The Windham Campbell Literature Prizewinners: Jim Crace

JimCrace_WebJim Crace, a 2014 Donald Windham-Sandy M. Campbell Literature Prize winner for fiction, likes to play with edges and expectations. Well known for exquisite prose that often resembles poetry, Crace’s novels unfold with a sense of surrealism in which things appear both strangely familiar and unsettlingly foreign. During our conversation, I found Crace to be intensely serious, disarmingly funny, and refreshingly honest.

After graduating from the University of London, Crace worked with the development organization, Volunteer Services Overseas in Khartoum, Sudan, where he wrote and produced children’s programs for Sudanese Educational Television. He has travelled extensively, and spent nearly two decades working as a journalist before turning to fiction. His first novel, Continent, won the Whitbread First Novel Award, the Guardian Fiction Prize, and the David Higham Prize for Fiction. Subsequent novels have earned Crace the National Book Critics Circle Fiction Award, the Winifred Holtby Memorial Prize, and the Whitbread Novel Award. He has been twice shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, including for his most recent novel, Harvest, which also recently won Britain’s oldest literary award, the James Tait Black Prize. In 1992, Crace received the E. M. Forster Award by the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He is also a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.

Jim Crace is a 2014 Windham Campbell Literature Prize winner for fiction.


SAGE: First of all, congratulations on winning a Windham Campbell Prize.

Jim Crace: Yeah, bizarre.

SAGE: Your work has won so many awards. What was your reaction to finding out you’d been awarded a Windham Campbell?

JC: Well, there’s a reckless madcap side to my nature, which is balanced by the puritanical side. The puritanical side felt like I was having too much good luck in my life; that somehow or another there was gonna be a comeuppance for me, but I soon got over that. And now, the epicurean has taken over the puritan. But I was very shocked at first. I think that we all thought that it was a Nigerian money scam because we all had these messages, which just said, “Phone this number if you want to hear some news, some great news for you.” And that’s very typical of Nigerian finance scams. But I phoned Nigeria, and low and behold, I’d won a prize.

SAGE: Well, congratulations.

JC: Thank you.

SAGE: Do you have any plans for how you intend to spend the money, for a new piece that’s coming out, a new work?

JC: Well it was an odd time for me, really, because I’d said I was going to retire from writing.

SAGE: I’ve read that.

JC: And unfortunately I said that on British national radio, on the BBC, which, as you know, is quite a powerful platform in this country.

SAGE: Of course.

JC: I’d said it because I’d written a novel that’d failed at 40,000 words. Also, there were some health problems with one of our children. And I was over 65 and thought, “Well, people do retire.” I’d just bought this new house here and this huge garden, which was gonna take up my time. So, I thought whole-heartedly that it would be a good idea to get out of writing when I was ahead of the game, as it were, when I was still feeling that I loved it and I was cheerful about it. But what I didn’t account for, I think, was that your mind doesn’t stop working just because you’re retired. And I am just inundated with ideas that I want to turn into novels. So, essentially what’s happened is that I’ve had some time off from work—it’s not a divorce from writing, it’s kind of a separation from writing—we’re on a break, as they say in France. But really, I’ve got new novels that want to be written.

The key thing about this prize is it gives me complete independence. I don’t have to go to a publisher. I don’t have to go to my agent. There’s no pressure on me. I don’t think that I’ve enjoyed the pressure of having publishers breathing down my neck the last ten years. It was useful, of course, when you’ve got young children and you’ve got a mortgage to pay, and you have to have money up front. But I’m free of that pressure now. I have the money from Yale, and I’ve got three projects on hand. One is a collection of natural history essays; one is a new novel originally called Poverty Park, about poverty and tourism; and a stage play based on the Minotaur legend. So I’ve got three things going, and with any luck, I don’t have to go to anybody to ask permission. I don’t have to get any advances. I can just spend the filthy dollars from America.

SAGE: That’s fantastic.

JC: Do you see what I mean? Too lucky for my own good.

SAGE: That does not sound like retirement.

JC: No, god no. I’ve become a grandparent at the same time.

SAGE: Congratulations!

JC: Actually, I’ve never been so busy in my life. I’m coming up to—how old am I? I’m coming up to 69. And I’ve never been so busy. So actually, we should be glad for that. You know, we don’t want our lives to retreat just because we’re getting older.

