After auspicious beginnings with his debut, Incendiary, London author Chris Cleave blew audiences away with his resonant sophomore effort, Little Bee, which became a literary sensation in Britain and in America.
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His latest, Gold, is an Olympic-themed show-stopper, is a testament to the power of family, courage, athletic drive and determination. Cleave marries the theme of personal endurance with familial sacrifice and solidifies his place as one of the literary world’s finest and truest chroniclers of the human condition.
We caught up with Cleave prior to BEA and found him eager to discuss what makes him work so hard and cycle so fast, along with some candid thoughts about his inspiration to create the kind of children’s characters who end up capturing readers’ hearts.
Being a London resident, are you excited for the 2012 London Olympics? Was this your inspiration for the book?
Yes, absolutely. The first time we heard they were going to host the Olympics was in July of 2005, when Incendiary was published. It’s just really important for me as an artist to have something as beautiful as the Olympic ideal to write about. It gives some life to the sports people that you don’t really see in terms of their Olympic results. I’m interested in the four years that we don’t see them, rather than the two weeks that we do. In that time, that’s where their real lives lie.
Your novels often have a strong child at their center: Charlie in Little Bee and Sophie in Gold. Where does the inspiration to write about young people come from?
It comes from my children. They’re the biggest things in my life. They’re my reason to care about life really. I like to see, in their lives, the reasons why we should be concerned about honor and courage and bravery and these wonderful things that make us human. I see these things more in children than in adults. I think I should try to be more like them, so I put them in my novels. Children can teach us a lot about what is elemental and powerful about life. It is the heart of who I am really.
Do you have a writing regimen?
It’s almost impossible. I get up at 5 a.m. and I train. I’ve become a fanatical cyclist. After researching Gold, I really became interested in training that hard. So, the first two hours of every day I’m on the bike. I then try to work really hard and write for six hours, which is as long as I can hold that focused concentration for. I’ll think of the scene I’d just written and how I could’ve written it better. I think that’s the key to writing—if you have children, you have to really care about the work and making it the best it can be. You have to be super disciplined.
Did you do much research on leukemia for your novel?
I was really lucky, actually. At Great Ormond Street Hospital in London, a place that cares for sick children, there is a doctor there, and I got to shadow him and be in the room when he was delivering some serious diagnoses to parents. I experienced firsthand what that emotion is like, and I also saw children receiving chemotherapy. These kids are very sick, they’re hollow-cheeked and their voice is sometimes just a whisper. But 90 percent of them will go into remission due to medical advancements! I took away a sense of hope from that experience, and I became very moved by the courage of the children there.
What fascinates you so about speed-cycling enough to write about it in your novel with such passion?
The tactics and the strategies that are employed are very dramatic and elemental in the sport. They are very interesting characters. The fact that it’s the perfect marriage of absolute physicality and fierce intelligence and instinct—it’s an all-around sport that expresses your physicality and the sheer ability to know whether to speed up or slow down.
It’s a lot like poker, the way you can spot your opponent’s strengths and weaknesses—perfect for a novelist. I’ve become more and more passionate about the sport. It’s part of who I am now. It’s exciting for me personally and as a writer—it’s important that the work change your own life. That’s my reason for writing. Each novel has changed me as a person. This particular one has changed me physically.
How much of your personality can be found in your books?
I think you see a little bit of my children in my books—I write a lot about my observations on my own children. You can see that I’m fascinated by the reasons people function as they do, their motivations for getting out of bed every morning, and of the extremes of human life.
In Gold, it’s about being at the limit of your physicality, whereas, in Little Bee, it was the extreme of humor horror. I think you can see that I like to tell a story the best I can. There’s a lot of me in my books. I’m not very good at taking distance from my work.
You write in your acknowledgments that this book evolved from six drafts. Was the process exhaustive or cathartic, or even both?
It was exhausting! But I’m very lucky to have a very supportive publisher. They’ve given me the time to produce my very best work. I’m not one of those novelists who’s a genius—I work really hard. Sometimes it takes me six drafts. These days, especially, people forget how important it is to have a supportive publisher and a good editor. It’s like having a great coach in sports—they can make you 10 times better.
You write about very real, very passionate characters in your novels. is it difficult to leave them behind in order to begin your next novel?
I’m already really excited about my next project! I feel that my novels are all my friends, and I’m so proud of all of them. I am always thinking I can do better. It’s not hard to stop.
These days, with the Internet, with my website and with Twitter, I never stop talking about my older novels with people. I never really have to move on and don’t really ever say goodbye. I really immerse myself in the research, that’s how I learn and change. I don’t see it as saying goodbye, I see it as moving on and continually changing as a person so I always have an interesting story to tell.