About The Author
Chris Cleave was born in London and brought up in Buckinghamshire and Cameroon. He studied psychology at Oxford. He has worked as barman, a long-distance sailor, a teacher of marine navigation and as a columnist for the Guardian, and now lives in London again with his wife and three children.
His first novel, Incendiary, took the form of a letter to Osama Bin Laden from a woman whose husband and son had been killed in a terrorist attack on a London football stadium. By chance, it was published the day before the London bombings of 7th July 2005 and, despite extremely positive reviews, was immediately withdrawn by many retailers. It has since found a huge readership. The book won the 2006 Somerset Maugham Award and was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers' Prize. In 2008 it was made into a film starring Ewan McGregor and Michelle Williams.
Inpsired partly by his childhood in west Africa, his second novel, The Other Hand, told the moving story of a young Nigerian woman seeking asylum and was a huge success both in the UK and abroad. Retitled Little Bee for the American market, it reached no.1 on the New York Times bestseller list.
His third novel, Gold, follows the fortunes of two competing British cyclists in the run-up to the 2012 Olympic Games. It's an emotional rollercoaster, with deeply empathetic characters confronted by issues that resonate in contemporary society.
His latest novel Everyone Brave is Forgiven, now out in paperback, moves between Blitz-torn London and the Siege of Malta to tell a story of passion, loss, prejudice and courage. Exclusively for Foyles, Jonathan Ruppin chatted to Chris about his 'method' research techniques for the Malta sections, why conversation is the foundation of morale and why it was important to highlight the racism that was rife in Britain at the time.
Below that, is another exclusive interview for Foyles by Jonathan about Chris's earlier novel, Gold.
Questions & Answers
How did your the experiences of your grandfather, Captain David Hill, and his fiancée, Mary, inspire the book? What do you think they would have made of the novel they inspired?
My stoical and funny maternal grandfather, David, endured the siege of Malta. His fiancée, the bright and fiercely principled Mary, was a schoolteacher in London and surrounding counties during the same period. To them I owe the inspiration for the novel, and also its atmosphere and tone.
The book isn’t at all based on the real events of their lives, although it draws heavily on the details of mood and place that they gave me in the stories they told, the letters they wrote to each other during the war, and a memoir that I helped my grandfather with. I never recognised my grandparents in the clipped, affectless cinematic and literary portrayals of the wartime generation. I wanted to tell a story of people who were funny despite the horrors, and brave despite their own flaws.
Mary died a few years ago and she never got to see the novel. David died while I was working on it, but I’m sure he’d have said that wasn’t necessarily my fault.
You employed somewhat 'method' research techniques for the Siege of Malta, living on the island for three months, subsisting only on wartime rations. What sort of insights did this give you into the lives of those living under the blockade?
I do make a point of never writing about places I haven’t spent time in, and by the end of my stay on Malta I had ranged all over the island and visited all the positions where my grandfather was stationed. The island got into my head and under my fingernails. But I should stress that although I spent that time on Malta, it was British Home Front rations I put myself on.
I doubt whether I’d have been able to stick to the Maltese siege rations. Things really did get unbelievably bad on the island, to the point where the cats and dogs were eaten, and the men were ordered to lie down to conserve energy when they weren’t following orders.
What I learned about hunger was how incredibly demotivating it is. It turns you into a pale and shuffling thing pretty quickly, and under those conditions resentments and grievances can become obsessional. Morale, then, becomes the battleground, and I realised that conversation is the foundation of morale. Or as Mary puts it: “The true heart of war was small talk”. So it was out of hunger that I had my breakthrough with the novel, which was a realisation that I wanted to write about conversation and not about battle. When the characters exchange light-hearted quips despite the heavy drag of privations, they are not mucking about, they are winning the war.
There are deaths of characters of whom readers will undoubtedly have grown fond in earlier pages. Does this depiction of indiscriminate death reflect how one novelist's tale can only be a strand in the vast narrative of that global conflict?
The novel sets out its stall early on: it is war, and likeability is not correlated with survival. Everyone Brave is a tiny story within the vast sweep of the global conflict, and it is a measure of the war’s unimaginable tragedy that we care so much about even these few small and unimportant lives caught up in it, and cut off by it. The trick of a novelist is to make such a huge and numbing tragedy small enough to feel an acute sadness about.
It occurred to me when I was editing Everyone Brave that it is 120,000 words long and that if it took you, say, four days to read, then you would be reading words at the same rate at which human lives were extinguished during the war. I began to think of every word as a headstone.
Something else that amazed me while I was writing is just how much ground a novel can cover and still leave by far the greater part of the war untouched. Everyone Brave does not cover the Holocaust, the enemy, the theatres outside Europe, the years before 1939 or after 1942, the Russian front, prisoners of war, code breaking and intelligence, refugees, atrocities, profiteering, politics, forced prostitution, technology, resistance activity, or even battle. A thousand novelists could spend a thousand years documenting that terrible period, and the light they cast would only serve to show up the vastness of the space still unilluminated.
