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Jim Crace interview: "I'm an un-tortured writer and that isn’t very sexy"

That hasn’t stopped the British writer from scooping one of the world’s top literary prizes.

Man Booker Prize photocall Source: Anthony Devlin

‘I hope that people will read Harvest and think ‘I can’t imagine that’s not a real place, and I can’t imagine that’s not a real time’. I don’t know what the place is, I don’t know what the time is, but it should be palpable to them.’ – Jim Crace

WHEN JIM CRACE sits down to write, he’s not trying to dredge up old memories for the sake of a story. He’s not aiming to purge his past, or get closure for a troubled event through fiction.

The Birmingham-based writer’s latest novel Harvest – about a small village dealing with the visit of three strangers, and the enclosure of their land – just won him the not-inconsiderable €100k IMPAC Dublin literary award.

It’s just the latest in the string of awards Crace has scooped up for his novels, the majority of which are set in the eerily familiar – and not straightforward – place ‘Craceland’.

He says that when writing, he is trying to just let the story flow, trusting in the narrative process.

If that sounds a bit hippy-dippy, rest assured that Crace, a former journalist and author of 13 novels and short story collections, smilingly assures TheJournal.ie he is “the least New Age-y person you’ll ever meet”.

He’s also cheery and welcoming, a man who seems surprised that at 69 he has won such a prestigious award.

Good fortune

Crace thought that winning the IMPAC was “beyond me, that level of good fortune”, but just last year Harvest also saw him nominated for the Booker Prize.

But he tries to make light of his good fortune “because making light of it just keeps you sane and stops you becoming a monster”.

This isn’t a man who sits around, beard stroking and analysing his own work with his literary peers. For starters, there are “not a lot of writers” where he lives.

But more importantly, it’s just not the sort of thing he’d do – because when he was a kid, he’d have taken a punch for having the temerity to talk about books.

I come from an estate in North London where I was the only boy who went to a grammar school and that was an isolation in itself.
I couldn’t come back from the grammar school and say, as I wanted to, Jack Kerouac is great, or Walt Whitman is great, because I’d get a punch. I learned the habit of keeping my creativity private, and I think that’s died hard.

The win is a boost for Harvest, but also “vindication” for his publishers, Picador, who he says “really stood by me, I’m not an easy person to publish”. He doesn’t mean that he’s personally difficult, but that his approach to his work is, well, a little offbeat.

“I don’t consider readers when I write, I write my own books and don’t give a damn about what people think of them. And [Picador have] stood by me, they’ve said ‘do what you want, we’re your publisher for a career’.”

Reinventing the past, imagining the future

BOOKS JIM CRACE Source: AP/Press Association Images

Crace says his belief in narrative and storytelling is “scientific, Darwinist”, though it almost seems magical.

“Amongst the many attributes that human beings have, which aren’t possessed by other animals – such as making fire, dressing ourselves in clothes, laughter, all of those things we have – amongst those many things which distinguishes us as human beings is telling stories,” says Crace. “The ability to reinvent the past and imagine the future and turn it into stories.”

This means “when you’re writing you can either construct something from the surface of your brain, knowingly doing everything and cunningly doing everything and consciously doing everything; or you can try and write subconsciously, relying on all of the wisdom and all of the generosity that narrative has possessed for thousands of years”.

He pauses to acknowledge: “It sounds really fake and really New Age-y.”

And continues: “That’s what I try and do when I write, I try and be in the zone. Some days I’m not in the zone – and it’s flat on the page. And other days narrative comes along with its generosity and it just flies.”

When that happens, it’s “joyful” for Crace, a former journalist who misses the days of working in a newsroom.

“Because I’ve got no colleagues, I’m sitting in a room on my own. It’s not a very sexy life being a writer.”

“It’s a very, very dull life”

Crace describes the “actual business of writing” as “very, very dull”:

You are sitting in a room and outside that room the real life of the world is going on and you are not part of it. And a much more interesting life than you’re living yourself is going on on the [computer] screen. It’s a very, very dull life. So to get some joy and pleasure out of that solitary act is, I think, what keeps all writers at the desk.

When he’s writing, the books take him where they want to take him, and he lets them pull him along.

