‘Storytelling is not a new-age- thing’

British author Jim Crace on telling convincing lies and his advice to writers

Updated: February 1, 2014 7:35 pm

What’s common to sprayhoppers, the poet Mondazy, the philosopher Pycletius, tarbony trees and Boulevard Liqueur? They’re all just figments of Jim Crace’s extremely active imagination. The 68-year-old award winning writer of completely invented worlds, known to his readers as “Craceland”, takes great delight in conning his readers, who are flummoxed when they Google names, animals and places from most of his 11 novels, only to find that they don’t exist. But his fantastical plots are not to be mistaken as frivolous: Crace is deadly serious when he writes “convincing lies” about communities in the Stone Age, in the Judean desert, during the Industrial Revolution, and wants to be believed when he’s writing about food, sex and the smell of smoke in the English countryside. In between sessions at the 2014 Jaipur Literature Festival, Crace paused to chat about flying a kite in Craceland and telling a few fibs. Excerpts:

You said once that the process of writing, for you, is one of “abandonment”. What do you mean by that?
Imagine that you are a small child, going to the top of a hill with a kite. You have to know how to unwrap the kite, how to pull the strings, to loop the loop and write your name in the sky. But the kite does not fly without the wind. It’s a mixture of control and abandonment. The writer has to take his or her control to the word processor; in my case, I have to be prepared to abandon myself to the wind of narrative.

You also said once that storytelling is about telling convincing lies. What is the most troublesome part of having to navigate through the world of Craceland? Telling lies convincingly?
For me, telling lies is not a problem. Honestly (laughs). Look at the stories from the Hindu epics, with all the animals and creatures with four arms… We know that it is not zoology. Invention, in good literature, is the Trojan horse through which we smuggle in ideas. So there’s realism, which holds a mirror up to the world, and there’s the kind of writing that I do, which is traditional and ancient to humankind, where we don’t hold a mirror up to the world, but present fantasies. And fantasies are powerful.

But your books are very realistic and so are the worlds your characters inhabit.
Yes, because you don’t want people to think I’m only joking. You want people to take it deadly seriously. In a mischievous way, I want to fool people. In Being Dead, one of the main characters was a creature called Sprayhopper that lived in the spray on the beach, and fed on the spray. No such creature exists. Now they’re making a film on this book, and the American producer called me up and wanted to know where he could film Sprayhoppers. I love that because it means that something which doesn’t exist has become tangible. The opening quotation in Continent is from an invented character, Pycletius. You will find an entry about Pycletius in the Oxford Dictionary of Contemporary Literature, because people believe he exists. So telling convincing lies that everyone believes is much more fun than telling obvious lies.

Do you draw up a map for your make-believe world?
I just take the kite to the hilltop. I know that sounds terribly pretentious, but it’s actually scientific. The point I’m making is that one shouldn’t be airy-fairy, new age-y about writing fiction. It’s a human attribute, it’s a part of our consciousness, human beings have these special abilities that set them apart from other animals. Our sense of death, our knowledge of the past, our imagining of the future, our narrative abilities, our ability to laugh, the ability to speak in different languages, all of these attributes are scientific and Darwinist-based. So when I say that storytelling is a natural thing and not a new age-y thing, I mean that in the sense of the natural history of things. We’ve evolved the ability to tell stories because it confers upon us an advantage and it enables us to plan for the future, to relive the past, to think of what argument we’re going to have with our husband or wife before we have it, to experience death before death comes, or divorce, or any of those bad things.
So if you trust narrative, you don’t need to make decisions before you start writing. I just turn up at the top of the hill with my kite, and I wait. But then of course, you must remember, that I’m pulling strings, and then gradually, it gets better, you find that the wind’s lifted. And then it’s wonderful. I don’t like starting, I don’t like the walk up the hill.

You’ve called yourself an “outrospective writer”, not an introspective one. Does no part of your life feature in your narratives? Is that possible?
No, it’s not possible. But you can consider that there are writers, for example, Jane Austen, RK Narayan — you can see the life that they led, the villages they visited, the classes they mixed with, the countryside and the nations they came from, in their writing. I’m not very obviously autobiographical like that, partly because I’ve had a very happy life and happiness doesn’t lend itself to literature. But you can’t hide yourself completely from a book. If you read my books, you’ll know that I’m Left wing, that I love natural history. If you were in a pub with me, I’d drive you mad, I’d be like some North Korean activist. My novels aren’t like that, and you can tell. They show themselves in different ways as well. When I wrote Six, or Genesis as it’s called in America, which is a book about sex, and procreation and children… it was supposed to be a joyful book… a light book, but it turned out to be very dark. Why? Because when I was writing it, my mother was dying and I was her sole carer and they were very ugly two years. And there’s no way you can hide that. When I was writing Being Dead, I was in a very good place, and in a happy mood, and that book about death was an optimistic book. So your life will seep through, it will stain the page.

Would you call yourself a reluctant nove-list? You’ve said that you’d rather be play-ing tennis than writing, and you began wri-ting a little later than was expected of you.
I was a writer, I was a journalist. Human beings aren’t just one narrow set of things, and we talked about abandonment and control as opposites. I’m not trying to make a world theory out of it, but I have two opposite parts of my character. I’m very subversive, and I’m very open-hearted in many ways. But I’ve got a very strong puritanical streak, which made me want to change the world tomorrow, made me become a journalist. The self-indulgent, mischievous, playful streak, then allowed me to become a novelist. But the puritanical streak was the stronger streak, and, in a way, I would have liked to stay a journalist all my life. It was a great lifestyle, I travelled all over the world, I changed my subject matter every three weeks, a dilettante person like me likes it, I felt useful. I felt like I was engaging in political debate. So I never imagined that if I turned to write novels, I’d become as lucky as I have been.

You’ve written plays for the BBC, short stories and novels. Was the transition from one form to another a seamless one or were there any hurdles?
Yes, seamless. You can worry about all sorts of things if you decide to worry about the form. You just have to get on with it. My best advice to writers is to remember that no one needs your book. No one needs my book, there are plenty of books in the bookshop. If I don’t write another novel, it won’t matter. You’re only doing it because you want to, you volunteered. Do it privately, get on with it. Don’t waste time looking at a blank screen — write badly and then improve and improve and improve. There’s nothing to be frightened of, except your own prevarication.

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