An aspect of the story that younger readers may find particularly shocking is the vicious racism of otherwise decent people. Why did you decide to highlight this aspect of social attitudes of the time?
We forget at our peril that British society was shockingly racist. The more I researched the period – the more I discovered that blackface minstrel shows were a hugely popular nightly entertainment in London, the more I learned how commonplace was the use of the N-word – the more it occurred to me that if I chose not to put all that into the novel, then that whitewashing would also be a conscious choice.
In the end I simply decided that if I was going to get my white characters’ hair right, and their clothes right, and their speech right, then I was going to be honest and get their racism right too.
I’m amazed by the extent to which black people have been written out of the narrative of Britain in World War II. There were many thousands of black families living in London at the outbreak of war, but how often do you find them in war movies and war novels? It was when I came across an example of a black family having been forced out of an air raid shelter, through simple racism, and made to use a more dangerous one, that I realised I could not write an honest story about the Home Front without including race as a theme.
Humour is a notoriously tricky medium on the printed page, but the banter between characters is wonderfully sharp and witty. How did you go about making the dialogue so snappy?
I find it hard to cry for people I haven’t first laughed with, so I’ve been committed in all my novels to showing my characters’ likeable parts. Writing dialogue is an unalloyed pleasure, so that is never the problem. The difficulty is in winning my characters enough space on the page to talk with each other in a way that illuminates their personalities without necessarily needing to hustle the plot along. These little loops and eddies within the stream of a novel are the moments I fight for. It turns out that historical fiction suits my style, because the period lends some of its architectural strength to the narrative – allowing the characters just that little bit more space to breathe.
The courage of those both at home and in combat during World War II remains a vital aspect of British identity. Did you ever find yourself wary of being seen not to show due respect for their sacrifices?
The book was so deeply familial, so deeply rooted in the story of people I not only respected but also loved, that I never worried it could come out seeming disrespectful. Spending time Malta’s military cemeteries was also important in calibrating the novel. Anyone who has visited such places will know the feeling that creeps up on you: you find yourself a corner and you sit there quietly, letting it all sink in. You read all the names on the headstones and think about the pure blind odds of their lines being cut off while yours was allowed to continue. You feel pity at the insufficiency of the little commemorative verses etched beneath the names. You shiver at the improbability of your life and the enormity of their sacrifice. You think about how they must have died: some instantly, others after long periods of suffering. You realize how young they all were. Slowly you begin to feel their presence. You begin to understand something of the duty you have to them. I worry whether I have fully discharged that duty, but I never worry that I haven’t shown respect.
You've said that each of your novels is an attempt to answer a fundamental question; in the case of this book it's what is means to be brave. Do you have something in mind to explore for your next book?
Yes, a wonderful question for the novel I’m working on now, and harder to answer than it might seem at first blush: Is life fair?
An Interview about Gold
Your first book, Incendiary, was launched on the day it was announced that London would host the 2012 Olympics. Do you feel you've closed a circle by publishing a novel that takes us up the event itself?
I've always felt a connection with these Olympics because I was celebrating the launch of my first book in a city that was ecstatic with the announcement of the awarding of the Games. And
then the next day - the day of the London bombings - was as terrible as the previous day had been euphoric. It was a tumultuous week that cemented my relationship with my city. I knew at the time that I would write about these Olympics. I knew that they would be covered exhaustively by journalists and sports reporters, but I felt that I could go much deeper and explore the Olympic ideal as an artist. Gold is the story the sports pages don't have space for - the story of what it can mean to win or to lose the race of your life.
How did you go about researching the details of how top-level cyclists train?
I got involved. I told myself that while I couldn't ride as fast as the elite cyclists, I could at least put myself through the same intensity of training and record the effects on my body and my mind. I was comprehensively wrong in my vainglorious assumption. After two months of training twenty hours per week I could hardly remember my name and address, let alone write anything coherent about the experience. Despite coming from a baseline of being reasonably fit on a bike, I was a broken man and I needed a month of recovery before I could process what had just happened to me and begin to make sense of it on the page. Neither my body nor my morale had withstood the onslaught of serious high intensity training. Of course, this only increased my admiration for professional athletes. Watching the glow that champions have when they stride out for the start of the event, it's easy to imagine that they must feel physically great all the time - that their steps must feel light and their blood like fizzy electricity as it circulates. What I learned from training and from interviewing athletes is that they actually feel horrible quite a lot of the time. The physical punishment and the psychological doubts are often crippling. The extent to which the rest of life is annexed by the demands of training is frightening. While it is a pure and exciting existence, it is equally a life of obsession, suffering and insecurity. It is also cruel and unfair, with the constant threat of injury and illness hanging like the sword of Damocles. What I discovered in my research is that the battles athletes fight with themselves are just as extraordinary as the wars they wage against their rivals.
