By the strength of his more than a dozen books, all critically acclaimed and popularly successful, Jim Crace (65) is one of the highly esteemed fiction writers of our time. He started fiction writing in 1974, having had a career as a journalist for two decades. His first novel, Continent published in 1986. It caught the attention of both readers and critics alike. Later , The Gift of stones (1995), Arcadia(1992), Signals of Distress(1994), The slow Digestions of the Night (short stories 1995), Quarantine(1997), Being Dead(1999), The Devils Larder(2001), Six(2003) , The Pesthouse(2007), On Heat(2008), All That Follows(2010) came one after another. Jim has been awarded with many prizes, including Britain’s prestigious Guardian Fiction prize, Whitbread prize(Twice), E M Foster Award etc. He was also shortlisted for Booker prize and International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award.
Vishal Tayade Interviews Jim Crace at the Jaipur International Literary Festival, where he discusses his early life, his works, his thoughts on Indian literature
How did you first become a writer? Were you one of those people who have always wanted to be a writer for as long as they remember?
I am a mixture of the mischievous and the puritanical. As a boy, the mischievous part of me always liked to tell stories, improve on the truth, inflate dull experiences into amusing anecdotes – lie, in other words. But when, as a young man, it came to day-dreaming a future career, it was my puritanical self that pushed to the fore. I knew that I could write well enough but I didn’t want to lie publicly in print and I wanted to be useful, so I turned to journalism. Indeed I was a full-time, freelance features journalist until I was 40 years old. It was only when I had a political falling out with the then editor of The Sunday Times that I turned to lying for a living. I didn’t expect to make an income from it. But that first work of fiction, Continent, won three prizes in as many weeks, was translated into more than twenty languages, and is still in print today. My literary career took off a bit too easily. I haven’t had to struggle. But I’m not complaining about that.
You are writing for more than last 35 years, how do you find changes in your writings?
Well, the obvious split is between the journalism which took pride in getting the facts right every time, and the fiction (after 1986) which always preferred an invention over the actual truth. So the main change has been from being a writer who tried to locate the readers in a recognizable universe which smelled, sounded and looked like the world they lived in to a novelist trying to dislocate the readers by taking them to invented places, where the realism is magic and disconcerting rather than familiar. Otherwise, the main change in my fiction writing has been the inevitable replacement of a young(ish) man’s energy and passion with an older writer’s experience, confidence and craft. However, now that I am 65, even that is disappearing. I think I’ve written enough novels. It’s time to stop. Archipelago, my next, will be my last. Then the adventures will begin.
Which Indian writer has impressed you the most and why?
The first Indian writer I loved (and still love) was R.K. Narayan. No surprise there. I started reading him when I was about 17 and The Man-eater of Malgudi was published. I admired his clarity and humanity. But as is common with readers of my generation, in Britain at least, my image of India was mostly shaped (or misshaped) by white colonial writers, from Kipling to Forster (and more recently Paul Scott and J.G. Farrell). It wasn’t until the 1980s, post-Rushdie, that I began to follow and encounter the rich, authentic rewards of contemporary Indian fiction. I have my favourites and there are some that leave me cold – but don’t ask me to name anyone as they are all living and they are my colleagues. I don’t take sides, except privately. However, if I had to select one companion for my desert island it would still be Narayan. First loves are the most enduring.
Your novel like Quarantine take readers to very different world. What kind of research did you do for that?
I don’t research. I make things up. Research is for academics and journalists. (I’m being flippant – but essentially I do trust in the power of the imagination to deliver a grander, more metaphorical portrait of our lives and landscapes than would result from a photographic approach. If my writing holds a lens up to the real world, then it is a cracked lens.) Where Quarantine was concerned -all my novels, come to that- the challenge was to carry out the confidence trick of making it all up with such unblinking certainty that none of my readers would ever think of doubting me. Isn’t that what fiction is supposed to do? Certainly the critics were fooled, and considered Quarantine to be a faithful portrait of Palestine at the time of Christ. They were wrong. Either that, or fiction itself has the uncanny knack of fibbing its way to the truth.
What do you think a writer’s role is in modern society?
Nothing unique. Writers should attempt to be good citizens, good neighbours and good friends, just the same as accountants, labourers, cooks, taxi drivers, sweepers, nurses, etcetera. They should resist the temptation of considering themselves above politics, above morals, and above manners just because they have got creative talents. (You know who I’m talking about.) See, I told you I was an appalling puritan. But I am a member of a very self-regarding profession and it makes me impatient.
How has globalisation changed the scenario of writing industry as a whole? Have you found any change?
