Chowing down

Jim Crace, author of "Being Dead" and literary fiction's most eloquent atheist, talks about his optimistic embrace of the natural world, the art of lying and why half his new book is about food poisoning.

By Laura Miller

Published October 29, 2001 9:58PM (EST)

It's impossible to anticipate what the next Jim Crace book will be like. He's written a novel set in a Stone Age village, another about Jesus' sojourn in a Middle Eastern desert, another about the corpses of a murdered, middle-aged married couple decomposing on a sand dune (that one, "Being Dead," won the National Book Critics' Circle Award for fiction and was one of Salon's favorite books of 2000) and now his latest book is an impish collection of very short stories, each related to food and eating. Crace dropped by Salon's New York offices at the end of his tour for "The Devil's Larder" to tell us about his own idiosyncratic take on the relationship between human beings and their comestibles.

What made you decided to write a book of very short fictions about food?

As a writer, I just write the next book in line, and sometimes I can't tell why it's next in line. It comes as much a surprise to me as it does to the reader. It's like the weather. If I try to dig around and figure out why I wound up with this book, I think maybe it's because the two previous books were quite heavy companions, quite hard companions. "Quarantine" was about the existence of God, good and evil and such things. It had quite a high level of death in it. And then the next book, "Being Dead," was about death, as you can tell from the title, and my own father's death was grinning at me from over my shoulder while I was writing. I needed a break. I felt instinctively that I wanted to do something playful and something made up of small ingredients that I could just enjoy. I wasn't just doing that for me. For once, I was thinking of the reader. I figured if I needed a break, the readers needed a break. And what could be more inherently light-hearted and comic than food? Well, sex, of course, but that's my next topic.

It's a playful book, I'll grant you that, but when I first heard it was a book about food, I assumed that it would have, like most literary writing about food these days, an almost self-conscious focus on sensuality. People talk about how food has replaced sex as a topic for sensual writing.

Or music even. People are now using terms to describe a pot of soup that they once used to describe a bit of symphony.

I don't know why I should be, but I was surprised -- when I expected the book to be sort of simple-mindedly celebratory and life-affirming -- by how much rotten, poisoned and inedible food there is in it.

I'm surprised that you don't find it life-affirming. But then I'm always surprised when readers of my books think that they're pessimistic. I'm startled by that. I think all my books are drenched in optimism. I'm very cynical about the Hollywood version of optimism, which says that we all look like Jennifer Aniston and Brad Pitt, that good looks and virtue are the same thing, that people are easy to like. I think that's deeply cynical. I think that the world has a lot of dark corners to it, a lot of sour noises, and yet despite that we can look in those places and listen to those noises and come up with an optimistic view of the universe. And that's what I've applied to this book as well as to all my other books. This book is full of sour noises, and full of poisons and toxins and bad meals and bad encounters. But for me the overall feeling is that this is a tender book. There are relationships that work. Mums do love their children. There are marriages that last.

But actually, of course, it's not even a book about food. It's about the way food can act as metaphors for those other parts of our lives -- family relationships, death, love, all those things. So I'm not interested in the taste of food; I'm not interested in the preparation of food; I'm not interested in real ingredients. I'm not advising you -- in fact, I'm advising you not to go back to the kitchen and prepare any of the meals mentioned here, because if you do, at best you're going to have botulism and at worst you're going to never finish the book.

What is the book about, then?

It's about the place where food touches our sense of selves and our sense of culture. We should be easy with narratives that do that, because if you just go back to the Bible, you see that sin has the metaphor of the apple being eaten in the Garden of Eden. Food has always been a powerful metaphor about the state of our nature because it's the one point where the outside world and the inside world are one. When we eat we ingest the outside world. It's a very powerful metaphor. That's what I was doing. I wasn't interested in the flavor of the apple, I was interested in the sin that was associated with it.

I hate to harp on the food-poisoning aspect, but some of it is deliberately done, which doesn't seem especially tender or optimistic.

You've chosen some dark examples to disprove my optimism. And of course you're quite right. When this book was first started, it was meant to be called "The King's Warehouse." But when I was writing it, it abandoned my first idea and wanted to become something else. The book became more impish, more playful, more mischievous. It became more devilish. And it became to me, therefore, quite clear that the title "The King's Warehouse" didn't work, that this was the Devil's Larder. There's a teasingness about it.

The odd thing for me, which may be why I struggle and squirm under these questions, is that I'm actually a very optimistic person myself, a very lighthearted person, a very contented person. To some extent, what you're pointing out is something that baffles me, because for some reason when I get into my converted garage at the side of my house in Birmingham, England and switch on that word processor, my natural character -- bubbly and happy and having never poisoned anybody in my life, on purpose anyway -- somehow or other disappears and a narrative nature takes over. My narrative self is different my actual self.

