress, won the Whitbread First Novel Award and two other prizes; its success allowed Crace to give up journalism. The Gift of Stones (1988) is set in the remote past, just as bronze is about to make Stone Age weaponry obsolete. Arcadia (1992), about a city and its marketplace, seems to span the ages—from the preindustrial to the postmodern. Signals of Distress (1994), set in England in 1836, is about the wreck of a sailing ship on the cusp of the industrial revolution.

   The next two novels, though very different, can be read as a matched pair. In Quarantine (1997), which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, he re-imagines an episode from the New Testament, Jesus’s forty days in the desert; the story hinges on two instances of resurrection. In Being Dead (1999), which won the National Book Critics Circle Award and begins with a couple brutally murdered on a beach, he monitors the biological processes of death and decomposition. In both books, he zigzags between the secular and the sacred.

   The Devil’s Larder (2001) comes in sixty-four bite-sized morsels, all of them ostensibly about food. Crace’s new novel, Genesis (2003)—called Six in Britain—is a character study of a celebrated actor who has a child with every woman he sleeps with.

   Only two of Crace’s eight books are anchored by a “real” geography—an English harbor town in Signals of Distress and the Judean desert in Quarantine. The rest are set in what has come to be known as Craceland, a place both strange and familiar, historically specific and timeless. It’s the zone where he makes the fabulous real and the real fabulous, where he makes his lies do honest work.

   This interview—always genuinely friendly, even when it felt like a tug-of-war—was conducted in Crace’s long, narrow garden over the course of two intermittently sunny days.

 

INTERVIEWER

There’s barely a shred of autobiography in your books—does it make you uncomfortable to contemplate a long interview that’s going to be all about you and your writing? Will you shy away from personal questions—as Salinger would say, what your lousy childhood was like and all that David Copperfield kind of crap?

JIM CRACE

I’m in charge, so there doesn’t have to be a shred of autobiography in my answers either. I won’t be telling you any outright lies, but I don’t intend to be confessional and I do have a spiel for these occasions that you might mistake for candidness but is actually a smoke screen. I plan to be sociable but secretive. But that’s what you’d expect from a non-autobiographical writer whose fiction is not an exercise in introspection.

INTERVIEWER

What’s wrong with introspection? Why is autobiography not an interesting subject?

CRACE

Try pitching a story of happiness to your editors and their toes are going to curl up. Who’d want to read my autobiography? Contented childhood, never beaten by my father, never heard my parents swear or argue. One happy marriage that has lasted thirty years. Children who are talented and charming, good health, no debts or addictions, an optimistic nature with no depressive impulse—what kind of bloody book is that going to make?

The conventional idea is that novels should be driven by the writer’s own experience. You delve into your own past in order to write your fiction. Writers who are like that, well, of course they’re driven. When they leave the office at five o’clock in the evening, they take their subject matter with them. When they talk to their spouse, when they walk the dog, their subject matter is still sitting on their shoulder because they are their own subject matter. I can’t raid my past for raw material because my past is so dull, so I have to make it all up, I have to start from scratch, inventing alternate landscapes to fill with invented people and invented narratives. That also means, of course, that when I leave my office at five in the evening, I’m leaving my subject matter behind. It’s not squatting on my shoulder nagging me, it’s not walking with me and the dog. It’s no longer there.

INTERVIEWER

What about phrases and sentences? After five aren’t you still working out ways of getting from subject to verb to object? Working out rhythms and phrases?

CRACE

Not much. A little idea will occur to me and I’ll write it on the soft part of my palm if—unlikely—I have a pen in my pocket. But that’s as far as it goes. I’m very aware when I share a stage with other writers that I’m much less driven than they are. I don’t wake up in the middle of the night, pregnant with paragraphs. I don’t suffer for my text twenty-four hours a day. However, when I am at work, in my room, I’m probably more driven—or perhaps the word is abandoned—than most. The mystery, for me, is what happens when I sit down at my desk and I am required, almost at the switching on of the computer, to reach the landscapes of the narrative.

INTERVIEWER

But wait—are there elements of your autobiography worked into your novels?

CRACE

Well, once in a while. In The Gift of Stones there’s a man who’s having his arm amputated. Afterwards there are weeping wounds and suchlike. I lived through exactly that. My father had osteomyelitis—his left arm was withered between his elbow and his shoulder. It was pitted with holes, and weeping with pus for most of my childhood. So what’s being described in the novel is something that I was very familiar with. Clearly writing about that arm—even though I described it as someone else’s experience—was emotionally weighted for me. It laid a ghost for me. But the amputation of a Stone Age man called Leaf, a stoneworker, does not relate to my father at all . . .

INTERVIEWER

Can I just correct you for a second? The man named Leaf did the amputating—it was a child whose arm was being amputated, it was a boy.

CRACE

Yes—I’m sorry, it was a boy. I don’t read the books. I’ve forgotten who’s who.

It’s fascinating to make connections between the life and the writing. That is interesting. But what’s more interesting is the way in which the life and the writing don’t match, don’t mirror each other. It’s the lack of correspondence that’s really remarkable. It’s what makes me think that narrative’s much more deeply placed within us than just personal biography.

