The Beatrice Interview

Jim Crace

"I wonder where you're heading there, but of course it's not researched, and the description is bogus."

interviewed by Ron Hogan

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Jim Crace loves to read books about natural history. David Quammen, John McPhee, Barry Lopez... "Those wildlife writers are the ones that I really value," he said as we chatted in his Seattle hotel room. "Of course there is fiction that I value, but my reading obsession is not fiction, it is natural history." That intense love of nature, which is just as steadfast in his non-literary hours, is evident in every one of his novels, especially Being Dead, which tells the story of a man and woman, Joseph and Celice, who are randomly murdered on an English sand dune, their bodies slowly becoming part of the environment around them? How did these two people wind up here? What happens to their bodies now? What happens to the people they leave behind? Those are some of the questions Crace ingeniously (and, as you'll learn, very imaginatively) answers.

RH: Your last novel, Quarantine, was about Jesus and his forty days in the desert. No matter what the subject of your following novel would have been, there was going to be an inevitable sense of, "Okay, how is Crace going to follow that up?" What were your thoughts about that as you were starting to write Being Dead?

JC: Well, I didn't have a reputation for being somebody who wrote novels that followed a seamless line, a logical progression. I would change tack, rather irritatingly people might say, every time I wrote a new book. And so people weren't surprised when I followed a nineteenth-century comedy, as I guess you might call The Signals of Distress, with the Jesus book. And really, no one has been surprised that I've come up with something entirely different, nor will they be surprised when I do something different next time around.

It's always the same when I go along to my publisher in England and they say, "What's the next book about, Jim?" They all look at me expectantly, and I tell them, and within a minute and a half, they're all looking at their fingernails, or finding that they've got to go to the photocopy machine, because the stuff I do tends to sound as if it's not going to be very marketable. I remember when I outlined Quarantine to them, they were really looking at their fingernails, very hard, because they thought that there was no market for books by an atheist about Christ's forty days in the desert and that it was somehow going to be an irrelevant jaunt into the past, which maybe it was. So, I kind of expect that reaction, and I got it for Being Dead as well, particularly when I told them the title.

RH: Right. "It's about this dead couple decomposing in the sand dunes."

JC: And it starts off when they're dead. I told them the book would inhabit the first six days of their death. There was some very heavy fingernail-staring then. But the only spark that came up was when the book was delivered, and someone thought that the title should change and only half-jokingly suggested that Love in the Dunes would be a better title. Of course, it would be a better title if you were selling your books at the airports. (smiles)

RH: Was the image of that dead couple the first thing to come to you, the thing that prompted you to write this story?

JC: The impulse of this book came when I was writing Quarantine. At the end of writing that book, I was no less of an atheist than I was before, yet it did make me think about my atheism. Thinking about the bleakness of my own atheism, and the inadequacy of the old fashioned kind of atheism when the big events of life-- especially death--came along, made me want to see whether I could come up with a narrative of comfort, a false narrative of comfort, but one that could match the narratives of comfort religions come up with to get you through death and bereavement.

In 1979, I had buried my own father, who was also an atheist, a really good old fashioned political atheist, and he had asked for an appropriate funeral for him, which was no funeral at all. No guests. No announcement. No flowers. No eulogy. No hymns, God's sake, no hymns. And no collecting of the ashes. We carried out his wishes, and it was a huge mistake. The memory of how we failed to bury my father properly and pay attention to his unique life was with me as I wrote this novel.

RH: Early on, you talk about the Victorian concept of the "quivering," a ritual of memorializing the dead, which I think resonates as something really vital, perhaps even for an atheist like yourself.

JC: Well, quivering is, of course, my invention. When I ended up with the impulse and the determination to start a novel in which the two major characters are dead from page one, I realized that if I was going to find a narrative of comfort for people who are already dead, any comfort that I was going to have for their lives would have to be retrospective. It's not going to be in the future. They're not going to just simply go in another room and eat honey and yogurt for eternity. I had two characters who were at their most exposed, at their most vulnerable, at their most catharsized. What I needed to do was to enfold them, to wrap them up and take them from this place of danger and place them into a place of safety and innocence, and that had to be somewhere in their lives. If I was going to do that, I needed some kind of device which would allow me to tell a backwards story. That's why I invented the idea of a quivering, this supposed notion that when people die, the relatives gather around and starting with the moment of their death, peel back their life to the moment when they'd been born, almost redelivering them to the beginnings of their life. But a lot of critics believed that quivering really existed, you know.

RH: Uh-huh... One of the things I like about the narrative structure is the way that it not only peels back from the moment of death, it also goes forward, even before their bodies are discovered, to continually isolate what is happening to their bodies as they lie there. One of the most remarkable chapters is the one where you describe the animals discovering the bodies, and provide intricate detail on what happens as each species approaches the corpses to feed.

JC: And I have to tell you . . . I mean, I wonder where you're heading there, but of course it's not researched, and the description is bogus. If you're like me and you do any country walking or you do any beach walking, you encounter dead otters or a dead squirrel or a dead seagull, and you go up with your boot and you turn it over and you see what happens, you see what putrefaction is. You see how the body decomposes. You might even look, peer in and you might see all sorts of bugs there. It doesn't feel like a morbid analysis of death, nor does it seem disrespectful or undignified. It seems like part the natural world. So I wanted the bodies [of Joseph and Celice to just rot away and I could have gone and done some real research, but being the kind of writer I am, I made things up. None of the animals that you encounter going into their bodies are real animals. They don't exist. The detail is actually invented because this whole book is a narrative rather than a work of natural history. They [the insects] don't exist. I've invented them. Did you realize that?