SAGE: Absolutely. So, I’m curious about where your stories come from. Your novels have what I would characterize as a very dissettling darkness to them, where the reader gets drawn into this other world that’s both familiar and also quite foreign. Take Harvest, for example. On one side it reads like historical fiction; it’s about the dispossession of farmers and the enclosure of fields. And yet it also has this timeless quality; it’s about an older age giving way to a new age that really speaks to our contemporary situation.

JC: Well, there are several things that you’ve said there. First of all, is this business about being dark. That’s important to me, that observation. I would count myself as a very optimistic writer, not a pessimistic writer. But that’s often not seen by my readers or by the critics because in order to reach my optimism you have to go into some very dark corners. But I think that optimism which is based on good fortune, and a lack of problems, and an airy life is not optimism worth having. The optimism which is granted hard is the optimism which faces the truth of the human condition, which includes death, which includes illness, which includes bereavement, which includes disappointment, floods and famine and violence and hostile environments. All of those things. It looks at those, it counts them, isn’t disgusted by them. And out of all of those things finds a message of optimism. So, yes it’s true you go to dark places in my books, but you also, I hope, come out with an optimistic message.

Now, the thing about the fact that my books seem to be set in all of these various places. The key to Harvest was not the medieval times, was not the fact that over here there are fields full of ridge and furrow, and I’m living in Shakespeare country; we’re living now in Worcestershire, where that landscape is based. The key to Harvest was not those things, which I’m familiar with, but a newspaper article which was talking about seizure of land in Brazil by soya barons to make money out of ancestral land. And I saw this article when I was thinking about this book.

The point about this book is not to work out where it was set or when it was set, I hope, but to recognize that this is a universal problem that has been with us in every epoch of old history and will be with us in future histories as well: that men who want money will take land from people who have it. That’s the point that I want to make. The problem is that if I decide to set that in a particular time, a particular date, and place, and name it, then I have a duty of honor to real history, and real places, and real people. I wouldn’t be able to write to my manifestos. I claim the freedom to tell all the lies that I want because all my lands are invented ones. No one is able to take offense to what I write because those fields and those villages don’t exist except in my imagination. The one thing that does exist though is the subject matter, and it’s the subject matter that is the key to all of my novels.

SAGE: Your novels are beautifully written. As a writer, I’m wondering, is writing a struggle for you?

JC: It doesn’t feel like a struggle. I’m not a conventional writer, the convention being post-Jane Austen, where novels come from personal experience and are autobiographical to some extent, and hold a mirror out to the real world. But I’m not a modernist either. What I consider myself to be is a very traditional, old-fashioned writer. And if you look at traditional, old-fashioned storytelling, like the Minotaur legends, not set in a real place, their written form is almost secondary to their oral form. This is the key. Because I embrace traditional storytelling, I think the oral tradition is something that I’m following, although I’m following it on the keyboard. So everything I write is there to be performed, is there to be read out loud. It’s very percussive. It’s very musical. Every beat counts; it’s very measured. It’s got rhythm and it’s got melody and all of those things. A critic once said that to read a single paragraph by Jim Crace is to invite a migraine, which wasn’t flattering, but it was very smart. And for those people who don’t like my work, they find it over-rhythmic, over-written. But that is my voice. And I think if you’re a writer, you have to find your voice. This is the one that I’ve been fortunate enough to be given. It’s a rare one in Britain and English-language writing, and it’s done me a lot of favors. But it can be very, very irritating. But because it’s my voice, it’s not hard. I don’t struggle to write poetically, it’s there, particularly where natural history is concerned and landscape description is concerned, that’s just part of my make-up. I think in those terms and so I write in them.

The one novel that failed was the one where I tried to leave my own voice and write an autobiographical novel. It’s crazy, you know. If you’re a baritone, you don’t sing tenor. You stick to your own voice. Singing in your own voice is not a hardship. Singing in someone else’s voice is when it gets harder.

SAGE: How did you know the novel was not working?

