interview: jim crace

[Previously published at, rights retained by author.]


Author Jim Crace talks with Lisa Guidarini about his decision to retire from fiction writing, the biggest influences in his long and storied career, and how his novel Harvest is wrapped around timeless themes.

Harvest seems to be set in an era when English society is evolving from use of land to grow crops to enclosed pastures for animals. What about this specific time period did you find compelling as a setting for your novel? Could it have been set in any other time and place?
The time period isn’t all that specific, in fact. I wasn’t trying to write a novel that was medieval or Tudor or Jacobean. If the novel has a “setting” at all then it’s Shakespeare’s England. So it’s prose fiction based on stage fiction. But, if the exact time and location of the story are not important to me, the subject matters are. And the subject matters are timeless. Small farmers all over the world are still being forced from their land, edged out by timber sharks or soy barons or coffee magnates or housing developers. And those farmers may well end up as refugees or asylum seekers in towns or cities which resent them. So, yes, this novel could have been set in any other time or place – except for the fact that I had a local and personal reason to make it “Shakespearean.” I live in Warwickshire -“Shakespeare’s County” as the tourist board call it – only half an hour from Stratford-upon-Avon. And the fields where I most commonly walk are etched with the ridge and furrow of the ancient ploughing which stopped with sheep enclosures. I found that irresistible.

So you choose to leave the village unnamed in order to allow the story to also work as a commentary on contemporary society, and humanity in general?
Vagueness gives free rein to the imagination. I do respect the two golden rules of true historical fiction, that facts should be checked and confirmed, that writers should not impose on the past, 21st century sensibilities, such as feminism or homophilia or multiculturalism. Good luck to historical novelists, I say. But I’m not one of them. I don’t want to check or ratify anything. I want to invent and I don’t want the non-fictional truth to get in my way. My novels are paintings not photographs. And I’m not interested in writing any novel that isn’t drenched in 21st sensibilities, whenever or wherever it’s set.

The insular nature of the unnamed village was characterized by a xenophobic distrust of “outsiders.” Why is violence such an instinctive reaction in this story?
When the going gets tough, the tough get going, to quote (and misapply) the Billy Ocean lyrics. That’s to say, the tougher, more violent members of society, are always on the lookout for scapegoats, especially when there’s a shortage of work, housing or food. I live in the happily warmhearted and hospitable city of Birmingham. In easy times, there is very little tension between our various culturally mixed communities. But we’re in a recession at the moment. Many young men (and they’re the ones to worry about if you’re tracing the sources of violence) can’t find work and can’t afford their rents. Who can they blame? Who can they punch? Well, anyone with a dark face, anyone with a strange accent, anyone with the wrong-shaped nose.

Both Thirsk and Master Kent were childless – specifically, without sons – and widowers. Was this meant to unite these two characters in some way?
I’m not sure about the word meant. I start my novels with little idea of those details. I have no characters or plot or any narrative voice. I wait for the book to express itself and then let the story unfold in front of me. Narrative is giving; it does the work for you. It made Thirsk and Master Kent childless and wifeless and, as you say, it did unite them. They came to share the melancholy of men who have no one to love.

How has writing enriched your life? Has it been a compulsion, a passion that controls you, or something altogether different?
I suspect it’s less of an obsession for me than for most novelists. Maybe that’s because I’m hardly an autobiographical writer and so when I close my office door after work I am not bound to take my subject matter with me. But when I am working I am enraptured by the ancient and tested wisdom, playfulness and generosity of storytelling. That’s the enrichment I have enjoyed. But I would be foolish to think that there are not other enrichments to be discovered far from the word processor.

Were you raised in a bookish household?
I was bought up in an atheistic, socialist household by working-class parents who did not as a matter of principle reject the so-called higher arts. My mum was not a reader, though she was witty. Her genius was her hospitality and warmth. My dad was the reader. Part of his self-education involved embracing all sorts of creativity without being creative himself. He took us to the theatre, the opera, the galleries and, most important, into the countryside. None of our neighbors in the housing estate in north London where I was brought up did the same with their children. I think they distrusted my father a bit. His openness and inquisitiveness made them doubt themselves. But he was too private and self-contained to worry what people made of him. He held faith in his books, few in number, but still dear to him and now to me. He had Orwell, Steinbeck, Jack London, Shaw, Wells, all the progressive voices. And he had the classics of natural history. He read the reviews, too. And if a new novel was especially well received, he would bring it home from the library. That’s where I first encountered contemporary literature.

