April 14, 2010
Jim Crace Interview
Jim Crace has been one of those writers for whom I drop everything since reading Signals of Distress sometime in the mid-1990s. The bargain I got when I bought that, his funniest book, in a bookshop sale has been more than outweighed by my subsequent practice of buying his books in hardback immediately they were released. They were investments well rewarded: his next two books, Quarantine (1997) and Being Dead (1999), still have a claim to be among his best work. But he is always worth reading and never stays still, flitting in place from first century Judea to post-apocalyptic America, and in subject from food to fatherhood. In other words, if you google for protean, you’ll find a picture of Jim Crace, probably looking younger than he is. (I am sure it is no coincidence that he was a contemporary of two more of my favourite writers, Patrick McGrath and Gordon Burn, at Birmingham College of Commerce in the 1960s.) His new book, All That Follows, has just been released. It’s a thriller of sorts, and it may be his penultimate novel. I’m delighted that he has agreed to answer some questions here about All That Follows and his other work.
A few years ago, I read that one of your planned books was The Finalist: “on one level only, a thriller of action and ideas, but its overarching intention is to be a metaphorical critique of both political individualism and the innate complacency of Western liberal democracies.” I take it this became All That Follows. Can you tell us something about the writing process, and how the book – and title – changed along the way?
Yes, this book is that book. The Finalist was only ever an interim title for contract purposes. All That Follows was a last-minute panicky choice, just plucked from the text.
I mostly intended the novel to be called Heroes, even though I was uneasy with that word’s gender specificity. The real heroes of this novel are the heroines, of course – Francine, Nadia, Swallow and Lucy. But as soon as the TV series, Heroes, started airing in UK, I had to hunt for an alternative title. Everything I chose was doomed, for one reason or another. For example, I was quite keen on Bravissimo for a while, as it suggested both heroism and a fearless musical tempo, perfect for the book. It was my daughter who pointed out, with some disdain, that I’d chosen the name of a lingerie store for large women. Hmm, it would have made an interesting marketing tie-in.
The focus of the book on “political individualism and the innate complacency of Western liberal democracies” remained close to my original intentions, though the critique was more plot-driven and less metaphorical than I might have expected.
The process of writing was just sitting down in front of a blank screen whenever I could be bothered and seeing what narratives, settings and characters offered themselves.
All That Follows features Leonard Lessing, to me your most sympathetic and ‘normal’ protagonist yet (not dead, not Jesus, not supernaturally fertile), and the language of the book seems plainer – less iambic – than in the past. Was this a conscious decision to aim more at the heart than the head?
Conscious, yes. Purposeful even. I wanted to do something unfussy for a change. And I wanted a break from my usual declamatory tones. I’d already written nine books with a poetic voice and thought it was time to see if I could come to grips with some more conventional skills. I’d hardly ever used dialogue effectively, for example, and I’d only rarely held my mirror up to a real world rather than an invented one. Besides, I could tell that my ongoing novel, Archipelago, was bound to be my most ecstatic and iambic so far. Stepping back from that would give everybody a break, including me. Would that be aiming for the heart rather than the head? I don’t believe so and I hope not. I’ve always aimed for the heart. My books are more floridly sentimental than intellectually rigorous.
You’ve said that all your books are political, but in All That Follows it seems more explicit than ever. Popular punchbag George W Bush features, as well as Maxie and Nadia, who set out to take direct action against him at a public appearance in 2006. Yet for characters whose views we might expect you to agree with, and as revolutionaries, they’re pretty ineffectual. Do you care what political message readers get from the book?
Yes, more explicit, less mediated. The book was written to answer my own question as a political activist: is the unprincipled man of action who is prepared to die or kill for an ism the only one who can effect worthwhile change in the world? The novel seems to favour political timidity, but I am still undecided, still thrilled by confrontation, yet still timid and inhibited. Do I care what political messages the readers get from the book? Well, I care what the book says. But there’s no accounting for what readers think. I’ve had right-wing religious zealots turn up at my readings to shout abuse. Should I care what they think?
Leonard in All That Follows is painfully risk-averse: ‘scared to death’. Are you a risk-taker as a writer, given your fearlessness of big themes and refusal to write the same book over and over; or do your meticulous methods (Will Self used the term “anal retention“) mean you’re playing safe, working within your comfort zone?
Hmm. I don’t know how to answer this as I don’t recognise myself in the question. Will Self doesn’t have any information or experience at all about my writing procedures or the state of my bowels. So his remark must be either mischievous or unkind. What I can tell you in that I don’t have any meticulous methods. Far from it. I have a blank screen, a clear desk, and my fingers crossed. The task doesn’t feel like risk taking. It feels like fun, and it feels a little scary – a bit like tobogganing (from which I have just returned with what I suspect is a broken finger).
You’re known to be a terrific liar, “seeking the richer world beyond the facts” – making up not just plots, characters, histories and futures, but even the epigraphs of your books. But The Pesthouse and now All That Follows are missing the last: in the new book you’ve stooped to using real quotations from real people. Have Abraham Howper, Emile dell’Ova, Sherwin Stephens and their pals gone for good?
Yes, they are toast. I don’t invent epigraphs anymore. Once I managed to smuggle a false entry about my invented Pycletius (with references to the equally non-existent Abraham Howper and Emile dell’Ova) into the Oxford Companion to English Literature, I felt my work was done. I am now concentrating on other teases. It is after all the job of a novelist to make the lies seem real or at least to blur the interfaces between what is actual and what is invented. I have heard readers complain that they have been deceived by my fictions, as if deceiving them wasn’t part of the job.
David Lodge wrote about his anguish on publishing a novel about Henry James shortly after Colm Tóibín did the same. Did you have any similar feelings on publishing The Pesthouse a few months after Cormac McCarthy’s The Road came out, given the superficial similarities between the two, and the ubiquity McCarthy’s novel has achieved?
It’s true, David and Colm’s wonderful books about Henry James had huge similarities – the coincidence was spooky – so I understand the anguish involved. I know both writers and have discussed the subject with each of them. It was just bad luck, I guess. My Pesthouse was similarly eclipsed by McCarthy’s Road, I’ve been told. But I haven’t felt any anguish yet. I wrote the book I wanted to publish but I never claimed squatters’ rights over the subject of an American Armageddon. Anyone can have a say. Anyway, our books are fields apart. I’d like to think my novel is less bleak, more feminized, as well as being better value for money – it’s longer, so there’s more Armageddon to the dollar.
Can you recommend an overlooked book or writer to readers of this blog?
A favourite of mine is G. K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday. It has weathered well, and still seems as mischievous and clever as ever.
You’ve warned before that we should “not overestimate the power of the writer or overrate the supremacy of the pen.” Do you think of your own output for the last 25 years as “a self-indulgence”? Do you still plan to stop after your next book?
Sure, it’s a self-indulgence, but what’s wrong with that? No harm done. But I am aware that the world doesn’t exactly need my books. If I never wrote another word, there’d still be plenty of other stuff to read, and I would disappear with the merest sigh of regret from a handful of fans. I do quite like the idea of hearing that merest sigh of regret, so retiring while I am fit and well and still looking for adventures is an appealing prospect. So, yes, I do intend Archipelago to be my final novel. I am sincere. But I might be fooling myself. Don’t start sighing yet.