Interview with Chris Cleave
For British writer Chris Cleave's characters, politics are personal. While his literary fiction features high-adrenaline events across a global stage, he is most concerned with individual human consequence and transformation—the grieving woman who writes an enraged, novel-length letter to Osama bin Laden in Incendiary, or the Nigerian refugee and wealthy British mom whose lives converge in Little Bee. Now, in Cleave's latest work of fiction, Gold, two female cyclists train for the 2012 Olympic Games. These lifelong frenemies fight for one man, one child, and one Olympic medal until each must face the question of how she defines success and what she is willing to forego to attain it.
Cleave spoke with interviewer Kim Wood about cycling at high speeds, body counts in his work, and the sci-fi genre's unsung heroine—Virginia Woolf.
Chris Cleave: This question goes to the heart of what I do as a writer. My writing is a hybrid of literary fiction and journalism—I don't think there is a name for it. My job is to go to the edges of human life, explore the emotional states unique to those extreme environments, and to report back—not as a journalist but as a novelist, which means I have more space to relax and explore.
I'm interested in that edge, because although the questions we ask ourselves are no different from the questions we ask in everyday life, they can be seen more easily. In Gold, the question is, "How much of your ambition will you sacrifice in the name of the people you love?" It's about Olympic athletes and very sick children, so I spent close to a year interviewing athletes and shadowing a doctor in a children's hospital in London—which was the most emotionally intense research I've ever done.
GR: Goodreads Author Lydia Netzer asks of your choice of sport in Gold, "Why cycling? What is it about this sport that speaks to you?"
CC: Track cycling has been called chess on two wheels at 50 miles an hour. What I love about it is that it combines extreme physicality with an acute intellectual, psychological, tactical battle. Also, it's a beautiful sport! There is something unbelievably elegant and efficient about the human body on a bicycle.
I put myself through some serious training so I would know what it felt like to operate at 200 bpm—what it would do to my body and senses. I didn't like it! [laughs] So I ended up with a lot of respect for these athletes. I try to make my whole life connect with what I write while I'm writing about it. That's when it feels true and honest to me. And readers have a very finely tuned—forgive me for being crude—bullshit detector. If you've done your research on Wikipedia, readers pick it up straightaway!
GR: In your two-year-running column on parenting for The Guardian you wrote that your sons had come to the age where they questioned the veracity of the plots of the children's books you read to them, calling them "not velly-ristic." How important is realism to your fiction writing?
CC: It's very important. For me, fantasy is for cowards—I don't mean the genre—but when you set out to write realism as I do and find yourself slipping into the fantastical, you have to ask yourself why. Is it because I don't know the answer to the moral question my novel is asking? In which case, am I trying to wriggle out of answering it by slipping into allegory? If I move away from realism, it's a sign that I've lost focus on the center of my story. Humans are interesting enough!
GR: Goodreads member Stephanie asks, "[Your] stories unfold with such grace and care; do you plan the entire story from start to finish before you write it, or does it all come to you as you are writing?"
CC: Grace—that's a nice thing to be accused of! Thank you. I plan the stories very carefully and then deviate from the plan. I always start with an ethical question about how we live—I don't go looking for these questions. They find me. For example, I am about to go on a world tour now without my three children. It gets you in the heart to leave them for a long period, and that's the question of Gold: Should we sacrifice our ambition for the people who need us?
So then, what world would help me to explore this question? For Gold, I thought—who are the most ambitious people in the world? People who want to get a gold medal in the Olympic Games. So with question and subject, I'll think of a treatment—a story simply about athletes could be fairly boring, for example, so I threaded it through with a story about sickness as well, to provide a different kind of battle.
Then the next thing is a plot, but I don't really do plots. If you start off with a great question, theme, subject, treatment and you get the characters talking to each other, I trust the situation to have enough energy to carry the novel through. After that, I'm genuinely making it up as I go along.
GR: In Little Bee (originally titled The Other Hand) the central character begins, "I ask you right here to agree with me that a scar is never ugly... A scar means I survived... A sad story means, this storyteller is alive." Your writing has hopefulness and humor that meets horror eye to eye. What is the importance of this balance?
CC: I think that most people's lives are very difficult, yet in the West we are brought up to believe that suffering is unusual, despite the evidence. When researching The Other Hand [Little Bee] I met a lot of people whose lives were horrific and was surprised by how many of them were quite funny. I realized that humor is a survival mechanism and that some of the funniest people are also some of the saddest people, too. I tried to put the humor and horror hand in hand—as they are in the life of a refugee—so that each casts the other in clearer contrast. Also, I like to make people laugh!
If you notice, I never narrate a scene where terrible things happen. I'm always in someone's head, remembering, so it's through the filter of time and memory, and a lot of the rawness has faded from it. I try to get a tiny bit of distance from it, not to write in a way that is emotionally punishing—sometimes to spare the reader and myself, and sometimes as a literary technique. I think moments can be more horrific if you don't actually see but imagine them.
