Jim Crace, author of Booker-shortlisted Quarantine: 'I'm leaving Craceland'

He has written his 11th novel: a Hardy-esque meditation on change. Now he intends to retire, he tells Stephanie Cross

As the protagonist of Harvest, Jim Crace's 11th (and probably last) novel reflects, you can't tell from a man's work how he might live in private. And so it proves. Crace – warm, hospitable, unfailingly modest and self-confessedly private – inhabits an unexceptional semi in the Birmingham suburbs. His paternal acre – the phrase is from Alexander Pope's "Ode on Solitude", and serves as Harvest's epigraph – is short and narrow, albeit carefully tended. Indeed, the only real glimpse of that strangely nebulous yet uncannily familiar place "Craceland" is in the author's study: a book-lined den filled with brass geckos, twigs and fossils.

Yet, set as it is against the backdrop of the enclosures movement, Harvest is saturated with the English countryside; the "bread-and-biscuit smell of rotting wood. The piss-and-honey tang of apple trees", for instance. The madding crowds may be on Crace's doorstep, but his deeply atmospheric tale of an outsider whose life is changed forever by irresistible forces is, I say to the author, Hardy-esque. At which point, Crace's face drains. Clearly, we need to talk about Thomas.

As it turns out, Crace hasn't ever read a Hardy novel, but this isn't the issue. He explains that his "little shiver of horror" was instead at the thought that he might suddenly be seen as a "typically English novelist [when] I've resisted making landscapes which are obviously English." It's true that Harvest is unmistakably set in England, Crace continues, but he was careful to avoid giveaway place names and dates. He isn't sure when it's set himself. "I don't want people to come to it thinking that this is an English historical novel. And I particularly don't want any reviews from English historians, because all they're going to do is say, 'That's wrong, this is wrong.'"

Unlike Hilary Mantel ("That very fine and best of all historical novelists at the moment"), he doesn't go in for research; the convincing descriptions of ploughing and parchment-making in Harvest were "scammed". It's having the freedom to invent that Crace prizes. "I'm a fabulist," he says simply, and it's clear that he finds the whole business of making things up a joy.

Crace's gift is not, perhaps, one that he would have chosen. Born in 1946, he grew up in London, studied English at a Birmingham college, then spent a spell in the Sudan with the VSO before becoming a journalist. Journalism "felt like a political act", he reflects, and he relished the idea that his copy might change minds. But when he made the move to fiction, he found that the direct approach didn't work: "You can't sing baritone when you're a soprano." And it is for this reason, Crace explains, that Harvest harks back to the enclosures, and isn't about the displacement caused by soya farming in present day Brazil.

The community on the cusp of sweeping change is a favourite subject of Crace's: take the The Gift of Stones (1988), set on the brink of the bronze age but inspired by the loss of industry in his adopted home city. And here is why this keen walker, cyclist and bird-watcher isn't to be found in some leafy little village. "The problems of the world are not going to be engaged with and solved in Faversham, they're going to be sorted out in cities like Birmingham," he enthuses. "You're not seeing the past replayed, you're seeing the future played out. And so even though you might not say it's pretty and it's beautiful, it is immensely stimulating".

All of which mean that Harvest is not a simple tale of paradise lost, but something altogether more nuanced. His, Crace says, is "the Jungian idea that everything new worth having is paid for by the loss of something old worth keeping." He pauses. "Now that is beautiful. It's such a balanced sentence for a start."

The appreciation is a connoisseur's. Crace's prose – percussive, rhythmic, resonant – is unmistakable. But not only does it come naturally to Crace; he argues that it's also in keeping with the rhythmic nature of everyday speech. Apparently, academics proved that the prose in his Booker-shortlisted Quarantine (1997) fulfilled a mathematical formula for poetry – as too, he informs me, did most of the verbal exchanges that the researchers studied.