INTERVIEWER

You mean some sort of species memory?

CRACE

A species skill. Of all the creatures in this world, only humankind is so thoroughly narrative, constantly reinventing the past or imagining the future—what you’re going to do over the weekend, where your holidays will be spent, what you’d like to do with the woman on the bus. It’s all narrative. Storytelling enables us to play out decisions before we make them, to plan routes before we take them, to work out the campaign before we start the war, to rehearse the phrases we’re going to use to please or placate our wives and husbands. Narrative is an immensely useful device and much older than the written word. We have to presume it’s many tens of thousands of years old and as well entrenched with us as the ability to find water in birds and other animals. It’s interesting that of all the animals, the only one who can’t find water is humankind. We can’t sniff it out—but we do have storytelling. It’s innate. It’s what nonautobiographical writers like me rely on as their source.

INTERVIEWER

Then you’ll forgive us for wanting to hear a narrative about the young Jim Crace.

CRACE

Well, you shouldn’t really trust my version entirely because I’m going to knock it into a certain shape, and the highlights are going to be selective.

My dad, because he had missed out on school, started educating himself when he got married. He wasn’t one of those socialists who said, Opera, literature, theater—they’re for toffs, I want nothing to do with them! Instead, he said, I want some of that. Don’t leave me out. So I was brought up in a household that was working class but intellectually aspirant. He started taking us to see Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop productions and was more interested in listening to jazz and classical music on Radio 3 than the comedies on the Light Programme. Dad was teaching himself to read, and bringing books home, mostly socialist texts but also trendy literary novels from that period after the war such as Moravia’s The Woman of Rome. There might have been very few books in the house, but those books were revered.

I think my father spotted that I had the gift of gab. My tongue is what I used instead of my fists because I was a small and cowardly young man. Amusing people with stories and being bizarre with words was my way of getting out of fixes. It was that kind of neighborhood. You had to fight your corner. So my father always had the notion that I could be a writer of some kind. Maybe I’m only a writer because I wanted to please my father. That’s probably an exaggerated version of his ambitions for me, but it’s not as exaggerated as you might think. Indeed when I was eleven, the word went out that for once in his life, my father had actually bought me a Christmas present. My mum usually did all that stuff. I was terribly excited by the prospect. Along comes Christmas day, and I open up a package and inside was the Dent Dutton Everyman edition of Roget’s Thesaurus. My father had heard somewhere that a thesaurus was an essential tool for anyone who wanted to be a writer. I was eleven, for Christ’s sake! This was the biggest letdown of my life. A book of words! But actually, of course, I still use the very edition he gave me. There are two pages missing, the pages which are of synonyms for words about music. They just fell out. But otherwise it’s my constant companion, my best possession.

INTERVIEWER

How about you? Did you want to be a writer?

CRACE

The writers I liked by the time I got to sixteen or seventeen (once I’d grown out of people like Kerouac and Ginsberg, the Beat writers I’d admired) were the political writers such as Steinbeck and Orwell. By that time, of course, I was at grammar school, the only kid from the flats selected to go to a grammar school. I could hardly come back home and tell the other boys, Hey—Walt Whitman, isn’t he magnificent? because I would have earned a black eye. But whereas literature wasn’t highly regarded in the flats, politics were, so I could indulge my interest in literature by hiding it in politics. And so my sense of self was as a political person, an activist. Still is. I envisaged that if I wrote when I was older, I would be one of two things—either a serious political journalist or a writer of serious political novels, like Steinbeck and Orwell.

INTERVIEWER

Journalism, as it happened, came first.

CRACE

Journalism came sort of by chance. I pretended to be a writer—carried a notebook around with me when I was eighteen or nineteen, but never put anything in it except girls’ telephone numbers—and they never came out with me anyway! So I had all of the pretensions, and I read a lot and loved literature. But I didn’t write anything.

But then I went to the Sudan with Voluntary Services Overseas, after I left college, and had to write television plays while I was there.

INTERVIEWER

Had to?

CRACE

Well, that was part of the deal. I was working in educational television and writing little screenplays as teaching aids. I thought I wouldn’t mind doing this for a living. So when I returned to Britain from the Sudan I started off writing educational plays for the BBC and then moved sideways into writing journalism.

I’d written a few short stories. One was called “Annie, California Plates” and was about a car that travels around America without a break—it’s a hitchhikers’ car, but no one owns it, it just self-propels. This got to be quite a well-known story. It was published in the New Review. One afternoon I was with its editor, Ian Hamilton, and the writer Jonathan Raban in a literary pub—the Pillars of Hercules in Soho. I mentioned that I wanted to get into journalism. Jonathan said, Oh, well, I’ll fix you up. No problem. He made a phone call to someone at Radio Times, and that’s how my journalism career started—because of who I met, by chance, one day in a pub.

It was dumb—I’d written a couple of short stories that really had a lot of attention. Agents and publishers were coming to my door saying, Write a novel for us, but because I feared that fiction was bourgeois, I went into journalism. I was a feature journalist. Nothing special. I wasn’t any good. If I’d stuck in journalism, my career would have atrophied by now. I’d be sad and bitter, sending stuff off to retirement magazines. Actually, in the end, journalism did dry up for me—when I had a falling out with the Sunday Times over what I took to be political interference. My report on the Broadwater Farm Estate, a mainly black housing project in Tottenham, North London, didn’t match the editor’s prejudices that it was “a hellhole.” My article was spiked. I had no choice but to turn to fiction.

