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.


  1. Good stuff John. Are you saying that Crace, Burn and McGrath were at college together? If so, crikey – are they then the Stones to Amis/Barnes/McEwan’s Beatles?

    Also I’ve always loved the story that Crace once told about having the pronunciation of his own name corrected by an American bookstore clerk.

  2. Ah yes, Jonathan, the old “actually I think you’ll find it’s pronounced Cratch-ay” story. I wonder if it’s true? I should have asked him.

    I believe they were at college at the same time, though I don’t know if they were close friends.

  3. Thanks for this John. I have only read one Crace but that one I’ve read twice and have put it in my list of top novellas – Being dead. I have been meaning for some time to read Quarantine. He doesn’t get a lot of airplay out here (down here) it seems, and I often wonder why. I love the comment on people complaining about being deceived by his novels! Good one!

  4. Good stuff. I always liked The Devil’s Larder – of the stuff of his that I’ve read it’s his best written book for me. I’m sure I’m alone in that opinion! He’s always reminded me of William Trevor. Which goes without saying is a compliment.

    1. I think you might be alone in both those beliefs, Lee – I think of Crace as an imaginative reinventor of himself in each book, whereas Trevor, for all his skills, does seem to replough the same furrow. I must revisit The Devil’s Larder, which I tend to overlook, probably because its format encouraged me to read it in bits and without attention to the whole, when it probably deserves better.

      1. I think it’s more of a comment on style, really. Indeed, they could hardly be more divergent with regards to reinvention in terms of themes and concerns. But I think there is a similarity paragraph by paragraph.

      2. Certainly Crace is ‘famous’ for his iambic, sing-song rhythmic sentences (although as mentioned above, All That Follows eschews those). I haven’t read enough Trevor to make a comparison, but I recently got a nice new edition of selected stories, so I will look out for that when I’m reading them.

  5. I always assumed it was essentially Krayse, but I could be wrong.

    Love the “more armageddon to the dollar” comment, so refreshing to see a values orientated writer.

    Now, I must read Quarantine. The more I read of this chap, the more I think I should read something by him.

  6. Yes Kevin, it rhymes with race.

    Max, Crace does have that effect, and if you have time to read it, I strongly recommend this brilliantly funny (and wise) piece from the Guardian a few years back, where Crace offers advice to struggling writers. “The greatest contribution you and most contemporary writers will ever make with your pens will be the crosses you put on ballot papers.”

  7. Very nice John, thanks for the link. I have to admit, I rather like The Lizard as a title. Good job I’m not an editor really.

    And he’s right, there and in the interview, of course it’s a self-indulgence. Literature is one of the most important things in my life, one of my passions, but it’s still a pet hate of mine when a novel is described as “important” or anything similar.

    It’s not important, it’s a novel. It’s almost certainly not going to change anyone’s life, if it does that life was probably in pretty bad shape to begin with. It’s not going to give us insight into the human condition, or at least none we didn’t already bring to it.

    It’s something I see in reviews sometimes, never here of course, and it always bugs me. Why is it important? What will it change in the world? It may be very good, it may be thought-provoking (though thoughts provoked rarely change anything measurable a week later), but at the end of the day it’s an entertainment.

    Ahem. Anyway. Hurrah for well written self-indulgence.

  8. I thought Quarantine was very good, and it strikes me it would make an interesting comparison / companion to Pullman’s new book The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ.

    I’d like to read more of his stuff, and Being Dead seems the most likely next chioce, but I can never quite make up my mind to buy it.

    Are Crace’s Digested Reads off the agenda for interviews? No-one seems to ask him about them, although he did write recently about the series to mark an anniversary I think.

  9. I hadn’t made the connection with the digested reads, interesting.

    The Pullman’s a curious case, I’m an atheist but even so something strikes me as slightly distasteful in books aimed at children which are carefully crafted to undermine religious faith. Pullman always comes over to me as a proselytiser, does he have any subjects beyond religion is bad in his writing?

    Since I didn’t say it before by the way, great interview, I enjoyed reading it.

    1. Max, I take your point about Pullman. I find the apparent desire of numerous adults to read his Dark Materials stuff only slightly less mystifying then the grown-up mania for Harry Potter.

