I had a chance to attend a talk of the award-winning English writer Jim Crace in Chichester University when I was there for a writing fellowship. He was marvellously witty, charming and brutally honest about the publishing industry and how to keep an eye out for things that destroy writing. His latest novel Harvest, won the 2015 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, the 2013 James Tait Black Memorial Prize, and was shortlisted for the 2013 Man Booker Prize. That’s a lot of awards for someone who’d famously announced his retirement and then backtracked when a new idea took over his mind.
Post the talk, in true Brit tradition, as we headed to a pub for beer, I had a chance of interacting with Jim one on one and frankly, was charmed away. He was a great listener and genuinely interested in my experiences as a “genre author” from India. The journalist in me insisted that I record a few sayings of his for myself, as inspiration. And so I wrote to him post our conversation and got him to answer a few cheeky and not-so-cheeky questions. Here are the excerpts from an interview. When in doubt, follow his advice, I say.
Q) If someone wants to win a literary award, like you have, how should they go about it?
Don’t even think about it. That way, madness. Winning prizes is just a matter of luck and it is entirely beyond your control. There’s no accounting for taste; there’s no controlling the judges; and even if you were able to pack the selection committee with all your cousins, there is no guarantee that any of them would vote for your book.
Q) Any suggestions for writers who’re stuck in a vast desert called the middle of a novel?
There are a thousand answers to this. But there are no golden rules except that -as with all great deserts- it’s useful to have a camel and some water. What has worked for me is to stop at the end of each day, knowing exactly what I have to pick up on the following morning. I also commit the first line of, say, Chapter 20 to the screen or page, just as I am starting on Chapter 19. It gives Chapter 19 a sense of destination.
It is the oasis on the horizon that gives you the confidence to proceed. Otherwise, my best advice is to just muddle through, but be prepared to edit, edit, edit later in the process.
Q) Any tips for writers who have this fantastic idea but just can’t start the writing?
Maybe, fiction isn’t for them. Remember that for every thousand writers with a good idea, only one will start; for every thousand writers who start a novel, only one will finish; for every thousand writers who finish a novel, only one will get it published; for every thousand writers who do get published, only one will make a decent living from it; and -most importantly- for every thousand novelists who do make a decent living out of writing, only one will be happy. Now, divide that by ten, and you have something approaching the truth.
Q) How important is critical feedback before a finished novel should reach an editor’s desk? How important is editing your own novel? And when do I know it’s finished? Will my muse hit me on the head to let me know?
No one sees my work until it is completed, except maybe my agent and my editor. Why show an uncompleted manuscript to a relative, a neighbour or a friend? If they love it, they cannot help you. Their adoration will make no difference. If they hate it, then you have been rebuffed and depressed to no purpose. No, the critical feedback of most value is what you provide yourself. You cannot rely on the opinion of others but must develop an unforgiving eye which will spot the blemishes – and fix them. It’s better to hate what you have written than to love it. Lovers are blind to the faults.
Q) There’s plenty of advice out there for beginner writers but would you like to give intermediate writers who have a few books published, but still are struggling to find publishers. What’s the advice you’d like to give them?
Sometimes excellent writers never get published because they are writing the wrong book or they are singing in the wrong voice. Take a hard look at yourself and at your project. Take more risks.
Q) How much of your personal self goes into your writing? Can you be distant from yourself and write?
I can. No problem. I try to stay private, secretive even. Of course, I do not allow my stories to become, say, sexist or racist or homophobic, but other than that they are free to skitter off wherever they want. I like to be just as surprised as the reader. But of course, a genuinely autobiographical writer owes it to his or her readers to get down and dirty with the personal. So the answer to your question, How much? Anything from nothing to everything.
Q) How much real-life research should you do for a work of fiction?
I don’t do any, because I am a fabulist and rely on invention. I create my own worlds. But if, for example, you set a novel in Calcutta, then you (might) want to get the details right. It needs to smell and taste and look and sound like Calcutta – and for that you will need to do research. But, again, there are no golden rules. It just has to work on the page.Hey-ho, all my answers are useless because no-one’s experience is identical. So -and finally a Golden Rule- nobody’s advice is as helpful as your own instinct. Good luck. Prepare to drive yourself crazy.
ABOUT THE INDUSTRY
Q) The publishing industry is dominated by a few publishers who more or less have complete control of all creative writing out there, in terms of distribution, which book to publish and where to publish it in. Comments?
I really don’t care about this side of things. I decided early on that publishers are my friends and not my opponents. In a long career in the industry, no-one has tried to cheat me or censor me or nudge me in a direction I didn’t want to go. I try to be as good as I can with the manuscript but let the publishers use their expertise on my behalf when it comes to design and rights and distribution. If you don’t approve of the industry, then don’t attempt to join it. But if you do join it, then enjoy yourself, have fun, make friends, be happy. The battle is not with the publishers, but with the best use of your own talents. If things go wrong, then you are to blame and no-one else. Stop whining.
Q) While giving your talk, you mentioned that it’s the accountants in publishing industry that are the real decision makers in publishing houses…
Well, of course, not everything is perfect. The days when an independent publishing house was run only by its editors have gone. If they loved your difficult, esoteric work, they’d publish it and make up the loss with the profits from some blockbuster writer. But nowadays, the sales people and the accountants do an income assessment and budgetry plan and are less keen to take on the loss-makers. Fortunately, you have access to the web and can go ahead without a publisher. That’s the future, I suspect.
Q) Do you think Brexit will affect the publishing industry in the UK? In what ways?
It’ll make no difference – but that’s no comfort. The Brexit vote was a triumph for the xenophobes. Britain has become a coarser place. But the literary world will not be damaged or reduced; evidently Brexiters can’t read.
(Also published in Scroll.in)