Crace Jim

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.

Jim Crace: All That Follows

In his last novel, The Pesthouse, Jim Crace gave us an America devastated by unspecified disasters; it was a good novel, overshadowed by being published a few months after a better one on the same subject, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.  Now, with his tenth book, Crace portrays an ambiguously gentler future, where mankind is having a softer landing from its legacy of environmental destruction, and a harder time in other ways.

All That Follows is set largely in England, 2024, where the middle classes drive community-owned electric cars, where nicotine in moderation has been discovered to help protect against dementia, and where the news reports that “the Latino state” California is holding a referendum to secede from the Union.  On the day the book begins, the eve of the 50th birthday of erstwhile jazzman Leonard Lessing (‘Lennie Less’ – “it rhymes with penniless”), the news is showing something else.  As the blurb on my proof copy put it:

HOSTAGES ARE SEIZED ACROSS TOWN
THE GUNMAN’S FACE APPEARS ON TV
LEONARD RECOGNIZES HIM AS AN OLD FRIEND…
HE HAS A CHOICE TO MAKE

When I read this, my heart sank.  I remember very well last year’s disastrous (and successful) decision by William Boyd to write a pulpy thriller.  Fortunately Crace doesn’t let us down in this way.  In fact, he is clever enough to disable any trad thriller elements he does introduce, including one maddeningly brilliant conceit which matches Strangers on a Train’s murder swap for symmetrical perfection.

If All That Follows is not a thriller, then what is it?  A few years ago, Crace detailed plans for future novels, one of which was to be titled The Finalist, and was “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.”  All That Follows, I believe, is the book which The Finalist became.  There is a little action, both in the ‘present’ (England, 2024) and the past (Texas, 2006), but the second part of Crace’s description is what underpins the book.

The man Leonard recognises on the TV is Maxim ‘Maxie’ Lermontov, a Canadian-Russian anarchist with whom he became friendly when living in USA at the turn of the millennium.  Maxie and his wife Nadia constituted the entire membership of a political sect calling themselves Snipers Without Rifles, and Leonard’s final involvement with them in 2006 was at their “AmBush”, when they plotted to take direct action against the then President at a public appearance in Texas.  Now, it seems, Maxie is taking hostages in England, where rights have been chipped away bit by bit until citizens are no longer surprised to receive a unwarranted and unexplained visit from NADA, the National Defence Agency (“not quite the police, not quite the SAS”).

Crace has never been afraid to go toe-to-toe with big subjects in his books: the nature of life in cities in Arcadia, the creation of a faith in Quarantine, what happens after we die in Being Dead.  In All That Follows he writes about the individual’s relationship with the state.  We ponder whether the erosion of civil liberties comes about when too many people engage in directionless rebellion like Maxie and Nadia (and Leonard, “the nation’s most nervous militant … a man of extreme principles, hesistantly held”) – or when too few do it.  But it is also Crace’s most human story yet, focussing on Leonard’s struggles to overcome, on the brink of his 50th birthday, a sense that his life is over, and that he lacks the guts to make it new.

Every dawn renews his hope and courage, briefly, he has found.  This is the day, is what he always thinks. He will not disappoint himself today.  He will not fail again today.

Against this is the unwelcome refrain from his wife, Francine – “That was then” – when faced with any reminder of their past.  “Used To Be is such a loaded phrase.”  Anyway she reminds Leonard that he has always been fearful, risk-averse – and now is a ‘nought per center’, a term used to describe citizens who avoid meat, sugar, salt, saturated fats.  In Leonard’s case, this also means “nought per cent passion, nought per cent fire, nought per cent tossing pebbles at the wall.”  Or as Francine puts it: “I know what they’ll put on your gravestone.  It’ll say ‘Scared to Death’.”  He changes, however, when Leonard Lessing becomes Lennie Less, saxophonist, a risk-taker, playing “only taxing jazz”: except that he hasn’t even done that in years, a shoulder injury killing off his career for now.  Still, “he’s not courageous when he’s playing, not mad and not demonic, just less frightened.  He’s Lennie Less Frightened, mapping out a landscape of his own where it is not truly risky to take risks.”

