“Inimitably excellent, Jim Crace
stands on his own ground
among living English novelists...”
– Boyd Tonkin, The Independent
writer of hallucinatory skill'
[Website contact: Rafaelo Candori
to be published in USA by
Nan Talese (imprint of Doubleday-Random House)
and in Canada by
on June 19th 2018
Here are endorsements from all the pre-pub reviews in the USA:
With devastating understatement, Crace offers a parable for a time
in which empathy has given way to callousness and fear.
KIRKUS (starred review)
Like the simple but subtle song from which this haunting and transfixing novel takes its title, the novel’s effects linger, coloring the reader’s feelings about the thin border between the natural world and human society.
Exploring ideas of myth, grief (the depiction of how Al copes with
his wife’s death is particularly moving), and inequality, Crace’s latest is an ethereal novel that ambles and simmers towards a delightful conclusion.
Jim Crace has written the following short introduction to his new novel:
My novels are hardly autobiographical. They tend to spring from something puzzling or troubling beyond my experience rather than from events in my own life. So it was with The Melody. About three years ago, I was on the tenth floor of a lavish hotel in Chennai, India, a guest of the Lit for Life Festival. Everything was perfect – except for one annoyance: I couldn’t sleep because of the ceaseless, metallic racket from the waste ground below my suite. I looked down from the window on my first restless night to watch the hotel’s garbage bins being toppled over and raided for food scraps by, mostly, feral dogs and a few other animals I couldn’t, in that half light, put a name to. A couple of them looked alarmingly like children. I lay awake, disturbed in every sense, until the waiter brought my breakfast on a tray.
What I’d witnessed at the bins had been a distressing and sobering sight, not just because of the disparity between my pampered life and theirs but also because it made me speculate from my elevated viewpoint how biologically debasing and destructive poverty must be. Those scavenging street children had seemed little more than animals.
That was the seed for the novel and it provided the question the narrative would hope to answer: What occupies the space between the human mammals in their hotel rooms and those amongst the bins? A realist, autobiographical writer, employing the pen as a camera, might have set the novel in 21st century Chennai. I was wary of that. I was a white, privileged tourist there. Whatever I wrote would seem like a narrow, judgemental, post-colonial misrepresentation of a diverse nation about which I knew very little. India is so much more than poverty, of course. Besides, if a book were to be written on the subject of destitution in the sub-continent, there were plenty of talented Indian writers who would make a truer job of it than I ever could. Many have already done so. No, what I needed was a setting out of Asia and one which could not offend the citizens of any actual place. That meant making up an unnamed nation of my own, something I am very fond of doing. Minting a new world, rather than holding a mirror up to a real one, is a liberation I nearly always search for in my novels for the licence and the freedom it allows. Anything can happen in the realms of make-believe.
So The Melody is set in a time long lost (the late 1920s, say), on a coast unnamed (by the Mediterranean, perhaps) and in a town unbuilt, except within the pages of the novel. As in all the public places we enjoy, there is a throng of music, street life and romance, there are intrigues and shenanigans, there are good intentions and bad decisions. The only part of Chennai that survives is the night-time racket of the bins - but in The Melody these discords are relocated to disturb the wealth and poverty of an invented place that I hope can stand for Nowadays and Anywhere.
Thanks to Pan-Mac News and Picador Books, UK, for permission to reproduce the above. What follows is Picador’s own synopsis of the novel:
Alfred Busi, famed and beloved in his town for his music and songs, is now in his sixties, mourning the recent death of his wife and quietly living out his days alone in the large villa he has always called home. The night before he is due to attend a ceremony at the town’s avenue of fame, Busi is attacked by a creature he disturbs as it raids the contents of his larder. Busi is convinced that what assaulted him was no animal, but a child, ‘innocent and wild’, and his words fan the flames of old rumour – of an ancient race of people living in the woods surrounding the town – and new controversy: the town’s paupers, the feral wastrels at its edges must be dealt with. Once and for all.
As Busi’s nephew’s ambitious plans for himself and the town develop, he is able to fan the flames of rumour and soon Busi and the town he loves will be altered irrevocably.
The Melody by Jim Crace is a story about grief and ageing, about reputation and the loss of it, about love and music and the peculiar way myth seeps into real life. And it is a political novel too – a rallying cry to protect those we persecute. It is lyrical and warm, intimate and epic, a powerful future classic.