INTERVIEWER

And when you finally sat down to write fiction, did Continent come out in dribs and drabs? Was it stories that coalesced into a novel, or was it a novel from the first?

CRACE

As I said, when those first few stories were published, I got approached by several agents and publishers. They were all posh toffs from London as far as I was concerned. But one, a publisher called David Godwin, made the trek up to Birmingham to see me. He picked up my then young son, Tom, and said, What a pretty kid! That was totally persuasive. David—who is now my agent—offered me a book contract. And so I sat down and started writing this piece of realist political fiction, set in a suburb not a lot different from the Birmingham suburb of Moseley, which is where I lived then and am still living now. It was garbage. It was a novel that my seventeen-year-old self would have wanted to write, but I was almost forty by then and I couldn’t see what the next sentence should be, let alone the next paragraph, let alone what the rest of the book might be about. I was forcing this thing forward and it was appalling. David Godwin would occasionally phone up and say, How’s the novel going, old chap? and I would say, It’s inching forward. But it wasn’t inching forward at all. It was dying on its legs.

I was doing some reviewing as well at the time, and I read a novel called In Evil Hour by Gabriel García Márquez—and others by him at the same time. I thought, This is great, but I don’t admire it. Why don’t I admire it? Because when I’m down at the pub, I’m bullshitting like this all the time. I’m making stuff up, not trying to hold a mirror up to the world—I’m just making stuff up for the sake of it, and that’s all that Gabriel García Márquez is doing. I could do this in my sleep, I thought, I’m going to give it a try. So I shelved the social realism and sat down and wrote Continent. It was exactly the kind of book that my seventeen-year-old self would sneer at: rhythmic prose, moralistic, bourgeois fiction. Exactly the kind of stuff I didn’t want to write, but I realized at once that I had found my voice. I had no other voice. I had to play the cards that I’d been dealt.

As soon as I’d started on the first story of Continent, not only could I see what the next story was, or what that book could be, I knew what my next four books were. The novels stretched ahead, that’s the truth of the matter, as soon as I’d reconciled myself to being a fabulist rather than a political realist. I sit here now and I know exactly what my next two books will be.

INTERVIEWER

You do?

CRACE

I know them intimately, although I don’t know any of the details. I know the broad thrust. I sense the deep-stitched narrative impulse of books before I have any sense of the details or of the skills that are going to be required. The next one is called “The Pesthouse.” The first line is, “This used to be America.” It’s about America’s medieval future.

INTERVIEWER

You have these books fully conceived before you sit down and write them?

CRACE

What I have is a sense of what kind of wind I need to produce this book. Excuse the terrible metaphor. I describe my writing process as being like a boy flying a kite. The boy has tremendous skill with the strings. How else could he loop the loop with the kite or write his name in the sky? But without the wind he can do nothing. You’d be foolish if you thought that the boy controlled the wind, or that the wind controlled the boy. Somewhere between the wind and the boy is this mediated kite—which for me is the novel. Ugh!

INTERVIEWER

If you had to describe the deep narrative impulse behind The Gift of Stones, what would it be?

CRACE

Well, I’ll give you the spiel—but I’d suggest that the answer you are looking for is beyond the spiel and beyond my reach. The spiel—perhaps thought up after the event, or perhaps subliminal before the event—is that I live in Birmingham, an industrial city that has historically been scoffed at for its ugly accent and its uglier city center, but nevertheless a city that has taken all its pride out of being a working city. You can laugh at our city center and our accent, we thought, but the world will always want metal bashers. Everyone will always want metal objects from Birmingham—it’s the workshop of the world. So this was a community that, before the recession and Thatcherism and the globalization of industry, took its pride in the certainty of work. No work, no pride, no purpose. I could have written a realist novel, set in Birmingham, about the collapse of the motorcar industry—which is roughly the political impulse of the book. A realist writer would do that, but a nonrealist writer such as me has to find a way to dislocate the subject rather than to locate the subject in a familiar world. I was searching for a parallel moment and I found it at the end of the Stone Age: you can sneer at our terrible village accent and our ugly village center, but the world will always want stone bashers to make the cutters and the scrapers and the arrows and the axes, they would have thought. How could anyone have imagined that something would come along that was sharper, harder, and lighter than stone? And then along comes bronze.

So that’s the spiel.

I started off, then, with the very schematic idea of writing a metaphorical novel about the recession. But once the novel was being written, or maybe even before I had dreamt up the spiel, there was something deeper going on—and that was to do with my uneasy, lifelong relationship with the truth. So more than a book about industry, The Gift of Stones became actually a book about storytelling—and, perhaps, about my self-consciousness about my unreliable version of the world as a kid when I was always exaggerating, always giving the polished version or the distorted version of things, rather than telling the plain, unexciting truth. I saw myself as an entertainer rather than a liar. I’m still baffled that people are genuinely fooled by me and don’t realize what is going on is just playfulness, narrative. I think that’s what came out of that story. My ambivalence about storytelling.

