Issue 167, Fall 2003
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.
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?
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.
What’s wrong with introspection? Why is autobiography not an interesting subject?
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.
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?
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.
But wait—are there elements of your autobiography worked into your novels?
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 . . .
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.
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.
You mean some sort of species memory?
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.
Then you’ll forgive us for wanting to hear a narrative about the young Jim 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.