Are you a big reader now? Do you consider yourself a biblioholic or do you actively pursue other interests in addition to reading and writing?
I’m certainly not a biblioholic. My wife’s the one who always has her nose in a book. I’m more likely to have my nose pressed up against a pair of binoculars – or a windowpane waiting for the rain to stop.

Are you still planning to retire? And may I be so bold as to ask why? If you don’t continue to write, do you have another path you plan to follow?
As things stand, I have no plans to write any more fiction, though if the mood takes me I might write a stage play, some essays on natural history and a children’s book (called Boa). But all of that is uncertain. What is certain is that retirement for me will be marked by an increase in activity rather than a decrease. Sitting in front of a computer with no colleagues is not a healthy lifestyle. There are walks begging to be taken. I want a better garden. My tennis and my painting could improve. I have not been as politically engaged as I’ve wanted to be. There are demonstrations to attend and riots to foment. My grandson needs attention. My bike needs exercise. I need to brush up my French and my Arabic. I want to stay in bed. I think I’ll have a beer.

Once you’ve stopped writing fiction – and I hope you reconsider – how would you like readers to remember your works? What would be the most flattering thing you could hear?
I’m not interested in literary immortality. I’m enough of a rationalist (and atheist) not to care one way or the other if my books are read after my death. But there are reasons both practical and emotional why I’d be happy if my novels continued to sell after my abandonment of writing for another more communal life. I suppose the final weeks of my existence might be marginally more restful if I knew all my novels were still in print and that some of their readers recognized that, despite the dark places those books might have taken them to, the lasting tone is one of optimism.

Finally, to whom, or what, do you attribute your success as a writer? If you could give thanks and appreciation to one source, what/who would that be?
Thanks, Dad.

Man Booker 2013. The winner is: Eleanor Catton



Congratulations, Eleanor!


Seems my guess was the kiss of death for Jim Crace and NiViolet Bulwayo. Sorry about that, you two. Especially to Jim Crace. That man should not stop writing, almost as much as I should, in order to protect the innocent. I’m upset with him for his insistence he’s done. He wants to fish, he says. To relax and fish. Well, maybe he’ll change his mind one day.

Speaking of, have you read a book by him yet, have you? We had this discussion (I did, at least) a few weeks back. Everything he’s written is touched by God Himself. Read all his books, write reviews of him in all the places and maybe he’ll see them and feel all nostalgic and weepy about the terrible feeling of facing the blank screen (or notebook, I can’t recall offhand what he said). I would email him again and instruct him to get back to work but I’m afraid he’ll develop Sebastian Barry complex and begin to look at me askance. Truth is I am the most innocent thing. A bit excitable (only about books, otherwise I pretty much just stare into space) and passionate (ditto) but not at all scary.

Convincing? Should I revise?


luminariescatton2Lots and lots of copies of the book I couldn’t get through.


But the point – lost long ago, in a fit of wildly careening writing – is the Big Prize went to the one novel I tried to get through and couldn’t! Huzzah…?

What’s wrong with me? It’s not a bad book. Not bad bad, I mean. The fault was in not giving it enough undivided attention, I’m almost certain. I’m sort of bad, that way. It’s well-written and about the intriguing and new-to-me subject of the gold rush in New Zealand:

It is 1866, and Walter Moody has come to make his fortune upon the New Zealand goldfields. On the stormy night of his arrival, he stumbles across a tense gathering of twelve local men, who have met in secret to discuss a series of unsolved crimes. A wealthy man has vanished, a prostitute has tried to end her life, and an enormous fortune has been discovered in the home of a luckless drunk. Moody is soon drawn into the mystery: a network of fates and fortunes that is as complex and exquisitely patterned as the night sky.

The Luminaries

Sounds lovely when you put it that way, doesn’t it? Well, as far as I know it’s still on my Kindle (I have a free eBook from the publisher, which will disappear when they decide to “archive” it), so I’ll get back on it or die trying. With Moby Dick still ongoing. And that doorstop Tudors.

