Jim Crace is the author of nine books of fiction, including
, which was short-listed for the Booker Prize and won the National Book Critics Circle Award for 2001. His latest novel,
, takes place in an America of the future. Some unnamed cataclysm has destroyed all the technology and the government, the citizens are illiterate, and the land they live on is poisoned by toxins. In a reversal of the westward movement of the 19th century, these Americans are heading east, hoping to catch a ship back to Europe, which has been described as the promised land. The book follows the journey of Franklin Lopez and Margaret, two survivors who are thrown together on the journey east.
Q: Your novels are filled with archetypal images. Quite often the tales embody metaphors, enhancing their symbolic power. To take the most obvious image of your new novel - it is the title, after all - why were you drawn to the concept of a "pesthouse"?
A: It's very simple actually. I know such a place very well. Every year for the last 30 years, my family and I have vacationed on the Isles of Scilly. These are islands off the coast of Cornwall. On one of the islands, St. Helen's, there is an old building called "the pesthouse." The pesthouse is hundreds of years old. It's the place where those on ships traveling to England were put ashore if they showed any signs of illness or pestilence. A 1760s Act of Parliament made this a law, so anyone from Europe or Africa traveling to Great Britain had to be inspected there. If you had acne, or rosacea, anything that looked like it might be a symptom of a sickness or fever, you were put in the pesthouse there. And, of course, even if you weren't really sick, you would be soon enough from the other people in the pesthouse who really did have cholera or the plague.
They have the skeletons of all different kinds of people who died there. If you're a writer, you could not help but be moved by this place. The metaphor for it is "hopes dashed." Fiction loves "hopes dashed"; in fact, fiction prefers it. It's what narratives thrive on.
Q: In your essays on writing, you often talk about being "abandoned by the narrative" - that your stories reach a point where you, the author, are no longer in control, but the narrative is driving itself, often going places you never intended it to. Can you explain that?
A: Well, here's the explanation I give. When you're writing, you're like a kid on a hilltop flying a kite. You may be very good at it - you can loop the loop, do tricks of all kinds, but no matter how good you are, you can't do it all by yourself. In reality, you have no control at all without wind. The wind is the force of narrative and the kid is the storyteller. Humans are hardwired as storytellers; we always have been. The kite is the story mediated between the teller and the driving force, or wind, of the narrative.
Q: Many of your books, including this one, depict violent scenes of death and bodily harm. Some critics are very disturbed by this aspect of your work. What do you have to say about it?
A: I'm a naturalist, and nature is not just about pretty deer, and kingfishers, and roses. The uglier, but probably greater, truth is that nature is a compost heap. Every living thing dies, and it decays. Take a walk in nature, and you will see this everywhere, even in squeamish England. That pretty deer gnawing on a piece of bark has left its teeth marks. It has killed part of the tree, and soon you will see the insects swarming over the gash.
Of course, there's another answer, too. I am a very mild-mannered man - I've never hit anybody or done anything violent - but I fear it, as we all do. I fear violence and I fear death, so I imagine these things and I write about them. The advantage of storytelling is that I can draw out these dark things in the future and then they're not so scary. People say I'm a dark writer, but violence has always been a device of storytellers, from the slaughter of the Minotaur on.
Q: But what do you think about when you're writing about someone's head being bashed in, or a woman being raped?
A: I think about the prose, about the quality of the sentences.
Q: Do you know The Pesthouse is routinely being compared to Cormac McCarthy's The Road? They are both about a postapocalyptic America, and McCarthy's book has won a lot of awards here already. Do you have any thoughts on that?
A: Well, I've read a bit of it. For me, it's unlucky timing. But the same thing happened when I brought out my novel about Jesus' time in the wilderness, Quarantine. By the time it got to America, Norman Mailer's The Gospel According to the Son was out. I think if an idea is out there, if it's in the air, other people are writing about it. The idea of America's apocalypse is in the air, especially since 9/11 and the Iraq War.