In a rare admission though, Crace points to the effect of his own personal life on two specific books, in retrospect. “it has to be said that, no matter how non-autobiographical you are, somethings will show through. I was made very aware of this when I wrote Being Dead, which is about death, a very serious subject, and also to some extent about my father’s death. My dead father sort of stood at my shoulder while I was writing that book. He was an atheist, and we had failed to glorify his death, as we should have, when he died, to make sense of it, because he had wanted no ceremony. I wanted to sort of make my peace with that error, and to come up with a narrative of comfort for atheists in writing that book. But, when I wrote that very serious book I was in a very happy mood myself. My life was in good shape, everything was going very well. I was an immensely happy person. And so, even though it has a very glum subject matter, it ended up as being an optimistic book. And yet, some critics and readers viewed it as pessimistic. After that I decided to write an unequivocably optimistic book, that no-one could make any mistakes about. And what could be more unequivocably optimistic subject matters than love, long relationships and children? That was the starting point of writing Six, which was an optimistic starting point. While I was writing it though, my mum started going down with dementia and cancer, and during the last year of writing that book I was her sole carer, which meant in the first instance 60-70 phone calls a day and lots of pressure, and in the end, the last couple of months, meant constant care, changing of nappies as if she were a baby, and finally she died. The result was that Six is a flawed book, in my opinion, for autobiographical reasons. Because I couldn’t concentrate fully on the book, due to the emotional strain of caring for a 91 year old dying mother. That was of course my priority. It’s flawed to some extent because I wanted it to be an optimistic book, but there was no optimism in my heart at that point. It’s my most conflicted and least successful book for those reasons [Editor’s note:It still made plenty of appearances in the “Books of the Year” lists of the major newspapers]. So, despite my claims that I’m completely non-autobiographical, one’s life does grin through in the writing that you do”.
Indeed, for a book that started out as an optimistic tale of love and relationships, Six has a very dark heart. The story is set in an imagined city so vividly portrayed that a reviewer in the English Independent suggested “that you itch to book a weekend break there soon”. While the reviewer was right about the realistic detail, I’d beg to differ on the idea of booking a flight to this city with riot police on the street, and full scale political repression going on. Explaining his thinking behind the setting, you’ve the strange suspicion that Crace would actually relish the idea of an Easyjet ticket to this politically charged setting: “It has all the demeanour of an eastern European country before the wall came down, but it doesn’t have the politics of that, it has the politics of a right wing South American state, so it’s a real kind of pick’n’mix place. I didn’t want to do a ver
sion of a real town. I wanted to come up with a town that was somehow, because of its repression, emotionally and culturally and artistically creative. One of the oddities of the artistic life is that. Look at some of the wonderful books that came out of Soviet Russia before the wall came down, where you had to turn to literature for the truth, because Pravda, which means the truth itself didn’t provide. Look at the literature coming out of England at the moment. I don’t think that bourgeouis liberal democracies like ours are a very good setting for producing great works of literature, because we’re too comfortable. I think I was stressing this in Six. I’ve felt this in my own life, when there have been strong political disruptions (the Aldermaston marches, the Poll Tax, Anti-war in Iraq demonstrations and dozens of others). Even though I present myself as being appalled for the reasons for having to come out and demonstrate, I have to admit that there’s a part of me which is thrilled by the opportunity to take to the streets, and I think that shows through in Six. There’s something thrilling about taking political action. In fact, my final book that I’m planning, because I can’t write books forever, is going to address this very issue. It’s going to be about a man who’s postured politically all his life but has never done anything politically dangerous, and in his fifties he does something immensely foolish and dangerous but courageous to try and put that right”. He adds, almost casually, “that’s three books away, then I’m going to stop”.
It’s one of the things that I find fascinating about Crace, that at any given time he seems to have a clear idea in his head of not just his next book, but also possibly the next two or three. And he has the confidence to discuss them openly: “I’m writing The Pest House at the moment, about America’s medieval future. That’ll be finished this year. Then there’s a book called Archipelago, which is about someone visiting an archipelago of islands and gradually getting to the more and more remote islands, discovering his remoter, remoter self. It’s very much a metaphorical book – meeting dead parents and all that kind of stuff”.
But how does he manage to keep the books separate? Surely it’s distracting working on more than one idea at a time? The answer is simple, at least to him, and he can’t hide a certain astonishment at the inanity of the question: “They’re not mixed on the screen. Sometimes an idea that you thought was something which belongs to a forthcoming book will be stolen and used for the current book. That does happen. It’s not difficult though. It’s like a painter who has three large canvases going all at once in the same studio. Maybe he’s sketched out two and is working on the other – there’s no confusion. What’s on the canvas is what you’re doing. It’s not hard. In fact it’s the opposite of hard, because if I was writing a novel and I didn’t have other ideas bubbling around then that for me would be a problem”.
He’s clear about future ideas, and reasonably clear of when he’ll hang up his hat as a writer. “Three books from now there’ll be this last book [as outlined, the book about a man in his fifties making a grand political gesture]. I think that will be the last one. I know I keep saying I’m going to pack up after the next one, but I’m 59 in a couple of weeks, and then another 6 years, sixty five seems to be a good time to get out, before the bitterness”.
He goes on to explain: “If you look around you, most writers when they start writing, what can they expect? Well, most of them can expect to not be published, and those that are published can expect to not be successful, and those that are successful can expect to not be succesful for very long. I’ve been immensely lucky. I’m not claiming to be Philip Roth, or Ian McEwan, with a very long span and a promising future. Or Margaret Atwood or J.M. Coetze. Those writers are almost beyond being criticised. I’m not one of those writers. Most of the writers I see who’ve been partially successful, and continue to write, and perhaps even to improve, reach the point where they’re no longer read! I mean, how many books by me can you read? You know the sort of stuff you’re going to get. I’m sure I’ll go out of fashion, if it hasn’t already started. You don’t want to get to 67 writing a novel feeling bitter and marginalised. There are lots of writers, I won’t name names, who are like that”.