How Jim Crace found inspiration from an encounter on the streets of Chennai

Crace has said he would hang up his pen - but is back for more. Alamy 

Jim Crace writes fiction which astounds and confounds. No two books are the same. Quarantine reimagined Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness while The Pesthouse visualised a post-apocalyptic America. Outcomes are allegorical; characters are archetypal. And then there are the hazy, fabricated or defamiliarised bearings: the seventh landform in Continent, “The Village” in Harvest, the multi-named city in Six. Readers are entertained, but at the same time kept on their toes – and occasionally left scratching their heads.

“My books are not leaflets in the way Steinbeck or Orwell would have done, in which it is quite clear what I’m saying,” Crace tells me on a sunny evening at the Cambridge Literary Festival. “They don’t tell you how to think. But I hope that by the end of them, they make you start to think. The best poets understand this. Their poems don’t close down in the last line, they open up.”

Finding inspiration

Crace’s latest novel, The Melody, offers no easy answers or tidy resolution. A compelling tale about music, lost love, persecution and dislocation, it follows ageing singer Alfred Busi as he recovers from an assault by an unknown creature and faces the prospect of an uncertain future. There is poverty, but also paranoia: Busi’s seaside town is plagued by hordes of feral “drain-urchins, bin-divers and guttersnipes” and the nearby forest, or bosk, may or may not be inhabited by “humanzees”.

Read more: Review: Finely crafted characters and curiosities define Jim Crace’s ‘The Melody’

Crace explains that the idea for the novel came to him while staying in “a swanky hotel” at the Chennai Literary Festival in India. One night he was woken by a noise outside. “The waste bins were being raided and knocked over by mammals. And those mammals were cats and dogs and humans.”

This view of “the real India” led him to re-engage with a perennial concern. “I’ve always been interested in how animal we are and how civilised we are. I wondered: does poverty reduce us to animals?”

After witnessing further poverty on the streets of Malta, Crace took what he saw in India and transferred it to an unnamed and slightly unreal European locale. It was crucial to maintain a fictional front.

“Because of our sensitivities about saying certain things about race, poverty, feminism, all of these things that matter in the world and need to be sorted out, sometimes it’s safer and better and more eloquent to deal with it in an invented world than in a real one. “The last thing the Indian novel needs,” he adds, “is a white colonial presence passing comment after a 10-day visit to Chennai.”

‘No novel can be free of autobiography’

When Crace started writing fiction he was aware that a lot of books “did a lot of harm to real places.” Books like Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness misrepresented Africa. “Just take the title. In brackets it means blackness, savagery, Africa. That’s the short-hand. And I was very self-conscious about not wanting to do that.”

Real places are changed or disguised in Crace’s novels, but what doesn’t appear at all are key autobiographical details. “Of course, no novel can be free of autobiography,” he says. “You can tell from my novels what my politics are, and that I’m interested in natural history. But my personal circumstances and relationships and marriage and children, none of those are going to show.”

I assume this is because Crace is private – which he has every right to be. “Well, actually, the word ‘secretive’ also applies,” he says. “I’m kind of defensive about those things in my writing and I think that’s because the part of me that was a journalist and the part of me that was brought up in a socialist household in North London is quite puritanical, and I’m ill at ease with what you may call the narcissistic trends of some fiction and nearly all poetry.”

It turns out there is another reason why Crace hasn’t channelled his own life into his work: it has, to date, been largely friction-free. “I had a happy childhood in which my parents never argued, never smacked me, never swore, loved me and got loved back. And I think that’s quite a good substrate to having an optimistic and happy life. But it’s the old cliché – happiness writes white.

“That kind of optimism, which is a little bit gooey, doesn’t really exist in my novels. The kind of optimism you get in my novels – and I hope they are optimistic in the end – is much harder won and always found in dark places.”

Resisting classification

Crace is stimulating company, and talks candidly and entertainingly about those aspects of his life that are not off limits: his teenage reading; his years spent canvassing for the Labour Party and taking part in demonstrations; his previous job as a feature journalist for The Sunday Times; and his switch to fiction and his big break as a novelist.

“This guy comes along and gives me an advance and says take your time, old boy, there’s no hurry. And so I took the money and took my time. Fortunately, though, I had the journalist’s discipline of ‘don’t mess around’.”

Crace is now 72 and still doesn’t mess around – he calls his novels “unembarrassedly serious” – but that’s not to say he doesn’t fool around. The Melody features not only an invented location, but also an invented epigraph and acknowledgements. “The fiction bleeds out of the book, almost on to the cover,” Crace says.

His work resists neat classification. In Being Dead, whose protagonists are a decomposing couple, he wrote movingly about “the ever-ending days” of death; but his next book, The Devil’s Larder (in which we get our first taste of Alfred Busi) was a collection of impish, food-related tales. How important to him is this wildly varied content?

“The Trojan horse is the sentence,” he replies. “Sentence structure and the beat of the sentence, the cadence, the timpani – this is much more important to me. I don’t nuance my sentences, I put meaning into them directly.

“‘Ring-a-ring o’ roses / A pocket full of posies / A-tishoo! A-tishoo! / We all fall down.’ The place of ‘down’ is, to me, the key drumbeat of the English language. I like those English thuds. It delivers the meaning and the power. Love it or hate – and there are both groups of people – that’s what rocks my boat when I’m writing a sentence.”

Reading the work of his counterparts

Like all writers, Crace finds time for reading – including books by authors who are on a different political wavelength. “I think that if you find a really right-wing creative writer who says appalling things and look at their works, the works will always be more progressive than the person.

“Philip Larkin, an absolutely appalling man, but a man of deep feeling on the page. Evelyn Waugh, an appalling man off the page who wrote that war trilogy which has great sodality and understanding in it. Even P G Wodehouse wrote something which was subversive to the class barrier. He underscored it, but also undermined it.”

As one of the judges for the Rathbones Folio Prize, Crace has been doing a lot of reading of late, whittling 60 titles down to a shortlist of eight. Refreshingly for a man of letters, he is keen to stress that reading isn’t everything.

“You need to have some kind of transcendence in your life and one is not necessarily superior to the other. It may be that you get to know landscapes through reading the landscape poets, or you may never read a poet in your life, but do a lot of walking. And who’s to say which is the better experience?”

In 2013, Crace announced that he was hanging up his pen. “It’s not like I was giving up the ghost and climbing into a long wooden box,” he explains. “There were plenty of others things I wanted to do.”

One was leaving Birmingham, his home for more than 40 years, and relocating to the Worcestershire countryside. With a string of critically acclaimed novels behind him, Crace could justifiably have called it a day – and, after Harvest garnered rave reviews and made the Booker Prize shortlist, gone out on a high.

Why then the change of heart? I ask. “Essentially, the barrel was empty,” Crace confesses.

“And you cannot scrape an empty barrel. But it filled up. And,” he adds, with a definite glint in his eye, “it’s now filling up again.”