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Book Talk: Jim Crace says last novel a generous gift

TOKYO, Feb 14 (Reuters) - According to author Jim Crace, his latest book will be his last novel. But "Harvest" came about largely by chance, and wouldn't exist at all if a work in progress hadn't failed.
/ Source: Reuters

TOKYO, Feb 14 (Reuters) - According to author Jim Crace, his latest book will be his last novel. But "Harvest" came about largely by chance, and wouldn't exist at all if a work in progress hadn't failed.

Inspired by a painting and a train trip he took in frustration soon after deciding to abandon roughly 100 pages of a novel that just didn't work, "Harvest" is an elegiac look at an English village that has a jarring collision with progress.

Crace, 67, says that the just-published book ultimately came together in six months and was something of a gift that nearly unfolded in front of him on the page.

A former journalist, Crace spoke with Reuters about how he works and his career, which spans 10 previous novels that have won numerous awards, including the Whitbread Novel of the Year.

Q: The book itself came as a gift and you said the writing process was so much quicker. What was different about it?

A: "First of all, I'm a kind of puritanical person where work is concerned and I was determined that I was going to dig myself out of this hole and deliver on time. So I worked extra hard, that's part of the story. But also I think that sometimes it's a mistake for a writer not to write to their strengths, which is what I had been doing. That writing a novel such as 'Harvest' was writing to my strengths. Because I'm a walker, natural history is my subject, I've always been obsessed with landscape, and I have an elegiac tone in most of my books.

"This is very dangerous to say, but the book sort of fell onto the page. When I start a book - this is true of all of my books - I don't have a plot, and I don't have characters. I want them to develop and offer themselves up as this thing progresses. Sometimes that can take time, and sometimes you can do down some cul-de-sacs and have to return. In the case of 'Harvest,' that didn't happen. So if this is going to be my last novel, it's going to be a novel I'm going to look back on and say it was a generous novel to me. Some novels aren't generous to the writer, and some are."

Q: Many of your books are underlined by quite large themes - in "Quarantine" for example, Jesus's time in the desert. But if you don't start with a plot or characters, how do you weave this all together?

A: "Humankind has been telling stories forever and will be telling stories forever. While we're having all these debates about how the book is being destroyed by the Kindle, we have to remember that narrative will not be affected at all, because it's part of our makeup as a creature on this planet. Because narrative has been with us for thousands and thousands of years, it knows a hell of a lot, and it's generous.

"So if you can position yourself in relation to all of the habits that narrative already has, if you can position yourself with a good theme, then - and this is the spooky, New Agey thing I'm going to say - narrative itself will offer you storylines, and it will offer you characters.

"I remember with 'Quarantine' for example, when I started writing I knew what the themes were, they were how do people behave when they're on the edge ... I knew I was going to set it in Jesus's caves - but Jesus was not going to be a character in that book. Why would he be? I'm an atheist, a good old North Korean style atheist. I was going to give him one line only, to give it a kind of historical provenance as to what the people were doing in the caves. And I remember very clearly that day when I sat down and started to write and starting off with the line that Jesus came and he was a Nazarene - I forget what the line was - but by the end of that day, Jesus had taken over the chapter. He hadn't taken over the chapter, as some religious people have said to me, because the Son of God was standing over me guiding my pen, he'd taken over that chapter because the imp of storytelling realized that this was a great opportunity. And of course having taken over the chapter, he kind of takes over the book. That's the way it works."

Q: The setting in many of your works is both real and unreal. Why do you do this?

A: "On a simple level, and this is too easy an explanation, I suppose it started with 'Continent.'... I wanted to set this thing in a place where I could invent things but I wouldn't be doing a disservice to a real place. Secondly, literature up until the 19th century always invented places. If you look at the traditional stories of the world, from the Anansi legends in Nigeria to the puppet plays in Indonesia to the Greek legends or the Icelandic sagas - whatever it is, they're not in real places with real people and real creatures. I mean, the Minotaur didn't exist. Those caves didn't exist. So really my writing is traditional in that regard.

"People call the places that I invent 'Craceland.' I quite like that - of course it's a play on Graceland, the Elvis thing. What they really are, they're all inventions, and carefully defended inventions, because that allows me to do exactly what I want without having to research, without having to become the slave of history books. To go wherever I want and say whatever I want without regard for any factual truth. In other words, I can go for the bigger truths without worrying for factual truths.

Q: So if you love writing books so much, why is this one going to be your last?

A: "I'm still young and I'm still not dilapidated and there are still many, many things to do. There's travel, more political things, I want to paint more. I'm toying with the idea of writing for the stage. I really want to be an expert on natural history subjects and not a dilettante...

"There will be more books. I'm going to write a book of Borgesian style essays, and I'm going to write stage plays. And I'm going to write natural history." (Reporting by Elaine Lies, editing by Paul Casciato)