“We started to talk about specific novels — something he claims he just wouldn’t do if it weren’t for journalists who ask him questions. ‘I’m not introspective about the things that I write,’ he said…I remember asking him about how the death of his father, whom he loved, could have inspired Being Dead, in which death descends with exceptional brutality.Crace looked at me, a bit startled, and said ‘I wasn’t thinking about my father when I was writing, I was dealing with the prose on the page.’ ”
an excellent review-cum-interview by Adam Begley (Books editor of The New
which appeared in Southwest Review. I am grateful to the editors for permission to reprint the full article here.
This interview was conducted by Penguin Books in August 2002, when Jim Crace was Penguin’s Author of the Month, and discusses The Devil’s Larder.
Before I even begin to address any of these questions I want to warn you that none of the answers will be reliable. Trust nothing that I say. You’d think that authors ought to have the greatest insight into their own works, wouldn’t you? But they do not (whatever they might claim.) Often readers –and occasionally critics, understand a book more thoroughly than the author.
A novel which cannot display learnt and conscious skills is likely to be an unsuccessful work, of course, but let us not forget that fiction writing at its best is largely an intuitive activity. That is to say, writers have to abandon themselves to the unexpected, unplanned promptings of the narrative itself. And when they do, then the book they’d planned to write becomes a creature of its own making, full of surprises and rebuffs for the writers themselves. That’s why, for me, writing is such fun – but that is also why it would be false for me to pretend, as the following questions seem to require, that everything between the covers of my books was placed there consciously and schematically by me.
The writer (to employ the worst of corny metaphors, worthy of Mondazy) is just the skilled yachtsman, useful with the ropes and the tiller, but only the vassal of the wind. Ughhh. (Edit please!)
1. The Devil’s Larder is a highly original piece of work. What inspired you to write it and where did you get your ideas from?
Where did I get my ideas from? You might just as well ask a tight-rope walker where she got her sense of balance from. The trick with a piece of fiction like Larder is to place yourself in an imaginative and testing environment where unusual events are likely to occur and then to be responsive to any idea that offers itself. Once I had decided that my subject was food, I simply stayed alert to any anecdotes and snippets that came my way and could be plumped up into a narrative. There’s nothing to it. You just need time and a spirit of reckless adventure.
2. Your books are all stylistically different. The Devil’s Larder is a complete break from the concentrated narratives of your previous novels. Why did you decide to write it in such a way?
It seemed appropriate. I wanted the book to be a feast of
food. And feasts can usually boast more than one dish. So I conceived the Larder
as a kind of wedding breakfast or a Greek meze with 64 little snacks on offer.
3. The exploration of death is a common subject in your novels. How do you think The Devil’s Larder worked in portraying such a theme?
I thought I’d left Death behind with this book. I’d had enough of Death by the time I’d published Being Dead (though I suppose I won’t be able to delay the real thing.) That novel was a hard companion to write and an even harder companion to promote on my various book tours. I guess that, even though my father was not a character within the novel, the bruises of his cruel death in 1979 were always grinning over my shoulder whenever I read from it in public. The tension dissolved me into salty water one evening in Portland, Oregon, when I burst into tears on stage (though bursting into tears on stage is not unreasonable at any time during American book tours, one airport, one reading, one city every day.) So I decided to take refuge in a more playful book, something that would amuse me for a year before I embarked on grimmer subjects yet again. (My next novel, Genesis, is about love, sex and families, not grim exactly but not a wedding breakfast either.)
But, yes, you’re right, Death is one of the subjects
occasionally revisited by The Devil’s Larder. But there’s plenty
of sex and love and parenthood, as well.
4. You finish the book with the (very short) story 'oh honey'. What is the significance of this as an ending to The Devil's Larder?
It’s a voluptuous tease, and is meant to refer back to the book’s (false) epigraph from Visitations. It is also, by the way, the world’s briefest short story, but verbose compared to the shortest full sentence in the English language. (“Go”, in case you were wondering.)
‘oh honey’ has sexual connotations, of course, so I like to
think it provides the book with a climax, the only novel in the English
language with an orgasm!
5. You describe The Devil's Larder as a cumulative novel, about culture and our sense of self. What then have you learned about the relationship between culture, politics and food in modern society?
I’ve learned that the table is more important than the
6. All the characters in The Devil's Larder have very strong, unique personalities. Which is your favourite character or story and why?