JC: The great pleasure for me with writing is not what I bring to the page, and I’m being a bit hesitant now because I’m going to sound new-agey, and I’m not new-agey at all. I’m a post-Darwinist, atheist, natural historian, who believes that the universe is an inside job, not an outside job. I think it’s a scientific fact that humankind has been equipped with a narrative skill that obviously confers upon us a massive advantage, otherwise it would’ve died out.

So what happens normally when a book is going well is: you sit at the screen without an idea in your head, and narrative, which is old, and wise, and generous, and is at your shoulder, offers solutions. Because it’s been there with our species for such a long, long time, it knows a hell of a lot. So you listen to this character. You don’t know what’s going to happen to this character, you don’t know where this setting is gonna be, and narrative is just this natural skill that bubbles onto the screen for you.

With the failed novel, that wasn’t happening. I was going downstairs and sitting in front of the screen and input narrative wasn’t offering me anything. I was getting to the stage where I didn’t want to get up in the morning. I woke up in the morning with a sinking heart, which is just not true of me—I always wake up in the morning full of the joys of things, not just to do with writing. It’s just the way I am. But I didn’t want to get up, because I knew that getting up would mean going to my office which would mean getting on with the novel that I instinctively felt was failing. But I was in denial. And the reason why I was in denial was because I knew that you mustn’t lose heart. I knew I must plug away and I’d persevere in the end, because that’s always what’s happened in the past. And I also believed that narrative would not let me down. So this was my hubristic moment actually. Narrative did let me down because I was writing the wrong book. So I sent the 40,000 words to my agent, kind of praying he would say, This is genius, but actually wishing, in my heart of hearts, that he would say, This is rubbish. Stop now. because it would mean that I’d never have to go back to another morning with that manuscript. And he said, Stop. This is horrible. What were you thinking? And I felt dreadful for 24 hours, and I felt despair for another 24 hours, and then on the third day, I started Harvest. It came out of nowhere. I just thought, What are you doing singing in the wrong voice? What are your strengths? What are you interested in? Boom. I started typing. I did the whole thing in six months.

SAGE: So you allow yourself to discover your characters during the process of writing.

JC: Yeah, I have the idea first, and I sit down and certain things will evolve through trial and error—where it’s about, who it’s about. Now, what it’s about is a little bit more complicated. With Harvest, I knew it was about land seizure, but what I didn’t know about the novel was that it was also about scapegoating, about immigration, about the other as we call it. And that was kind of a gift of the story itself. So, I mean, you can’t get to the end of a book without knowing who it’s about, when it’s about, where it’s about, vaguely where it’s about anyway. But you can get to the end of a book and still not know what it’s about because these are mystical things, and sometimes you’re so engrossed. The reader will probably know, but the writer doesn’t know. You see?

SAGE: Interesting.

JC: The writer can never have the reader’s experience. I don’t know whether you find that. If I were to read one of my novels, god forbid…life is to short to read one of my books…

SAGE: You don’t go back and read your work?

JC: No, why would I? You know, where’s the surprise for me? Where’s the shock when that groom gets his face slit open? Where’s the mystery of what happened to a character? It’s not there. Of course, sometimes I have to go to public readings and I have to remind myself of what paragraphs to read, but, no, I’ve never read one of my novels beginning to end. It would be too tedious.

SAGE: Hmmm.

JC: With literature, and it sounds like I’m trying to say something cute now, but you know, it’s a simple business. Metaphors don’t work unless the reader does some work. Someone with no imagination at all wouldn’t get a more complicated metaphor. When, for example, a character talks about that Stonehenge circle—elderly disapproving faces who frowned upon my youth—when describing his uncles and aunts, that is such a brilliant phrase because what he (Logan Pearsall Smith) is asking you to do is to see the Neolithic circle of Stonehenge, and see in it the implacable or disapproving faces of your elderly aunts and uncles. Equally, he’s asking when you see your elderly aunts and uncles, to have their appearances become granite-like, to become like stone. It’s brilliant, but it only works if the reader does half of the work. So there’s always something that you, as a writer, have to leave to the magic mix of ingredients. You can’t always guarantee, you can’t always predict, you can’t always identify yourself. There needs to be some kind of chemistry going on, which doesn’t close with the last page, but actually opens; giving the reader something to do, demanding something of the reader.

SAGE: Well, your works do require a lot from your readers. Do you have a specific audience in mind when you’re writing?