INTERVIEWER

The Gift of Stones is very different from Continent in that it has a continuous narrative arc. Was that a pleasure for you or a burden? Was it a difficult transition?

CRACE

None of it has been difficult. Writing for me is not hard. I seldom make mistakes, I seldom nudge the tiller in the wrong direction so that I have to jettison lots of words. My short novels take a long time to write not because I’m making wasteful mistakes but because I’m lazy. I’m sitting in the boat not rowing.

INTERVIEWER

So it was a piece of cake for you to go from short stories to novels?

CRACE

Yes. There are plenty of writers who make a fuss . . . If I were an autobiographical writer who had been troubled by alcoholism and madness, or illness and alimony, then I could claim, I truly suffer for my art! But it wouldn’t be the art that caused the suffering, it would be the alcoholism, etcetera. I think I’m very lucky to spend my day like this. Trouble free, getting paid for telling lies, swanning around, pleasing myself.

INTERVIEWER

And others.

CRACE

Yes, that’s the extra bit of luck. The real bit of luck.

INTERVIEWER

As Gertrude Stein said, “I am writing for myself and strangers. This is the only way that I can do it.”

CRACE

I’m not sure about the strangers in my case.

INTERVIEWER

You’re writing just for yourself?

CRACE

I don’t think about the strangers. You can see all sorts of self-indulgences in my novels that are about me having fun—not about the reader having fun. Who should I have been thinking of when I wrote Genesis? I should at least have been thinking of my wife.

INTERVIEWER

Or your ex-girlfriends.

CRACE

There aren’t any. I should have been thinking of my wife who’s got to read this book and be discomforted by it as she’s inevitably bound to be. There’s something thoughtless and arrogant about being alone in the room with just your novel as companion. You don’t consider the impact of what you’re writing. You just want to get on with it—you can’t believe you’re ever going to finish it, let alone that it’s going to be published and your wife is going to read it. For that reason I understand Salman Rushdie, I understand how he made that mistake, if it was a mistake, with Satanic Verses. He wasn’t thinking about giving offense to anybody, he was just wondering, “How can I overcome the obstacles that are blocking my way to making this a good narrative?”

INTERVIEWER

Is Arcadia another novel that has Birmingham as its inspiration?

CRACE

It’s true that at the time of writing Arcadia, Birmingham was being destroyed by planners and architects yet again, and it’s true that I was involved in lobbying for a people-friendly city center. Sure, my Birmingham experience was one of the impulses for the novel, but the book is not really about Birmingham. I read from it recently in Singapore, and I read from it in Chicago and Detroit, and people said, That’s about our city.

I do try for the universal. I splash my paints thick and wide, rather than concentrate on the details of my own backyard.

INTERVIEWER

Arcadia takes us—for the first time in your fiction—into a wholly urban environment, except for a glimpse of the countryside at the beginning.

CRACE

Throughout the novel, actually. A fruit and vegetable market is the countryside imported into the city. So it’s always sort of there. It’s no coincidence that that book is about the conflict between the city and the countryside. As a kid, the flat that we lived in—on the Pilgrim Estate in North London, in Enfield—was right on the greenbelt. It was virtually the last building in London—so if you looked south out of the front window it was built up all the way to Kent, and if you looked north out of the back window it was countryside till Cambridge. In the two minutes it took to walk to my dad’s allotment, we would be in the countryside. This is one of the abiding themes in my books, the conflict between the urban and the rural.

INTERVIEWER

Is there a spiel?

CRACE

There’s always a spiel. The spiel on Arcadia is that there has been pressure from my wife, Pam, for us to abandon the city and go to live in the countryside, on the coast. We could do it—there’s nothing stopping us going to live on the Isles of Scilly, where we have spent every summer for almost twenty years. Yet when we look in the estate agent’s window at some perfect thatched cottage for sale with sea views, my heart sinks. I’m addicted to the imperfections of city life. If you look at what’s wrong with the UK—racism, noise, dirt, unemployment—you’re going to find it best exemplified in the city and not the countryside. But for me there’s something immensely exciting and productive about urban vice and something off-putting about rural virtue. So, in Arcadia, I was interested, subliminally, in that conflict, though I’m not sure what the book ends up doing. I’m not sure to what extent it’s a sentimental novel or a political novel.

INTERVIEWER

Equivocal, I’d say.

CRACE

That’s what novels should be—equivocal. If you want to express opinions firmly then you can do something that I count more important than writing novels, and that is to write a leaflet. Or cast a vote. Or make a placard. That’s where certainties lie. I’m very unambivalent about my political views. It’s only in my novels that I allow myself to be ambivalent or equivocal.

INTERVIEWER

You know, it occurs to me you like intertidal zones—you’re never happier than where the water meets the land—and you live in a suburb, which is where the city meets the countryside, but in Genesis the suburb comes in for a terrible slagging off. How do you account for that?

CRACE

My own view of the suburbs was neither here nor there. The book needed something to represent the concessions of middle age.

INTERVIEWER

And the concessions of marriage?

