My wife, Pam, and I have been very keen to visit the glorious Sean Scully exhibition at Dublin’s National Gallery of Ireland – but we live in the English Midlands and so we couldn’t see how to do it, given the distance, and the inconvenience….and the expense…..
Thanks for flying us over.
I also, of course, want to thank Dublin City Council, the library services, and all the organizers, sponsors and hosts of this justly celebrated prize – and to congratulate the IMPAC Award itself for reaching its 20th year. I know there’s not a person in this audience today who does not wish it well as it looks to secure its future and its tradition of drawing attention each year to so many much loved novels. This is a prize that looks in every nook and cranny in the world to find its winners.
And, of course, it is a prize which has become greatly coveted by writers everywhere – and not only because of the value of the cheque that accompanies it but also –mostly, I hope- because of the validation it provides to every book that is nominated or long-listed or short-listed or declared the lucky winner. This is a prize that breathes hope into novelists but also gives new leases of life to the titles that make the final cuts. So we all look forward to an expanding list of winners and to the IMPAC Award’s 40th, 50th anniversary; it’s centenary even.
Of course, I probably won’t be here for that 40th anniversary and I certainly won’t be here for the 50th -don’t look smug, not one of you will be around for the centenary- and that’s because, as you can tell, I am by a long chalk the oldest novelist to have won this award. My nearest contender is Alistair MacLeod who was a strippling 65 when he was standing here with his No Great Mischief .
So this has made the victory of my novel Harvest especially sweet as I had come to accept over recent years that it was far too late in my career to hope for such good fortune as I am enjoying today.
To tell the truth, I had also come to accept, long before I even started on Harvest, that my writing life had reached a stage where it might be sensible to call a halt on it altogether, mostly because I wanted to avoid the mixture of deflation and bitterness that afflicts even the most fortunate of writers once their most prolific years have passed. Besides, like any long-term desk worker with a 45-year career in pushing pens in a dusty room, I wanted and deserved fresh air.
So Harvest was always intended to be my final novel. I wrote it as a fond valediction. Indeed, the dedication on the last page, was a kind of leaving note, a settling of debts: I’ll read it to you:
I have enjoyed a fortunate career in books and publishing.
I want to thank my wife Pam Turton and our children Tom Crace and Lauren Crace for letting me get on with the anti-social habit of writing in a happy, stimulating and loving household.
I am immensely grateful to David Godwin, who has been, in turn, my editor, publisher, agent and friend since my first published short story. I have been lucky to work over several years with (amongst many others) John Glusman and Nan Talese in the USA and Tony Lacey and Kate Harvey in the UK.
Pam and Kate are in the audience today – and I want to thank them again, out loud: two good homes, the second with Picador, the natural house for books like mine.
It’s important for all young novelists to remember, I think, that although the writing itself is usually a solitary act, supported only by your family and not always by them, once the manuscript is completed and accepted the novel does not stand a chance unless it makes some friends and colleagues in the world of publishing and book-selling and amongst critics and readers. It doesn’t end with the names I have listed already.
As we are in Ireland, let me mention some locals: but some locals other than my own maternal grandparents.
Many years ago, stuck in Dublin Airport for an hour or so, I noticed the huge Irish Literature section in the bookshop there. Some work-experience joker had included every American writer with an Irish-sounding name; I remember Mary McCarthy, Eugene O’Neill, Cormac McCarthy and Flannery O’Connor, for example, but not a single Crace.
I’m more Irish than any of them, I remember thinking. I have an O’ Rourke grandmother and a grandfather called Holland – he was originally a Hoolihan from County Cork but must have wagered giving himself a Dutch provenance would improve his chances amongst the English. What, I wondered, will I have to do to get an Irish readership.
Well, here are some of the answers:
What would my writing profile amount to here if it weren’t for the wonderful, bookish, hospitable Cormac Kinsella who represents Picador in your country?
How well would I have done without the exposure afforded by some of the world’s most relaxed literary festivals, notably for me the ones in Galway, Bantry and Listowel?
Would I have been read at all if Irish writers such as Colm Toibin and Colum McCann (both IMPAC winners in the past, and Colum McCann is also shortlisted this year) had not offered supportive quotes for the covers of my novels?
How well would I have fared if a third column -forgive the pun- the literary column in the Irish Times written by Eileen Battersby had not been over the years so sensibly and constructively critical of my books and also so encouraging?
No, writing is a solitary act which needs a community of support – but its final outcome is also another largely solitary act – reading. The genius of the IMPAC Prize is that it brings those two singletons together and the reason why it must continue its celebration of books is the fact that it values libraries and readers more than any other award. By the way, I can’t help but thank the two libraries that nominated Harvest, and the readers that voted for the book at the University of Bern in Switzerland and at the LeRoy Collins, Leon County Public Library in Tallahassee, Florida. Where would I be without them?
And I have to thank the judges too, for their kindness – and good taste! and for giving up so much of their creative and academic time. Remember, they are readers too; but of late they have had to be readers on an industrial scale. I hope they came to blows when deciding the outcome because there are at least nine books on that shortlist well worth fighting for.
Can I end on a cheesy note?
I want to thank the generosity of storytelling itself. Harvest was the product of a failed book. I have usually found that in the early stages, writing a novel is a bit like pushing a heavy boulder up a hill, all effort and little pleasure. But gradually, almost surreptitiously, the story you are telling comes to your aid, it puts its own shoulder up against the boulder, it lends its own support – the support of an ancient craft which is wise and mischievous and generous. Before you know it the granite boulder has become a helium balloon, disregarding gravity. It’s all you can do to hang on. Now it’s little effort and all pleasure.
Well, that failed book was granite all the way. I hated it. I lay late in bed each morning rather than face the blank computer screen. I finally plucked up the courage to show 40,00 words -a full year’s work- to my agent, David Godwin. He suggested, no, he recommended, no, he insisted that I shove the novel into a padlocked drawer, and swallow the key.
It was at first an unnerving blow. Dispiriting. Narrative for all its generosity had let me down. I decided that this was a sign, a sign that I should spend more time in the garden and no more time at the desk. It was the moment for me to quit. I even said so on the Open Book programme on BBC Radio 4, making my intended retirement public and final.
But within a day or two of swallowing that padlock key, the novel Harvest was gifted to me out of nowhere. It was pure helium from the first sentence. And it has proven to be the most fortunate of books. So instead of retiring from words as I had promised, I now find myself eating them: another novel is already taking shape. It’s still a boulder –
but I am feeling lucky.
I thank you all for the luck afforded to me here today and for your validating generosity. Coming here to Dublin is always a joy but this beats everything.
17th June 2015 – The Round Room of the Mansion House, Dublin