20 writerly questions for Chris Cleave

Chris Cleave’s first novel, Incendiary, was published in 20 countries, won the 2006 Somerset Maugham Award and was shortlisted for the 2006 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize. His second novel, Little Bee, was a New York Times bestseller and was shortlisted for the Costa Award and the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize. In Canada, it was a national bestseller, and a reader and book-club favourite. Chris Cleave lives in London with his French wife and three mischievous Anglo-French children. His newest book is Gold.

1. How would you summarize your book in one sentence?

Gold is a celebration of the human heart’s capacity to do more than just pump blood.

2. How long did it take you to write this book?

It took three years because, as ever, I place the greatest importance on the work of researching and even inhabiting my characters’ lives. I try to live their lives for long enough so that by the time I begin writing I feel their reactions by instinct rather than by conscious deliberation. Gold concerns the zenith of athletic achievement and the nadir of grave illness, and I researched both. In order to understand athletes’ lives, for several months I trained on a bicycle with the same schedule that professional riders typically use — though not, I hasten to add, at the same speed. This taught me a little about the pain that top athletes go through and the extremity of the obsession that they need to have. And then, to research illness, I shadowed a pediatric hematologist at Great Ormond Street Hospital in London. I was in the room while the doctor gave serious diagnoses to parents, and I was able to observe their reactions and to witness what happens to children during treatment for leukemia. The whole research process was an education for me, and a humbling process. I learned that the strongest, bravest, most admirable people in society are often the ones we have never seen or heard of.

3. Where is your favourite place to write?

I work in a library in central London, hidden away at a little desk high in the stacks. I don’t do email, admin or anything else there — I just write. When I need a break I walk around town and watch people. The whole of life is on display in London. It’s frequently funny, occasionally shocking, and always inspiring.


4. How do you choose your characters’ names?

I have a lot of history with names. In my first novel, Incendiary, I didn’t give my heroine a name at all because I wanted the reader to relate to her and to find her voice within themselves. I wanted her to be more than Everywoman: I wanted her to be you. And that was easier to achieve if she was nameless. If I were to call her, for the sake of argument, Persephone, then it might be harder to feel her voice as your own. In my second novel, Little Bee, the protagonist has a given name and also a name that she adopts in order to disguise her identity. In a story which is all about identity, the name she chooses and the name she was given are both significant. And then in my third novel, Gold, I’ve deliberately given my characters everyday names — Jack, Kate, Zoe, Sophie, Tom — because it is their deeds, rather than their identities, which are important.

5. How many drafts do you go through?

Gold went through six drafts. I don’t stop until I think it’s right. I am lucky enough to have some very adventurous and committed readers, and my response is that I must show them the same level of commitment. I aim to push myself harder and take more risks each time, so that each novel is worth the wait for the reader. I am also very fortunate that my publishers share my view that the reader deserves something from the heart. They have never put pressure on me to release a story before it was ready. Kudos to them for that, because it takes guts and conviction to resist the commercial pressure to bang out half-baked books.

6. If there was one book you wish you had written what would it be?

I don’t really think that way about books. There are novels I can lose myself in again and again — like Virginia Woolf’s — precisely because they are so unlike anything I could have written myself. I think that’s the astonishing thing about fiction: it shows us how startlingly different we are from one another in our ways of seeing the single life we share. This is why readers of novels tend to be such open-minded and interesting people — because they enjoy the experience of seeing the world from angles oblique to their own.

7. If your book were to become a movie, who would you like to see star in it?

Actors. That would definitely be best.

8. What’s your favourite city in the world?

London. It’s as big as life is, and often a little weirder.

9. If you could talk to any writer living or dead who would it be, and what would you ask?

In a sense we can talk to any writer, living or dead. Writers reveal themselves completely — much more than the people we know in real life do, I sometimes think. You can ask a question of a great novel and get some kind of a response, even if that response is as cryptic as the Magic 8-Ball. That’s a somewhat eccentric reply, though, I’ll freely admit. Okay, I’d like to take John Steinbeck to the pub and ask him if he fancied a beer milkshake.

10. Do you listen to music while you write? If so, what kind?

I never listen to music while I write. That would be like playing computer games while you drove, or eating while you kissed.

11. Who is the first person who gets to read your manuscript?

My agents and editors are always the first to read my stuff. I have warm and enduring relationships with them and I trust their judgment absolutely. I don’t ever ask my family or my other friends for their opinion, because I don’t think it’s fair on them. If they were to like my stuff, then great, but if they didn’t then it would put them in an awkward position. I think it’s an abdication of personal responsibility when a writer asks his friends for their opinion. My doctor friends don’t give me their diagnoses to check, after all.

12. Do you have a guilty pleasure read?

I don’t think I’d ever feel guilty about enjoying reading. I like any piece of work where the artist has turned themselves inside out to produce something true and compelling. That’s as true of the Batman comics as it is of Finnegans Wake.

13. What’s on your nightstand right now?

The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers, In The Shadow Of The Banyan by Vaddey Ratner, The Waves by Virginia Woolf, Plateforme by Michel Houellebecq, two issues of Cycling Weekly, a packet of a French cold-and-flu remedy called Humex, my Garmin cycling GPS, £3.47 and $82, a key to a friend’s flat, one of my kids’ drawings and a pink sticky note I wrote in the night that says: PROTAG MUST NOT REVEAL GENDER UNTIL AFTER (POSS YEARS AFTER) H HAS GONE. What’s mysterious about it is that I can’t work out who (or what) “H” could possibly be.

14. What is the first book you remember reading?

Voyage of the Dawn Treader by C.S. Lewis. I used to love the Narnia books and disappear for days at a time into their magical world, although when I recently bought the books for my children and began to re-read them, I realized that they were the most appalling pieces of crap. It was strange and upsetting.

15. Did you always want to be a writer?

Yes, since I was eight. I used to write ‘novels’ that were six pages long, staple the pages together and draw the jackets with felt-tip pens. I feel that the six-page hand-stapled novel with jam and hot chocolate stains is a particularly neglected art-form.

16. What do you drink or eat while you write?

I drink a lot of coffee. You have to crank your brain up to a pretty high pitch. Indeed it’s a fine line for a novelist between being sufficiently caffeinated and being hospitalized with palpitations.

17. Typewriter, laptop, or pen & paper?

MacBook Air. It’s the tool of choice because it’s soundless and small. You want to feel bigger and more vocal than the thing you’re writing on. I have a rather ascetic one with the logos blanked out, wifi disabled and everything stripped off it except Word. So many writers aren’t doing their best work because the tool they write with has more built-in distractions than Soho.

18. What did you do immediately after hearing that you were being published for the very first time?


19. How do you decide which narrative point of view to write from?

I make carefully-argued logical plot summaries where I analyze which characters will be closest to the main arcs of the story, and which will be able to hide and reveal elements of history as appropriate. Then I ceremonially burn those summaries and just write from the point of view of the character I like best.

20. What is the best gift someone could give a writer?

Well, you know the old adage: Give a novelist a fish and he eats for a day. Teach a novelist to fish and he writes Moby Dick

Source: Random House

Read an excerpt from Gold