At least Henry’s dead now, (the VIII, not some random Henry) finally, and Elizabeth’s primed for crown and sceptre, once that pesky Edward gets out of her way. I’d grown tired reading about Henry and his sadism. What an @$$hole, really! Boiling people alive? Dismembering, chopping off heads, hanging and burning? Not to mention the destruction of all those beautiful churches and the illuminated manuscripts. Did you know they used those gorgeous works for toilet paper? Turns my stomach. Ten centuries destroyed in one fell swoop, Ackroyd wrote, and I wanted to weep.

Why the fascination with the Tudors? Shame on us all. While the kind, caring rulers are gathering dust in their marble sarcophagi we’re lusting after the Tudors, because a hot little minx or three and a few messy beheadings make a good story, I suppose. Better we should forget the ulcerous old bastard and look to Elizabeth I. She had her own moments but she is a female role model, of sorts.

Because who needs a king? Not that one, that’s who.


elizabethiThis one, that’s who.


Back to the Bookers, sorry. I get prattling and things go awry, then I don’t feel like working on segues and here we are.

I knew I was off my game this year, as I told you in my last post. My prediction for either Jim Crace or NoViolet Bulawayo didn’t materialize but I had an unsettled feeling I wasn’t quite getting it. My intuition didn’t sense it as strongly this year. Something was off-kilter: my Karma or what-not. For so many years I’ve been nailing it. Not so 2013. Sigh.

I’ll get back to the Catton, with a dose of Melville and Ackroyd on the side. And, well, okay a dash of Joyce Carol Oates’s My Sister, My Love, my creepy pleasure of the moment. It’s based on the JonBenet Ramsey case, if you remember that child murder from years and years ago, about the beautiful six year old whose mother whored her up like a slutty Barbie doll, entering her in beauty pageants (do not start me on that rant). Still unsolved, unbelievably. And just now I read this article, from two days ago saying the slaying indictment, which was never prosecuted (?!), may be unsealed.

You can’t hear it but I’m making a disgusted sound at the thought of how wrong the world is right now, for JonBenet and so much else. Now my forehead’s hitting the desk. You can’t see my desk – THANK GOD – but it’s very 1990s and I want to burn it. The drawers tend to fall out when you open them. It’s an optional feature I chose. In another 100 years it will come back into style, complete with a charming patina of coffee cup rings and stray ink marks.

This would be it for this time but I didn’t direct you to my review of Nicholson Baker’s Traveling Sprinkler, published on the New York Journal of Books website. It’s a  little rambling but they took it, so phew! Relief making the deadline is all I can say. Strike that. I could say much more but I have to go start dinner. Plus, if you’ve read this far I feel badly on your behalf.

Now my work here is done, for this time. I’d meant just to talk about my Man Booker fiasco but then things got away from me. Woe is you!

Ta, loves. And keep reading.



Man Booker Shortlist 2013


And then there were six…


  • Eleanor Catton – New Zealand

  • Jhumpa Lahiri – UK/US

  • Colm Toíbín – Ireland

  • Ruth Ozecki – Canada/US

  • Jim Crace – UK

  • NoViolet Bulawayo – Zimbabwe




From The Telegraph:

The Books:

We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo

The only debut novel on the shortlist. The 31-year-old Zimbabwean author tells the story of Darling who lives in a shanty called Paradise.

Judges said: “In the course of our epic readathon we met many, many child narrators, an exhausting number of child narrators, but none stood out quite like Darling.”

The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton

New Zealander Catton, 27, is the youngest author on the shortlist. Her debut novel, The Rehearsal (2008), was longlisted for the Orange Prize.

The book features Walter Moody, who is drawn into a mystery when he attempts to make his fortune in New Zealand’s goldfields.

Judge Natalie Haynes, a classicist and critic, added: “When an 823-page book turns up in a parcel, a sinking sensation could occur to a person who is trying to read a book a day while doing the things that pay their mortgage, but within about six pages of the book I felt like I’d got into a bath.”

Harvest by Jim Crace

Hertfordshire-born Crace, 67, the oldest author on the shortlist, has been writing fiction since 1974. Quarantine (1997) was previously shortlisted for the Booker.

