British writer Jim Crace gave up his career as a journalist and turned to writing fiction in 1974. Since then, he has published six novels, which include Continent (1986), The Gift of Stones (1988), Arcadia (1992), Signals of Distress (1995), Quarantine (1998) and Being Dead (2000). His work has won numerous awards, including Britain’s Whitbread Prize (twice) and The E.M. Forster Award, and has been short-listed for The Booker Prize. Being Dead was given the National Book Critics Circle Award in 2001.
Jim Crace’s fiction has been translated into over twenty languages and The Devil’s Larder, a book of short fictions about “food, appetite and the objects of our desire” will be published in October, 2001. Crace is also the founder and former director of the Birmingham Festival of Readers and Writers. He lives with his family in Birmingham, England.
Robert Birnbaum: You were a journalist…
Jim Crace: I was a journalist for sixteen years. Still miss it, in fact.
RB: Totally given it up?
RB: No one asks you to do magazine pieces?
JC: They do. I usually say no. Unfortunately, there’s a young writer named John Crace, who is a distant cousin of mine. I think we have to go back to 1757 — actually we do go back to 1757 — to have a common ancestor. However, there is only one Crace family. He writes for the Guardian and several places, and twice in the last six months they’ve attributed his articles to me. Because — I don’t know if it was wishful thinking — or because the people would know my name and immediately the phone is ringing off the hook, “Oh you started doing journalism. We love the piece you did. Will you do some stuff for us?” I don’t want to do it really. I fell out of love with — I was one of the victims of Murdoch’s grip on the Sunday Times and so I got disenchanted. But I miss it! Because journalism is more important that fiction, I think.
RB: Are there any smart magazines in Britain?
JC: Cultural matters or political? We have good newspapers in Britain. We have this tradition of not having local newspapers; we have a lot of national newspapers and that’s something that America doesn’t have. Although I guess the New York Times is becoming the national paper.
RB: USA Today? Wall Street Journal?
JC: USA Today is a thin experience. It’s well done, but it’s a little, skinny paper. Yeah, we have a lot of broadsheet papers that sometimes are quite good. The people who work for these papers, the jockeys who are writing the stuff, you can trust them. It’s always management which is crap. The Guardian is very good in Britain. The [London] Times can be good, the content can be good, but the editorial is always garbage.
RB: What about magazines. Does Tattler mean anything?
JC: No, Tattler‘s crap. It reads for toffs; it’s a class record for the middle class…
RB: Is Punch still being published?
JC: Yes, and it’s owned by Mohammed Fayed. It’s rubbish also. The New Statesman still comes out. It has left-of-field commentary…
RB: What about more contemporary magazines? The Face…
JC: The Face used to be a wonderful magazine. You would think about in the same terms as Rolling Stone — it was a contentious, argumentative magazine when it first started coming out. Now it’s part of the establishment. The same is true of the Face. The world of newspapers and magazines in Britain is not exciting at the moment. There is not a good cultural commentary magazine. But we have such good radio and such good television that you don’t feel as if there is nowhere that you can turn. There are plenty of places you can turn if you are interested in ideas.
RB: How prevalent is personal computer use?
JC: Lot of PCs, but we are not as computer literate as the States, and we are not as knowledgeable about the Internet, but it’s happening…my kids know it, they know exactly what they want to do and how to get on to stuff. I call them if I need some access and they always have the information.
RB: I sense a backlash among supposedly savvy types toward new media…
JC: I feel antipathy towards e-mail. The reason is…
RB: …it’s intrusive…
JC: …it’s not intrusive. That’s the problem. This is my objection: I lead this lonely life, the writer’s life. No one calls. You know the story. I like it when my editor calls. Because I don’t want to be an awkward writer worrying and fidgeting all the time, I wait ’til he calls. And then he when he calls on the telephone I can say, “Oh and by the way, Tony, I was a little bit concerned that the books aren’t getting out.” And you make your point and you are not an awkward character. Now, of course, he knows I have e-mail, and he never calls. And, I get e-mail. And you can’t then just slip in something. When he sends the e-mail it comes distorted. The way it’s spread is wrong, and so physically it’s not pleasing. He doesn’t even say, “Dear Jim” at the top. It’s not just him, it’s everybody. Even if he signs his name at the bottom, it’s not his signature, it’s just a typed version. And so what is for me an important contact, has become something completely lacking in personality. And I don’t like that.