JC: Well, that’s the problem. I have readers, but I don’t have a political constituency that needs to be sorted. Therefore, I don’t make big claims for changing hearts and minds by my writing. I’m not part of that scene, although I am a very political person off the page. To some extent, leaving journalism was a very hard thing for me. When I was a journalist, I ended up at the Sunday Times; I was at the Sunday Telegraph before that. Big, national newspapers. So I was able to have several million readers every month. And not all of those would agree with me politically. Most of them wouldn’t agree. So, the puritan in me always had the belief that if I told the truth, then I would start persuading people to believe what I believe, because I believe that truth is liberal. That was a comfort to me, and I felt like I was a player. The puritan in me was comfortable because even though I was writing for the right-wing press—the Murdoch Sunday Times, the arch-Tory Telegraph—no one was telling me what to say, and I was engaging in a debate.

As soon as I started writing fiction, and stopped writing for newspapers, not only did I not have a constituency, I also knew exactly who would be reading my work, and they would be thinking exactly the same as me. If I see someone reading one of my novels on the train, I know what their attitude is to the Lord’s red meat; I know they want to go to the next Dylan concert; I know how they’re going to vote in the next general election. I mean, I exaggerate slightly, but not much. I don’t want to make any claims that anything I do is anything other than an indulgence. It’s not a political action. My books are about politics, but they tend to bolster people’s opinions rather than to change people’s attitudes. So I always think that in a liberal bourgeois democracy such as the United Kingdom, or America, fiction is less important than newspapers. And that’s not hard to argue, really. I mean, what is a sign of a good democratic country? Is it one that has freedom of expression of the press, or one that has a flourishing fiction industry?

SAGE: What do you see as the purpose of the literary novel?

JC: Well, I’m not sure. And I’m not convinced. I know that it provides solace, and it provides insight. And doing those things for people who think the same as you is not necessarily a waste of time. My point was, let’s not pretend that things are other than they are. You know, the whole Shelleyan argument that artists are the unacknowledged legislators of the world. Now, I think that might be the case if you lived in the Iron Curtain Eastern Europe, for example, where the newspaper, Pravda, which means “truth,” was not where you would go for truth because it was telling you lies. You’d be looking for truth with writers like Solschenizyn, and Pasternak, and the bad boys of Russian poetry. That’s where you’d be going. In a situation like that, I would argue that literature is powerful and important, and changes peoples’ minds. I mean, it is a player. Living in the kind of society we live in, in this country, literature has much more tender properties, and I think that solace is important. And literature enables us to visit those dark corners of the universe without experiencing them.

You don’t want me to write an autobiographical novel. If I do, it’s going to be full of good fortune. It’s going to have one marriage with no sleeping around. It’s gonna have no arguments. It’s gonna have a childhood in which my parents never hit me, never swore at me. I mean, already you’re bored and falling off to sleep. The reason that literature isn’t made up of these happy stories is that literature prefers illness to good health, it prefers war to peace, it prefers divorce to long marriages, it prefers death to longevity. And that’s because one of its purposes is to prepare us for these hard things, to enable us to read about death and prepare for grief without dying yet; to know what it’s like to be ill, or blind, or whatever it is without those things actually happening. So it’s an immensely important preparatory device. It enables us to think our way into things without blundering our way. All I’m saying is that in England, literature is not all as important as other writers pretend, but I’m not saying that it’s not important. I just want people to stop being bullshitty about it. I hate it when British writers say, Ah, I’m not even voting in the next election. And why is that exactly? Well, it’s because I put all of my politics into my books. You know, that is such bollocks. All they are is self-regarding, sycophantic assholes. You know how to spell that sort of stuff? (laughing)

SAGE: (laughing) Yeah.

JC: So, I’m striking an attitude, really. But it’s an attitude that I’m more comfortable with than the one that still pretends that we are the legislators of the world.

SAGE: You were a journalist for nearly two decades, and then you became a very well-regarded novelist. Did you always want to become a novelist? When you were a journalist, did you ever cover stories that you thought would make a great novel if you fictionalized them?