But if Harvest is vintage Crace, it's not the book that he set out to write. For the two years preceding he had been grappling with a "very personal, heartfelt novel" about a reunion with his now dead parents. Archipelago, as it was called, was born in part from Crace's belated fear that "there was no real personal risk of revelation in my books", and that this somehow "lacked generosity" on his part as an author. Once more, though, he was "singing in the wrong key. I am a private person: I couldn't give myself to the novel." The realisation left him depressed. (Or, "as depressed as I can get, which isn't actually too deeply".) Then, on a train passing through the Watford Gap – a place for which Crace makes a typically passionate case – he glimpsed the anciently ridged-and-furrowed fields. Six months after, Harvest was in the bag.

Crace is still haunted by Archipelago, however, and may yet write it as a playful, "Borgesian" essay. As for fiction, he's almost certainly through. "Retiring from writing is not to retire from life," he says: there's his painting, politics and tennis, as well as his first grandchild and regular trips to the US – Crace has a sinecure at the University of Texas, where his archive is held. "But," he continues, "retiring from writing is to avoid the inevitable bitterness which a writing career is bound to deliver as its end product, in almost every case." The idea that Crace could ever become bitter is, in truth, laughable – but, having read Harvest, few will begrudge him bowing out on a high.

Harvest, By Jim Crace (Picador £16.99)

"It is the evening of this unrestful day of rest and the far barn that has survived the fire is full of harvesters, lying back on bales of hay and building up an appetite on rich man's yellow manchet bread from Master Kent's elm platters. We're drinking ale from last year's barley crop. Again we benefit from seasons."

Arts and Entertainment
Kate Bush: 'I'm going to miss everyone so much'
Arts and Entertainment
Boy George performing with Culture Club at Heaven

musicReview: Culture Club performs live for first time in 12 years

Arts and Entertainment
Princess Olga in 'You Can't Get the Staff'
tvReview: The anachronistic aristocrats, it seemed, were just happy to have some attention
Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing
books

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
News
Owen said he finds films boring but Tom Hanks managed to hold his attention in Forrest Gump
arts
Arts and Entertainment
Bono and Apple CEO Tim Cook announced U2's surprise new album at the iPhone 6 launch
Music Album is set to enter UK top 40 at lowest chart position in 30 years
Arts and Entertainment
The Michael McIntyre Chat Show airs its first episode on Monday 10 March 2014
Comedy
Arts and Entertainment

Review

These heroes in a half shell should have been left in hibernation
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North
books'The Narrow Road to the Deep North' sees the writer become the third Australian to win the accolade
Arts and Entertainment
New diva of drama: Kristin Scott Thomas as Electra
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

    A new American serial killer?

    Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
    Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

    Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

    Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
    Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

    Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

    Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
    Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

    Wildlife Photographer of the Year

    Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
    Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

    Want to change the world? Just sign here

    The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
    Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals

    'You need me, I don’t need you'

    Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals
    How to Get Away with Murder: Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama

    How to Get Away with Murder

    Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama
    A cup of tea is every worker's right

    Hard to swallow

    Three hospitals in Leicester have banned their staff from drinking tea and coffee in public areas. Christopher Hirst explains why he thinks that a cuppa is every worker's right
    Which animals are nearly extinct?

    Which animals are nearly extinct?

    Conservationists in Kenya are in mourning after the death of a white northern rhino, which has left the species with a single male. These are the other species on the brink
    12 best children's shoes

    Perfect for leaf-kicking: 12 best children's shoes

    Find footwear perfect to keep kids' feet protected this autumn
    Anderlecht vs Arsenal: Gunners' ray of light Aaron Ramsey shines again

    Arsenal’s ray of light ready to shine again

    Aaron Ramsey’s injury record has prompted a club investigation. For now, the midfielder is just happy to be fit to face Anderlecht in the Champions League
    Comment: David Moyes' show of sensitivity thrown back in his face by former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson

    Moyes’ show of sensitivity thrown back in his face... by Ferguson

    Manchester United legend tramples on successor who resisted criticising his inheritance
    Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

    Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

    Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
    British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

    British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

    Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
    Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

    Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2015

    UK city beats Vienna, Paris and New York to be ranked seventh in world’s best tourist destinations - but it's not London