I’ve never read the book myself, although I am familiar with
it, if you see the difference. (Writers can never have a readers’ experience of
their own books.) But, nevertheless, I like No 63 best, the story in which a
mother and daughter share a piece of pasta in each other’s mouths. It was
evidently my riskiest story because some readers have judged it oddly
incestuous. But actually it was a glorification of the intense tenderness of
motherhood. My favourite character is the carrot-growing, abandoned husband in
7. You suggested that The Devil’s Larder would be more 'playful' than your other books. Yet there is still a large element of darkness and subversiveness running through it. Do you think you could ever move away from the dark side of your writing and would you want to?
I’m not as dark and pessimistic as you think (but I do go
into the murkiest places to lure out my optimism.)
8. One critic described The Devil’s Larder as ‘a banal view of life, death, sex, and art, in its solemn pseudo-minimalist belief that any trivial detail, earnestly presented, is filled with significance.’ What do you think of this evaluation?
I don’t remember reading that review. And I don’t hold grudges. You can’t expect everybody to appreciate your books. It’s only fiction after all. Their opinion isn’t a personal attack. My view of life might indeed be “banal” but it’s the only view I’ve got. That critic should stay clear of my future books. I, however, am stuck with them. (But, by the way, seeing as you’ve raised the subject, I don’t believe in “insignificance”, and there’s nothing “pseudo” about my minimalism, it’s the real skinny thing.)
9. What is your favourite food, and, in the context of The Devil's Larder, what does it say about you?
There’s an amusing little after dinner game that is supposed
to reveal your inner character. The premise is that people are divided into
four types. You ask the question, if you were shipwrecked on a desert island
forever which one of the following foods would you take with you? Rice? Bread?
Pasta? Potatoes? I can’t remember what each choice is meant to signify, but I
do know that I’m a potato person.
10. You once considered fiction as a ‘bourgeois indulgence’ suggesting that journalism was a far more important enterprise. How do you feel about this now that you are considered to be one of the ‘brightest lights in contemporary British fiction’?
It wouldn’t matter how bright I was in British fiction – or
in British uphill cycling circles, for that matter- journalism would still be
of greater importance. Average sales of daily newspapers in the UK – 17.3
millions. Average sales of my worthy literary novels in the UK – between 80 and
150 thousands. So if you want to change the hearts and minds of your readers or
influence agendas, then you know where to flick your pen.
11. Are the stories supposed to be linked in any way?
They’re linked in the same way that songs on a CD might be linked. Same voice, same orchestration, same provenance, but different tunes.
12. Was there a particular area of the world/England that inspired the wonderful landscapes?
The landscape of The Devil’s Larder was entirely
invented. That’s the fun of writing. But in retrospect the setting seems
Mediterranean. My other coastal novels – Signals of Distress, Being
Dead and The Gift of Stones - are mostly influenced by west Cornwall
and the Isles of Scilly.
13. Could you recommend some books for readers groups to read?
Oh, heck. I hate this sort of question. Recommending books is a sure way of making long term enemies. I’ll just mention four fiction oddities that I love - but I suggest that you don’t read them: The Man who was Thursday, G.K.Chesterton; The Lives of Animals, J.M.Coetzee; Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe; anything by the great Grace Paley.
This interview was conducted by email to coincide with the publication around the world of The Devil’s Larder. Ong Sor Fern is Books Editor of the Singapore Straits Times.
Fern: So are you enjoying cyberspace?
Crace: Everything new worth having is paid for by the loss of something old worth keeping. So cyberspace allows me and you to conduct this interview in the most unthreatening of ways. We avoid the formality of letters. We escape the terrors of eye contact. I have the opportunity to consider and edit my answers, so that I can sound both clever and conversational. And once I’m done the email takes only a gnat’s blink to fly from Birmingham to Singapore. But there is no warmth. I do not have the chance to politely enquire about Fern’s life or to hear the latest colours in her voice, as I would in a telephone call. Nor do I have the pleasure (as I would if this interview were by letter) of taking my dog, Shandy, for the short walk up to the letter box at the top of our street. Some exercise, some fresh air, and some chance encounters with neighbours. So, yes, I am enjoying cyberspace. But I prefer to walk.
Re your website: I stumbled across it a couple of months ago and was most impressed. Has it become your semi-official website?
Semi-official, yes. I have no control over it, I have never met or spoken to the webmaster, Andrew Hewitt (he’s a Canadian living in Cambridge) but I do push stuff his way. I’m like a website grandparent. I get all the pleasures of the offspring but none of the responsibilities.
