Email questionnaire submitted before Jim Crace’s appearance at Cambridge Literary Festival, April 4th, 2014:
- You began your career writing scripts for children’s television – which programmes?
That’s only sort-of true. It’s Wikipedia true – and Wikipedia says I was born in St Albans (I wasn’t) and I have two brothers called Graham and Oscar (I don’t). After finishing my degree I went to the Sudan as a volunteer with VSO and there, in Khartoum, I worked in Sudanese Educational Television, writing scripts and producing programmes. I even acted in some of them. But my British writing career was kicked off by a couple of years writing freelance scripts for BBC Radio 4, not television. My first script, Peter’s First Ramadan, in about 1971, was inspired by my Sudanese experience.
- My teenage son is a reluctant reader of fiction. How do I get him reading?
Seriously? Leave him alone. He’s a teenager; he should be out and about. Anyway, I bet he reads and writes a lot more than you did at his age, what with emails, texts, Facebook and Twitter. To my eye, today’s teenagers are permanently reading or writing. I wish they’d look up once in a while.
- How much historical research did you do for Harvest?
Hardly any at all – apart from walking for forty years (though not without a break) in the West Midlands where the ridge and furrow fields of Harvest are found in such abundance. I didn’t need to research because I wasn’t writing an historical novel which accurately mirrored something real from the past; I was instead writing a parable about contemporary issues, about land-seizure, xenophobia, and scapegoating.
- For a novel set in a particular time and place, do you agonise over the authenticity of your characters’ speech?
Well, Harvest isn’t set in a particular time or place, as all the critics have noticed. It’s set in what they call Craceland, their lame pun on Graceland, Elvis Presley’s theme-park home in Tennessee. So there was no agony for me. I just had fun inventing stuff. But I invented it with an eye on likelihood so that the reader, I hope, is convinced by its seeming veracity rather than startled by its oddity.
- The average UK novelist earns less than £10,000 a year. Did you put your kids off writing as a career?
Offspring do their own things. You either encourage them or alienate them. We have one son, Tom, who is a very talented artist and sculptor but he has chosen instead to immerse himself in natural history, botany and gardening. And our daughter, Lauren, always wanted to be an actress and is one. These days it’s no greater a risk to chose art, theatre, music or writing for your career than to chose banking, say, or accountancy or the law. Is there such a thing as a safe profession, or a job for life? Sometimes I suspect there’s just study, debt and unemployment for the coming graduate generation.
- Growing up, which particular novels inspired you to become a writer?
I loved the atlas more than any book – the romance of place names, the pattern of coastlines, the imaginary journeys that you could embark on from the safety of the family sofa. The only novel that punched all my buttons was Robinson Crusoe.
- Who are your favourite novelists writing today?
I read more landscape and natural history books than novels – and my particular nerdish passion is any biography of Shakespeare. A contemporary British novelist? This year -and rather late in the day- I started reading everything by Justin Cartwright. It’s been a joy. He manages to turn out perfect, measured, packed sentences while still being playful and audacious. Next in line is Nicola Barker. But I don’t read for pleasure as much as I’d like as I’m constantly being asked to blurb forthcoming books. It’s time consuming and a curse. I’m too puritanical and far too compliant to say No.
- Winning Yale’s Windham Campbell Prize ($150,000) in March must have been like winning the lottery. You write that the Prize has given you “the independence and the confidence to take on [more fiction] free from everyday pressures.” Is the romantic idea of the starving writer producing great art in his garret room dead?
No. The romantic idea survives and flourishes. But my suspicion is that the starving writer in his garret is more the product of novels than the writer of them. As to the prize? It’s a farcical windfall, of course, but it won’t and can’t make the writing of my next book -if there is one- any easier or harder. It makes life easier, obviously.
- Does hardship and suffering produce better writing than comfort and ease?
Yes, it does, it must. Without a brutal war you have no Tolstoy or Pat Barker, without savage slavery you have no Toni Morrison, without homophobia you have no Alan Hollinghurst, or Armistead Maupin, without sexism…. Well, you get what I’m saying. It’s bleak. The most powerful fiction wants to visit dark places and take on important issues. The best you can say about a book is not that it sold by the van-load but that it changed the ways its readers think.