Jim Crace interview: ‘I never think of the reader. I am curious about things, I need to find out, so off I go’

‘Harvest is my lucky book,' says the 2015 Impac winner. 'It is also my most English book, but it’s funny, it’s also been my most universal. People see their own country’s situation reflected. It’s always the case, the rich man comes in and pushes the ordinary people out’

Jim Crace in Dublin in 2013: Having worked as a journalist, he is interested in facts but does not allow them to impede his fiction, where he allows imagination and invention full liberty. “What’s wrong with making it up? It’s a story. It only has to feel real.” Photographer: Dara Mac Dónaill

Jim Crace in Dublin in 2013: Having worked as a journalist, he is interested in facts but does not allow them to impede his fiction, where he allows imagination and invention full liberty. “What’s wrong with making it up? It’s a story. It only has to feel real.” Photographer: Dara Mac Dónaill

 

Never a man to make a fuss, Jim Crace of the direct gaze does appear to find it difficult not to smile. He is always smiling, or so it seems. Today he is smiling, that bit more than usual, at least, even by his habitual good-humoured standards. He does regard the world with a measure of amusement. If the International Impac Dublin Literary Awarded were to be give to a body of work, instead of to a single novel, he would also have a very good chance of winning.

He says he did not expect to win, “You never know, do you?” but win he did and he recalls where he was when he was informed. “I was on the Scilly Isles out off Cornwall with the family, the very place where you can’t spend any money.”

Harvest, his 11th novel, should have the 2013 Man Booker Prize, yet didn’t as he was beaten to it by Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries. Also included on this year’s Impac shortlist was Richard Flanagan, who won the Man Booker in 2014.

Crace had to wait, but it has been worthwhile. When he describes Harvest as “my lucky book” he means it. “It is also my most English book, but it’s funny, it’s also been my most universal. No matter where I’ve been, in India or wherever, the people see their own country’s situation reflected in what is happening – it’s always the case, the rich man comes in and pushes the ordinary people out.”

It is fascinating to see that however political Crace is, and he has always referred to Orwell as one of his major literary influences, he is also the least pretentious of artists. Crace does not bleat about “my art” or “my craft”; instead, he sees writing as his job. Because he is so down to earth he can speak about wanting to test language and find the same freshness that Shakespeare would have found without it sounding at all pretentious. There is something exciting about Crace’s prose – the images are sudden and vivid, often physical without the surrealism of the late JG Ballard. It is not a coincidence; Ballard and Crace are two of Britain’s most consistently interesting writers.

He is a truth teller who also shapes compelling narratives. “That’s the thing, isn’t it? What I’ve said to you before, for me it’s more about ideas, not characters, or plot, but narrative . Narrative,” he says with emphasis, “is so rich, it’s given up so much.”

On the publication of Harvest in the spring of 2013, much was made of it being Crace’s farewell to fiction, though not to writing. He has other ideas; Crace, dismayed by the increasingly market driven business which publishing has become - “it’s certainly not about good writing anymore” – has a great many ideas. He is a natural intellectual in that he actively engages. There is no rhetoric, no pretence. He has never forgotten that he is working class, the son of a caretaker. Crace lives in Birmingham. He went to university as a mature student. His home is ordinary; near the city yet also close to the countryside in which he has always been interested. He collects fossils. His daughter is an actor.

On meeting him and offering wholehearted, if admittedly biased congratulations, Crace makes a funny face, does mock-bashful and puts his hands over his ears. “Stop, you know how badly I take compliments.” Instead he makes a generous comment about the shortlist, asks about Richard Flanagan and says “That Gould’s Book of Fish is a great book, isn’t it?” and then mentions the South African-born, British novelist Justin Cartwright. “He’s very good. He has such control, every sentence. Such ease.”

It is interesting that he singles out that particular quality. But then for all the control and deceptively cerebral content, there is a formidable ease about Crace’s work, he has an analytical mind; he looks towards the centre of things. In Being Dead (1999), which won the National Books Critics Circle Award, the only major US literary prize open to non-Americans, Crace looked at the aftermath of a double killing. When a middle-aged couple, both marine biologists, are randomly murdered while making love on a beach, Crace does not investigate the crime, he does not pursue the killer. Instead he chronicles the process of decay which takes over the bodies of the victims.

He laughs abruptly ands says in that matter-of-fact way he has, looking you straight in the eye: “You see I never think of the reader. I am curious about things, I need to find out, so off I go….” It sounds very happy-go-lucky; mostly it works, at times it hasn’t. But the phrase “his own man” may well have been invented for Crace. Harvest could well be seen as an evocative mood piece with its subtle aura of the late medieval world yet the dream-like sense of a bygone age is countered with the practicality his narrator, Walter Thirsk, widowed, melancholic and wary, brings to the book. It is a bit like Crace himself who will be chatting away, lulling his listener into the comfort of an ordinary day and then he makes a devastating observation. His imagination is far darker than he allows one to suspect. But then few people are as friendly or as detached as Crace. You could think you know him, but you don’t. Small wonder that he has avoided autobiographical writing. He is far too interested in the world beyond him – he is like a benign hawk.

His win does give a much-needed boost to English fiction in particular as well as to English-language fiction in general. He is the fourth, and most senior, Briton to win. Harvest can stand equal with the finest of the winners including Tahar Ben Jelloun’s This Blinding Absence of Light (2004), Orhan Pamuk’s My Name is Red (2003), Gerbrand Bakker’s The Twin (2010), Alistair MacLeod’s No Great Mischief (2001), Per Petterson’s Out Stealing Horses (2007) and Herta Muller’s The Land of Green Plums (1998), as well as of course David Malouf’s inaugural winner, Remembering Babylon.

As already noted Crace has an impressive body of work. In addition to Being Dead, his novels also include Continent, The Gift of Stones, Arcadia, Signals of Distress, Quarantine, The Devil’s Larder, Six – “which you didn’t like” – The Pesthouse and All That Follows. For all the books, all the ideas, and all the opinions, he most strikes one as a very practical, very kindly father, aware that societies collapse and fail. Crace is elusive; it is not surprising that he is a fine novelist. He is mercurial, he makes you relax and then snaps his fingers and you are wide awake, attempting to keep up with his mind, which simply moves faster than that of most of the rest of us.

Having worked as a journalist, he is interested in facts but does not allow them to impede his fiction, where he allows imagination and invention full liberty. “What’s wrong with making it up? It’s a story. It only has to feel real.” At present he is working on a book about poverty. “If you can imagine a trash can, full of rubbish and there is all these things feeding from it; rats, dogs, insects, foxes, a man…then you look and you see that man as either the lowest of the human, or the highest of the animals….Which do we accept?” As always with Crace, it will begin with an idea, usually a provocative one.

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