RB: Not to mention the onslaught of bad grammar, spelling and thoughtlessness…some people write better than they type.
JM: I was watching some adverts on the TV in the States and it occurred to me that the whole iconography of the keyboard has changed. In the old adverts there would be the man standing at the shoulder of the woman, the secretary, typing on the old-fashioned typewriter and he was dictating or he was the boss looking down her blouse, that was the iconography. Now, you look at the adverts on the TV and it’s the husband going into MCAMortgage.com or whatever it is and it’s the wife standing at the shoulder. And what’s happened is that keyboard has become an instrument of power and therefore the man has to have it. It’s weird isn’t it?
RB: I reviewed our conversation when we talked, upon the publication of Quarantine. I asked you what you were working on and you said at the time, “it was slow going and you were having some difficulty.” I assume you were working on Being Dead.
RB: You apparently resolved the difficulties. How hard was it to write Being Dead?
JC: Well, in a way I didn’t resolve that particular difficulty. What people think is interesting about fiction — and they are certainly right to some extent — is the way books mirror the writer. Literature departments at universities are based on that premise, as indeed is writing literary biography. They think that you can find the writer within the book and the book within the writer and if there is a lot of adultery in the book it’s in the life. And to certain extent that’s true. What always has interested me is the way that books are different from the writers. When I write a book I always look for that moment where the book abandons me and starts to express a view of its own. So with Quarantine, which abandoned me very very early, we have a book written by an atheist — a North Korean style, heavy-duty atheist — which is me. Which actually turns out not to be a very atheistic book at all. In fact, from my mail it seems that people who are Christians find it underscores their religion rather than undermines it. So this whole business of being abandoned by a book is something that I seek. And when the book does abandon me, it’s then that it’s easy to write. So it just stretches ahead under its own volition. When I was talking to you about Being Dead, it hadn’t abandoned me yet. It wasn’t going its own way, it wasn’t expressing its own point of view. The truth of the matter is that book never abandoned me. In a way the book is too personal and too heartfelt actually to have a view of its own. And maybe what I was saying was — as a naturally secretive person — I was finding it difficult revealing myself so thoroughly as I have done in that book. Whether that shows to the reader or not, I don’t know, but that was why the book was hard to write.
RB: One review suggested that Being Dead was a very Christian book, also.
JC: Yeah, bizarre. It’s clearly not a very Christian book. This denies the existence of anything after death. Mind you Christians do that all the time these days. What do Christians believe in? They have agreed evolution is there, that God is only a metaphor, so maybe they don’t believe in the afterlife either?
RB: When a story abandons you, is it because a narrator or character starts to act in ways you haven’t ‘predicted’? In Being Dead, the characters didn’t appear to have that opportunity.
