‘Words are my picture and my music’

January 05, 2014 12:00 am | Updated May 13, 2016 07:13 am IST

Renowned novelist Jim Crace whosebook Harvest was shortlisted for theMan Booker Prize 2013 talks to VAYU NAIDU 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.

This year marks the centenary of World War I. Remembering a past naturally heightens our awareness of own dilemma about location and identity in the present. Enter the English literary location: Landscape. In the hands of Jim Crace, landscape 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 resulting in sound portraits of an independent and impartial character.

Harvest , his latest work, 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, London’s commercial cultural quarter, may seem an unlikely location to meet Jim, a champion of the city of Birmingham, the real powerhouse of the Industrial Revolution. He lived there for 40 years, brought it literary recognition with national and international awards for his fiction since 1986, and was the founder and director of the Birmingham Festival of Readers and Writers. London seemed remote, yet the perfect neutral canvas while talking to Jim about his inventions of literary landscape and his ability to cross borders of cultures — rural, urban, natural — with humour while touching on something profound.

Do you have a landscape theory?

Stuff happens intuitively. So I haven’t got a theory that 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. I’ve loved the solace that you get out of the natural world.

When you spend a lot of time out in the landscape you get more out of 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. Civilisation and evolution have somehow separated humankind from the land.

When I started writing fiction, landscape and walking started bubbling to the surface. In Quarantine, there’s a walk up into the hills and back, and in every book there’s one kind of walk. You’ll find the natural world in the form of creatures and plants and you’ll also find landscape.

But I’m not writing 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. 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 and the living nature of death. In some ways, a sort of Puranic novel, although it’s set in “Baritone bay”…

It’s a form of the Towers of Silence where bodies are not offered up to the vultures for ghoulish reasons. It is, in fact, the opposite. As I understand it, there’s a sense of continuity; the life that is lost is continued through the vultures. The vultures, I don’t know, 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. What makes us human beings are what used to make up something else in the universe. It’s some kind of a comfort. Not much of a comfort. The same atoms will continue to make something else, whether it is a piece of stone, a piece of bread. It is a cycle.

Your subject matter enters very dark places. Neither the character in the novels nor your readers can be squeamish. What brings that about?

People think that 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 go to dark places and see humankind in its worst moments, yet still find the narrative of comfort and optimism there.

The optimism you find there is rock hard. If the beggar in the ghetto can be optimistic, that is wonderful optimism. But if the millionaire in his or her big house is optimistic, that’s no big deal. My optimism comes from dark places; that’s the strongest kind of optimism you can get.

Harvest reflects the migration of communities globally and an emotionally seismic time of change.

The characters in all my books are the last things to come. I start a book with a subject matter. In the case of Harvest, the subject matter was how we want to hold on to the places that we call our own, and how we want to leave them. And 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 to have a setting, characters or a plot. I don’t need them. Because Narrative is ancient and it knows a lot. It is wise, it is mischievous, and it is generous.

The generosity of narrative is really important because it confers upon us several advantages. You can come to it with an idea in mind. If it is generous it will give you characters and plot and setting. Narrative itself will offer you characters and 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 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.

The key for me is vocabulary, not research. Words are my picture and my music. It's the trick to fiction. I invent words. I turn nouns into verbs and play all sorts of trickery. The spoken word by nature is melodic, not the written word. I can hear the rhythms and words of our sentences. Each word is a pigment of this picture. Then you can fool the reader that this world you invented, which has no more substance of steam, is rock solid.

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 remember all of the creation myths to do with the sea and get a sense of your own mortality.

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. When I write my stories it’s that old oral tradition that I am calling upon.

The characters in all my books are the last things to come. I start a book with a subject matter... Narrative itself will offer you characters and 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.

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