‘Someone like Dom Mintoff would have thrilled my father’ | Jim Crace

Award-winning British novelist and inaugural University of Malta Writer in Residence Jim Crace speaks to us about the precarious blessing of literary awards, his hope to ignite an international interest in Maltese literature, and his enduring childhood memory of a certain Dom Mintoff.

Jim Crace: “Ultimately the real reason why I returned to writing was simple: it’s just too much fun not to do it”. Back: Faculty of Arts Dean Prof. Dominic Fenech. Crace will be writer in Residence at the University of Malta until December 19
Jim Crace: “Ultimately the real reason why I returned to writing was simple: it’s just too much fun not to do it”. Back: Faculty of Arts Dean Prof. Dominic Fenech. Crace will be writer in Residence at the University of Malta until December 19

The acclaimed British author Jim Crace should have a chance to become acquainted with our island – and, significantly, his Maltese writer “colleagues” – over the next six weeks, as he takes on the role of the University of Malta’s very first Writer in Residence.

But apart from this stay, which will last until December 19, and given that he’s already visited Malta in 2012 as part of a British Council-sponsored talk-and-reading, he recalls a more distant, poignant memory related to the island – that of former prime minister Dom Mintoff.

“Back then we wouldn’t even have heard about him through newspapers or the radio – you would go to the cinema and they would play a newsreel before the film. Thinking back, I remember being made aware of this stocky man, who was belligerent but articulate, and clearly from a working class background, and a trade unionist background, standing up against the big nation…”

This was particularly “thrilling” for Crace’s working class father – particularly given the stark ‘class based’ politics prevalent in postwar Britain.

“Anyone in a position of power – from politicians to headmasters – would have spoken with the same accent: call it Oxford English, BBC English, Queen’s English, whatever. All of it was so rigidly class-oriented, that to see someone from a working class background rise to power was thrilling. So yes, someone like Dom Mintoff would have thrilled my father. And I was thrilled by it in turn, because I loved my father and would ‘borrow’ the things that thrilled him.”

He remains a card-carrying atheist and left-leaning as a private person, though you’d be hard-pressed to find any explicit political tracts in his haunting, and often fable-like works of fiction.

“If you want to be politically engaged, you should write leaflets, not novels. Organise a political rally. Cast your vote. There are exceptions to this, of course there are – think of Orwell, or John Steinbeck – but generally speaking I don’t think that’s what novels are for. We don’t read literature to find answers. I don’t want to write placards, I want to raise questions. And hopefully, after readers are done with my novels they can go seek their own answers.”

Crace’s 12th novel Harvest – which was shortlisted for the prestigious Man Booker Prize in 2013 – was set to be his last.

But the writer today said that the very moment he announced his retirement, “I started getting new ideas”.

“The fact is that I just needed a break. I thought I wanted a divorce from writing, but it turns out it wasn’t so,” Crace said. He credits being shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize for a second time in 2013 – his novel Quarantine was also bestowed with that honour back in 1997 – as another instigator to keep writing.

“I honestly wasn’t expecting to get shortlisted for the Booker again. Really, I thought that I was coming to the tail end of my career and just writing books for myself, essentially… but then along comes Harvest… and my career just bounced back again. Suddenly, what was gradually quieting down was even noisier than it ever was. Ultimately the real reason why I returned to writing was simple: it’s just too much fun not to do it.”

It’s good that we caught Crace at an upswing. As Writer in Residence for the Faculty of Arts at the University of Malta, he will not only be delivering talks and readings, but also offering hands-on help to local writers to polish their writing and get their names out there.

Though the chair of the Creative Writing Programme Prof. Ivan Callus insisted that Crace’s contribution isn’t a “teaching programme” for writer’s per se, he will be lending a helping hand based on his direct experience in the field… which has been substantial given that he’s been writing for all of his adult life.

Before his first book Continent – a collection of short stories – arrived on the scene in 1986, Crace worked as a freelance journalist. The experience, Crace said, helped him be less precious about his writing.

“When you’re a journalist, you can’t phone in your editor to say that you’re just not inspired to write that day. You have to get on with it.”

This demystified approach to writing fiction should prove to be a useful starting point for Crace’s interactions with local writers.

Conceding that writing is a solitary activity, he claimed that “it’s not something that’s entirely definitive”.

“You cannot teach the genius of writing, but I do believe that the skills of creative writing can be taught. To assume otherwise would be dishonest.”

Crace said that the Maltese linguistic environment was of particular interest to him, while lamenting the fact that a language like Maltese is under threat.

“I’m very lucky, because I get to write in the bully boy language that is English. But I remain a lover of all languages. I read an article not too long ago which predicted that soon enough, we’ll only have nine languages left in the entire world. This depresses me quite a bit and sadly, applies to Maltese too. As an outsider and someone who used to speak Arabic, I find it particularly lovely: you may not notice how special it is, but it’s a pleasure to listen to with an outsider’s perspective.”

Crace added that he’s aware that Maltese-language writers face challenges when it comes to securing translations of their work and making it available to a wider audience, and hopes that his stay will help them to move forward in this regard.

“There’s no reason why a Maltese writer can’t be eligible for a Commonwealth literary award – even the Booker Prize. I would love to have played a part in that, even in some small way,” Crace said.

He doesn’t exclude the possibility of setting a future novel in Malta – or a fictionalised version of it.

“This isn’t an entirely selfless visit. There are elements of Malta that really inspire me – its particular coastlines – and the fact that it’s a small community. It’s small, but it’s still got everything: politics, scandal, drinking, adultery… Malta is the world in microcosm, and that’s exactly what my books represent,” Crace said, in what was perhaps a particular reference to Harvest, which is set in a tight-knit medieval village in Britain whose way of life is undermined by the arrival of new technology.