I had no idea you'd written plays before. Any intention of doing any more plays? I would dearly have loved to watch the stage adaptation of Quarantine. It sounded most intriguing.
I wrote inconsequential radio plays for the BBC. That was when I discovered
I had no ear for idiomatic dialogue. So don’t expect any more plays from me,
ever. And I would be completely untempted by the Hollywood dollar. I have no
desire to write films or even to adapt my own novels for the screen. I’d leave
that to the experts. That’s why I enjoyed the stage production of Quarantine
so much. I had nothing to do with it until it reached the stage. And then I was
only an anonymous member of the audience. Here comes granddad again (i.e. all
the pleasures of the offspring but none of the responsibilities.)
The Devil's Larder structure reminds me of Continent. Why the shift away from the novel structure?
It seemed fun - and fun was what I needed after spending 4 years in the grim company of Quarantine and Being Dead. I liked the idea of writing a sort of cumulative novel, a patchwork of stories which shared all the unities except one. Unity of place, time, subject, style, voice – but no unity of character. In fact, The Devil’s Larder boasts more of the unities than most conventional novels. I always knew that there would be 64 pieces to the patchwork. It would be a chess board of stories all on the subject of food, but with the hope that their accumulated impact would be more than the sum of their parts.
There’s a traditional story that matches this arrogant ambition and illustrates the principle of mathematical accumulation perfectly: A peasant goes to the mightily bored King and demands that the King releases all the grain from his storehouses because his people are starving. The King is affronted and orders that the peasant be executed - but then, on a whim, decides that some amusement might be gained from the situation. He calls for his chess set and his executioner. "If I win, you die immediately," he tells the peasant. "But if you win, I promise on my own life that I will grant you one modest wish before we take off your head." The peasant wins (Peasants always better monarchs in folk tales.) "This is my modest request," the peasant tells the king. "Put two grain seeds on the first square of the chess board for your starving citizens. Then four on the next square. Then double up the number of grains until you reach the 64th square." The king thought, "Two, four, eight, sixteen, thirty two… It is, indeed, a modest request." (You, Fern, will now have to get out your calculator. By square 32 you will already have amassed almost 5 million grains. I can’t be bothered to calculate the final figure, but you can imagine empty royal storehouses and well-fed citizens.)
What was the genesis of this book then?
I became interested in the culture and politics of food and the ways in which the great dramas of both Civilisation and Personal Life could be traced through the family larder and the restaurant meal . Putting food on a plate in front of your children, for example, can mean so many things – it is an act of love, it is a means of control, it is a biological impulse. And every meal has a sub-text. Choosing to meet a new girlfriend over a meal is not a statement about cuisine but one of the languages of love. Well, you get the picture. I imagined and hoped that I might find a clearer view of our sense of identity in this new, self-obsessed millennium if I concentrated on the table-life of humankind. It was a bit of a journey into the unknown. I knew exactly what I wanted from Being Dead before I wrote it. But with The Devil’s Larder I was simply curious about what I would discover by the end. What would my tone be? How dark? I think the book has turned out to be more tender and sentimental than I would have expected. And I am glad and thankful for that. The book is full of loss and love and generosity. And so are meals.
I'm curious: are you a gourmand? What's your favourite dish?
No, I’m too much of a puritan to be a gourmand. When I’m in a restaurant it is the company I enjoy and not the food (or the bill). My favourite dish? If I had to eat one thing and one thing only for the rest of my life, then it would be the potato.
You mentioned the last time that this was going to be a "playful
respite" and that you hoped it'd avoid being "grim and
moralising". Do you think you
Who knows? The problem is that what everyone else finds grim is what I find amusing. The grimmer the better.
I read on the website the synopses for your next two books, The Pest House and Original Sins. Looking forward to The Pest House already because I'm a fan of science fiction. Have you read much science fiction?
Original Sins has now (with typical arrogance) been retitled Genesis and will be my next published novel. I’ve done religion, death and food in my last three books. It’s time for sex and love. Genesis is intended as my hymn to life. The Pest House – a novel set in the medieval future of the United States – might might be my final book as I will be getting on for sixty when it is published and I will be eager for adventures of a different kind.
Do you work on multiple books at a go? You're a very efficient writer - your books come out every two years regular as clockwork! How do you keep it going?