Here’s an oddity! The following Crace memoir -about a shirt!- appeared in the Spring/Summer edition of Esquire’s Big Black Book:
I own a shirt that I’ve been wearing, on and off, for fifty years. In 1968, I was working in Khartoum, the then drowsy and cordial capital of the Sudan, and living in a biblically flat-roofed villa in al-Bahri, an unfashionable out-of-town neighbourhood across the Blue Nile bridge. I had not expected such openness and friendliness from my neighbours, nor -when I packed my bags for the triple-hop flight from London, via Rome and Cairo- had I foreseen the abrasive powers of the desert heat. Walking the streets was, according to one seasoned British colleague, “like wading through warm Guinness” except when the sun was screened by an haboob (or dust storm) and then it was “like wearing a sandpaper cloak.”
You can imagine how my factory-made, European clothes fared in such conditions. The elastic waists of my underpants were the first to stretch and sag, and then -given that I cycled everywhere- all my gussets and arm-pits were left embarrassingly threadbare by the twin attacks of sweat and friction. None of this was helped by the attentions of Sabino, the unusually tall and low-paid southerner whom I’d inherited by default as “a yardboy” along with the rental of the house and whose job it was to scrub my clothes. He used to sit cross-legged in his tatty jalabiya and assail my cuffs and collars with a rasping mixture of water, carbolic and sand. The best of Millets, Charing Cross, was soon reduced, like Hamlet’s king, to shreds and patches. What I needed now were some replacement clothes – and sturdier ones, built for hardship.
My Guinness-loving friend, directed me to Souk 2, the more authentic and less expensive of Khartoum’s market places where he said I’d find a row of fifty or so street tailors all of whom could make a lasting shirt and an enduring pair of trousers . “I know which one you’ll pick,” he said, with a mischievous grin. And he was right. What Englishman with little spoken Arabic but faced with such a bewildering choice of craftsmen equipped with identical hand-cranked Singer sewing machines would not select the one sitting behind a sign which announced his name in Roman script to be M.A.D ATTA. Those dozens of other outfitters must have been completely mystified by why it was their surly, unremarkable colleague got all the lucrative work from Europeans. We made a beeline for the Mad Hatter of Khartoum without so much as a glance elsewhere, ordered our bespoke clothes from him and then, like Alice, meekly drank his sugar-laden tea to close the deal. Bald and buck-toothed, he even looked the part; straight out of Wonderland. He should have paid the Estate of Lewis Carroll a hefty royalty.
The Mad Hatter rolled out his cloths and measured me without a word and one week later I returned to collect a full wardrobe in tough local cotton, with strengthened gussets and pits and with cuffs and collars designed to outwit the worst Sabino could offer them. None of my five new shirts were stylish, of course, or even mildly influenced by the Crushed Velvet revolution of that Summer of Love in Europe and America. They did not sport a single dart or pleat. Their tails were square-cut and unshaped. But they were undoubtedly made to last. Their plackets were as thick and serviceable as tea-cloths; the yokes across the shoulders were sturdy enough to endure a lifetime of labour
My particular favourite was a long-sleeved yellow shirt which didn’t suit my sun-reddened complexion one bit -it gave me that Blood and Urine look- but which I loved for its blaring cheerfulness. It is this shirt that outlived the others and is still hanging, half a century later, in my cupboard, with hardly any wear or tear to prove its age. It’s more than slightly faded now but still robust. Not a single thread has lifted. Every button is firm and intact. And to this day it fits me, I believe.
Why save that one shirt? The others that Mohamed Atta stitched for me were just as strongly-built but when I moved on from the Sudan to travel through Africa a year or so later with a small travel bag, I had to make a choice. I hung on to the toxic mustard one because of its amusing and affecting history; those had been exciting, joyful times. I let Sabino keep the rest, even though they didn’t truly fit. He accepted them with a complicit smile which both of us recognised to be a silent and long overdue admission of his guilty past. There’d come a time, a few weeks after my dealings with the Mad Hatter, when I began to realise that rather than attack my new bespoke outfits in the villa’s yard, Sabino had started taking them home to wash. And he was taking more time than was reasonable to return them. His tardiness made no difference, of course. I have never been a man excessively concerned with clothes or even one who wears them well. Too short and balding (even then). No-one has ever said that I look smart – or even tidy, come to that. So long as I had a clean set of gear every blistering Sudanese day, I was unbothered by mere laundry delays.