JC: Actually it was much more personal than that. You are right, what you are saying. What I realized was happening was that this was a book that comes out of my own father’s death. That’s the truth of the matter. My dad died in 1979, a long time ago. But we buried him so badly — he was an atheist. Three generations of atheism is where I come from. When he was dying of cancer, only 67, a young man, he said, “I want nobody at the funeral. I want no flowers. I want no hymns. Certainly, nothing to do with church or no announcement. Nothing in the newspapers. I want no eulogies. I don’t even want you to scatter my ashes.” He was a man, not without sentiment but a man without sentimentality. He would have turned in his grave if we had done any of those things. Like fools we went ahead and buried him like that. And the hearse came to the house and me and my mum and my brother went along. No guests, nobody to say farewell to this unique life. He was a curmudgeonly, difficult, awkward man, but he was a great man, my father. And we should have paid some attention to his greatness and ignored him [his post humous requests]. Because after all, if you are an atheist, you know he isn’t going to turn in his grave. He’s not going to experience this stuff. You should do what you want for yourself. But, of course, we did it wrongly. We didn’t even take his ashes to his allotment garden and throw them on the soil, which would have been a sentimental thing to do, but it would have been the appropriate thing to do. Wish I had done it. Since then there hasn’t been a day that’s passed that I haven’t regretted that. When I was writing Quarantine — on the subject of religion — of course even though that was a less atheistic book than me and at the end of the book I was no less of an atheist as I was when I started. Nevertheless I had to think about my own religion a lot in writing a book like that. I recognized even though religion and atheism had lots of things in common, there were several things they didn’t have in common. Most of those things I wasn’t jealous of. For example, their descriptions of the way the natural world comes about. Six days of creation, one day of rest… LUDICROUS! How does that compare with the wonderful narratives of the natural world of science? Doesn’t compare at all! Also this business of intervention, for example. Religions believe that God can intercede. If you’ve got cancer, you can ask for it to be cured. If you haven’t got rain for your crops, God can intercede. I didn’t believe in that and I didn’t want that. But there is one thing they had, I recognized, that I was jealous of… and that is that they had a ritual to deal with death. And they had false narratives of comfort. They don’t think they are false, but they are false narratives of comfort. But whether they are false or not is not the point. The comfort works. This is really a haunting thing for me. I realized what I really wanted to do in writing Being Dead is to see if…
RB: May I interrupt? It seems to me if you define comfort in the way you suggest, then how is it false?
JC: No, the narratives are false, the comfort is real. The narrative says to you, “You are not dead; you have merely gone into another room where you will find everlasting peace and harmony.” BULLSHIT! But it’s comforting. That’s what stories are for, they are there very often to comfort. So, what I wanted to do was to find a false narrative of comfort in a world without gods. A narrative of comfort for atheists. It struck me that my atheism, my father’s atheism for certain, was too bleak. This is what I was looking for in the book: Could I come up with a narrative of comfort in the face of death, which is you end up with that book. And which why it didn’t abandon me because my father was standing at my shoulder the whole time. That’s why it was a more personal book.
RB: What was the challenge of writing this novel?
JC: I was grappling with the book, and it wasn’t coming easy. I didn’t know what direction it was going. I realized that if there was any comfort to be had from this life — which ends completely when we die — and there is nothing else, it was the years that we had lived. That was the comfort. Because it’s worth having. Even though when you die it’s finally…you’re out of it, being here is worth it. And if you are very lucky, you do have a kind of immortality, of a sort. For a while afterwards you’ve got your kids and you’ve got the people that loved you and the few memories that kind of live on. It struck me that there could only be retrospect which validated life. Once I recognized that, that it wasn’t prospect that validated because there was no prospect. There is no hope. There is no ever-after eternity. Once I realized it was retrospect, then the idea came to me that I should tell a strand of the story in retrospect. So then rather than the book, the story unfolding, which is what normally happens in fiction where you have people who are their least exposed becoming more vulnerable and more exposed as stories goes on — which is where the phrase ‘unfolding’ comes from. I would take my characters at their most exposed, at their most thoroughly vulnerable — they’re dead — and enfold them. Take them back to a place of safety and that place of safety could only somewhere earlier in their life. Once that occurred to me, the structure of the book came very clear. To some extent this book became an easier book to write. Structurally it did, but it was still a hard companion. I don’t usually talk in these terms, but this book made me ill. Really! That’s the truth of the matter. It was a hard hard companion.
RB: You still have a little fun. I don’t believe that there is a grass hopper that lives in the diesel engines of Latin American vehicles.