JC: No, because there’s this separation. And I’m going to sound like some psychologist talking now, but there are two sides of my personality: the one which is rather reckless and drug-taking and jumping around and being sort of badly behaved, tempered by the puritan. I played a very straight bat when I was a journalist. I didn’t exaggerate anything. I didn’t make anything up. I didn’t cheat anybody. I didn’t attribute quotes if they weren’t true quotes. That’s the sum that I got out of it, getting it right. But I did feel that part of me was repressed because as well as being quite puritanical about how people behave, I’ve always been a liar and a storyteller, a fibber and a colorer-in. You know, I’m never going to come home and tell you the truth about what happens without turning it into a cultural anecdote. I mean, I think that’s called sociability. And so that part of my personality was repressed. I never wanted to write any novels, but there was this novel-telling side of me that was repressed. As soon as I left journalism, and drifted casually towards writing fiction, it’s like suddenly some part of my personality was able to express itself without constraint, without guilt. And although I regret that I’m not a journalist anymore, I think that I’m a better novelist than I was a journalist.

SAGE: There is, broadly speaking, a huge decline in readership these days, not only of novels, but also of more journalistic pieces. What do you see as the role of the writer in the modern environmental movement?

JC: Well, there’s no denying the increase in big picture natural history writing, Barry Lopez, and all that. There was a tradition in America of big wilderness writing, big issue writing, and the rest of the world has now caught up. Landscape writing and natural history writing have improved massively. You could say that the reason that’s happened is because sensibilities have risen, or you could say that sensibilities have risen because these books have happened, and of course, the truth is somewhere in between. More people are aware of these issues, but it’s not just about books; it’s also about TV programs. My suspicion is that natural history TV programs probably have a much greater influence than the written word. I think the written word is kind of a boiler house for people who are involved in natural history subjects, but for common people, I think their sensibilities and awareness of natural history issues, and world issues, and the issues of a sustainable universe, are being affected more by television than any other medium. I think that TV comes first, then the newspapers, and then literature. It may be that finely written literature is one brick in the wall, but I think it’s a brick down low in the wall.

SAGE: I just have one final question for you, Jim: What are you reading these days?

JC: Well, I read Spillover, by David Quammen, and I think he’s startlingly good. And here’s a good example of what I was saying. I think he wanted to be a novelist, not a natural history writer. And he’s used his fantastic narrative skills as a sort of Trojan horse in which to smuggle serious science. And so, for even someone like E.O. Wilson, who is absolutely superb, if you want to know something about island biodiversity, I would ask you to read Song of the Dodo, by Quammen. And even though you can find fantastic academic works about zoonosis, which is what Spillover is about, if you want the narrative version, which is what will stay with you because narrative is such a powerful weapon, read Spillover.

I read books about birds. I’m just reading a new natural history book called Hawk, which is about a young woman training a goshawk. And that’s making me want to read T.H. White’s book, The Goshawk, which is about the same thing, but set in the late-1930s. So those are the kind of things I read for deep pleasure. But walking is more important to me. You know, my views and my attitudes about natural history aren’t to do with reading about natural history, and my understanding of landscape isn’t about reading about landscape. All of it is about getting out into the fields and getting intimate with several parts of the world, knowing some parts of the world with great intimacy and other parts less well. Climbing hills, spelunking, all of those things are important to me. Having this relationship that I have at the moment with a young buzzard who’s been out in the garden the last four or five days, absolutely mewing with distress about something or another. I know that it’s very important where writers are concerned to want to believe that books are the most important things in their lives, but for me, books aren’t the most important things in my life. And if you gave me a choice, I’d rather give up reading than walking.

SAGE: Do you walk everyday?

JC: Yep.

SAGE: That’s great.

JC: I’ve got a long walk. We’ve got the Malvern Hills surrounding the valley here. We’ve got quite a rise; it’s very good for migratory birds. We’ve got foxes, squirrels, badgers, Muntjac deer, slug worms, adders, toads—it’s a really, really great part of the world to live in.

Timothy Brown

Timothy is Editor in Chief at SAGE Magazine. A former high school environmental science teacher, Timothy now studies environmental anthropology and writing at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.

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One Comment

  1. Kathy Douglas says:

    Great introduction to Crace and great interview. Fantastic that F&ES is hosting some of the literary festival events–looking forward to hearing from some of the prize winners in Burke Auditorium.

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