Crace in interview is cheerful, engaging, funny and tremendously open, but sceptical of any personal questions. He believes in the primacy of the imagination, and refutes personal footprints in his work, and hence downplays his own opinions. For example, I ask if he’s a music fan, wondering whether that plays any part in his rythmic prose, he responds, “We shouldn’t make too much fuss though about what I like, or what I’m like, because it’s not like that [For the record he is a huge music fan – he was listening to Paolo Conte and Franco Battiato]. Narrative is something which is intuitive to us, it’s part of our make up. Humankind is a narrative animal, and narrative doesn’t play a small part in our life, we spend a huge amount of every day thinking about the future and reimagining the past, and retelling the past. Narrative is important to us because it can help us get a job, get a girlfriend, make friends down the pub, etc. and it confers on us a huge advantage for darwinist reasons, it allows us to play out our future in order to make better choices. You can look for issues and motives in my life to explain the way I write, but most of the explanation can be found in this deeply bedded human nature in which narrative plays such a big part. I’m often mystified by the way I write, and why it’s so rythmic, and when I speak to journalists I try to come up with a coherent explanation, but the truth of the matter is that I don’t have any explanation. It’s just something that is there. In the same way that you wouldn’t ask a musician about their sense of rhythm – they would say that it’s intuitive, that it’s something in the bloodstream. But when writers say something similar, because language and words seem much more concrete perhaps than musical notes, we tend not to believe them, but believe me that’s the explanation”
Music, I counter, though, is often about the performance and being in the moment (certainly in jazz, for example), whereas great writing is often the product of more prolonged effort involving reviewing and editing. “With writing there is a moment of abandonment for me, – he responds immediately – particularly if you’re not an autobiographical writer, and you’re wanting this intuitive thing to bubble up, and to lead the story to places you don’t expect it to go, then you have to wait for the moment of abandonment, because if you don’t, these things aren’t going to happen. I love that moment of abandonment, when a story starts to take over and take its own direction. Maybe that’s why I like contemporary jazz, when you have that highly focussed instant of abandonment, when the saxophonist stands up and all he’s got marked on his sheet of music are the chord changes, along with the other musicians, and he abandons that and extemporises”.
The notion of the non-autobiographical writer is key to Crace’s perception of his own writing, and that moment when the story runs away from the writer. Perhaps that’s how a self-defined “North-Korean style atheist” could write Quarantine, a book set around the story of Jesus’ temptation in the desert, where to him the point of the story “was to ape what the old dishonest story did, and replace it with a new dishonest story. I don’t know what happened in Judea 2,000 years ago any more than Christian believers do. It was a retelling of a narrative that I thought was harmful, and I replaced it with a version which I thought was more relevant in the 21st century”. And yet, the book that appeared was in his own words “a very scriptural book”.And, with a tinge of amazement in his voice, he adds “most of the mail that I get, in relation to that book, comes from people who believe in God and have found that the book has underscored their beliefs rather than undermining it”.
Describing himself as a non-autobiographical writer is both a dogma and a defence for Crace. Dogma, because he believes it entirely, and there’s ample proof that he’s correct in that description. A defence, because in some ways Crace is not always entirely approving of the direction his own stories take. “My seventeen year old self would hate the bourgeouis, rythmically prosed, metaphorical novels that I write – he laughs – I imagined, as a spotty youth, that I would be writing political text type novels of the kind that Steinbeck, and Orwell wrote but you can’t do anything about the hand that you’ve been dealt, and that’s not the hand I’ve been dealt. If I were an autobiographical writer, there’s no question that my novels would be more political, because they’d come out of my personal experience in my daily life, and I am a political animal in my daily life. Readers need to understand, if there are any readers out there! – he self deprecatingly adds – or at least something I understand or recognise about my writing, is that I’m one of the least autobiographical writers you’re likely to encounter, which isn’t to say that there aren’t things in my books which might give away my interests. For example, it’s obvious that I’m a keen natural historian, that I like walking. It’s obvious that I’m on the left. But what I do when I write is not to go in and parade my personal life, what I do when I write is to try and investigate subjects for which I haven’t got the answer. So broad things show through but nothing about my private life is particularly on display, and that includes the politics, it seems. Of course the thing about politics is – I’m an immensely dogmatic person politically, but dogma has no real place in fiction. Fiction is all about ambiguity, and things opening out, and possibilities being offered, and several choices being given to the reader”. Another example of this divergence between his own opinions and convictions and that of his fiction was his first book. “Continent is a much more conservative book, with a small ‘c’, than I am personally. It takes the way, as all narrative it seems to me does, of the old ways of humankind, of the old man over the young man, as folk tales always do, whereas in my political self I’m a modernist, I’m someone who believes in technological change. So it was inevitable really unless I was to write lifeless tracts, that I would have to shrug off my political beliefs and allow the books to express their own opinions”.