Renowned novelist Jim Crace whose book Harvest was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2013 talks about imaginary literary landscapes and his ability to cross borders of cultures — rural, urban, natural — with humour while touching on something profound. He will be in Chennai next week to participate in The Hindu Lit for Life.

In 1912, Covent Garden was G.B. Shaw’s central location in Pygmalion for the unsuspecting Eliza Doolittle’s sighting. Professor Higgins’s and Col. Pickering’s well intended wager of social experimentation on making Cockney Eliza learn to speak English, turns into an unforeseen cocktail about gender (“Why can't a woman be more like a man?”), and class; its appropriation at risk, with the possibility of love (in the screenplay My Fair Lady). When Higgins refined Eliza's English, the vestige of love he really felt was drawn from her gritty Cockney origins that upturned a whole social order.

In 2013, the social and intellectual dilemma of the English literary location is landscape. In the hands of Jim Crace, it takes on a grittier texture and a multi-tonal skyline. Landscape in his novels appears as natural inheritance predating history, territory as settlement and enclosure, and as metaphor. These are among the strokes that he crafts to make sound portraits of an independent and impartial character.

Crace's Continent won the 1986 First Novel Award and the Guardian Fiction Prize. Being Dead won the 2001 National Book Critics Circle Award and will soon be released as a major film. He has also won the E.M Forster Award and the GAP International Prize for Literature. He was shortlisted twice for the Man Booker Prize — for Quarantine in 1998 and for Harvest in 2013.

His latest work, Harvest, brings Crace to Chennai to participate in The Hindu’s Lit for Life and present The Hindu Prize for Fiction on January 13 before he heads north for the Jaipur Literature Festival.

Covent Garden at the centre of London's commercial cultural quarter may seem an unlikely location to meet Jim, who is a champion of the city of Birmingham — the real powerhouse of the industrial revolution — where he was Founder Director of the Birmingham Readers & Writers Literature Festival (1990-1996). Jim brought literary recognition to the ‘second city’ that now hosts the world’s state-of-the-art contemporary Library of Birmingham (2013) twinned with the Birmingham Repertory Theatre, where Quarantine was adapted for the theatre. London seemed remote yet the perfect neutral canvas while talking to Jim and his inventions of literary landscape; his dexterity to cross borders of cultures — rural, urban, natural — with humour while touching on something profound.

All your novels are anchored and rooted in landscape set in indeterminate yet recognisable historical time. Is there a theory that inspires and influences your work?

A writer does things for reasons that they could not express themselves. Stuff happens intuitively. So I haven’t got a theory about that, which I’ve had to force onto my novels like forcing a diet on a fat relative. Although what I do have is a landscape sensibility, which sounds very phoney. All my life I have loved walking; I’ve loved the solace that you get out of the natural world. If I’m an amateur expert on anything, it’s not literature; if it’s in anything, it is natural history.

So those are the things have driven my interest, in a selfish way, all my life. So when that happens and you spend a lot of time out in the landscape, you are bound to get more out it than just names of birds, identifying trees, and enjoying the exercise... You start to see all sorts of levels of philosophies about the way in which humankind is attached to the land in deep and important ways. We shouldn’t be surprised by that. If you were to say that about any creature in the world, any other animal — say a zebra is very much part of its landscape — you'd think ‘yeah that’s bleeding obvious, that’s not worth saying’.

But civilisation and evolution has somehow separated humankind from the land. Of course I don’t necessarily mean rural land, it could be urban land; might only be — in the case of Britons, English people — the patch of land at the back of the houses. However, we take a lot of solace and a lot of meaning from the land.

So almost without me intending to, and without any great plan to do so, when I started writing fiction, landscape and walking started bubbling to the surface. In all my books they are built around a walk of one kind or another. In Quarantine, there’s a walk up into the hills and back. In every book there’s one kind of walk. You’ll find the natural world in the form of creatures and plants; you'll also find landscape. But because I’m not writing non-fiction; this is not a record of the real world. Fiction demands that you use things in a metaphorical way. So to answer your question, almost by default, and without planning it, landscape has muscled its way into all of my books. It has become a stand-alone character.

If you were to remember my novels, you might remember the setting, more than the people themselves and that's just something I'm stuck with. If you are lucky as a writer, you find your voice. There are a lot of writers around who think they are baritones when they were basses. They sing and sing baritone but they never produce great work; but they've got beautiful voices, they are just singing in the wrong voice. I was fortunate that early on in my career that I found my voice. My voice was that of a landscape imaginative writer of invented worlds in invented times rather than a realist writer.

Being Dead, for me, was a novel of interconnectivity between science (microbiology) and human nature (the arts); in some ways, a sort of Puranic novel, although set in ‘Baritone bay’ about the living nature of death.

It’s a form of the Towers of Silence where the bodies are not offered up to the vultures through any ghoulish reasons. In fact the opposite. As I understand it, there's a sense of continuity; the life that is lost is continued through the vultures that will live on and integrate with the world.