Whew! It’d take a whole book to answer that. Indeed there are whole books that address this issue. I’ll just focus on one corner of the subject – that is, the globalisation of the English language. Many of my more conservative countrymen are appalled by the prospect of our ancient mother tongue falling into the hands of Johnny Foreigner. They read that out of every 980 emails written in English only one originates in the UK, and that for every 115 people truly eloquent in English only one is a Brit (I made those figures up, but you get my point). But I am less protective of the language. Indeed I am rather delighted by the ways in which it is being reshaped and adapted throughout the world. I have a working class North London background and I was educated (by my snobbish Grammar school) to believe that I spoke poor English with a rough accent. The English I should aspire to was BBC English or The Queen’s English or Oxford English, in other words a middle class-cum- ruling class version of the language, a version that was resistant to change, one which considered a split infinitive or a dropped aitch to be crimes worthy of a hefty fine or transportation. One generation on, my own children went to state schools (in Birmingham) where more than 80% (not an invented figure) were from non-white immigrant families, mostly Pakistanis, in which the first family language was not English. Others were from India, the West Indies and the Yemen. Their lingua franca didn’t and doesn’t come from Oxford, Bush House or Buckingham Palace but from a rich, vibrant, flexible Commonwealth substrate. The language has become liberated during my lifetime and it is becoming more democratic and energetic by the day. Hooray, for that. It’s another blow against the ruling classes. May their discomfort increase!
If yes, then how does it all affect the writers today?
The implications are obvious, for example, for Indian novelists who seek a world readership. They don’t have to kow-tow and defer to London quite as much as they used to. I know that many of my writing colleagues in India still aspire for publication in Britain and America. That makes good economic and cultural sense, for the time being. But I can -in my optimistic mood- imagine a situation not too far in the future where literacy targets have been met in the sub-continent and British writers are desperate to be published in Delhi rather than London in order to win the attentions -and the rupees- of a readership twenty times larger than that in their own country. However, the pessimist in me fears for the life of India’s many ancient languages which, I suspect, cannot survive the invasive virulence of my mother tongue. English enriches the world and it also impoverishes it.
Have you gone through any systematic education for writing?
No, none at all. I was lucky enough to learn on the hoof, as a journalist. I’ve never given the advice that the best way to become a successful novelist is to read and read and read or to study and study and study. My books aren’t full of convincing landscapes, for example, because I’ve read a hundred landscape books. Rather it’s because I have walked and walked and walked, and used my eyes. So, in my view, living a stimulating, adventurous enquiring life is the best preparation for working as a writer. No School of Literature or Writing Workshop can provide that. However, I am not hostile to the belief, the hope, that narrative skills can be taught. You can’t make talent appear where there is none; but prowess and mastery can be learned and practiced.
I read somewhere that every writer experiences writer’s block in their carrier, have you gone through it?
I was a journalist for too long -eighteen years- to indulge such excuses as Writers’ Block or the Absence of the Muse. Editors want their copy on the dot, no excuses. So, as a journalist, I learned how to knuckle down and stop making a fuss. I’ve kept up that discipline since becoming a novelist. When I have a novel underway, I follow old-fashioned, no nonsense work practices. I knock out the words during the weekdays, and then enjoy the evenings and the weekends (during which I never work) with an easy conscience.
What is literature for you?
Literature is just one of the many routes towards transcendence, but the only one in which I can boastfully claim any unusual skill. Other routes for other people include music, angling, cookery, painting, gardening, meeting friends, walking the dog, hockey, kite flying, whistling, carpentry…. (add the next thousand words yourself). So long as you are travelling one of these routes with passion and commitment you will be approaching happiness and wisdom.
Writing is to a certain extent an autobiographical process as much as it is a process of discovery. What is your experience?
For me, writing is not an autobiographical process because I am not my own subject matter. In fact, I sometimes suspect I am the least autobiographical writer working in Britain at the moment. I write, like a traditional story teller, about the fate and prospects of communities rather than individuals. And reading my novels will tell you very little (beyond the fact that I am an atheist, a socialist and a keen amateur natural historian) about my life or my sensibilities. The puritan in me has made me too private -secretive, perhaps- to reveal myself to strangers.
How long does it take for you to write a book? What were your experiences like during that stage?
I have published a new novel every couple of years since 1986, as regular and predictable as clockwork. The pattern is, I plan novel B while I am writing novel A, then I prevaricate for a year, sitting in a deckchair or playing tennis while pretending to my wife that I am hard at work, then I write the book in six months and edit it again and again in another six. I’m a factory.
What is next for you as a writer? Are you working on another novel?
As I said, only one more novel. The world of fiction has been very kind to me. I’ve had a long successful career. But this novel-writing lark is bound to end in tears. For most writers, the tears come early: they’ve written a book that no-one will publish. Then there are the writers who publish one book that no-one buys except their cousins, and they hate it (and say so). Tears all round. At the far end of this Vale of Tears are the elderly writers who have been critically acclaimed for decades and might still be writing superbly well, but we’ve had enough of them already. They’re out of fashion. No-one needs them any more. Blub blub blub. No, I want to quit when I’m still ahead, before the bitterness steps in. Besides, writing is a solitary unhealthy activity. And the lively noises and the bright lights beyond my study window beckon me. But first I will complete, Archipelago, my most ecstatic and poetic novel yet. It’s a kind of Gulliver’s Travels in the geography of consciousness. But as soon as it is done, I intend to pull on my loudest shirt and go out into the world looking for some fun.
If you were to send a message to young writers just starting out, what would it be ?
Image Courtesy: Andrew Fox/ The Independent