Quite a few writers say that, too.

It's not weird at all. All that tells you is that I'm not an autobiographical writer. You take someone like Hemingway, clearly an autobiographical writer; you read the books, you see Hemingway. But there are many writers who are not like that because what we do in our books is to try to add to our universe the things that we don't experience in our lives. Maybe the reason why there's so much discomfort and discontent in my books is that there's so little discomfort and discontent in my life.

It's also true -- which is also the case with "Being Dead" -- that there are some unpleasant aspects of life that are just inevitable, regardless of optimism or pessimism. People will get food poisoning, even if it's not deliberately from a chef who's grumpy with them for complaining. It's just a misfortune.

Life is a weird narrative. Life itself. Now, people say that my version of what happens after death is a very pessimistic one, but I actually think that the Christian version -- and the other religious versions of what happens -- is immensely pessimistic because it's entirely false. They say don't worry about death because there'll be eternity ever after and you'll be living in heaven eating yogurt and listening to harp music.

It isn't going to happen. That may provide some kind of comfort to you, but it's false comfort. So let's actually look at the real world, and realize that if we're lucky, we're here for the span three score years and ten, and when that's over, it's over. We have to look for optimism somewhere else. And that's a hard journey. It's an easy journey to say "Oh, you're going to be here for eternity." It's nonsense, but it's an easy journey. So I'm giving my readers a hard time in "Being Dead," by saying where's the optimism in this? We live for 70 years and we die, we're roadkill. We rot away like shells or sea gulls on the beach. We're like that; we're that kind of dead. What that book does is then say that if there's going to be optimism, it has to be found in the life lived. We have to backtrack and look at the impact we have on those people who survive us for a short while, the love we make, and for the shallow imprint we make in the sand, which is soon erased by nature.

Now that may be a slim kind of optimism, and the route to it may be ugly and hard, but it's a real optimism. It recognizes the world for what it is, not for what it isn't. So here we are. I'm making the claim that I'm as optimistic as they get. I'm not cynical -- I think the other kinds of optimism are quite deeply cynical and dishonest.

Because they say that we can't handle the reality of life and so we need an illusion to make it endurable?

Yeah. But I'm providing a different kind of illusion, a different narrative, which I think is not a false narrative. And that's the narrative of the natural world. That's something that all of my books do. "The Devil's Larder" is no different from that. Those strange encounters that you've mentioned, that seem to horrify you so much, are encounters with the natural world -- the man who dies out fishing, killed by botulism. Botulism is a product of the natural world, and stands as an encapsulated metaphor for the load of difficulties we're all going to encounter in the natural world. None of us will come out of this unscathed. However, if life were composed of 64 parts, as "The Devil's Larder" is, 32 of those parts will have a lot of love and tenderness in them.

In the more idealized kind of food writing, for all the palaver about how sensual it is, this dark side of animal existence doesn't get brought up.

That's the whole trick of civilization, to turn the unavoidable parts of being human -- after all we're just an animal like any other animal -- to turn it into something that is aestheticized and sanitized and homogenized, so that we don't have to think about our place in the natural world too often. Recently I was on the beach in San Francisco and there were all these kids running around with buckets picking up sand dollars. They were picking up dead animals. That was death. Every single one was a dead creature that had lived its life and passed on, and yet those kids didn't feel any discomfort about that at all. They were at ease with the subject of death, with lives lived and ended. It's only when we start to think about our lives that we start feeling awkward.

We see quite natural things going on in the universe -- such as cormorants stuffing regurgitated food into the mouths of their offspring. We think that's perfectly natural and we get out binoculars to watch it. But in "The Devil's Larder," when there's a tender little scene in the end when a mother and a daughter exchange pieces of pasta from each other's mouth to see if it tastes the same in someone else's mouth, a lot of male critics in England were saying that this is evidence of some sexual deviancy, an incestuous relationship. All I can say is these male critics must never have had children, or they'd know that pasta goes to and fro from mouths all the time.

Why did you decide that "The Devil's Larder" should have 64 parts?

It comes from a story I was told as a kid about food and chess.

What was the story?

A king is travelling through his kingdom, and he's bored and he's cruel. All around him the people are starving. A peasant, at great risk, calls out "Look around you. Everyone is starving, but your warehouses are full of grain. Open your warehouses and feed your subjects." The king is furious and says "Off with his head!" But then he thinks that he's bored, what is he going to do tonight, he'll be in his tent, alone. So he says to the peasant "Tell you what, I won't cut your head off just yet. We'll play chess, and if I beat you, off with your head straight away. But if you beat me, I'll give you one modest wish, and then I'll cut off your head."

