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.
"I believe that 100 per cent," he says. "But I am very nervous about making that public. In the U.K., a lot of writers won't show up to support activist issues because they figure they're already repairing the world. I don't want to be one of those people." I point out that for someone who talks about not wanting to be elitist, he is engaged in an act – novel-writing – that is exactly that: exclusive and, in his case, award-winning. He's in a small club of excellence. "It's a bit hypocritical," I observe.
At the wheel of his car, he turns his eyes away from the road to me, slightly taken aback. "Or ambiguous." He pauses, this time out of a sudden lack of words. "No, not ambiguous," he corrects himself. "What's that other word?"
"Duplicitous?" I suggest.
He laughs ruefully and shifts his eyes to me again. "You're only coming up with nasty words. Come up with a nice one, for goodness' sake."
He pauses again. "Contradictory?" he wonders.
"Paradoxical," I counter.
"Paradox. That's the word!" He slaps the steering wheel and offers me a winning smile of uneven teeth. "Paradoxes are nice," he says.
And then, as if set free from his own practised script, he begins to talk about his work in the way a master craftsman might describe building a beautiful house. It is a job. It is necessary. It is important. He had quit journalism because, "I felt something very human in me was being repressed." He wanted freedom from an adherence to fact; the chance to explore the magic of narrative.
He doesn't do much research. "Narrative has been part of human consciousness for a long time. And if it has played a part in all those thousands of years, it will know a trick or two. It will be wise. It will be mischievous. It will be helpful. It will be generous."
Only once did it fail him, he confesses. Before Harvest, his 11th novel, he worked for a good part of a year on a book, Archipelago, "a Gulliver's Travels kind of discovery to the places in the world we all go to find the people we have loved and lost." He wrote 40,000 words, and then abandoned it.
"For the first time in my life, I didn't want to see the word processor. I hated getting up in the morning. I didn't want to read those terrible, pretentious sentences."
The work was pretentious? "It was. It was," he says, shaking his head, as if the admission comes as a relief. "It was striving for something it wasn't delivering. So I was anxious. I was anxious for hubristic reasons. I thought my mojo had gone."
He had debts, he says. Having sold the book in the U.S. and Britain, he had lived off the advance. The delivery date was six months away. "And I had no book."
To distract him, his wife suggested they go to London, to see a watercolour exhibition at Tate Britain. Out the window of the train, he noticed the ridge and furrow of the landscape. "It is beautiful," he remembers thinking, "but it actually tells the story of dispossession." On the way back home, he was reading an article in The Guardian about soya barons in South America expropriating land. "Dispossession," he thought, "is one of the building blocks of human history."
"So, in one day, the narrative that had been so ungenerous flooded in," he says. Told in the voice of Walter Thirsk, a member of the farming community who is losing his way of life as the lord of the manor decides to enclose his fields to raise sheep, Harvest is a stunning ode to place that exemplifies what John Updike called Crace's "hallucinatory skill."
Close to the due date for the previous, failed novel, he delivered a finished manuscript. "It just fell on the page." At first, [novels] are like pushing a boulder up a hill, which gradually turns into a helium balloon that takes you up without effort. But from the start, this story was a helium balloon."
He looks at me, this time lifting his eyebrows in wonder. His bombast is his protection, his armour, perhaps. Without doubt, he is "hubristic," despite his efforts not to be. At one point, he told me that he never has, "self-doubt. I didn't expect anything other than success." His first novel, Continent, in 1986, "won three prizes in three weeks."
But half the time, he makes statements and spouts opinions as if to convince himself of them, not just me. He is walking a tightrope of the imagination, hoping to get to the other side. He just doesn't want to say that, lest he falter. Which, in a way, explains his love of Birmingham's odd mix of styles, and why he wanted to show it to me. It is striving, this city, trying to find its voice and how it wants to be. "It is a city that isn't sure what it is. It looses its nerve." It is, then, a reminder of how not to fail oneself.