Unbothered, that is, until I ventured for the first time into al-Bahri market, a very rough and local place, not comfortable for outsiders, especially those dressed, as I was, in imperial attire. I was startled to see that I was not the only khawaga (or European) there that evening. Across, the street, drinking a Fanta at an open-air stall, and seemingly holding court to all and sundry was a tall and regal figure, wearing too short trousers and a familiar garish yellow shirt with sleeves that hardly reached his wrists . He looked like someone drawn by Tenniel and must be, I presumed, another one of the Mad Hatter’s customers, though one who’d not been measured very well. It wasn’t until he turned and the lantern light caught his face that I recognised Sabino. By day, he was the yardboy of an Englishman; by night, he was the ill-dressed dandy of the souk, the impostor of the borrowed shirt. I knew at once that I would have to keep and wear that shirt until -eternity?- it fell apart, not for its style or durability, but for the yarns stitched into it.
The Guardian – The books that made me... Jim Crace
The book I am currently reading
I’m a Rathbones Folio Prize judge at the moment and so am shouldering my way through eighty volumes, mostly with great pleasure but sometimes just out of puritanical duty. The last book I read voluntarily, so to speak, was Andrea Mays’ The Millionaire and the Bard which, despite its seemingly narrow focus (collecting Shakespeare’s folios), was exciting, poignant and enriching.
The book I wish I’d written
Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities. Inventing such bizarre and mischievous locations and describing them with such flair must have been a lot of fun.
The book that changed my life/the world
A parochial choice in the grand schemes of things, but it’s Robert Tressell’s socialist clarion call, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists
The book that had the greatest influence on my writing
Roget’s Thesaurus - but it has to be the 1955 Everyman’s edition as that’s the one my father gave me on my tenth birthday. I thought it was an inexplicable present at the time (Where was my Meccano?) but it’s been at my side ever since and has given undeserved range and depth to my writing.
The books I couldn’t finish
I’ve never had much luck with Proust, Tolkien or Trollope.
The writer I’m most ashamed not to have read
Dickens. I shall start when I’m eighty.
When we were teenagers, we all loved the bop prosody novels of Jack Kerouac and wanted to be him. He was overrated , mostly by me. We didn’t want to be Gary Snyder or Joyce Johnson but they were the best of The Beats.
The last book that made me cry/laugh
I’ve not blubbed recently – but my most valued weepers in the past have been Alan Paton’s Cry the Beloved Country, Ian McEwan’s A Child in Time and Toni Morrison’s Beloved. For sustained out-loud laughter, I recommend Ben Goldacre’s merciless I Think You’ll Find It’s a Bit More Complicated.
The book I most often give as a gift
Dr Seuss, for our children and their children.
The book I’d most like to be remembered for
You mean, after I’m dead? Not really bothered.
The Melody was published in the United Kingdom and Ireland on February 8th and received overwhelmingly admiring reviews (check out The Guardian, the Financial Times, the New Statesman, the TLS, the London Review of Books, the Daily Telegraph, the Irish Times, the Observer, the Daily Mail, the Big Issue, Metro, the Literary Review, amongst others. Equally enthusiastic were papers in Australia and the UAE.) The few dissenting voices can be found in the more conservative book pages – the Spectator, the Times, and the Sunday Times, where the chief reviewer of fiction, Peter Kemp, wrote a bizarrely careless review, calling The Melody and its author “feeble”.
Jim Crace made the following contribution to the New Statesman’s Books of the Year feature:
Much of my reading nowadays includes anything remotely Shakespearean. 2017 has been a bumper year, including Fools and Mortals, an absorbing novel from Bernard Cornwell which invents the life of Shakespeare’s younger brother, Richard, and Margaret Atwood’s wickedly wise Hag-seed. She casts The Tempest adrift in a prison and makes a moving, magisterial case for the universal, timeless, classless relevance of Shakespeare’s plays?