The book charts, over the course of seven days, the destruction of an English village and its way of life after a trio of outsiders put up camp on its borders.

Crace has said the book will be his last work of fiction.

Judges said Harvest continued to “haunt” them after months of reading, adding: “When you think about the eruption of strangers into this enclosed world, the resentment caused by these outsiders, you begin to get a glimpse of some of the troubling debates in modern life.”

The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri

London-born Lahiri, 46, lives in the US and holds UK and US citizenship. She has written four works of fiction including The Namesake, which was adapted into the film of the same name.

The Lowland, featuring the lives of two once inseparable children raised in Calcutta, is a novel about entangled family ties.

Judges said: “This is a novel about distance and separation … a novel about the impossibility of leaving certain kinds of past behind.”

A Tale For The Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

Canadian-American writer Ozeki, 57, was ordained as a Zen Buddhist priest in 2010 and is the author of three novels.

A Tale For The Time Being, which features cyberbullying and a 105-year-old Buddhist nun, centres around a mystery that unfolds when the protagonist, Ruth, discovers a Hello Kitty lunchbox washed up on the shore of her beach home.

Judges said: “It’s a Zen novel if such a thing is possible. It’s about dualities at every level – East to West, cruelty and kindness, forgetting and remembering, and releasing and enclosing.” The book is “incredibly clever, incredibly sweet and big-hearted”, they added.

The Testament Of Mary by Colm Toibin

Irish author Toibin, 58, is the author of five novels, including The Blackwater Lightship (1999) and The Master (2004), which were both shortlisted for the Booker.

“A woman from history (is) rendered now as fully human” in the book, which features Mary, “living in exile and fear, and trying to piece together the events that led to her son’s brutal death”.

Judges said the book was a “beautifully crafted, passionate story that most people think they already know”, which the author “turns into something wonderfully fresh and strange”.

Judges admired “the power of Mary’s voice” and said it was a short novel but one that “lives long in the memory” with a narrative that ranges over a lifetime in just over 100 pages.


My take:

I’ve read The Harvest and pronounce it positively masterful. It’s very dark and grim, a sepia-toned portrait of Medieval Britain and the conversion from an agrarian economy to the wool trade. Sound dull? Oh, no. The plot is menacing and riveting. More about the loss of livelihood of former serfs, narrated by one living amongst them but shunned for being born “outside,” it draws a picture of the basic inhumanity of man when faced with impending poverty and homelessness.

It is anything but dull.

I’ve reviewed the book, then interviewed Crace and was impressed with his candor and the cut of his jib. He says this is his last novel of his writing career. Read all his books to understand what a travesty this would be. A Booker win could change that. Part of me pulls very strongly for Crace.


I’m currently reading The Luminaries. It’s a sprawling, many-charactered novel set during the gold rush in Australia. It’s a HUGE tome and it’s difficult keeping the characters straight. Fortunately, Catton knows this and repeats who each one is, from what profession and how s/he relates to the story frequently enough the reader can rest a bit easier. It starts slowly but builds very well. Its Booker potential lies in its entertainment factor, partially. I’m finding parts of it funny, in a low-key way. It has the quality of being a sort of comedy of errors at times. And then there’s the mystery element, who killed whom for gold and how will the whole thing come together? In more than 800 pages.


Knopf/Random sent me a copy of The Lowlanders, bless them! Haven’t had a chance to even open the cover yet but I’m reading as fast as I can…

The others I don’t own but can remedy easily enough. Well, save the $ issue. Can’t take that lightly.


Remember how I said I wasn’t going to get sucked into the Booker race this year? I’ve been sucked into the Booker race this year. ‘Tis a pity she’s a book whore.

Particularly tight race this year. I’m torn between believing the committee wants Jim Crace to keep writing, and the quality of his book is stellar, but competition is fierce. I am pleased by the diversity, though, and happy to see writers of partial US citizenship in the running. Toíbín, The Telegraph fails to say, is currently Mellon Professor in the Department of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, right here in the U.S. So I’ll claim him, just a little.

The winner? Still leaning toward Crace. What can I say? But I’ll keep reading.