JC: Not only that. Not only does that not exist, but the main insect of the book does not exist. The marine cricket doesn’t exist. No, I invent those things. It’s fun.
RB: That is one of the treats one encounters in reading your work. You had interesting observation about sex and death, “Where there is sex there is death, the dark coordinates of one straight line.”
JC: Did I say that?
RB: You did say that, yeah.
JC: Sure. You know that’s true. I mean procreation…
RB: I feel as though if read this book ten years ago and read it ten years hence that it wouldn’t be the same book. There is something strikingly amorphous — there seems not to be a settled personal meaning here. Most people don’t spend much time ruminating on death and they probably accept the conventions. Only in mourning do most people really consider death…
JC: It hasn’t made me think about my own death. It wasn’t a morbid experience. That’s not what I’m saying. And you’re quite right, well-managed people don’t spend their time thinking about death. In fact, the logic of the world — given we are once of the few creatures with a wide and deep consciousness and an ability to understand that it doesn’t last forever. You’d think we’d be thinking about it all the time? That there would be nothing else for people of our age as that dark day comes closer. The extraordinary thing is that somehow we are hard-wired to fear it less the closer we get to it. So my mum, who is eighty-eight, doesn’t fear it at all. We only fear untimely death. Maybe you’re right, maybe …this kind of sentimental atheism that I’ve got for example, wouldn’t have existed ten years ago and probably won’t exist in ten years time. What it is, is a reaction to the fact that science has taken religion and given it such a good shaking… that there is just no room for religion for anybody with any brains now. That’s not enough for me. I want some transcendence in my life. And I want some mysticism in my life, and I want some spirituality in my life. But there is no room in my life for God. It’s that time in history that this book has come out of.
RB: Any thoughts about spiritual types, like the Dalai Lama?
JC: My eyebrow is knit with cynicism. I really am a dyed-in-the-wool God-denier. The things to admire about him are his politics and his determination and strength of character, but his belief in God is ludicrous. The only reason that I am not an evangelical atheist — going around and shaking the God out of people — is that I recognize belief in God is quite a good emotional and personal strategy, it delivers a decent cultural morality if that’s what you want. Thirdly, it’s probably an inherited trait. Some people have the God gene and some people don’t. We know that there is a God gene. We know where it resides. Karen Armstrong, the ex-nun, told me she used to have visions. She was looked at by the other nuns as the nun that had visions. But she was so troubled by the visions that she had a mental breakdown and she left the sorority that she was a member of and decided, finally, that she would have to have some mental health treatment. She goes on to a psychiatrist and the psychiatrist does tests on her. And he says, “Have you ever had visions?” She says, “Oh boy have I ever had visions!” And he said, “You will have visions, you’re an epileptic.” She had no idea she was an epileptic. He gave her some pills to cure her low-level epilepsy and she has never had a vision since. What she discovered was that the part of the brain which controls epilepsy is adjacent to the part of the brain identified as the God gene. There will be scientific explanations why people believe in God. So there is absolutely no point in being an evangelical atheist because people are hardwired to believe what they want to believe anyway. But it comes down to science every time. Not one single time — this is my tub-thumping thing — not once when knowledge is expanded has that knowledge secured the existence of God. It’s always undermined the existence of God. Every single piece of scientific and natural history knowledge that has happened in the last 500 years has undermined God and not underscored God. The existence of God is almost beyond debate.
RB: A scientific attempt to prove God is contradictory.
JC: That’s the great thing, of course, because the religious believers don’t give a shit that science doesn’t believe in God. In fact they rather like it because it increases the leap of faith they must have to believe in God.
RB: Faith has place in our lives, somehow. It’s sufficiently encompassing to allow us to do and to explain any number of things. I avoid discussing religion, but I did try to read a book by a writer I respect and appreciate — Three Gospel by Reynolds Price. I tried to read it because I think he is a great writer. But as good a writer as he is, I couldn’t get interested.