      That said, this sounds like a genuinely interesting piece of work,which, from what I’ve read, has a tenuous theological basis. I suppose it interests me because I enjoyed the presentation of the historical Jesus in Quarantine, and this is coming at the same challenge from a different (unusual) angle. Pullman himself has said he leaves his axes unground for the book, which could be said to be disingenuous given it has “This Is A Story” embalzoned on the covers I’ve seen.

      Out of interest, would you apply the same standard to CS Lewis? He’s often accused of prosletysing (the other way, of course) in his Narnia books – I can’t say whether that’s true or not as they passed me by as a kid. Is a secret pro- message more or less desirable then a secret anti- one?

      1. Certainly, Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, gave Pullman’s book a broadly favourable review in the Guardian, which suggests he may have left his axe unground after all.

      2. Well, I’ve not read Pullman so I’m on tricky territory here.

        Lewis covered a range of topics, yes Christianity generally featured but as well as Narnia he had his Screwtape letters, his anti-scientific romance trilogy, all informed by his faith certainly and in the case of Narnia proselytising too but that wasn’t the only string on his bow.

        That said, proselytising pro is no better than anti, but I think Lewis was slightly subtler, like you I had to be told as an adult that Narnia was Christian in message, my impression is one doesn’t need telling that with Pullman.

        Pullman seems to have an issue with the Catholic Church and to craft his fiction as a means to combat it, I’m suspicious of that. Exploring religious figures within history, or indeed in any other way, is fair enough, but nothing I’ve read of Quarantine suggests it’s intended as an argument which is how Pullman comes across rather.

        As for Rowan Williams, well, to be kind I’d say I’m not a huge fan. Besides, Pullman’s main target is the Catholic faith, not the Protestant one.

        That said, the point can easily be overstated, children are robust little beasts. You can proselytise to the buggers for years without effect. I suspect they’ll take what they want from Pullman just as I did from Lewis (an analogy that grows on me as I consider it). I don’t see any reason why this generation should be any less resilient than mine was, or any other.

        On a different note, I find the recent trend for adults to read YA fiction as if it were something more bizarre. I mean, I read Edgar Rice Burroughs so I’m not saying one can’t or shouldn’t read the odd bit of light entertainment, but let’s not change the covers (which they did for Harry Potter) and pretend it’s more. These are adults reading children’s books, it makes chick lit and lad lit look sophisticated.

        It’s not at all clear to me why reading Harry Potter is ok but Sophie Kinsella isn’t.

    1. That’ll be why he never gets asked about them in interviews then.
      Please imagine the sound of a palm smacking a forehead.

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  11. “But I haven’t felt any anguish yet”–for some reason that’s my favorite sentence in the interview. I also have a strong interest in writing about the limits of individualism. I’m off now to look for The Man Who Was Thursday!

  12. Thanks for the interview. I haven’t All That Follows yet as I foolishly started reading the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize longlist, but it’s the first thing I’ll pick up when I finish (or, more likely, stop). I’ve loved his work since I read Quarantine which, along with Being Dead, I regard as his best. I found The Devil’s Larder disappointing, though I did see an interesting site specific show at the Fringe a few years ago based on it. I thought The Pesthouse was a return to form and I’m looking forward to the new one. Like you, I admire the way he seems to begin anew with each book.

    It’s interesting that he intends to write only one more novel – David Peace has said something similar, that he has already planned the finite number of books he will write. Is this a new trend?

  13. when I finish (or, more likely, stop)

    Haha, that’s what happened to me last year, 1streading! But it’s an admirable aim. From the recently announced shortlist, I’m keen to read Claudel’s Brodeck’s Report, and I did read Pietro Grossi’s Fists last year (translated by sometime commenter on this blog, Howard Curtis), but wasn’t sufficiently enthused by it to write about it here.

    I don’t know about a trend for stopping writing, but it could be connected to Kazuo Ishiguro’s gloomy observation in an interview last year that he reckons, given his age and rate of production, that he probably has only another four books in him. Maybe Crace and Peace are trying to steal a march on time by making the decision theirs – and avoid any posthumous publication of unfinished material.

  14. A video interview with Jim Crace. His distance from blindly reverencing literature is a breath of fresh air…

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