CRACE

And of marriage. The suburbs in Genesis stand for compromise, whereas the city center represents your youthful self, your dangerous self. But you’ll learn nothing about my attitudes to city centers and suburbs by reading my books. This is the serious point that we keep coming back to. If we can only allow ourselves to be comfortable with the fact that we learn very little about writers by reading their books, then we get to understand what it is that makes me want to write these novels in the first place. Not so that I can be introspective, but so I can be “outro”-spective. Why would I want to spend all my day examining my own navel on a computer screen when there are much more important and interesting things to do? I’m busy with politics; I’m immersed in gardening; I’m addicted to tennis and walking. I’m fired up by live, contemporary music. I don’t like to work, and I’m a world-class prevaricator, happier to do almost anything than write. What draws me back to my desk is the pleasure of making things up. Playing games. Treating the suburbs one way today and another way tomorrow. It’s exactly what you feel like when you’re at a dinner party and you decide to fly a different kite from the one you normally fly—you decide to be Stalinist for a change—it’s a bit of fun. Or you decide to be reactionary for once, or terribly English.

INTERVIEWER

But surely at some level your novels reflect your experience.

CRACE

Well, they do at some level. You would know if you read my books that I am interested in landscape, am fascinated by natural history, have a moralistic nature, that I’m on the left, that I’m a North Korean-style atheist.

INTERVIEWER

How would I know that you’re on the left?

CRACE

Because commerce, for example, is always satirized. Sometimes lovingly satirized as in Musa, in Quarantine. Satirized more cruelly with Victor in Arcadia or Walter Howells, the factor in Signals of Distress. And the various traders in Continent. I’m very hostile to trade and capital. I thought the fact that I’m a liberal progressive is obvious.

INTERVIEWER

I think the books are never prescriptive.

CRACE

No—that’s for sure. I wouldn’t allow my novels to be sexist or racist—but I can allow them to be more reactionary than I am. I can allow Quarantine to be more scriptural than I am. Whereas, offstage I’m a very hard-line post-Darwinist atheist. I don’t think Quarantine failed to leave gaps for people who do believe in God. Indeed, most people who seem to appreciate Quarantine are religious people. They write to me and say that the novel underlined their religiosity, rather than undermined it.

INTERVIEWER

Let’s talk about how you write the books. The process.

CRACE

When I talk about the books I’m writing I’m misrepresenting them. I can talk to you about the self-conscious ingredients that might go into them, but I can’t talk to you about the abandonment because I don’t know what that’s going to provide. I can insist on the fact that the abandonment will happen, and that, if it doesn’t happen, then the book will not be a success, but I can’t actually describe the process to you. But you wouldn’t feel awkward if you were having this same conversation with a composer—you wouldn’t accuse a composer of being evasive, if the composer said, I don’t know where it comes from—it’s in the ether. I know how to put the notes on the page, and I’m skillful at understanding the orchestration, but the actual melodies are a gift of the universe.

INTERVIEWER

But the composer is not telling the whole truth when he or she says the melody comes from the ether. There’s also a body of previous music—except for birdsong we don’t really hear music that hasn’t already been written down—and that’s true of stories too. So perhaps you’re being evasive about your experience of the written word.

CRACE

No—I don’t think it works like that. I don’t think you need to call upon previously written stories.

INTERVIEWER

But they’re in you.

CRACE

There were no written stories until two thousand years ago or less, a thousand years ago. In evolutionary terms that’s nothing. The conventional novel only arrived at the end of the eighteenth century. That’s a handful of generations. No, my inheritance is not so much what you call my “experience of the written word.” It’s more the thousands of years of unwritten narrative, the oral tradition. That’s why my style is so declamatory, at times, and that’s why the prose is so rhythmic. Some critics have wrongly accused me of using iambic pentameters. Well, they’re not iambic pentameters exactly, but the language I use is very musical and percussive. I don’t have to work at it. I have an instinctive musical note to my prose and I strike it. Madly.

INTERVIEWER

I noticed in Genesis that there’s also a kind of rhythm to your paragraphs. They tend to move towards an epigram—a maxim or a saying. There’s the working out of an idea and it leads to an easily digested thought. I’m not saying that this is wisdom literature—but you’re playing with the idea of wisdom literature in almost every paragraph.

CRACE

Yes, exactly. That’s why I think I’m a traditional writer rather than a conventional writer. That’s what traditional writers would do. They’d be moralistic rather than ironic. There are ironic touches to the books, but my books aren’t half as ironic as most of the English canon—the English tradition of irony is the English writer’s way of being serious about serious things without seeming to be. So, by joking they can make solemn points. But I’m not at all embarrassed about being serious about serious things—because that’s what my books amount to—unembarrassed seriousness.

INTERVIEWER

But you often put the wisdom under the name of an invented sage. You call in your friend, the fictitious poet Mondazy, which is another kind of irony. You remind the reader that the pearl of wisdom is a fake—cultured. It’s not necessarily killing irony—but it has to give the reader pause.

CRACE

Am I trying to have my cake and eat it? I’m able to deliver these pompous wisdoms, but also to claim, Not me, mate. Not my fault—it was the character saying it.