It’s not hard work. It’s not even real work. It’s a piece of cake, in fact. What could be more fun than schlepping around, telling lies for a living?.
© Ong Sor Fern 2001
This interview appeared in the Guardian newspaper's weekly feature "My Life in Writing".
The reluctant storyteller
Jim Crace talks about why he used to feel that fiction was a cop-out.
Byline: Nicholas Wroe
The novelist Jim Crace has never been particularly interested in other people's fiction. "My deep reading experiences have always been more likely to come from books on natural history or landscape," he explains. In this, as in much else, Crace follows his father, whose death was the starting point for his last novel, Being Dead. He was a working-class socialist, as well as a keen birder, groundsman and gardener.
"That combination of urban politics and country walks has always been with me. The flat where we grew up was on the very edge of north London. Out of the front windows it was houses all the way to Croydon. But out of the back it was fields all the way to Cambridge."
Although Crace did read English Literature at university, he says if he had his time over again he would do something different. "When, aged 18 or 19, you have a romantic notion of what being a writer is, you see doing English literature as the obvious route to becoming a writer. I used to walk around with a notebook, but I never wrote anything in it. I was just in love with the notion of being Jack Kerouac. Now I am a writer I never go anywhere with a notebook."
After university he had a spell as a VSO working for Sudanese educational television. He presented, acted in, directed and wrote the programmes. "I had the arrogance only a white Englishman on an overseas aid programme could get away with." When he returned home he was offered a contract to write educational plays for the BBC, but his real interest was in journalism.
"I spent half of my working life, up to the age of 40, as a journalist because I thought fiction was a bourgeois indulgence. If you wanted to be involved in politics and writing it had to be through journalism. Of course it turned out to be slightly difficult to raise the clarion call to the barricades because most of the time I worked for the Sunday Telegraph."
While his colleagues were telling him that this wasn't their real job - "and then pulling out a sheaf of crappy poems" - Crace buried any fictional impulses. Even when he did write a widely praised short story, "Annie, California Plates", in 1974, he still made no attempt to capitalise on its success.
"I got loads of phone calls from editors and agents wanting to work with me. Most of my friends were walking around with finished fiction but no publisher or agents. I had publishers and agents but no fiction. It wasn't until 1986 that I could be arsed to actually write a novel."
The linked cycle of stories that comprise his first novel, Continent, won three major literary prizes in a fortnight; the Whitbread, Guardian and David Higham. But Crace was still reluctant to become a full-time author.
"Then I had an article about Broadwater Farm estate spiked by the editor of the Sunday Times," he explains. "It was for quasi-political reasons and I felt so disenchanted that I didn't want to write journalism any more. But by that time Continent had been sold for a lot of money in America, and so in fact my principled stand was bankrolled by American dollars."
Since Continent was published he has done very little journalism, although he still finds it odd that he should spend his time writing rhythmic literary fiction rather than cutting-edge polemics. "But you can only play the hand that you've been dealt. I haven't got the skills of an Orwell or Steinbeck. I think you might guess what my politics are from reading the books, but I am not a leafleteer."
The other regret he has is that when he wrote for the Sunday Times and Sunday Telegraph he knew 90 per cent of their readers didn't agree with his politics. "So I was setting new agendas for them, and I felt my integrity and political seriousness was being engaged in the stories. With my fiction I suspect that everyone that reads me is a carbon copy of me. People who are now middle-class bourgeois lefties."
But paradoxically, writing fiction has meant a far greater personal investment in his work. "Even if I was reporting tragedies, they were always other people's tragedies. But writing fiction, however much you try to hide yourself and lower the autobiographical content, can be a very tough companion."
His last two books have been the Booker-shortlisted Quarantine, which was about good and evil and faith, and Being Dead, which is about death. "They were both hard and unforgiving companions," he says. "I found my emotional equilibrium pretty undermined."
In Being Dead, Crace's depiction of the sea-shore landscape, and the integration into it of two decaying corpses, is an imaginative tour de force. The emptiness of his father's atheist funeral made Crace re-assess his own atheism. "It was a search for a more transcendental form of atheism that could provide a narrative comfort in the face of death. Something like the way the old religions do. They may be false narratives of comfort, but they comfort nevertheless."
His next book, about food, is planned to be a bit cheerier. "My publishers, funnily enough, are also keen that I do something more playful," he laughs. "They didn't really look me in the eye when I told them that on the first page of Being Dead the two leading characters were lying dead on a beach."
