British author Jim Crace was struggling with a new book set in Austin. Then Austin came calling.
"The power of a tale is in the gaps and pauses."
– The Gift of Stones (1988)
More than 20 blessed years passed without incident between Jim Crace's bouts with writer's block. By the mid-Eighties, the longtime journalist was a "left-wing sort of tame poodle" for the Sunday Telegraph Magazine and Sunday Times Magazine in the United Kingdom. He had seen his short story "Annie, California Plates" published in The New Review and his trans-Atlantic stock rise in the eyes of literary agents. He received a book deal and livable advance, one that allowed him, at 40, to leave an increasingly unbearable career. But when he embarked on the book that would herald a rather more bearable career, he found that he could summon nothing. "It was hopeless," says a sweatered and wiry Crace today, crouched with coiled energy at a long table on the second floor of UT's James A. Michener Center for Writers. "Every sentence was appalling. I don't think I did more than 7,000 words."
He met with a similar situation 20 years later, after he decided to set in Austin what will be his 10th novel (title and release date TBD). While visiting his friend and contemporary James Hynes (The Lecturer's Tale) here for "too short a time" in 2006, Crace, the self-proclaimed craftsman of "very metaphorical, very moralistic, very rhythmic bourgeois literary fiction," was "completely out of my comfort zone. No invented landscapes, no chapterlong similes: a real town in a real country at a real time. It just wasn't going well. I hadn't researched it sufficiently."
Back in Birmingham, England, the author of such varied and revered novels as Quarantine (1997), Being Dead (1999), and The Devil's Larder (2001) would soon receive a providential correspondence. The Michener Center wanted him as a Distinguished Writer-in-Residence for a month, making him its first recipient of such an award at the school (see below). "It is," says the 62-year-old master amid research, mentoring sessions, and moviegoing, "so perfect."
The 40-year-old had no such luck. He was on his own. He was used to deadlines, but this was a different beast. Where those editors were menacing, these were lenient. This wasn't about column inches or even, ultimately, his career. This was about his calling. But the "political change-the-world novel" just wasn't coming. The occasional friendly phone calls were. More frequently. Less friendly. "I wasn't dealing with it," Crace says.
Austin Chronicle: And then?
Jim Crace: I lied myself into such a corner that they said, "Fine, we'll schedule it for next autumn." And I, at the time, was reviewing a novel by Gabriel García Márquez, a novel called In Evil Hour, not his best. But as part of the background, I read his great works. And I didn't love them. I admired them. I could see how brilliant they were. I could see this guy deserved the Nobel Prize, but it was like a magician seeing another magician work. There's no mystery. I thought: "This guy's not writing realist novels in the way that I'm trying to. He's not trying to tell the truth of the world as it is. He's just making stuff up." And making stuff up is what I would be doing when I was smoking dope or when I was down at the pub. I was always a bullshitter. I was always a storyteller. And I thought: "I could do this falling off a log. It wouldn't be hard." So I sat down, and I started writing Continent . And it came so quickly, and it came so effortlessly. I'd found my voice.
AC: I've read several interviews in which you refer to your novels as bourgeois and seem to treat fiction itself with a certain disdain. You've done as much already in this conversation. But as soon as I begin to wonder why you even bother with it, you become enthusiastic discussing it.
JC: Well, there's destructive disdain, and there's productive disdain. My disdain is just me striking an attitude. That's all I'm doing. I'm striking an attitude to try and stop me becoming a monster. The celebrity sense of writers is something which is very tempting. ... But the enthusiasm comes from the fact that it's such a natural activity, storytelling. And my spiel on this is that humankind is an ancient narrative animal. ... We have been telling stories for thousands upon thousands of years, and it clearly confers upon us an advantage. And that advantage is that it enables us to play out the future. To imagine the battle before it's fought. To imagine the argument before it's made. To work out the marriage proposal before it happens. And also to reconsider the past. ... Being someone that can be a storyteller seven days a week if I want to is still thrilling. Privately I'm thrilled with what I do, but publicly I hold it in disdain.
AC: That makes sense, and I appreciate your being honest with me about it.
JC: You don't know I'm being honest.
AC: That's true; I don't. Now might be a good time to ask where the audience comes in when you're telling these stories. Do you have an ideal reader in mind when you're writing?
JC: I don't have any sense of an audience when I'm writing. I don't consider the audience. Because all I'm interested in is the problem on the page. The very thought that I'll solve that particular problem within that particular sentence seems so remote that thinking of an audience at the end of it ... that's way ahead. That's thousands of years away. And then the very thought that I'm actually going to organize the book properly. Or that I'm going to finish the book. Or if I do finish the book that anyone's going to like it. Or if they do like it that they're going to publish it. Or if it's published anyone is going to review it. Or if it's reviewed anyone's going to buy it. Maybe that's why people constantly say that I kind of hold my readers, not in contempt, but I kind of surprise or disappoint my readers, whichever way you look at it. Because every book is a different book. Someone once said that with every new book I win a new audience and lose an old one. Lots of people hate my stuff.
AC: Can I ask after the idea behind the Austin novel in loose terms?
JC: It's about two kinds of heroism, two kinds of political heroism and personal heroism. Physical bravery and moral bravery. ... I wanted to investigate my naive wish to be physically and politically brave in that romantic sense that those people were in the Spanish Civil War. Or whether actually there's something to be said for the self-effacing, polite, cowardly liberalism, which we are trying to export all over the world, your country and my country, after we have the people coming along and flying airplanes into the twin towers and bombing the tube trains in London, young men who sacrificed their lives in the name of a creed. ... So, we have two heroes in this book. The American who comes from Austin, who is the activist. Attractive, great with women, brave, courageous in so many ways, but sort of murderous. And the Englishman, the main character in the book, who is morally courageous and is courageous in his private life but is cowardly in his public life. That's what it's about.
Crace will read on Thursday, Feb. 7, at 7:30pm at Avaya Auditorium on the UT campus (located at the southeast corner of Speedway and 24th Street). For more information, call 471-1601 or visit www.utexas.edu/academic/mcw.