“I embarked on Harvest and at the beginning of the the book there’s a chapter where the narrator Walter Thirsk takes Mr Quill on a tour of the village,” he says by way of explanation.

“I, the writer, had never been around that village myself. As those two progressed, I also discovered the village. As they saw things, I made them up for them. But I was hardly ahead of them.”

Other writers might have mapped out the village, but his methodology “is very much to explore at the same time as the reader is encountering it”.

It’s not magic. It’s just narrative knows best.

Writing after retirement

 

Crace has recently announced that he is retiring, but it doesn’t appear to be an all-out retirement. Having lived by deadlines in his journalist past, he had to self-impose deadlines when his publisher told him to “take as long as you need, old boy” with his debut.

“What I’m interested to discover in the next few years is whether I can still produce novels without a deadline,” he says now.

His novel before Harvest – which was never published – was a disaster, and he had to pull a new book out of thin air.

“What I think is happening is that now that I have retired from writing, I feel very free to take writing up as a hobby, which is what a lot of retired people do,” he says, and there is a glimpse of tongue in cheek.

Essentially, the pressure is off, though he says the “new novel I’ve got in my mind is another one of those bloody novels with Craceland [the invented land many of his books are set in], with another invented landscape, another highly metaphorical musical prose”.

Though he feels a little self-conscious about this, he knows he has found his voice.

Political ideals

JOHN STEINBECK John Steinbeck Source: AP/Press Association Images

When Crace was younger, he decided that if he ever wrote novels, they would be ones that, like John Steinbeck or Robert Tressell’s works, “addressed agendas”.

“And I haven’t written those agenda books. I’ve written metaphorical books,” he says.

“Clearly my books are progressive, left wing. Clearly they’re atheistic. But they are not leaflets, either. I think that I wanted to write a leaflet.”

When I look at people who read my books, they’re all like me, you can tell they’re semi-vegetarian, where they go on holiday, they like camping, they vote Labour.

Crace believes he’s not engaging with people who don’t share his views, but doesn’t think anyone should suffer through his novels just for the sake of it.

Someone at a meeting said [to me once] – not aggressively but not very kindly either – ‘I’ve read all your novels and I can’t say I’ve really enjoyed any of them’. I can’t remember what I said to him but maybe I said what I was thinking, which was ‘why on earth did you read the second one?’

The dream of writing a book came through his father, who wasn’t educated properly as a child and learned to read through reading aloud to his two children.

“My dad was one of those socialists who didn’t say ‘opera – that’s only for the toffs, classical music – that’s only for the toffs’,” says Crace.

Instead, he was on a mission to expand his imagination, which clearly rubbed off on his son.

“There were only a couple of dozen books in our house but they meant something,” says Crace.

Letting the storyteller out

It was the move from journalism to writing fiction that enabled Crace to let the storyteller in him out.

“That was repressed when I was a journalist,” he says. “As soon as I started writing fiction I could make everything up and I wasn’t deceiving anybody, even though none of it was true.”

I think this is the key to why I write Craceland stories and invented places, [it] is because it was quite a release when I was in my 40s, which was when I started writing fiction, to be able to just not worry about the true facts but to try and chivvy out different truths by making them up. It’s such fun.

He makes sure to “smuggle in evidence to fool people”, to the point that people assume he’s done heaps of research.

While he may not have done the latter, his books are very shaped and schematic. “If there’s a piece of granite on page nine then that piece of granite will show up on page 90 as a metaphor.”

Living a happy life

2013 Man Booker Prize for Fiction - London Source: Empics Entertainment

Crace says he has had a “very, very fortunate, happy life”.

But believing that “happiness writes white”, he has chosen to take an imaginative path with his writing.

…the payoff for that is if you are an autobiographical writer and you leave the office at 5pm, you take your subject matter with you. You take your angst with you and you take your upsets with you; you walk the dog they’re at your shoulder, you cook a meal they’re there.
Whereas when I leave my office at 5pm, my subject matter stays on the screen because I am not my subject matter. And therefore that has also been a gift to me. It’s made me an un-tortured writer and that isn’t very sexy.

Unsexy? That doesn’t bother Crace. “Personally,” he says, “I wouldn’t trade it for the world”.

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