But don't hold your breath for a Crace laugh-fest just yet. "While the concept is playful," he acknowledges, "there is something about me that is so bloody cussed. I'm not yet convinced it won't end up a lot more subversive and darker than is currently anticipated."
© The Guardian 2000
Death Warmed Up
By Paul Thewlis
© 2000 Paul Thewlis.
First published in Redbrick, Birmingham University’s student newspaper, 13 May 2000.
Being Dead is a gripping novel that deals with death in a unique and invigorating way. For this exclusive Redbrick interview Paul Thewlis met its author, Jim Crace, at his Moseley home…
Jim Crace has wowed critics with his latest novel Being Dead. The paperback edition is published on 18 May and the reaction of reviewers can only be described as phenomenal. "One of the best books written since the death of Beckett" (The Evening Standard); "A triumph… one of the most distinctive and talented writers of our time… This is a work of near genius" (Literary Review); "A classic" (Independent on Sunday); "In a word, a masterpiece, and an astounding one at that" (Yorkshire Post); "Astonishing… Jim Crace’s new novel confirms his extraordinary talent" (The Daily Telegraph); "A joy to read" (The Guardian); "A stunning novel" (New Statesman); "It feels like a classic already" (Time Out) etc. etc.. You may think that in the light of such rave reviews, Jim might be somewhat full of himself – you’d be wrong. Unlike so many other successful writers, whose heads swell exponentially after a flurry of good press, Jim is the epitome of humility. One of the first things that strikes you about this award-winning author is what a nice guy he is – friendly, down to earth and easy to talk to.
We spoke first about Quarantine. It was short-listed for the Booker Prize and won the 1997 Whitbread Novel Award. Now the book’s back in the news once again having been recently adapted for the stage by Ben Payne and currently playing its premiere at Birmingham Repertory Theatre. I asked Jim whether he was anxious about what may happen to the book in its new adaptation and if he was at all anxious about his work being misrepresented. "No, I’m not worried," he replied, "they can do what they like to it, I really don’t mind. You either trust people to get it right or don’t allow them to have the rights in the first place. The moment you say to someone, ‘Yes, you can have stage rights’, is the moment you stop complaining. It’s their work now, let them make what they want of it…it will become something that belongs to them, not to me. It’s nice that my books can have an ‘extra life’ in new forms."
Set in Palestine at the time of Christ, the book focuses on the experiences of four travellers who venture into the Judaean wilderness for forty nights of fasting and meditation. They meet an imposing and charismatic merchant, Musa. His unscrupulous conniving and continuous preoccupation with moneymaking schemes has a powerful influence over the four travellers until a young man from Galilee who can seemingly perform miracles joins them. It is an intriguing tale of how a group of complete strangers react to one another whilst facing the challenge of survival in a bleak and merciless landscape.
When reading Quarantine it’s hard not to be impressed by the author’s wonderful ability to evoke an authentic wilderness landscape. It lends the book a special cinematic quality that makes the Judaean scenery breathtakingly vivid in the reader’s mind. I mentioned to Jim that while I was reading Quarantine I thought it would make a good film and I wasn’t surprised when he told me that Sony had expressed an interest in a cinema adaptation. They had an idea to update the story to the present day. The characters would be thrown together in some sort of survival situation with the Jesus character as a kind of new-age Saddhu-like figure. The scriptwriters refused to make such drastic changes to the book so the film was never made.
Bearing in mind the intricate landscape depicted in the book, I wanted to know if Jim had spent much time in the Judaean wilderness. I was surprised to learn that he had only been there for eight days. He lived in the Sudan and Botswana for a few years, which sparked a passion for deserts and gave him the real inspiration for his description of the parched and barren landscape in Quarantine. He said, "I know about deserts… People say Quarantine contains a really good representation of the Judaean desert but actually, that landscape’s an invented one. The birds and plants that I describe are all made-up. Maybe they’re similar to real ones, but if they are, then they’re as much a part of my experience in the Sudan as my experience in Judaea."