GR: You've said of crafting the first draft of your first novel, Incendiary, "I am more proud of those six weeks than of any other period in my life," and also, "Writing is a dangerous process that changes you"—how so?
CC: I set out to be a writer for very vainglorious reasons and was immediately punished. The publication of Incendiary was very traumatic—the book was withdrawn from sale and considered by some to be tasteless and confrontational. I write in this space that is half reportage and half literary fiction, and that's a contested landscape—things got quite difficult for me in the UK. It was hard to carry on being a writer. You realize writing is important and that people have very strong reactions to it, and to you. You become a public figure. So the first thing I realized after Incendiary is that writing is intellectually dangerous, and it makes you a different person.
Also, when I was researching Little Bee, I learned a lot about the world that I wish I could unlearn. If you choose to write about characters who experience trauma, you will be traumatized. If you write about characters who experience euphoria, you share in that euphoria. You live these things so intensely—this is why I say writing is dangerous. It's a strange form of self-psychiatry.
GR: Describe a typical day spent writing. Do you have any unusual writing habits?
CC: My hope is to get better with each novel, so I've made myself an environment and routine that pragmatically supports that. I think my most unusual habit is to actually write quite a lot. When I'm writing, I don't do any social media stuff, which in the rest of my life I really enjoy. This is what kills writers—the little box they are trying to input into is also massively outputting at them. Writing is like going into a trance; you aren't going to do that if there are alerts coming at you every three seconds. So I have a little computer that I took the WiFi chip out of so I can't be distracted—it's like a typewriter. That's my secret.
GR: What authors, books, or ideas have influenced you?
CC: I can look at my reading life as being my life, really—it's who I am. I am a reader first, before a writer, and I've been through so many minds to discover my own. As a stylist and adventurer of the human psyche, I really like Virginia Woolf. She was so far ahead of any of her contemporaries and is still light-years ahead! Her books are structural rather than plotted. They are intellectually exciting, aesthetically perfect, like a set of moments that have their own psychological gravity. She's almost creating a perfect solar system that hangs together gravitationally, suspended in the mesh of her style. It's science fiction, really—it's the most outrageous Structuralist sci-fi!
I also have a huge soft spot for Charles Dickens and think that what he was trying to do, I'm trying to do as well—talk about the way we are living now in a way that is entertaining and often funny, but with a moral question at the center of every book.
GR: What are you reading now?
CC: I'm more impressed with the novels of Americans than British right now, but maybe that's just a case of the grass being greener. I like Cara Hoffman and think we do quite similar work, in that she occupies the space between investigative journalism and fiction. I'm also really impressed by the work of Philipp Meyer, who has a new book, The Son, coming out soon. The poet Kevin Powers wrote an amazing novel, The Yellow Birds, about his involvement in the Iraq War.
I'm also looking around for my next project at the moment—which is my favorite part. I think it's going to be about how we educate our children about a world we aren't certain about ourselves, so I'm reading very boring treatises on how we've educated children through the ages. If you look at the school curriculum, it's actually quite a profound statement about what we think the future is going to be like and what they'll need to know. Yet the world has changed, and the curriculum hasn't. The next book is going to be quite politically engaged and probably funnier than my previous books. I noticed the body count has gone down with each novel—in the next one, maybe no one dies at all!
GR: Last question—in Little Bee the title character says, "I could not stop talking because now I had started my story, it wanted to be finished. We cannot choose where to start and stop. Our stories are the tellers of us." Would you elaborate on this thought?
CC: In music this is an obvious concept—there are certain passages that demand to be completed, they have a natural momentum. There are these rhythms in literature, too. Screenwriters refer to these quite simplistically as story arcs, which makes you think of two-dimensional things on graphs; whereas, they are multidimensional and quite mysterious, strange attractors in our hearts that need a story to be a certain shape, so that we recognize it. These are natural shapes you can't leave hanging—you have to finish them.
Language is more in charge of us than we are of it. Look at the English language—it's older than all of us and will exist after we've gone. It has all of the requirements that biologists use to define life: It reproduces, it hosts a host, it mutates, it replicates, it breeds with other forms of English. What is intelligence on Earth? Actually, it's language—that's the thing that survives. And it's a big part of the storytelling tradition.
GR: So do you consider yourself in the tradition of the bard or the wandering minstrel?
CC: Yes, humbly! They were these slightly itinerant people outside ordinary life, observers, travelers, moving from village to village, and taking stories with them—they informed the culture by transporting it. It's just what I do now, when I do a book tour!
Interview by Kim Wood for Goodreads. Kim's films have screened in the Sundance Film Festival and the Guggenheim Museum, where she shared the bill with an episode of CHiPs. She is currently writing a novel based on the life of a 1920s farm girl turned world-famous motorcycle daredevil that was begun at the MacDowell Colony.
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