INTERVIEWER

You’ve banished Mondazy from Genesis—but he pops up everywhere else. His macabre wit set the tone for Being Dead.

CRACE

Mondazy’s toast. My readers were starting to expect him. Time to move on.

INTERVIEWER

I see you more interested in character in Genesis than ever before. More willing to meet people and introduce them and show six sides of them

CRACE

People ask me, Why are your characters so stereotypical? It’s because I deal in stereotypes—archetypes, perhaps. Previously when I’ve written a character-led book—Signals of Distress, for example—I got a lot of flack from readers who wanted me to go back to Craceland.

But when I was writing Genesis I wanted to avoid some of my signature flourishes, and to avoid florid rhythmic passages of description. I don’t think I succeeded. The stylistic mannerisms are exactly in place, the moralistic tone and the schematic shape are exactly what they’ve always been.

INTERVIEWER

If I had to choose the least Cracian novel, it would be Signals of Distress. Was something different about your attitude when you sat down to write it?

CRACE

Well, I enjoyed writing Signals of Distress—more than any of the others. Because it allowed me to do something that I’m not able to do in my invented landscapes, which is to use an idiom and therefore use dialogue. If you set a book in an invented sixth continent, or if you set a book two thousand years ago in the Judean desert, or at the end of the Stone Age, you don’t know how people speak. If you do attempt idiom, it’s going to be ludicrous—it’s going to be all ugs and args. So there’s not much dialogue in most of my books. But when I wrote Signals of Distress, I was able to use Victorian idiom and I was able to be humorous. I think it’s my funniest book. I enjoyed the characters. I was rather disappointed that it was my least critically successful book.

INTERVIEWER

Was it?

CRACE

Some critics said I should get back to writing nonrealist books. Actually Signals is not as realist as they imagine—it’s just as invented as the others. It is to some extent autobiographical, though: it’s a critique of the self-regard of liberal progressives—judgmental, moralistic, and sometimes insensitive in the lofty high ground that they inhabit. It’s the citified, educated liberal versus the impulsive locals who may not know the Latin word for everything but do know greater truths.

INTERVIEWER

How did Quarantine begin? With the Judean landscape?

CRACE

The spiel is also to some extent the truth on this one. The suburb where we live, Moseley, is full of Victorian houses that were turned into hostels in the sixties and seventies. In my street alone, we have a battered wives’ hostel, a sex offenders’ hostel, and just around the corner a prisoners’ hostel—and lots of old peoples’ homes. Right at the top of our road we have a huge hostel called the Palm Court; it’s for people who have mental-health problems. When Quarantine was conceived, Margaret Thatcher had just come up with her monstrous idea number one hundred and sixty-three, that in order to save money they would not give mental-health patients in-hospital treatment; they would oblige them to be “re-absorbed” into the community and live in hostels. Of course it meant no care, no medicine, and they were just wandering around Moseley all day, lost and depressed and hilarious.

I got the chance to look around the Palm Court one day. There were all these corridors of bedrooms so small that if you wanted to turn over in bed you’d have to come out into the corridor to do it. And there were all these doors—door one, schizophrenic; door two, manic depressive; door three, a woman with violent tendencies; door four, a man with alcohol-related problems; door five, someone with a repetitive disorder. In other words, corridors of people who had absolutely nothing in common, except that they were living their lives at the edge. So, in my usual cheerful way, I thought this would be a challenging idea for exactly the kind of novel my publishers would abhor.

A novel in which every single person was living a life in crisis—that was the original idea. What I could have done was set this book in Thatcherite Britain, in Birmingham, in a hostel of exactly the kind I saw. But, as you know, I’m always looking to dislocate the subject. One day I got a postcard from two Jewish friends from New York who had been holidaying in Israel and had gone to Jericho in Palestine. Their postcard showed Jebel Quruntul—which in English is called the Hill of Forty Days, or Quarantine Hill, or the Mount of Temptation. This was the hill where Christ was supposed to have spent his forty days of fasting and temptation before he went out to begin his ministry.

I’m not interested in Jesus Christ or the Bible stories. What fascinated me about the postcard was that it showed not only one man-made cave in the cliff face—now built over by an Eastern Orthodox church—where Christ stayed, but also hundreds of other man-made contemporary caves. What were they doing there? They weren’t there because Christ needed ten caves a day. They were there, I decided (and I still don’t know whether this is historically true or not) because at the time that Christ was confronting his devils, any of his contemporaries who had a problem—a guilty conscience, cancer, madness, a desire to overthrow the Romans, people living on the edge—would have gone off to the wilderness in order to greet their own devils. Here was the exact counterpart of the laughably named Palm Court Hotel at the top of my road. We even had palm trees.

I now had a setting and a subject matter—a starting point. All I intended at the beginning of this book was to mention Jesus Christ in one paragraph as a useful marker to help my readers understand the historical context of the novel. But as I progressed, Jesus started to take over. A vicar told me during a radio discussion that Christ had taken over the narrative because God was standing at my shoulder while I was typing. Of course, it wasn’t God, I told him, it was the goblin of storytelling, a much more likely deity. That’s what I mean when I talk about abandonment. The goblin hijacks a narrative about Thatcherism and mental-health care in the seventies, and plonks it in the Judean desert two thousand years ago with a character you’re not in the least interested in—Jesus of Nazareth. Finally Jesus was useful in my life.