So if Quarantine wasn’t inspired by time spent in the Judaean wilderness, where did the inspiration come from? Surprisingly, it’s a lot closer to home than Palestine. "It’s a Birmingham novel. It started 150 yards up the road in a place called the Palm Court Hotel," Jim told me. "During the Thatcher years, when she wanted to save some money, she released people with mental health problems into what is laughably called ‘community care’. They all ended up in very low quality housing and hotels like the Palm Court. I went to look round it one day and I saw, living in tiny rooms next to each other, a schizophrenic, a manic depressive, a drug addict, someone with a compulsive behaviour disorder and various others. People with nothing in common, except that they were living their lives on the edge. I wanted to write a novel in which all of my characters had that but I was looking for a way to dislocate the subject. I saw a postcard from the Judaean desert that showed the cave where Jesus was supposed to have spent his forty days. There wasn’t just one cave but about fifty – all man-made and all contemporary with Jesus. It occurred to me that this was a kind of ancient counterpart to the rooms at the Palm Court and that I could take my characters and place them there in some sort of quarantine." It’s remarkable how well twentieth century Moseley translates into first century Palestine!
When we began talking about Being Dead, I asked Jim what he made of the remarkable reviews and, in particular, how he feels about being referred to as a near-genius by Justin Cartwright. "Well obviously, it’s pretty irritating. I mean why not go the whole hog with a full-blown ‘genius’?" was his grinning reply. "But seriously, it’s generous of him," he continued. "He's a fellow novelist and novelists in this country aren’t renowned for being nice to each other. If it reflects on anyone well, then it’s on Justin Cartwright. It was a very warm-spirited thing to say…You have to get into a frame of mind that in order to survive the bad reviews you also have to be a bit dismissive of the good ones. In that period of publication I always have a kind of blunted response to what people are saying… Subsequently, I look back on the reviews for Being Dead, and they’re the best I’ve ever had. People couldn’t understand why I wasn’t walking around with a huge grin on my face slapping myself on the back the whole time. The reason is that I just wanted to get through that tough time around publication."
Without giving away too much of this splendid story, I can tell you that it centres on the murder of two middle-aged zoologists, Joseph and Celice. They’re brutally killed whilst visiting the beach where they first met as students on a field trip nearly thirty years earlier. The book switches from disturbing accounts of the putrefaction of their naked bodies in the hours after the crime to flashbacks of the field trip when they first fell in love to the story of how their daughter learns of her parents’ deaths. It deals with what is, for many of us, a difficult issue. There are many powerful and moving passages in the book as the bleak and almost unnoticed tragedy of their untimely death is juxtaposed with the intensity of their blossoming love as students many years earlier.
The novel shows several different aspects of life and death. I wanted to know what Jim feels the book is about and why he was compelled to write it. "Most great religions have narratives of comfort in the face of death," he explained. "Maybe it’s the one thing that scientific atheists like myself can feel jealous of. The problem with the false comforts of say, the Christian religion, is that they’re so simple-minded they’re useless. They don’t face up to the reality of death: the degradation of the body, the finality of it. They come up with the pretence that there are angels; that there’s eternity; that there’s judgement day; that there’s everlasting love – there isn’t! When we die, that’s it, our world is finished. How do atheists come up with a narrative of comfort to deal with that much harsher view? For me, that was the challenge of this book. The comfort that we can gain from the hard cruel truth of death is that life itself is wonderful, full of love and full of transcendental moments – that’s what really matters. We leave a softly fading imprint of love and memories and experience that our children will feel and our grandchildren will feel slightly less, and our great-grandchildren probably won’t feel at all. In that fact there’s a great deal of comfort, but only if you live life to the full and don’t bury yourself in a non-existent eternity."
One of the most interesting and unusual aspects of the book is that the chapters about the day of Joseph and Celice’s death run backwards from the hours immediately after their murder to when they awoke that morning. I asked Jim to explain the significance of this; he said, "You can only see the intensity of life by looking backwards. The purpose of this backwards strand in the book is to place the two characters in an ultimate position of comfort on a day that started with their death. Most novels have a story that unfolds whereas this story enfolds. The characters start at their most exposed – they’re dead; they’re hammered to death; they’re naked; they’re starting to putrefy. Even though they continue to putrefy in one strand of the novel, this other strand enfolds them making them less vulnerable and less exposed. If your life, from the moment of your death is running backwards, then all your successes are still ahead of you. That’s really what this book is saying – this loop of life is self-contained: there’s nothing behind it and nothing after it."