JC: Is he quite a religious man?
RB: Perhaps he became more religious after his brain cancer.
JC: Right, he walks with a stick, doesn’t he?
RB: He is confined to a wheel chair. But he is quite lucid and has totally recovered but for the loss of the use of his legs. He is a religious man.
JC: He is a good writer, you’re right. He’s a very good writer.
RB: I was hoping to find a pathway to thinking about religion in a fresh way. But I couldn’t. I must not have the God gene.
JC: Did you read the Mailer book, Gospel According to The Son?
RB: The last thing I read by Norman Mailer was Harlot’s Ghost. I don’t know if I will ever be able to read anything new by him again.
JC: He’s done his best stuff. He’s got God of course. He’s married this woman who is Pentecostal or something.
RB: We strayed from the subject of sex and death…
JC: Yeah. Well I don’t mean it in a John Donne sense, that when you have an orgasm it’s a little death. That’s been done to death as a cliched metaphor. I just meant that there’s a direct biological line between procreation — the moment that the sperm hits the egg is the moment that you are condemned to death. That in itself is a terrible terrible cliche. It’s the big cliche, isn’t it? That envelopes us from all of our conscious lives.
RB: You do make the point that only uni-celled animals live forever.
JC: That’s weird though isn’t it? The whole idea of the single animal that reproduces by binary fission… It’s ancient, it’s million of years old…unchanged for millions of years.
RB: How will we define death when we allow cloning to augment people? Are we the last generation that will face death? In the future failed organs will simply be replaced with cloned cells…
JC: That will be the most awful tyranny won’t it?
RB: You say that now.
JC: We do, but God give me that tyranny. But it will be tyranny.
RB: I’m reminded of Tim Findley’s novel Pilgrim, in which the character can’t die though he regularly tries to kill himself. You finished this book a year ago, I suspect that you are on to a new book. And I suspect that the new book is nothing at all like Being Dead.
JC: It’s not. It’s certainly not. Whenever I would go into my publisher’s offices to describe my next book…as soon as I said what it was about, no one would look at me. They would all be looking at the backs of their hands. They would all be studying the clock on the wall. They would all be picking bits of fluff off their knees. When I went in to tell them about Arcadia, that it was about town planning and green grocery, they looked pretty upset. Then I go in and tell them about Quarantine, a novel about Jesus and his forty days in the desert. A novel about Jesus, no one is going to buy this thing. And then I tell them about Being Dead, even the title kind of horrifies them. On this next book they are looking me in the eye, at last. Maybe it’s a bad sign, maybe I should stop.
RB: Or they believe that you have a solid audience?
JC: They sold hundreds of thousands of Quarantine. They’re selling hundreds of thousands of Being Dead. So, they’re happy on that score. No, what it is I have decided that I can’t have another hard companion with the next book. I want to do something playful for me. Although, if I can get away from it being a dark book, I don’t know. Quarantine was quite a hard companion as well, even though it abandoned me at that stage. The next book I am writing is very playful, it’s called The Devil’s Larder. The quotation that introduces it — and I invent everything including the epigrams — is from that non-existent famous book of the Bible, Visitations, Chapter IV, verse 3, “There are no bitter fruits in Heaven nor is there honey in the Devil’s larder.” What this book does — it’s a hundred part fiction — so I’m not sure whether it’s a novel or what. But it goes into the Devil’s larder and takes the hundred different foods that are in the larder and makes fictions out of them. In the same way that Calvino makes fictions out of different towns in Invisible Cities or Primo Levi makes fictions of all the items in the periodic table from his book Periodic Table. So they are a hundred short fictions about food. Not about cooking, not about eating and not about restaurants and not about taste. It’s the last taboo subject that not enough people deal with in literature. Food is a subject so central to our sense of selves: our mortality, the shapes of our bodies, our intimate relationship with our own insides. Sexuality, all of those things…this thing is a cumulative book about food and it’s very playful and it’s a lot of fun and it’s very dark also. I have to admit it’s dark, I can’t stop my books being dark. I’m enjoying doing it, for once. I almost go to it eagerly. Maybe it’s because I’m writing little short pieces.