This makes Leonard a refreshing change from the ‘everyman’ hero of a thrillerish book: he turns down the crazy assignment, he takes the road more travelled.  He rationalises. “He’s done his best, it’s not his fault – the usual chorus line.”  Ultimately he will regain his mojo, his wife and his audience only when he stands up against the authoritarian state, exhibits some backbone, “not betraying any fear, not revealing any of the dread that was his foremost feeling at the time,” “mythologized” by the ubiquitous news footage, showing him seeming “fierce, and triumphant.”

He doesn’t quite resemble himself.

Crace too takes a risk in this book.  He moderates his authorial voice – it’s plainer, speedier – and threatens to frustrate both long-term admirers and those drawn by the catchy conceit.  The result, however, is a success, saturating its reader in its recurring themes as effectively as good music does.  In the future world of All That Follows, with its “bland eco-pods” and Reconciliation Summits, one development, wittily imparted by Crace, is particularly deplorable.  It seems that in 2024, the word ‘genius’ as an adjective has gained common acceptance.  Now that really does call for a revolution.

Jim Crace: The Pesthouse

Jim Crace is an orderly, methodical writer (his friend Will Self said: “I wouldn’t dream of saying that Jim’s study demonstrates anal retention, but his marker pens are colour-coded and the distance between his keyboard and chair is painstakingly measured out”), so it’s a surprise that the wait for his new novel, The Pesthouse, doubled the usual metronomic two-year gap between his books.  It had better be good.

In fact, it had better be better than Cormac McCarthy’s recently lauded The Road, because superficially the two have a lot in common.  Both are set in a post-apocalyptic America, with straggling survivors battling against the collapse of civilisation and doing their best to evade marauding bandits.  Like McCarthy’s unnamed man and boy, the characters in The Pesthouse are heading for the coast, where they hope for… what?  “We go.  We carry on.  That’s what we have to do.”

But where McCarthy produced an immersive, devastating fable, Crace has set his sights wider: and lighter.  There are some threats in his story, but few real moments of terror, and his world is more colourful, because his language is too.  Anyone who has read Crace before will know what to expect: a rhythmic and mythic prose, full of off-kilter but just-so detail.  Dawn is “at the very moment that the owl became the cock;” seagulls are “stocky, busy, labouring, their bony wings weighted at the tips with black;” the ocean is “one great weeping eye.  On clear days, we can see the curve of it.”

One difficulty with this rich style is that often the drama, emotion or other engine of the story can be blocked out by it.  You are so conscious of the beauty of the words that they stay on the surface of your mind without always sinking in.  And sure enough, Crace’s tale of Franklin, big and shy (and a bit of a muddler, like his earlier ‘heroes’ Aymer Smith and Felix Dern), and Margaret, left by her family as a victim of plague (or “the flux”), to begin with lacks weight, and for the first half or so the book meanders along with going anywhere much.  The feel is not particularly American, and more like a straightforward medieval setting than a future dystopia, or the sort of parallel world Crace has conjured before in Arcadia or Six (which, like The Pesthouse, showed us how well he writes about cities).  Occasionally though, the glimpses of an industrial past do cut through and when they do, they work remarkably well:

Colossal devastated wheels and iron machines, too large for human hands, stood at the perimeter of the semicircle, as if they had been dumped by long-retreated glaciers and had no purpose now other than to age.  Hardly anything grew amid the waste.  The earth was poisoned, probably.  Twisted rods of steel protruded from the masonry.  Discarded shafts and metal planks, too heavy to pull aside even, blocked their paths.

And it’s around the halfway point that the story really begins to gather itself.  Franklin and Margaret face separation, rape, death, and encounter a ripely painted series of characters.  Allegories rise up reminding us not only of America’s recent past but our own: immigration, prejudice, slavery, the scattering forms of family life.  Crace even stops to have fun with some (literally) ineffectual religious cult members.  By the time we reach the coast, he has fashioned most of all a remarkable love story out of the unlikeliest elements.  And by the end it is moving and elegiac, altogether a warming and compassionate thing, and easily Crace’s best book since Being Dead or even Quarantine.