Jim’s style is very graphic, very vivid. There’s little left to the imagination in his descriptive prose. He told me that this was very important in his depiction of the decaying bodies. He wanted to shock people into facing up to the reality of death. Most of our experiences of death are rather clinical and sanitised. The bodies of our loved ones are usually immaculately presented in their best suit having being washed and made-up. Jim wanted to show the raw edge of death. But his talent for description is prevalent elsewhere in the novel. As in Quarantine his wonderful descriptions of landscapes and the natural world are essential to the book’s overall ambience. Bearing in mind his great emphasis on the natural world in his writing and noticing a sizeable collection of natural history books on Jim’s kitchen bookshelves, I realised that it must be an important part of his life. I asked him to what extent his books are autobiographical. He replied, "You’ll not really find any direct autobiographical details hidden in any of my books. There are certain things you can assume about me from my books but they’re very amorphous things. First, you can see what my philosophical and political interests are. You can tell from my last two books that I’m a fairly hard-nosed atheist who’s a bit dissatisfied with the lack of transcendence in my atheism. But the most autobiographical thing you can see in my books is that I’m a person who’s very, very interested in landscapes and the natural world. The reason why I can tell lies about the natural world and why I can invent convincing landscapes is that I’ve spent a lot of time in their company."
So what next, how does he plan to follow-up these two runaway successes? Well apparently, not with another novel. The next book is called Devil’s Larder and it’s going to be a collection of 72 short stories based upon a variety of wicked foods and other items you might find in the devil’s larder. It’s far more light-hearted than his previous creations. Jim felt that he needed a complete change after his last two books. "Quarantine and Being Dead were heavy companions. You can’t spend four years with those heavy, bleak subjects without it having some impact on you. I want to write more of a playful book now – a book that will be fun to write and fun to read. I need a bit of fun! Being Dead was such a struggle to write it made me ill. Even though I’ve told you that it wasn’t at all autobiographical, it has definitely been my most heartfelt book to date; that meant it was an unpleasant and awkward companion at times and I just don’t want to repeat that with the next book. The book after the next I’m going to get miserable with again, but not this one!" There’s no publication date fixed as yet so be sure to look out for Devil’s Larder over the coming months… and remember you heard it first right here in Redbrick!
The following interview was conducted for this web site in January 2000.
Jim Crace was born at Brocket Hall, near Welwyn, Herts. – a ‘stately home turned into a war-time maternity hospital’. He was raised in Enfield, north London, ‘right on the edge of the Green Belt. Ours was virtually the last building in London. Maybe that’s why I became obsessed with the urban/rural divide…’
Where else have you lived? In Birmingham as a student in the mid-sixties. Then in Khartoum in the Sudan (where I was a VSO). Briefly in Molepolole, Botswana. Paris, for a bit. I’ve now lived in Birmingham for 25 years. Love it here.
Have you followed any career apart from writing? No. Not unless you think that journalism isn’t writing… I was a freelance feature journalist from 1977 to 1987 (Telegraph Sunday Magazine, Sunday Times Magazine, Radio Times, etc).
Have you worked in any mode apart from prose fiction? Yes. I started off in the mid-seventies writing educational programmes for the BBC. Also wrote some plays at that time for Radio 4 (‘The Bird Has Flown’, ‘Salateen’…)
Your first book, Continent, appeared in 1986. Had you done any
writing before that? How did you come to fiction writing? I’d published three or four stories in The New Review and
Socialist Challenge, but did not expect to leave journalism which I
considered (and still consider) more important than fiction. But I began to
encounter ethical problems when I moved from the Sunday Telegraph to the
Sunday Times. The unexpected critical and financial success of Continent,
particularly in the States, allowed me to solve those difficulties by moving
out of journalism.
Continent is described as a novel but reads like a collection of stories, linked by theme, tone and setting. How did you think of it? What was the method of composition - did you conceive of/write the sections as separate ‘stories’, or as ‘chapters’ of a novel? Did you intend a development from the first section to the last? An early realist version of the story ‘Cross-Country’ appeared in The New Review. I was dissatisfied with that version and tinkered with it at home after it had been published. This newly tinkered version was more magic realist and abstract in tone. I had stumbled on my ‘voice’ and went ahead with new stories in that same voice and concerned with matching themes. As the stories accumulated I began to recognise that I was writing a linked cycle. The final three or four stories were written with the finished Continent in mind. Actually, Continent was never described as a novel by me or the publishers. We just avoided calling it a collection of short stories as we wanted readers to encounter the pieces in sequence and as a group. But some of the more post-modernist critics called the book a novel (it had all the unities save one!) and then, perversely, it began winning prizes as a novel. Their deceit, not ours.