RH: No, you had me fooled with that one, too.

JC: But it doesn't matter. It's only modern day conventions that make one feel nervous, that everything's got to be real if you read it in a novel. What a ludicrous reaction to the novel! Why should everything be real? Make everything up. This is the traditional way of storytelling. If you look at any of the old stories...the cyclops doesn't exist, the minotaur doesn't exist. The whole traditional way of storytelling always uses gross inventions, and I think that's the tradition that I'm part of.

RH: What matters, ultimately, is not whether it's real or not but whether it's convincing.

JC: Absolutely, and that's a great game to play. You know, when you're sitting alone, as I am, a lot of the day, the neighbors don't care what you do and if you tell them you're a writer, they just say, "Oh, how dreary." And my wife's not interested. She's heard it all before. My kids don't want to know. They've got their lives to lead. No one's phoning from the publishing house. It's a long day. You're writing this stuff. So, what are you going to do? You want a beetle to come into the body and eat the flesh and if you want to, you can look it up in a real book. I've got all the real books, because I'm fanatical about real natural history stuff. Or you can really amuse yourself by coming up with some godlike inventions.

RH: So how many other critics fell for these fake animals?

JC: Well, they all do. You can tell by the tenor of their voices that they're presuming to a level of information which is not available, because these things are invented. Another example is the epigraphs to my novels, all of which are invented. It is guaranteed that every time a book comes out, someone will claim to know the work of the epigraphist. (Epigrammist?) I've had people on the New York Times and the Washington Post in the past actually come out and say the epigram comes from the "sadly neglected aphorist" or whatever. I have a whole list of these things at home. Sometimes I do a talk in England, a kind of amusing after-dinner talk in which I take all of my epigraphs and read the critical responses to them, with all of these lofty critics who claim to know the work. It's a hoot!

RH: I would love to see a zoologist review that chapter.

JC: Well, in England, on a radio show, they had a forensic pathologist, and he read it and said that, clearly, I had done a hell of a lot of work on the research of the dead bodies because that was pretty right. I had just guessed it, just used my dead-seagull-on- the-beach experience. But then he said, "Really, the police procedural aspects of it were unforgivable. There is no way in which a daughter would be taken along the coast and shown the bodies of her murdered parents in situ. Either Jim Crace has been to some very weird places and mixed with some very strange people, or he has simply made it up." You'd have thought this guy had never read a novel before in his life. Yeah, I did make it up.

RH: In the backward strands, you keep backtracking to the time just before the murder, but you'll go back and look at it from several different angles, adding time to each perspective, but always ending up at that same moment of death. That moment where she says, "It's not as if..." and we never know how she was going to complete that sentence.

JC: No, but there are several possibilities, aren't there? But when you're writing a book, you're in a kind of a thrall to the book and you come out with those phrases, and you instinctively recognize that it's the right phrase to use. But it's only a long way down the line, chapter after chapter after chapter, or even maybe when you've finished it, or when a critic points it out, that you realize that that phrase has worked, and that it's been a gift of the book, rather than something that you've cunningly put onto the narrative.

RH: Before I turned the tape recorder on, we talked about how, if you're going to be a novelist, you have to be prepared to rewrite, and then it's in the rewriting that you finally get to that type of balance in the writing.

JC: The writing is in the rewriting. Who was it who said that? Someone said that. The writing is in the rewriting. Of course it is. And the fun is in the rewriting, because the scary thing is, are you even going to get this book done? Someone's waiting for it. You'll maybe receive some money. You're dealing with a pretty grim subject, but you're not actually worried about if anyone's going to like it, or if the critics are going to like it, or if anyone's going to buy it or read it. Those worries come later.

The initial worry is that you're not going to ever finish this thing. And even though Being Dead is short, it's still long enough that I thought I was never going to get through it. So, when you've done that first rough version, that anxiety is over--you've got a complete object. You've slapped the clay into place and now all you've got to do is to do the decoration. And that's the joy. I really enjoy the rewriting, and in a way, I have to be dragged away from the rewriting.

RH: Will your next book be another change of pace for you?

JC: I don't think there's a change of pace. People say that my books are incredibly different, but I think they actually have an inescapable imprint on them. Even though the subject matter changes, I don't think you're going to mistake my prose for anyone else's. For the next book, I decided that I wanted a playful book. I think I deserve a playful book. I've spent the last four years in the presence of Quarantine, which was a hard companion, a novel about good and evil and faith and exploitation and rape and death, and then Being Dead, a cruel book for me to have to write, squeezed out of my relationship with my father and his death. So, I think the next thing is to lighten up. Now whether I will succeed in keeping this book light, I do not know. It's called The Devil's Larder. Do you have the word "larder" in American usage, or would that title be too obscure?

RH: What we call a pantry is roughly equivalent, but The Devil's Pantry doesn't have quite the same . . .

JC: No, maybe, though, The Devil's Pantry. That might work. It's not too bad of a title. What this is, is a very post-modern work of fiction, a novel in a hundred parts that does for food something like what Calvino's Invisible Cities does for cities. A hundred fictions in different lengths, very playful, very magic/realist, taking items that you would find in the devil's larder or the devil's pantry and doing fictional tricks with them.

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BEATRICE Suggested further reading
John Banville | Complete Interview Index | Robert Morgan

All materials copyright © Ron Hogan