The work I most enjoyed and valued, in any category, was a first book by the American economist, Andrea Mays. Her The Millionaire and the Bard tells the gripping story of Henry Folger’s amassment of First Folios and the establishment of his library in Washington DC – a narrow focus, perhaps, but one which not only fascinates about Tudor publishing but delves more broadly into Anglo-American relations and big business, obsession and privacy, marriage and money.
In their Summer Double Issue, the British progressive magazine, New Statesman, published an article titled “Power with a Plot: In uncertain times, fiction can be better at politics than politicians. Here NS friends and contributors share the novels that make sense of the world.” Here is Jim Crace’s submission:
“I was brought up in a socialist household. Nearly all our books were of the left. Many of them influenced what I have taken as gospel ever since, especially -of course- The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, that sentimental clarion call to “organise”. But the work of fiction that affected me the most politically and still bears rereading for the boost of bloody-mindedness it provides was one I bought myself in about 1960 when I had just joined the Labour Party, was active in various peace movements and was discovering, as a timid teenager, the thrill of street demonstrations. It was Alan Sillitoe’s The Loneliness of the Long-distance Runner, a long short story and subsequently a film which rejoices in the power of the individual rather than the crowd. Sillitoe’s borstal boy protagonist lands an insolent, gleeful blow on the chins of his masters by refusing to excel. His politics are too spiteful, sullen and unbending, perhaps - but there is a dignity and glory to be celebrated, I think, in finding triumph in defeat and, therefore, never being cowed.”
Other novels nominated by novelists included All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren (Stephen King), The Beautiful Mrs Seidenman by Andrzej Szczypiorski (Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie), The History of Jonathan Wild by Henry Fielding (Jonathan Coe), The Book of Daniel by E.L. Doctorow (Ali Smith), The Year of the French by Thomas Flanagan (Colm Toibin), The Tortilla Curtain by T.C. Boyle (Lionel Shriver) and Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut (A. L. Kennedy.) Yes, it was a list of baffling variety.
Many thanks to the various journalists, academics and readers who have contacted http://www.jim-crace.com/ since Andrew Hewitt moved on to Planet Hardy. Here (with the permission of both participants) is an exchange of emails between Jim Crace and a new writer seeking advice:
Hello and I hope you are well. I am hoping you may be able to pass on this message to Jim Crace. I am a fan of his work and, as an unpublished writer struggling to secure an agent for my manuscript, I would dearly value some advice.
I've queried a lot of agents and had some positive responses regarding my writing ability and synopsis, however the consensus appears to be that in the current publishing climate my novel isn't commercial enough to get through.
I'd love to send Jim a short synopsis and the opening pages and ask for his advice on who best to approach.
Thanks for making contact. I am very familiar with your situation as trying to find an agent can be a stumbling block for all new writers. I can’t give you much help with that as I have been with my own agent, David Godwin, since 1980 and so have no contacts elsewhere. I don’t hang out on the book scene. But I can give some general advice.
Please don’t mistake what I have to say as being pessimistic or despairing. It just has to be faced that at least nine out of ten novels that are completed never get published. If being published wasn’t such a rare achievement we wouldn’t desire it so much. What is important is to judge your submission very carefully, and that starts with making absolutely sure your manuscript cannot be improved. You might be able to fool yourself in this regard, but you won’t fool any editor or agent. Once you’ve sent off an unpolished manuscript, you’ve blown your chances. So that’s your first task: look at your novel again (and again).
Once you’ve reached the point where your novel is as free of blemishes as possible, there is no route ahead except a patient and a lonely one. No intervention by another published writer or a contact or a cousin will help. All that matters now is the opening sentence, and then the opening paragraph, and then the opening chapter. Nothing you can say in a covering letter or a synopsis can help in any way. In fact, both could be a hindrance. So they should be kept very short and businesslike: “I enclose for your consideration the manuscript of (Title), a detective novel set in Medieval France...or, a gothic romance set in the near future...or, a novelisation of the life of Mohamed Ali. No more than that.
What I would advise is that you now email every single agent you can put a name and address to, with your complete manuscript as an attachment. You have to give the agents the chance to read all of your book, because no positive decisions are ever reached over a partial manuscript. It might help if you can target a particular editor within an agency. You stand more chance, perhaps, with a junior editor who is building up a list and so is keen to find new talent. You can usually find a list of employees on an agency website.