Frank Kermode has said that your work is practically ‘devoid’ of direct
social or political commentary. Yet it seems to me that the theme of how people
are affected by the loss of traditional forms of work, which you described as
the starting-point for The Gift of Stones, is a quite pointed reference
to conditions in England during the 1980s, when you wrote it. Does social or
political commentary have a place in your fiction? My books are full of politics and social commentary. They
are all about our age and our concerns. What Kermode means, I guess, is that
the books aren’t didactic in an Orwellian manner. They are more ruminative and
disengaged than the writer is. I’m an uncompromising, North Korean-style, Old
Labour dogmatist. My novels are more ambiguous – though, surely, there’s no mistaking
the atheistic, libertarian, anti-trade sensibilities which lurk behind them.
Come on, Frank. Do pay attention!
Your books seem to invoke and at the same time attack or subvert the tradition of ‘pastoral’. Arcadia in particular is an extremely complex and sophisticated meditation on the theme of ‘the country versus the city’. Do you see yourself as writing in any particular tradition? Not tradition. The urban/rural quandary is always relevant. It’s always contemporary. I see myself as a landscape writer. There are interesting landscapes to be explored both in and out of the city, in books and in life.
Signals of Distress is abuzz with ‘signals’ sent out by the various characters that are typically misinterpreted or ignored. Is this a novel about the difficulty of human communication, about human separateness? It’s mostly about belonging and dislocation, about the yearning to be away from home and the matching need to go back.
Reviewing Quarantine, John Updike described you as a writer of ‘hallucinatory skill and considerable cruelty’. Sudden, surprising acts of violence feature in all your books; the characters are sometimes ‘cruel’ to one another, or experience what might be called a cruel fate. And it does sometimes seem to me that the reader’s sympathy for a particular character is being deliberately restricted, for example by the language and metaphors you use to describe him. Is this a kind of authorial cruelty? Would you apply the term ‘cruel’ to your work? Not cruel, but unflinchingly optimistic. Life can be hard but also triumphant. Where’s the triumph in a life of unremitting comfort? Where’s the optimism is the notion that only people without faults are worthy of our love? The great optimism of life is that we do love people despite their blemishes, and (if we’re lucky) we are loved despite our own.
In general it seems that women are portrayed more sympathetically in your work than men. Would you agree with this? Yes, I enjoy creating the sort of women I enjoy meeting – that’s to say, women who are not leggy starlets, maybe not even physically attractive, but who are admirable because they are tough and bright and determined.
Who do you think of as influences on your work? I see affinities with Thomas Hardy, V.S. Naipaul, Annie Dillard, and others. William Golding has also been mentioned. Shame, shame. I’ve never read Hardy or Dillard (or much else). I did admire Naipaul’s wonderful A Bend on the River. I’ve been meaning to read more of his work for the last ten years but haven’t got round to it. I have read plenty of Golding and recognise the similarities. But I don’t acknowledge him as an influence, more as a writer I simply admire. My influences tend to be non-bookish. I’m not a landscape writer because I’ve studied a lot of books about landscapes, but because I walk a lot. British writers should get out more.
Who do you most admire among current writers? The American nature writers, Barry Lopez, E.O. Wilson, David
Quammen, etc. I read five non-fiction books to every one work of fiction. Novelists
I always read, for a mixture of reasons, include J.M.Coetzee and Toni Morrison.
British writers I follow because they are risk-takers include Rupert Thomson,
Julie Myerson, Michael Bracewell and Will Self. (Click here to find out a bit more about these
Each of your books recapitulates elements of the others and breaks new ground. What’s next? Are you working on a novel at the moment? Is it a novel, or is it a sequence, or is it merely a cynical ragbag of unrelated pieces? My next book is called The Devil’s Larder and is a meditation on food. Sixty imaginative pieces of varying lengths, doing for food (fingers crossed) what Calvino did for towns in Invisible Cities and Primo Levi did for the elements in The Periodic Table. (Two of my favourite books, by the way.) It’ll be my most playful book so far, but after Quarantine and Being Dead, both of which were tough companions, I’m treating myself to a fluffy little interlude.
After that, it’s back to the gloom and cruelty. I’ll write another heavy literary novel which is a science fiction book set in the past, or – more exactly – a story which provides for the world a medieval future. Its working title is The Pest House. Its first line is, ‘This used to be America.’
Jim Crace was interviewed by e-mail on January 27, 2000.