You were able to spend time at Great Ormond Street Hospital researching the leuakaemia suffered by Kate and Jack's daughter Sophie. How did you find the experience?
It was tough. As a parent of young children, you relate to your fellow parents who are going through an extremely frightening and exhausting ordeal. Your instinct is to befriend them and try to help, but on the other hand if you are going in as an observer, your job is to remain neutral and to report dispassionately. It's hard to stay professional, though, because you see things happening in that hospital - both good and bad - that are way beyond the boundaries of ordinary human experience. What I got from the research was a very strong reminder that our health is a temporary state of grace, and that we should celebrate every minute of our strength. I also learned about bravery from the children. I hope I managed to get something of their characters across in the novel.
Zoe finds herself making unwelcome headlines when a sexual partner posts graphic details of their liaison online. As a journalist yourself, how do you feel about the press exploring the private lives of sports stars?
I think journalists and artists are right to be interested by the private lives of athletes. I have written a novel precisely about the secret lives of champions, and the reason I've done it is that I think the four year period when we don't take any notice of an Olympian is just as fascinating as the three-week period when we do. Being a champion requires a character and a commitment that is manifest across the whole life, not just in the brief flash of competition that TV tends to fetishize. I think that elite athletes are some of the bravest and most inspiring people in our society, that the rest of us have a lot to learn from them, and that we should be more interested in what makes them tick as people. Having said that, I think champions have earned the right to our deference and respect. I'd be more inclined to approach them with a listening ear than a long lens.
Zoe is very much driven by demons from her past but Kate is more focused on the issues of the present. Do you think the two could be friends if not how sport and related events have bound them together?
The two women are poles apart and without sport they would never have met. An irresistible aspect of competition from a storyteller's point of view is that it corrals some very diverse people in pursuit of a common goal. That goal, of course, is to wipe the floor with one's rivals, which means that any friendships thus forged are uniquely nuanced. I love the great historical sporting rivalries - Seb Coe and Steve Ovett, Fausto Coppi and Gino Bartali, Steffi Graf and Martina Navratilova, Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding. It is incredibly hard to like your nemesis; even harder to acknowledge that they are the person who has made you who you are. I was interested in the relationship between two women who were coming to the end of their athletic careers, because once the sporting rivalry is over, your rival is actually the person on earth who best understands you, and with whom you have the most in common. I was interested to explore the extremities of such a friendship.
When the riders first meet their future coach, Tom, he is able to tell very quickly which riders are the ones who show medal-winning potential. Do you think people would have guessed at your future success as a writer from your earliest efforts?
No - I'm not a naturally great writer, and I still have to do a lot of redrafting and editing. I think the only thing people would have detected at the start is that I certainly wanted to be a writer. I worked and worked at it, producing hundreds of stories by the time I was twenty. I probably also have some natural tendency to storytelling. I consciously call it a tendency rather than an ability. My brain is strangely wired, I think: it works associatively rather than logically, and I have an impulsive streak that means I launch into stories without worrying too hard about how it will all end. I'm probably a bit of a mess, neurologically. I was once rejected as a subject in a psychological study because I exhibited REM sleep brain patterns throughout the day. Sometimes I worry what it would be like if I ever properly woke up.
Why do you think cycling has developed a huge following in Britain in the last few years?
Four strands I can think of. Mountain biking has grown quickly because it is fun, because the bikes have developed very fast into these amazing and affordable machines that let you cover a lot of beautiful landscape, and because Britain actually has great access to the countryside in terms of rights of way. Second, road cycling has blossomed as the pendulum gradually swings away from the petrol head culture and there is an acceptance that fitness is more precious than wealth. Third, the pricey and unreliable public transport system in an increasingly crowded South East has encouraged more people to give cycle commuting a go. Finally, I think people are inspired by the success of British cycling stars on the road and on the track, and are becoming increasingly aware that cycling is a definitive British sport with a long and storied past. You can ride the same roads that Tom Simpson rode. You can ride the same bike that Nicole Cooke rides. Even if you can't go as fast as them, it's the same wind you feel on your face.
The Other Hand was huge in America, where - retitled as Little Bee - the book reached no.1 on the New York Times bestseller list. Did you find that your American readers reacted any differently to the book?
No - something I've learned as a writer is that readers respond to stories in ways that are impossible to predict on the basis of nationality, race, class or creed. The communication is from one human being to another. I know that film and TV producers have a different experience in this regard, and are able to predict or at least to describe how audiences react in particular markets. But it isn't the same for books, and maybe this is because readers tend to be, by definition, rather well read. Their thought and experience transcend national boundaries. I've been welcomed with enormous warmth and courtesy by American readers, but readers in other countries have been no less generous. It's been an amazing journey so far, and I'm hugely grateful to my readers. I talk with them all the time, online and on tour. I like them and feel close to them. What you don't realise when you set out to become a storyteller is that it is your audience that informs you, rather than the other way around. You end up doing a lot more listening than talking, and your readers become the story of your life.