An interview with Jim Crace

10 June 2015

Jim Crace is the prize-winning author of numerous books, including Continent (winner of the 1986 Whitbread First Novel Award and the Guardian Fiction Prize), Quarantine (winner of the 1998 Whitbread Novel of the Year and shortlisted for the Booker Prize) and most recently the Booker shortlisted Harvest. In Quarantine, which is now published as a Picador Classic, Crace’s provocative retelling of Jesus' forty days in the desert, five travellers venture into the Judean wilderness in search of redemption. Instead, amidst the barren rocks, they are met by a dangerous man, Musa, and fall under his dark influence.

What was the last thing you wrote in your notebook?

We’ve recently returned from the island of Jura, so the last entries in my notebook were my Jura bird list (hen harriers, great northern divers, mergansers, eider duck, shore lark, etc, in case you were wondering) and a quote from George Orwell (who wrote 1984 on Jura): “Narcissism is a normal motive of novelists…and it is an unusual novel that does not contain somewhere or other a portrait of the author, thinly disguised as hero, saint or martyr.”

Where in the world do you find yourself returning to and why?

Two places: St Martin’s on the Isles of Scilly (my favourite beauty spot) and Austin, Texas (my favorite city.)

Tell us your favourite poem.

Kubla Khan by Coleridge, and all the mythologies around it. I don’t accept for a moment that it’s only a fragment, its composition interrupted by the man from Porlock. For me, it’s an entirely organic and perfectly shaped piece which would not benefit from the addition of a single extra word.

What are you currently obsessed with?

Obsessed? Obsessed suggests a troubling preoccupation. So my only current obsession is the torn ligament in my right ankle which is stopping me walking, cycling and playing tennis.

What are you going to read next?

Orwell biographies.

Which writing do you find yourself returning to and why?

Stuff I fell in love with when I was a teenager. I’m often embarrassed by the books I used to admire. Why was I so consumed by Jack Kerouac, Henry Miller, D. H. Lawrence and Jean Genet in those days? But there are other works that pass the test of reencounter: I never tire of Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, T. H. White’s The Goshawk and R. L. Stevenson’s Travels with a Donkey or anything by George Eliot.

What happens to us when we die?

Bone and compost – a soothing and organic fate.

Send us a picture of yourself at the time the book was published. Tell us what that year was like.

Jim Crace

Quarantine was written in 1996 when I was fifty. The manuscript was finished during our annual visit to St Martin’s. The photo shows me on the way to the uninhabited island of Samson, looking a bit anxious. Was I worried about the book or the sudden squall that, later that day, almost sank the boat? (You might notice that I don’t have a life jacket.)

Which other author would you most like to have for dinner and why?

Could I have T.H. White, Coleridge and R. L. Stevenson? They’d hate each other, and there’d be a lot of coughing. But I’d get to thank them personally for the wisdom and the joy they have provided.

Print or ebook?

Print, of course. You can’t throw ebooks across the room.

What’s your favourite film?

Sometimes, depending on my mood, it’s Casablanca; sometimes it’s The Third Man; and sometimes it’s Robert Altman’s Nashville. Early loves again.

And your favourite music or music genre?

Nothing makes me happier than sitting in the front row at a contemporary jazz concert witnessing musicians taking risks, and sometimes regretting it.

What's your strongest childhood memory?

Bleeding from the knee into my blue wellington boot, when I was about three years old.

Tell us the first thing you do in the morning.

Tea, Radio 4.

And the last thing you do at night.

Tea, Radio 4.

One book you wish you had written.

Calvino’s Invisible Cities.

Something you would want on a desert island.

I’d be okay. I don’t mind isolation – writers can’t – and I have enough survival skills to make a shelter and feed myself. I might even enjoy it for a day or so. But I’d need BBC Radio 4.

What continues to inspire you?

Inspiration is hard to come by at the moment. I’m struggling to write – but I’m well past retirement age so don’t have to produce another book unless I truly want to. I am inspired, though, by the garden of our cottage. This is only our second season here and it is irresistible.

Tell us something most people don’t know.

I would never do that. Secrecy is one of my leading impulses.

What was your greatest piece of luck?

Being born after the war, in 1946, in a country relatively free from famine and natural disasters and with parents whom I loved.

What advice would you give your 15 or 20 year old self?

Be kinder.

If your collection of books was ravaged by a fire and you could save only one, what would it be, and why?

It would be my tattered copy of Roget’s Thesaurus, the Everyman edition which my father bought me in 1955 when I was nine. It has never been out of reach since then.

What’s the worst or most unusual job you’ve had?

This questionnaire comes close.

>>READ THE OPENING OF QUARANTINE

Quarantine

The Picador Classic edition of Quarantine is introduced by Stuart Evers

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