RB: You don’t strike me as someone who has a dark vision of life. You seem very buoyant and upbeat and enthusiastic and warm. Where does the darkness come from?
JC: (laughs) Umm. You ask that question and I’m going to risk sounding really pretentious, but self-analysis is always a bit pretentious so you are going to have to put up with that stuff. I’m a very serious person.(laughs) I’m unforgivingingly political. I’m very, very dogmatic.
RB: You have used the adjective "North Korean" a couple of times…
JC: I’m completely uncompromising on political and other matters. And I my personal demeanor is probably an extension of my arrogance. Maybe. Because I am so certain of myself I don’t have to be head-up unpleasant with people and argue with people. I don’t have to worry that people have a different view from me. I don’t have to respond aggressively because I hold their opinion in contempt. Maybe?
RB: What’s dark about…The Devil’s Larder?
JC: You mean my book? Because they are only dark in the sense that those two books are dark. But they are not pessimistic. I’m a very optimistic person. And my optimism is not brewed out of easy stories like the optimism of Christianity is brewed out of an easy story: be optimistic about death because it doesn’t happen; you have eternity forever after. My optimism says — it’s a greater optimism I believe — when you die you are like road kill. Your dead body is like meat, you will be eaten by flies, there is nothing to find joy in an everlasting judgement. It’s not going to happen. But nevertheless in that dark setting there is still an optimistic story to be found. I want to face up to the horrors of the world…
RB: In Being Dead you suggest in last chapter that had the bodies not been recovered that the dunes would have buried the bodies and thereby they would have joined Nature…
JC: But you see…there is a future. And there is hope for the Universe because for the Universe all of these cells — which are me and you — get taken back and recycled. But there is no hope and there is no future for me and you. The Universe has the hope and the future, we don’t…so the darkness is the fact there is nothing in that for us. From that darkness I feel kind of a joy. Face up to the hard facts of the world, don’t hide behind the skirts of easy stories. And somehow you feel empowered and the adrenaline runs. And you know you have three score years and ten. I’m 55 and there are 15 of those years left. Let’s make mayhem because there is no judgement day and it’s gonna be too late when you go and you can’t take any of it with you. So that’s what I mean. Maybe dark isn’t the word because in the end I am optimistic. My books are more serious than I seem. And that’s the way it is because books aren’t mirrors to human beings. Writers aren’t like their books. You meet David Lodge who writes comic novels and when you meet him he is deadly serious the whole time. Jonathan Coe, nice man, writes very serious novels, you meet him, you never get a joke out of him…he’s dead dead serious. I have enough seriousness in my life to want to be very heavy when I meet socially.
RB: Do you reread your writing?
JC: No, never. I don’t ever have a reader’s experience of my books. I don’t know how they appear to people. Some one coming to it fresh…like you read it finished…I never read it finished. When I think back on the opening chapter, I remember the twelve versions, I don’t remember the one version. And I can’t remember which one ended up.
RB: Do you listen to the audio version…
JC: No, I did listen to Quarantine when it was abridged on the radio. That was interesting because they cut it down to a fifth of its [original] length. And it worked just as well. So I thought, “What a long-winded bastard you are. You could have written a short story.” It was really good I was so moved by it.
RB: Well, it’s just another story. That is, the abridged version is very much another story. Don’t you think so?
JC: Well, how do I know as I never have a reader’s experience? I don’t know what I am missing. At the moment in England there is a stage version of Quarantine. I went to a preview. It was like I was encountering my book for the first time because it had been lassoed by an other art form and presented in a different shape. I enjoyed it. Just like it wasn’t mine.
RB: Can you see a film version being made of Being Dead?