Now you just have to take your chances. You are bound to get some stony rejections; you can’t please everyone. You might also get some encouraging rejections. These could just be kindly but insincere. Or they might be genuinely helpful. But they are still rejections. If it turns out that not a single agent is interested in your work, then it’s not their fault, it’s the book’s. It’s either not good enough, or it’s too similar to something already published, or it’s too arcane or bizarre a novel to ever find a commercial market. Whatever the reason, this is a manuscript that should now spend some time in a bottom drawer. You will have learnt a lot from this experience but should not be so disheartened that you do not proceed to write a second novel. Remember, most first novels are never published but they are essential for a published writer’s development and success.
Yes, I know, it’s grim and dispiriting. Every single writer has to go through a similar process. But do be stubborn and do bear in mind the success stories. An excellent novel will nearly always find a publisher. A writer who loses his or her nerve after one failure will never make it into print. Good luck; I’m just glad I have all these challenges behind me, because I know what a struggle it can be.
You have asked if I would look at your first chapter and a synopsis. If you’ve written a good novel then my approval won’t help. It’ll earn itself its own agent and publisher. If your work or your synopsis are not very good, then I do not want to be the one to either tell you or deceive you. I don’t want to puncture any writer’s confidence. Seriously, my best advice is Write your books in private and only show them to readers that matter, that is to say the editors and agents that control the entry gates to publishing. But you should feel free to contact me again at any time if you need more advice on strategy.
I have my fingers crossed for you.
[Website note: Jim Crace has asked me to point out that his advice to new writers tries to be sincere but cannot promise to be useful or accurate.]
This website was created and administered by Andrew Hewitt from January 2000 until May 2017. You can still read his insightful and informative comments in many sections below. Sadly, Andrew has decided to concentrate on other activities and other writers (especially Thomas Hardy). So www.jim-crace.com has now become my inexpert responsibility. I hope to keep visitors up to date with news, with links and with a diary of events. I do not intend to make any critical or literary additions. My first post, below, is a brief chronology of Jim Crace’s writing career and his awards.
You can contact the website via firstname.lastname@example.org
I am able to pass on mail to Jim Crace himself, to his agent in London, and his publishers in the USA and also in UK, but I cannot promise a reply from any third parties.
BIBLIOGRAPHY (Fiction only)
1977 Introduction 6 - Stories by New Writers
Heinemann (UK) * Harper & Row (USA)
1988 The Gift of Stones
Secker& Warburg * Scribners
Jonathan Cape * Atheneum
1994 Signals of Distress
Viking * Farrar, Straus & Giroux
1995 The Slow Digestions of the Night
Viking * Farrar, Straus & Giroux
1999 Being Dead
Viking * Farrar, Straus & Giroux
2001 The Devil’s Larder
Viking * Farrar, Straus & Giroux
2003 Six (UK), Genesis (USA)
Viking * Farrar, Straus & Giroux
2007 The Pesthouse
Picador * Nan A Talese
2010 All That Follows
Picador * Nan A Talese
Picador * Nan A Talese
2018 The Melody
Picador * Nan A Talese
AWARDS and APPOINTMENTS
David Higham Prize for Fiction (for CONTINENT)
The Guardian Fiction Prize (CONTINENT)
Whitbread First Novel Award (CONTINENT)
Premio Antico Fattore (Italy)(CONTINENT)
GAP International Prize for Literature (for THE GIFT OF STONES)
Society of Authors’ Travelling Scholarship
The Royal Society of Literature’s Winifred Holtby Memorial Prize
(for SIGNALS OF DISTRESS)
E. M. Forster Award (American Academy of Arts and Letters)
(for SIGNALS OF DISTRESS)
QUARANTINE shortlisted for The Booker Prize.
The Writers’ Guild Best Fiction Book nominee.
Whitbread Novel of the Year (QUARANTINE)
Elected as Fellow of The Royal Society of Literature.
QUARANTINE shortlisted for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award
BEING DEAD shortlisted for Whitbread Novel of the Year
Honorary Doctorate (D.Univ.) from the University of Central England, for
Distinguished Literary Achievements.
