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Jim Crace
There are a lot of dystopian novels being published at the moment. Why did you choose to write one now?
It’s true that The Pesthouse is a dystopian novel. But there have always been dystopian narratives - and there always will be, I guess. One of the greater purposes of story-telling is to prepare communities for problems and rehearse them for hard times. For this reason, fiction is more interested in dysfunctional societies than utopias. (Similarly, it favours illness over health, divorce over marriage, gloom over joy, war over peace, etcetera). It is the type of dystopia that changes. Twentieth-century fiction described states threatened by alien invasion The War of the Worlds, for example), then science gone mad (Brave New World), then totalitarian repression (1984), then nuclear devastation (On the Beach). Those were our preoccupations and our fears. Nowadays we are more concerned with an environmentally degraded planet or dread of new contagions. These are issues too important for fiction to ignore.
The Pesthouse has a strong filmic quality. As well as its strong characters journeying through a vivid landscape, the narrative often opens out onto scenes that seem ideally suited to a cinematic treatment. Looking at American culture from a British perspective, cinema has been so important, both to the history of modern America itself and in shaping our image of the place. I wondered if you had thought of film while writing the book, or, now that it is finished, whether you think it might make a good movie?
To tell you the truth, I never think about anything so distant and unlikely as “the film of the book” while I am writing. I certainly do not seek out cinematic scenes. I am just concerned with the words on the page and worried that I am unlikely to complete a good sentence let alone finish the novel, then have it published, read, and turned into a movie. But, with hindsight, I can now see that The Pesthouse is the most filmic of all my novels, mostly because unlike the others it is driven by character and narrative rather than a thesis. There has been a lot of interest from studios. But at the moment the only novel of mine that is being turned into a movie is the “unfilmable” Being Dead.
As we are drawn into the book there is a sense that we are embarking on an epic quest, one that might lead to a similarly epic treatment in the text. But, despite the scale of some of the scenes and the many beautiful details and descriptive passages, there felt like another, more complete rendering of this world lurking in there somewhere. You seem to have withdrawn from that option and the story unfolds and ends with a kind of economy. Did you ever consider a more expansive treatment, or did the story always take the form it has in the published version?
Well, The Pesthouse is not an epic because it does not really have a physical hero and it does not comprise of mighty deeds. On the contrary. In fact, it’s an anti-heroic book. Its cast list and timescale are, as you say, economical – a few months, a handful of emigrants. But I would hope that it is a large themed book set in a grandiloquent landscape. I don’t recognise the withdrawal you describe. It’s themes are emigration, the worlds’ ambiguous and conflicted relationship with the United States, and, more generally, love, hope and courage. Was this the story I’d always hoped to write? Pretty much. I couldn’t have described it before I started, but I recognised its inevitability once I had finished.
The story reverses the course of American westward expansion, and its great migrations. But there are many more contemporary resonances in its sense of a mass of people on the move across the landscape, refugees seeking safety and salvation. Were these images, so familiar to us in recent years, on your mind when you were writing the book?
Yes, I was thinking of the Pilgrim Fathers, the shetl Jews from Russia, the potato refugees from Ireland, the wetback Mexicans and all those other groups who have sought and sometimes been rewarded with a better life in America. I also had in mind those communities that have emigrated to England and settled in my own part of Birmingham. The novel’s final scene has the leading characters standing on a ridge-top, looking westward like so many generations before them and hoping for utopias.
Your central female character is such a strong one, combining something very contemporary with the sense of that resoluteness in the face of incredible hardship and adversity that crops up in accounts of the original American West, where matriarchal figures were often dominant. Could you say a little more about Margaret and what she represents for you?
Margaret is a strong, sexually-inexperienced, courageous woman – more beautiful to know than to look at. (My fear is that should a film of the book ever be made, Margaret would be cast as your typical Hollywood starlet and that she would become sexually experienced by the end of the first reel.) I found her a delightful and surprising companion during the two years when I was writing the book. By the end, I think I was a little bit in love with her myself. But that’s allowed.
You write about death brilliantly. I’m thinking of the murdered couple in Being Dead and of the demise of the whole town in The Pesthouse. The mechanics of death seems to be a preoccupation of yours. Is this fair?
I’m not morbidly preoccupied with death and dying. But I am an amateur natural historian and a rationalist who knows that no-one lives forever. So facing up to and understanding death is almost necessary for long term peace of mind. Maybe we are a bit too squeamish about corpses and cadavers. They are more common than you think. That child on the beach is filling its bucket with dead creatures – crabs and shells. That magpie on the lawn is picking over a dead rat or finishing a frog. The loam in your tomato pots is full of insect husks (not to mention dead leaves and putrifying vegetation.) It’s truer -and, oddly, more comforting- to recognise that the natural world comprises of mostly dead material than to insist that it contains only daffodils, nightingales and rainbows. To deny death and all its many forms is to fail to embrace the awesome complexity of the world we are lucky enough to inhabit.
You have said that The Pesthouse was a way of punishing the United States. Yet the book, finally, has a note of optimism about it, your faith in the American Dream if not fully restored then at least hopeful. Has writing the book given you a more positive outlook for the possible future of the US?
I said that I intended to punish the United States in The Pesthouse. I wanted to probe my own love/hate relationship with America –loving its homespun generosity, its promise of freedom and an acre, its majestic landscapes, hating the way it has homogenized the world with its colas, its Hollywood, its CNN, its CIA, its men in uniform. So I wrote the novel hoping for answers and clarification. I was surprised but gratified when the book itself insisted on an optimistic ending, underscoring the American dream in all its innocence rather than undermining it. I had feared that all the things I disliked about the USA would last another century at least. Now I suspect -perhaps naively- that they might end with the current presidency, that bad times, bad men, bad faith can be banished at the ballot box.
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Jim Crace

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