JC: I am waiting to hear. The filmmaker that wants to make it says he wouldn’t have to touch it. It’s already defined in filmic pieces. It’s shaped like a film is how he sees it. The several strands constantly going back to each other.
RB: Could this film be made in the USA?
JC: You know what happened with Quarantine? We had a film script written by the novelist Patrick McGrath and the actress Maria Aitken. And they did a good job. They put the script around and finally they got some hot interest from one of the biggest studios, Sony. But they couldn’t get the project bankrolled unless they agreed to reset the Judean desert of 2000 years ago as a 21st-century survivalist camp in the USA. I quite liked the sound of the idea. I have no pride. But it was their script, they’d done the work, they had integrity, so they refused…
RB: There is the story of Richard Wright being offered $50,000 by MGM to make the protagonist in Native Son white.
JC: It’s not even a joke, because it has happened. In The Subterraneans, a movie based on a Jack Kerouac book, which is about a white poet falling in love with a black woman. One of the first novels in which was there not only cross-race sex but there was a serious intellectual black woman. When they made the film, the black woman was played by Leslie Carron. Not very black, I don’t think. When they were doing the stage version of Quarantine and they wanted to involve me, I said, “Don’t involve me, I’m not interested. Get on with it. Take liberties.” They said, “What do you mean?” I said, "The fewer liberties you take, the more worried I’ll be.” You shouldn’t want to know what I think. You should have your own vision of what you want to do. No point in wanting to be protective about your own book. The book is not going to be changed by the film or whatever it is they do. The book is still there.
RB: Why hasn’t this argument — book vs. movie — been put to bed long ago? The VHS or DVD is different than the movie and the audio tape is different than the book and so on…
JC: And every reader’s version so…it’s not worth getting harassed about.
RB: There are still writers who claim that they want the integrity of their story to be sustained.
JC: Yeah, yeah. These are people who are passionate about literature, and I am not really passionate about literature.
RB: I noticed that in the past you have remarked about its unimportance. Storytelling is very important.
JC: Storytelling is important…ah, um everybody’s life. How do we get girlfriends, how are we successful socially? How do we get the job? We all know very well what we feel like when the guy that can’t tell stories comes into the bar. You’re not making eye contact with the because you’ll say, “How was your holiday in Spain?” He’s gonna tell you and you’re gonna die. Of course, storytelling is important. But it’s not been invented by novelists. It’s not novelists that need a narrative sense to their life. Of course, that’s true. But narrative in the 21st century is not coming from literary fiction. Narrative is mostly coming off the TV screen. And narrative is mostly coming off the cinema screen and the narratives reported in newspapers. You know that is more important with their million sellers. I say I’m selling well, but how does my literary fiction sell compared to newspapers? And all the people that read my stuff are clones of me. They are not changing anybody’s hearts and minds.
RB: I do know that that’s true?
JC: I’ll bet, most of the people that read my stuff are like minds to me. Maybe not Quarantine.
RB: I just don’t accept that. If you were a radical historian, I’d say you were writing for the choir. But a novelist has so many places to go, you never know. The hope and the beauty of reading contemporary fiction is that you don’t know where the story will end up.
JC: Well, that’s true but even if even if it were true that novels were really important and changed the hearts and minds of people and set new agendas, it’s very important for the writer to pretend that it isn’t true.
RB: Actually, I wasn’t arguing that they are important…but I think you’re right.
JC: Because otherwise you’ll end up like Salman [Rushdie], who is a brave man. I don’t criticize his life — standing up to the fatwah. Would that we all had that courage but his fiction, his relationship to his fiction is destroyed by his overwhelming sense that it’s of earth-shattering importance. If he were to think it wasn’t of importance, maybe he would just luxuriate in the thing itself. And you know how many writers are like that?
RB: I’m sure attitudes about the writing life and self-consciousness about it have shifted…and that there are those that like the perks more than doing they like doing the work.