BEING DEAD - National Book Critics Circle Award - and selected as
Editors’ Choice, New York Times.
Honorary Doctorate (D.Lit.) from the University of Birmingham
Appointed Visiting Professor of Creative Writing at UCE/BCU
Premio Napoli (Italy)
Michener Residency Award (USA)
Visiting Professor of Creative Writing,
Michener Center, University of Texas
Visiting Professor of Creative Writing,
Michener Center,University of Texas
HARVEST shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and the Goldsmith Prize.
National Book Awards (the Nibbies): shortlisted for Writer of the Year.
Winner of the $150,000 Windham Campbell Prize for Literary Achievement (USA)from Yale University.
HARVEST shortlisted for the Walter Scott Prize (for historical fiction.)
HARVEST awarded the James Tait Black Memorial Prize.
Visiting Professor of Creative Writing, University of Malta. Appointed Associate Professor.
HARVEST winner of the Impac Dublin Literary Award
Visiting Professor of Creative Writing,
Michener Center, University of Texas
Honorary Doctorate (D.Letters) from the University of Brighton,
“in recognition of his major contribution to the field of international literature.”
Awarded the Paisano Fellowship and the J.Frank Dobie Residency, at the University of Texas.
The Jim Crace literary archive is housed at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin.
Preface for 2017 Ecco edition.
During the early 1980s when the seven component parts of Continent were being dreamt up and assembled, I was working as a freelance journalist with no plans or even a desire for leaving fact for fiction. Any reputation I had amongst the publications who regularly called me up was not based on my authoritative voice or my depth -or even width- of knowledge but on my workaday reliability. I could be counted on to tackle any subject thrown in my path, to become a shallow expert in a week or two, and then turn in clean, committed copy before the deadline. I also had the advantage of living in Birmingham, far enough away from London to be considered by metrocentric editors their local correspondent in the North, the East, the West and all points in between. Cornwall, Scotland and East Anglia were my backyards, in their deficient view. Isn’t that what living in the English Midlands meant?
So I was kept busy and I made a decent if undistinguished living out of being provincial and dependable. Besides, I liked the life. Faking a different shallow expertise twice a month was my idea of fun. But if I had a future as a journalist, it could not be a long or rosy one. Already, the golden age of weekend colour supplements which valued photo-journalism and solemn, lengthy essay pieces was coming to an end in favour of celebrity profiles and fashion spreads in which even I was not prepared to forge a professional interest. A newly arrived editor at the Sunday Telegraph Magazine informed me that the sober articles I’d just delivered -about intractable wildlife mysteries- were not her sort of thing. Her ideal cover story, she said, would be The Rise and Fall of the Shoulder Pad. That was when I knew that very soon I’d have to look elsewhere for a living.
Then I had no choice. A long, deeply researched piece I’d written about the aftermath of the Tottenham riots and the two associated deaths was spiked -pulled at the final moment, in fact- by the Sunday Times editor, Andrew Neill, for what the gossip columnist Peterborough called “quasi-political reasons.” Its place was taken by a six-page fashion spread. Now, apart from book reviews, I was almost out of work.
However, I did have one commission I could fall back on. In the mid-Seventies I’d published a single short story called Annie, California Plates, a metaphorical homage to hitch-hiking. It appeared in The New Review -the richest and most prestigious literary magazine of the time- and it was then picked up by other magazines and widely anthologised. Publishers beat a passage to my door – or they would have done if only Birmingham had been a stop on the London tube network. Mostly they phoned and required me to make the journey south. Only one of them was prepared to risk the world beyond the metrolands and travel to Birmingham to begin what was to become a lifelong association. This was the young David Godwin, the celebrated literary editor and agent, then working for Heinemann. He offered me a contract for a novel, any novel, with a payment up front of £1500. I was not accustomed to his world. I was used to the Send It Now of journalism and not his patient Take Your Time. He was asking to be robbed. I knew enough about the world of books to understand that hardly anybody made a living out of them. So I spent the publisher’s advance(on camping equipment, as I recall) and did exactly what David had advised. I took his money and I took my time. But I didn’t write a word. For years. Of course, I had to pretend once in a while, when David called, that things were going very well, “but slowly”. There isn’t any rush, he said again, though not by now with much conviction.