INTERVIEWER

Are there any remnants of the Thatcherite novel?

CRACE

The major group of characters are all living on the edge. But you would be hard pressed to find a critique of Thatcherism in there.

INTERVIEWER

There’s certainly a critique of mercantilism.

CRACE

Absolutely. I felt a little bit like Milton must have felt—in a lesser way, but with better eyesight. He wrote Paradise Lost meaning to give the Christian ethic the brightest light. But the most irresistible character was Satan himself. So, in Quarantine, the loathsome capitalist trader is irresistible, the survivor who trades Jesus and sells Christianity throughout the world.

INTERVIEWER

You’re taking risks.

CRACE

Better to take too many risks than none. In many ways I feel like a tightrope walker when I’m writing: He’s not thinking about the principles of balance, he’s probably feeling abandoned and lost and heroic, but he has only one place to put his foot. It’s sort of like that with me. I feel grandiloquent when I’m writing, but I also feel that there’s only one place for my foot to go next, there’s only one right decision to make. It’s total control but, at the same time, it feels like a dangerous loss of control. I have trouble making sense of these contradictions, but I cherish them.

INTERVIEWER

How long have you had the title “The Pesthouse” in mind?

CRACE

About four years. I was on a tiny uninhabited island in the Isles of Scilly called St. Helen’s. I discovered the ruin of the pesthouse, a building where anyone with an illness who was passing through the western passages into the British Isles in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries would be quarantined and left to die. It struck me as being an immensely interesting conceit—the shared abandonment of people with nothing in common except illness. It offered the irresistible title for a book too.

INTERVIEWER

What sort of research will it require?

CRACE

My wife and my editor think I do lots of research. And I encourage them in their delusion as it makes me seem hardworking. But actually I don’t research. I oppose research. What I do is a bit of background reading in order to work out how to tell my lies. I don’t look for information, I look for vocabulary and for the odd little emotional idea that will give some oxygen to my imagination. Vocabulary is the Trojan horse that smuggles the lie. Facts don’t help. If you’re not a persuasive talker at a party, no one’s going to believe you, even if everything you say is true. But if you’re a persuasive liar then everyone is fooled.

Now if I’m going to set a novel four hundred years from now in America’s medieval future, then vocabulary matters immensely. In this community, everything metal is hated. Metal is the enemy of good fortune—so anything metal is avoided. It’s bad luck. So the dangerous places to avoid would be the metal-contaminated, surviving parts of the old American empire. I’ve called it “the junkle.”

INTERVIEWER

How did you come up with that?

CRACE

It just came out of the blue, and I thought, That’ll do. The vocabulary enriches the idea. As soon as I’d got the word junkle, the whole landscape delivered itself to me, in imaginative detail. I could have gone along and talked to an expert in metal degradation, or I could have gone to the ruins of an old foundry, say. But no need. The word junkle delivers the whole story to me. It is the product of imagination rather than research.

The trick of telling convincing lies was brought home to me while I was in Judea, actually. I went to the desert for three weeks before I started writing Quarantine. Me and Izzat, my Bedouin guide, had been sleeping out in the desert under his jeep. It was the perfect morning. No one around, the bluest sky, and just baked landscape stretching away forever. Izzat asked, How did you sleep? He spoke impeccable English and Arabic. I said, Me? I slept like a log. And, as I said it, I saw his eyes narrow and I looked over his shoulder into the desert. Not a single log! All I could see, maybe a kilometer away, was an old tumbled thornbush. I understood immediately that even though Izzat and I had language in common, this metaphor didn’t travel. The metaphor couldn’t cross the Mediterranean. Logs don’t sleep in Judea. So I said to him, How did you sleep?” He said, I slept like a dead donkey. If you’d have kicked me, I wouldn’t have woken. I borrowed that phrase for the book. What it told me was that plain facts weren’t going to help me convince people that I knew about the Judean desert two thousand years ago, but that vocabulary would do it. The trick of fiction was to remember to turn all my logs into donkeys.

INTERVIEWER

Your books are quite carefully plotted. What kind of planning do you do?

CRACE

I’m instinctively a schematic writer. I want to make moralistic points. I have a purpose. So if you encounter a stone on page one of the novel then you can be damn sure it’s not there by chance. It’s going to show up weighing down a metaphor, on page thirty, and it’s going to crop up again on page two hundred fifty with a moral attached.

INTERVIEWER

But do you make an outline? Or make a note about the recurrence of that rock, say?

CRACE

No—I feel it instinctively. I feel it just like someone doodling on a page—it’s exactly that, it’s formless. But when it’s finished, the structure of the doodle is there to be seen. Once the framework of a novel identifies itself then I don’t have to make any notes, because I know exactly how to replicate it. I’m scaffolding the house—and hanging the narrative between the scaffolds. Those aren’t the things that present problems to me. Characterization is what presents problems, the use of dialogue is problematic to me—I might have to make notes for both of those. That the novel addresses the issues it’s supposed to address and doesn’t go down cul-de-sacs—I might have to pay attention to that.

