Beauty in the dark – an evening with Jim Crace and Jenni Fagan

Jim Crace and Jenni Fagan were interviewed last night by Ian McGuire at the Martin Harris Centre for Music and Drama. It was an evening of parallels and contrasts – of the relationship between the human and the animal, luxury and poverty, hope and despair.

Jim Crace’s 12 novels include Quarantine and the Booker-nominated Harvest. He explained that his latest, The Melody, was inspired by a trip to India in which luxury and poverty collided in ways Jim found uneasy – and inspiring.

He said: “My wife and I were in a luxury hotel, but couldn’t sleep because of the din outside. I went to the window, looked down and saw animals raiding the bins. Some of these were mammals, and some were human mammals – some were children. What kind of creature are we that can dine from silver trays while others eat from maggot-infested bins?”

The experience proved to be spark that fired his next novel.

“I didn’t want to write a colonialist novel. I thought writing about Indian poverty should be left to Indian writers. I wanted to take the idea back to Europe.”

A second element provided the key. Jim lived for a time in Malta on the seafront, where the erection of tall buildings near the promenade blocked out much of the sunlight.

“There was a rhombus of sunshine moving around all day where everybody would gather.”

It was a vivid image of the human clashing with nature, and provided the European element he was seeking for The Melody.

There is undoubtedly a political ingredient to such ideas, but Jim is ambivalent about the relationship between fiction and the political sphere.

He said: “In England we live in a bourgeoisie democracy, so fiction is less politically important that in Soviet Russia for example. And I’m a white, middle-class man so I don’t have a constituency like black or gay writers might.”

For Jenni, however, it is a different story. Having grown up in the care system, in 36 different homes between the ages of six and sixteen, her work was perhaps inevitably political.

She said: “I see myself a permanent outsider, as an edge-walker. Moving around in the care system, you have to continually tell your story, and I became aware of people as storytellers.”

Jenni is a screenwriter and a poet as well as a novelist. There’s a Witch in the Word Machine, is published in September. Her new novel, The Sunlight Pilgrims, is set in an extreme Scottish winter and features a tattooed giant and a transgender teen.

Describing the creative process that led to the book, she said: “I never end up writing what I intended to write. I’m interested in light and following bereavement I was looking for light literally as well as metaphorically so travelled up to Scotland, where there are vast landscapes. I was thinking about death and nature, the idea that nature will take the earth back.”

Jim said he admired the ‘edgy’ quality to Jenni’s poetry, which he found lacking in some modern verse. Despite the darker themes in her work, there is a sense of hope.

Ian observed that both the writers’ novels feature bereavement but end on a note of ‘coming together’.

Jim said: “I’ve been accused of being a pessimistic writer. But what’s the point of optimism where there’s no challenge? The toughest optimism is the optimism in the dark, murky corners.”

Jenni agreed: “I like it when there’s beauty in darkness. Sometimes beauty shines brighter in the dark.”

Adam Wolstenholme

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