But once the shoulder pad began its grim, relentless rise and my career as a journalist sank beneath its weight, I had no excuse but to sit down at my manual typewriter and give fiction a proper shot. At first I tried to write the kind of realist and political novel I admired myself (Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath was my template), but pretty soon I recognised that I was singing in a stranger’s voice. The barrel I was scraping was an empty one (if I’m allowed to mix my metaphors). Then I struck lucky. I’d been asked to review a batch of novels for The Sunday Times. One of them was Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s In Evil Hour. I’d not encountered any magic realism before. I recognised at once its power and its inventiveness but felt no awe for it, not because Marquez was anything other than a master of the form but because the form itself was so much like the person I preferred to be when not on duty, when not the servile journalist who really ought to never even stretch a fact. Making things up, Marquez-style, was along with faking expertise my natural singing voice.
However, if I was a liar-cum-storyteller by nature and by impulse, I was a puritanical one. I had already lived for a period in the Sudan and Botswana and had travelled across Africa, the Indian Ocean, the Levant and Latin America; all powerful experiences and politically delicate. I wanted to write about the interfaces I’d encountered between the South and the North, or what were known then as the Developed and the Third worlds. But there were pitfalls. Fiction -especially the fiction by white men about Africa- had too often been distorting and harmful, using the continent as a blank page on which to foist European disfunctions: here, amongst their pages, were the brutes, the horrors, and the savage hearts of darkness. Surely, with inventive Marquez at my shoulder and decent Steinbeck marching at his rear, I could shake off the grubby grip of Conrad and write a work of fiction that did not besmirch any land mass that could be found on actual maps.
So I began work on Continent, set in a parallel world which I hoped would seem as real as anywhere on earth but absent from the atlases, meaning it at first to be the conventional, plotted novel Heinemann had paid me for. But I had never written anything much longer than five thousand words before and so casually, unthinkingly, I found myself producing a patchwork of linked, shorter pieces, stylistically reinforced more by my experience of journalism than my exposure to the short story structure. And it was easy. The stories tumbled out onto the page and truly felt as if they formed a patchwork of different colours but made out of the same material. All I had to do was add a spurious and entirely invented epigraph from the non-existent Pycletius to give the book a fake pedigree and I was set to -this was thirty years ago- put it in the post. When David next phoned, I could honestly report that Continent was on its way.
When Continent was published in 1986, I relished my copy of the finished hard-back; there’s nothing quite as sweet as squeaking into print. But as for sales? I was not expecting any sales. I hadn’t written Continent for sales or even in the hopes of much success. In truth, I’d written it because my Heinemann contract said I couldn’t keep their money if I didn’t. So I was grateful but unconvinced when the Irish-born British publisher, Geoffrey Mulligan, on acquiring paperback rights for Continent, claimed (correctly, given this Ecco Press edition) that it would still be in print in thirty years’ time. Looking back and comparing that first published book with the ten that would follow, however, I am bound to say that either I have learnt nothing in those intervening three decades or the voice I found by luck and chance for Continent has proven its longevity by hardly changing or evolving. I was a solemn moralist back then, relying on fabulism, metaphor and rhythmic prose instead of those more common conventions of contemporary English fiction - realism, irony and an idiomatic tone. And I remain the same today. But at the time, I thought I knew the world of books sufficiently to more accurately predict a lesser outcome than thirty years in print for what, after all, was the slimmest of volumes and one which could reasonably be dismissed as an assortment of stories pretending to be a novel, a worm behaving like a snake.
As it happened, I was fortunate. Continent was accepted generously as something more coherent than just a gathering of random pieces, more than the sum of its seven parts, exactly as I’d hoped. In one astounding week which endowed me with an enduring sense of optimism about the world of publishing, the book received three prizes, the Guardian Award, the David Higham Award and the Whitbread First Novel prize, and American rights were purchased by Harper & Row’s Ted Solotaroff for enough money to spring me free from what by then had become the prison of journalism.
The critics were divided, as they always are and always would be where my fiction was concerned, but at least I was heralded as strange and new (though not young exactly; I was already 40) and unEnglish; an oddity, in other words. Some commentators found it difficult -and many still do- to distinguish between the playfulness of my novels and what they took to be their unembarrassed seriousness. I was especially satisfied to read in the Toronto Star, that Pycletius, my phantom epigraphist who had departed my imagination equipped with nothing more than his name, was “the Greek historian and geographer” and (in The Times Literary Supplement) that his works were “arcane and irksomely septimal.”