So they play chess, and since this is a fairy story, well, peasants always beat kings in fairy stories. So the king says "What is your modest wish?" And the peasant says "I want you to put one grain of wheat on the first square of the chess set. And I want you to put two grains of wheat on the second square, four on the third square, and so on, doubling the number of the last square every time until the 64th square."

So the king says "Modest indeed! Your wish is granted, now off with his head." Now, any mathematician will know the sum. The sum is 2 to the power of 64 minus one. The product of that sum, the answer to it, in grains of wheat, is 20 million million million grains of wheat by the time you've got to the 64th square. A huge number, you can't wrap your head around the number, except that it would empty all of the grain silos in the world, and world hunger would be solved.

You can see how that would appeal to someone who likes narrative as I did when I was growing up, because not only could peasants outwit kings, which is pleasing, but also the problems of the world were easily solved, and thirdly and most importantly in this context, somehow narrative itself was part of the solution. Narrative could deliver answers. So when I decided to write a book of many different parts all of which concentrated on the subject of food and I had to come up with a number to aim for, immediately this story came to my mind. "The King's Warehouse," a book about food, but about the politics of food. Once you've got the structure though, the book often has views of its own, and pretty soon it became clear that this was not going to be a book about politics. It became a much more tender book about relationships.

It seems to be set in the same town as "Being Dead." That book begins with a first person plural narrator, and it also quotes someone named Mondazy. Who is that?

Just someone I made up. And I'm pleased to report that my local library has had a couple of requests from readers who want to follow up on Mondazy. My books are about invention. I'm a very traditional storyteller. I'm not holding a mirror up to say "This is what Birmingham is like in 2001." My books are not trying to locate you in a recognizable world. These are old-fashioned stories in the same way that the minotaur legend of Crete was an old-fashioned story. The people who heard that story wouldn't be upset not to find the minotaur in the Greek book of natural history. They knew that fiction was a whole bunch of lies, trying to find a greater truth. It's a bloated approach, but it's my approach. Everything is made up, including my epigraphs, including people like Mondazy. Trust nothing I say.

I'm curious about the fact that it seems to be set in the same town, real or not, that I think is in England. You're shaking your head.

It's not in England. American people think it's in England. English people think it's in America. These are just no places. The two towns are not I think the same.

They both have Mondazy.

Yes, they both have Mondazy, I know. That puts you off, that and the fact that they're both on the coast. I somehow feel that the town of "The Devil's Larder" is a bit more Mediterranean than the coast of "Being Dead." I've done four coastal books. I'm interested not in the sea, or going in boats, but I'm interested in the intertidal zone and cliff tops.

When I write about something like that, I want to do that little boy thing, which is to invent my own landscapes. When I was a little boy, I used to lie on my stomach in our flat in Northern London and I'd make up islands, very detailed islands. I'm sure lots of kids do this -- put the roads in, the hospitals in, put the coastline in and the beaches in. Put the walks in. Put all the little signs for the clifftops. In a way, that's what I'm doing now.

Tolkien, actually, is another writer from Birmingham. I walk my dog every day in a place called the Mosley Bog, which is the place where Tolkien ran around when he was a kid and got the inspiration for "The Hobbit." I don't think there's something in the air producing nonrealistic writers, but it's quite pleasing to know that we're sort of neighbors.

I understand you also invented a lot of the science in "Being Dead." You don't do research, do you?

I invent everything. I don't do any research. Life is too short. To be a convincing liar, facts don't help. What you need is vocabulary, the ability to use words with confidence. This came home to me when I was in the Judean desert, before I wrote "Quarantine," which was set there but 2,000 years ago. I went not to research but to see what the desert was like so I could tell informed lies. I had a Bedouin guide with me, with his gun on one hip and his mobile phone on the other. We slept out one night under his jeep, and in the morning, he said "Jim, how did you sleep?" I said "Oh, I slept like a log."

I saw his eyes narrow, and I looked over his shoulder at the desert stretching away with, certainly no logs, and at best about 600 meters away, a little skimpy thorn tree. I knew this hadn't worked. He spoke better English than I did, but the English didn't work. It was badly researched English; it didn't travel. So I said "How did you sleep?" And he said, "I slept like a donkey. I slept like a dead donkey. If you'd have kicked me, I wouldn't have woken up." I thought here is the answer. This is how you persuade a reader that you know your subject and are inhabiting that culture. It's not about research. It's all about turning your logs into donkeys. I just love that trickery.

I'm looking to hear more about Mondazy in later books. He's very intriguing.

Well, you aren't going to get any more, I'm afraid. He's finished. Mondazy is out of the frame.

What if some other writer decided to do a book about Mondazy? Would you feel territorial at all?

No, I think that would be a hoot.

Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

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