Jim Crace is struggling. Not with words – they flow out like exhalations of breath: effortlessly and without pause. The British author, whom A. S. Byatt describes as “the most significant writer of English fiction in the last 10 years,” is struggling not to be “hubristic” – his word, a fancy one at that, for meaning that he doesn’t want to seem too full of himself.
Crace is like his name – direct and blunt, a clean stab of opinion. By his instruction, I have met him beside the large Antony Gormley sculpture, Iron: Man – a rusty figure that juts out of the ground like a missile – in the heart of Birmingham, where Crace has lived for almost 40 years. He wants to show me the landscape of the city – an eclectic mix of architecture and sculpture that “pushes all my buttons,” he says.
I watch him approach: a small, balding man of 67 years whose casual outward appearance in a bulky winter jacket belies the fierce imagination that allowed him to complete his latest book, Harvest – which was shortlisted for the prestigious Man Booker Prize last year – in less than six months.
Within seconds, it’s apparent that his intelligence is both generous and judgmental. He has a tendency to squint at you with his small, piercing eyes, taking you in – who you are, what you think, what you know, what you ask. (Later, he told me that he can tell just by looking at people on a train “where they holiday and what their attitude to red meat is.”) He is one of those people whose clever brain is a burden as much as a gift. Moving through the world with a superior processing machine makes it awfully hard to be easygoing and nice.
“Where I belong is traditional storytelling,” he instructs me at one point. “If you read the fables, Beowulf, for example, you will know something about the person who writes them, and I like that. Secondly, they will not be about individuals; they will be about community. Thirdly, they’re all about moralizing. Fourthly, the way they express themselves takes its tone from the oral tradition. It is musical. It is percussive. It’s not conversational and dead on the page.” He pauses here to pin me with his gaze, perhaps to ensure that I’m getting his point. “So that’s where you get my rhythmic prose from,” he concludes.
We spend an hour, walking and talking, through Victoria Square, where the Gormley sculpture stands at odds with classical statues; past the modernist Birmingham Central Library, which Prince Charles once said looks like “a place where books are incinerated, not kept;” past the Cube, a contemporary mixed-use development; along the canals, which make that part of the city look like a Venetian mistake.
“I want to live in a city where the future is being mapped out,” he tells me, launching into a rapid-fire explanation. “And it’s happening in Birmingham. … There is racism here; there is bad town planning; there is noise here, brutalism here; there is the class/wealth divide – all those things that need to be tackled to make the world better.”
Born into a working-class family in north London, he and his two siblings lived in a one-bedroom unit of a housing project with their parents. His late father, who suffered from osteomyelitis (inflammation of the bone), had “no education at all,” he tells me. Crace wants to stay true to the working-class culture of his youth, partly because its importance and its narrative have lost a place in modern society that is forever “aspirational” – a word he spits out like a piece of stale gum.
It’s a precarious balance, this championing of working-class life while living a high-brow one. Crace attended university in Birmingham, where he studied literature; worked for the BBC, writing educational programs; and spent 10 years as a columnist for The Sunday Times. Still, the distinction feels as frail as a point in an argument that tries to refute the obvious. And so I call him on it, which serves – thankfully – to knock him off his podium.
That pivotal moment – which all revealing interviews have – happened late in our three-hour meeting, when he was driving me to look at the “ridge and furrow,” an undulation of the landscape caused by medieval farming practices, which was part of the inspiration for Harvest, a story of a community’s transition. In the 16th and 17th centuries, landowners forced enclosure of their open fields, bringing an end to an ancient system of individual farmers tilling a patch of common land with plows and oxen; it was a time of great, often violent change.
I ask if he feels he’s repairing the world a bit with his novels, which are often set in an unspecified time and place of the past (“Craceland” some critics call it), telling a story with themes relevant to the present.