Producing fiction was a lot more rewarding and stimulating than I expected, that’s for sure. It was a revelation, actually, and an unforeseen joy. My journalism had been an exercise in assembly and control. Fiction, though, required a looser and more thrilling grip. For Continent I’d had to cede control to narrative itself. But could I make a future out of it? Could I fool the critics once again? I was hesitant, both fearful of the risk and reluctant to slam the door for good on journalism. The most persuasive argument for moving on came one Sunday soon after Continent’s publication when I cycled down to the local greengrocers to buy the vegetables for lunch. When my wife, Pam, unpacked the spinach, we both saw at once that it had been wrapped in one of my old articles. Neither of us spoke a word but had we been a superstitious couple, the sort that you will find in Continent, we might have seen it as a sign or, at the very least, a hint.
Jim Crace’s Books of the Year
It’s the season for making lists
of the best that 2013 had to offer.
Jim Crace chose the following Books of the Year
for the Guardian newspaper.
David Quammen’s investigation of animal-to-human
Falling Upwards, a history of ballooning by Richard Holmes (Harper Collins)
The Searchers (Bloomsbury), Glenn Frankel’s account of the 1836 abduction
by Comanches of Cynthia Ann Parker and its unending aftermath
Mark Cocker’s loving and magisterial Birds and People (Jonathan Cape).
“Everything new worth having
is paid for by the loss of something old worth keeping...”
Read an interview
with Jim Crace
by Stephanie Cross
from the Independent on Sunday, 10 February 2013
Please visit the Highlights page for archived
January 2000-January 2013
Jim Crace’s 140-character novel
Jim Crace responds to The Guardian newspaper’s challenge
to write a story within the 140-character limit of Twitter.
Read it here.
a video talk published by the Harry Ransom Center at the
University of Texas at Austin
Jim Crace speaks about the creative process.
view this and other videos from Jim Crace’s 2012
at the Ransom Center on the University of Texas website.
With thanks to the IaI and the Harry Ransom Center for making these links available.
“Does literature dwell with the living, or with the dead?”
Daniela Brockdorff, ‘Writing Death’
Crace’s prize-winning novel Being Dead (1999)
continues to attract criticism and research.
Daniela Brockdorff’s paper ‘Writing Death’ considers Crace’s novel and Graham Swift’s Last Orders
as two “provocatively poignant depictions of the interval between the instance of death and the laying to rest”.
Although both novels reject “spiritual fictions of the hereafter”,
both recognise that a “narrative needs be found to accompany a corpse to its final resting place”.
Are Crace and Swift extending the traditions of elegy to prose?
How can one write a comforting narrative “in the godless universe of Crace’s and Swift’s novels?”
Brockdorff finds that Crace’s novel “thrives on liminality” and considers whether this
“endows Being Dead, most particularly, with a potential for the sublime”.
To read Daniela Brockdorff’s paper ‘Writing Death’, click here.
This site is for information about the writer Jim Crace.
Much archived material, including interviews, uncollected short stories, excerpts from novels, journalism and comment, can be found by using the section headings in the left-hand frame.
This web site was launched in January
To read archived material from this site click
This site also contains the following sections
from Andrew Hewitt’s original website:
Chronology: a brief biographical and literary chronology.
Books: a discussion of Jim
with extensive links and pointers to reviews and commentary about them.
This is the main section of the site. I invite ideas and contributions
from anyone with an interest in Crace's work.
Other writings: a list (and some
e-texts) of other writing by Crace,
including his first published stories, plays, journalism, reviews and opinions.
Forthcoming: notes (where available) on forthcoming publications
Feedback: where you tell me about yourself and how to improve the site.
I would like to hear from anyone with ideas for content and links.
Please email me, Raf Candori
Last update: July 2017
Note on copyright:
Original material on this web site is
© Andrew Hewitt 2000-2013
and is available for literary non-commercial uses only.
Repurposed material is copyright as shown.
Please feel free to contact me if you want to reproduce any material
from this web site, I will try and help arrange permission if you require it.