JC: I’m one of those. That’s me, there’s no question.
RB: But you are doing the work. Fran Liebowitz, who occupies a place in Manhattan, at least, as a cultural commentator has been writing a novel for 15 years or so…
JC: There’s a few like that. Harold Brodkey, he did it for ever and ever and it never happened.
RB: It’s a hard way to go. I don’t know why people would choose to do it anyway.
JC: Even though I complain about it and wish I didn’t have to do it, it comes easy to me. So you do what comes easy. You play the hand that you’ve been dealt. If you are lucky enough that the hand you’ve been dealt is one that’s valued by other people that is really good fortune, isn’t it?
RB: You are a more prominent writer internationally now. What does that do for you?
JC: I see gradually that things are changing. I did a reading in New York and there were huge ques. And it’s the first time. I felt something has changed here. It changed like that about five years ago in England. Of course, that is immensely gratifying and of course that’s what you’ve always wanted, I’m not the sort of ingrate that’s going to say, “Don’t want this. No, no. Enough, I’m only signing five books or I won’t sign books at all.” That’s not the way I am at all. Nevertheless if I tell the truth, nothing is ever enough. I remember when my first book, Continent, came out, thinking, “I’m going just to be happy even if it doesn’t sell a copy. I’m just going to be happy to have a copy between my hands to show my mum. And she will say, ‘Wouldn’t my Dad have been proud if he had lived to see this day?’” And that’s all I wanted. But as more things happened I wanted more. And it sold in France and it made money in America. And the next book comes out and it gets good reviews. I want more good reviews and I want better hotels and this is the trouble with this thing. It’s a heroin addiction. That last hit…you can never replicate the last hit, you’ve always gotta improve on the last hit. So when my editor phones up and says, “Jim, great news. We just sold rights in Bosnia.” I don’t say, “Great, that’s really good news.” I say, “Yes, so what’s happening in Slovenia?” And it’s a terrible thing. You have to have eternal vigilance because that kind of dissatisfaction ruins a lot of writers. I’m just as bad as the rest of them but I’m being vigilant about it. Which has maybe to do with this good humor you are describing, maybe it’s not totally genuine. Maybe it’s me being good-humored for me, to tell me that I’m not turning into the monster that I fear that I’m almost turning into, all the time. One extra corner and I could be a monster. So this is what it’s all about. Keep charming, keep cheerful because people won’t think you’re the monster you really are (chuckles).
RB: How much have you outlined what your “last” fifteen years will be about?
JC: All of my ambitions are domestic ambitions. I ought to be saying that I want to write the great Spirit-of-the-Age novel.
RB: It’s just like you not to say ‘zeitgeist‘…
JC: I’m not going to say it. I never know how to say it. I never know how to pronounce it and I get it wrong and I’m not quite sure what it means. But actually that comes immediately to mind has to — when the kids are off my hands — I’d like to maybe leave Birmingham. I’ve been there a long time and I’m wedded to the politics of Birmingham. I’d like to make a garden, is what I’d like to do. I’m a very keen gardener. I’d like to take up some of these offers to live abroad. I think what I’m looking for is adventure. My parents’ generation thought the adventures had to be over in their twenties. My generation recognizes that when the children leave home and you are sixty, it’s still not too late. And that’s what I want, some adventures. It might be a funny sort of adventure to have a garden but even that can be an adventure. I want to do something not to do with books. I’d love to not write anymore books. That would be… good. I’d love to be so successful I didn’t have to write anymore.
RB: That seems to go against the literary conventional wisdom that writers have to write.
JC: I can stop writing. I write because I can, not because I have to. But when I stop writing I’m not going to stop being a liar. I’m still going to tell stories and I’m still going to bullshit people. Cuz, I’m always teasing people. So that’s not going to change, but I’m a little weary of bloody writing books.
All fotos by Red Diaz / Duende Publishing.