The metaphor has incredible reach, and the metaphor of death in the natural world predates modern science. Modern science understands the perpetuity of cells. There is this whole proven theory: There is nothing new in the universe. The number of cells that were at the beginning is the number of cells that there still will be. The cells that make us human beings are used to make up something else in the universe. It's some kind of a comfort. Not much of a comfort. Those cells that make you will continue to make something else, whether it be a piece of stone, a piece of bread. It is a cycle.

Your writing and subject matter enters very dark places and your characters are not squeamish of their dark thoughts. Does landscape act as a lever?

Dark places. People think because my books all visit dark places I’m a deeply pessimistic person. The opposite is true. You know I’m a very optimistic person. But what is the value of optimism found in easy places? What I want to do is to go to dark places and see humankind in its worst moments, yet still find the narrative of comfort and of optimism there. The optimism there is rock hard. I know that sounds very portentous.

My optimism comes from dark places; that's the strongest kind of optimism you can get. The beggar in the ghetto, if he or she can be optimistic that is wonderful optimism. But if the millionaire in his big house is optimistic; that's no big deal, nobody cares, it doesn't say anything of the world.

In Harvest, while your novel is set in an indeterminate yet historical past you are also shaping a commentary on our contemporary condition. It reflects the migration of communities globally. It is set in the Midlands; a record of dispossession in a time when farming land was being enclosed for rearing sheep. It also reflects a seismic time of change for its non-literate characters: “Any hawk looking down on the orchard’s cloistered square, hoping for the titbit of a beetle or a mouse, would see… the saltire of two crossing paths worn smooth by centuries of feet, and two grey heads, swirling in a lover’s dance, like blown seed husks caught up in an impish and exacting wind and with no telling when or where they’ll come to ground again.”

I start a book with a subject matter. In the case of Harvest, the subject matter was: how we want to hold to the places that we call our own, and how we want to leave them. Also how people want to come to the places that we call our own and how we resent them.

When you get the subject matter, you don’t have a setting, characters or plot. I don’t need them. That’s a pretentious thing to say. I don't need them. Because Narrative is ancient — people have been telling stories for thousands of years before the printed word came out. And if Narrative is ancient, it knows a lot. It is wise, it is mischievous, and it is generous.

The generosity of narrative is really important; it has survived because it confers upon us several advantages, otherwise it will have died out. That is how it has survived. You can come to it with an idea in mind. If it is generous it will give you characters, plot and setting. I am very happy to turn up at the desk and see them sitting on the page almost un-summoned, almost organic rather than something that’s imposed. Narrative is very playful. You don’t let yourself go. You are like a boy flying a kite. You are aware the kite doesn’t fly at all without the wind. Mixture of control and abandonment — it’s a trick you’ve got to get the right proportions for both and each of them. Trying to get it right is what is exciting. You probably never get it right. But you’ve got to keep trying.

The vocabulary and words are my picture and my musicHow do you convince people about the truth of a place that doesn’t exist? It’s not a novel about a recognisable place. The characters have never existed. You can’t say it looks and tastes like this. You’re making it up. How do you persuade people that it’s real? It’s not about having the information. It’s about having the vocabulary to fool everybody — it’s the trick to fiction. I invent words. I turn nouns into verbs and play all sorts of trickery. Vocabulary is the key, not research. The idea is for me to sound supremely confident. Each word is a pigment of this picture if I can carry off the pretence. Then you can fool the reader that this world you invented, which has no more substance of steam, is rock solid.

It’s the ear for words — that’s the oral tradition. The spoken word by nature is melodic, not the written word. I can hear the rhythms and words of our sentences. How do you vary the length of your sentences to get that mother or her sleeping boy in the audience from falling off to sleep?

Your landscapes are also maps of social commentary, the past and the zeitgeist. How does it all come together?

These things don’t belong only to books, they belong to life. You don’t have to be a writer. You can just walk on the beach and stand and listen to the sea dragging the shingle off the beach to get a great sense of your own smallness in relation to the vast ocean to half intuit and remember all the creation myths to do with the sea and get a sense of your own mortality. The seashore does that for all of us. The sense in which the dragging off of the shingle is the dragging off of the minutes away from your life. We are not being phoney; we feel them.

Equally you don’t have to be a writer — when you reach the top of the hill on your walk on a Sunday afternoon — to hear something saying to you that is nearer to your idea of god — I don’t believe in gods. You’re among the heavens. All this has power and meaning. My novels are unembarrassed about those things. The archetypal things belong in landscape, which are rivers, mountain tops, the seashores, deserts — the list is longer than that — you and I can and everyone else can assign to each of those kinds of landscape a shared meaning — a universality of meaning that will be the same in Chennai as it is in Birmingham, where I come from. When I write my stories it’s that old oral tradition that I am calling upon.

Jim Crace is a panelist at The Hindu Lit for Life 2014 and the Chief Guest at the award ceremony of The Hindu Prize for fiction 2013.

Dates: January 11, 12 & 13, 2014

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