Let’s be honest—my books are very highly structured, and that’s one of the good reasons not to like them.

INTERVIEWER

That doesn’t seem to me to be the major reason that critics have found.

CRACE

Well, there are several reasons not to like my books. One is the rhythmic prose. Adam Mars-Jones correctly said that reading too much of it can give you a headache. The novels are also overblown: grandiloquent in expression and moralistic in intent. Next is my obsessive refusal to recognize that there’s a real world in which important novels should be set. I’m hiding behind fabulism and magic realism all the time. It must be immensely irritating after eight books. Spare a thought for my readers.

INTERVIEWER

But honestly, did you keep track of the multiple time frames of Being Dead without some kind of outline?

CRACE

Somewhere along the line I would have written it down on half a page—in fact I remember doing just that. I would have wanted to make sure that the optimism was in the ascendant. Being Dead takes two dead characters and delivers them back alive. It takes a seduction and provides it with an orgasm. These rewards needed to be clustered at the end of the novel, even if it defied the logic of chronology. I needed to outline that. But I wouldn’t say it was much of an exercise—two minutes in my terrible handwriting.

INTERVIEWER

How hard was it to write a novel that takes such an unflinching look at violence and decay? How hard was it to write the scenes in which Joseph and Celice are murdered?

CRACE

The hard companion is death. The hard companion is not the prose, not the actual task of writing that lays before you that day. I don’t find it difficult to achieve the effects I’m going for—but nevertheless there is a cost for some of those effects—having to think about death itself, to spend a lot of time in somber circumstances—that’s hard.

INTERVIEWER

I’ve heard you say that your father’s death inspired the novel.

CRACE

My father’s funeral, or lack of it. Dad was one of those old-fashioned political atheists. For him, not to believe in God was to reject just one more sector of the ruling class. Unfortunately, that kind of unsentimental atheism does not offer much to the bereaved. We gave him the cremation he asked for, no flowers, no mourners, no hymns, no ashes. It was a huge mistake that I regret every day of my life, even though he died twenty-four years ago. We lost the opportunity of paying tribute to the lovable, curmudgeonly, principled person that he was. I was jealous of the comforting rituals, the false narratives of organized religions for once. So, to some extent, Being Dead is my attempt to discover a narrative of comfort in the face of death in an increasingly godless universe.

INTERVIEWER

Can you describe how you got to The Devil’s Larder after Quarantine and Being Dead?

CRACE

I think I wanted to write a political book for once. And I was deeply impressed by the patchwork form and by the tight focus of Calvino’s Invisible Cities and also The Periodic Table by Primo Levi. They observed most of the unities, except for the unity that is observed by most conventional novels—they had no unity of plot.

So I think I was looking around for a subject matter that would enable me to do my Invisible Cities. That sounds dangerously grand. The subject of food was an obvious choice. In my lifetime our relationship with food has changed immensely. When I was a kid, and there was still rationing, all you had to decide about the food was whether you ate it now or were made to eat it later. These days anything we eat is freighted with danger, and body-image implications. What would you like with your omelette, sir? Salmonella, E. coli, or botulism? Also we are never able to forget the great inequalities of food distribution—the way in which our tables in the West are laden, but most tables are not. So I decided to attempt a patchwork book like Invisible Cities but about food. A feast of many dishes. It would enable me to discuss politics without directly talking about politics. It would enable me to finally write a book that my seventeen-year-old self would not sneer at. But as I progressed through the book I found I was writing more and more stories that were playful and tender rather than political. Halfway through, my seventeen-year-old self was already sneering over my shoulder and saying, This isn’t the manifesto you promised me. Well, actually, it isn’t really a book about food either. The social encounters are more important than the meals. It’s a book about family, children, death, memory, love. It’s about tables and plates, but not food.

INTERVIEWER

But you’re not going to tell me that Genesis is not about sex.

CRACE

It is largely about sex. I have a sex life—of course I do, like anyone else—a married sex life. We have children, etcetera. But none of my tendencies are going to show up in any book that I write about sex. These are not even my sexual fantasies. These are products of the goblin of storytelling yet again. And I’m as surprised by them as any of my readers. Actually, sometimes I have this strange feeling that critics and readers understand my work better than I do. But that’s not to be cutesy, that’s just to say that when tennis players are on court, the commentators and the spectators recognize their techniques of play, their strengths and weaknesses, more than the players themselves. The best players sense instinctively what they have to do, without self-consciousness. Maybe that’s why I feel I can’t talk convincingly about literature. I’m a player rather than a commentator. When I’m with friends I never talk about books—if someone raises the issue of my writing I almost rudely snuff the subject out. I don’t want to live that life. The life of letters. I have no ambition to be at the center of the literary world. I’m uncomfortable with its self-regard. I don’t seem able to escape the Pilgrim Estate where I was mostly brought up, where I was the grammar-school boy who was too nervous to mention books. All of these rational and irrational things are telling me, Don’t talk about your novels to anybody. Besides, I don’t know the answers. What writer does? To ask a novelist to talk about his novels is like asking somebody to cook about their dancing. All you get is a bad omelette and a worse tango.