Before his first novel, Incendiary, became a star-studded film, and before his follow-up, Little Bee, became a runaway bestseller, and before his highly anticipated new release, Gold, launched him on a huge international book tour, British author Chris Cleave was just an ordinary guy who really, really wanted to tell stories for a living—and whose writing career very nearly stopped before it began.
Even if you’ve heard the story before, it’s hard not to cringe when the author matter-of-factly recounts his literary debut. “Incendiary was published on the 7th of July, 2005, the day of the London bombings—and it was a story about a terrorist attack on London. What happened is it got taken off sale. It went onto the shelves at 9 in the morning, and it was taken off the shelves at 10:30—it was that quick.”
It was almost enough to stop Cleave from ever writing again—almost. But what happened next was a different kind of jaw-dropping: Against all odds, the book found an audience anyway. And when Cleave returned to the blank page and emerged with Little Bee—the unsettling story of a life-changing encounter between a vacationing couple and a refugee—he found himself at the opposite end of the spectrum: topping the charts in the U.K., U.S. and beyond.
If pressed, most writers would admit to looking at those who’ve enjoyed enviable success as—well, enviable. But when it comes to Cleave—a 38-year-old father of three who spoke to WD with humor and charm about his path from an every-writer’s-nightmare debut to an every-writer’s-dream career—you can’t help but be just plain happy for the bloke.
Cleave went to great lengths for Gold, a story of two rival Olympic cyclists—one a single-minded athlete to the core, the other an emotionally torn parent to a daughter with leukemia. In an exclusive interview in the September 2012 issue of Writer’s Digest magazine, Cleave shares what he learned about publishing, readers and writing from all the ups and downs he has experienced on his way to success. (To read the full interview, click here.) In these bonus online-exclusive outtakes from the print interview, he talks more about the importance of timing, real-life research, complex characters and perseverance in publishing.
The release of Gold seems perfectly timed to the 2012 Olympics in London—a marked contrast to Incendiary’s unfortunate timing. How important is timing to the career of a fiction writer, and what role did that play in conceiving the story behind Gold?
Timing is critically important in the kind of storytelling I do, because my work and habits have a sort of five-year gap in between the point at which newspapers stop covering a story and the point at which historians start to analyze it. That’s my artistic space that I’ve chosen to be in—writing about a world that hasn’t really cooled yet, because I think that’s a really exciting place to be. So timing is really important. I’m always thinking two or three years ahead: What’s going to be the story that’s on people’s minds, and how can I approach that from an angle people won’t have thought of yet?
When they come to the book, I want [readers] to think, Wow, this is a story about now—it could be happening right now. And I want it to go to a level of analysis that’s more than they’re going to get on TV and in the newspapers. Something quite beautiful that you can do in a novel is really take the space and take the time to explore complicated characters, people who are flawed and have complicated reactions. That’s why I think it’s valuable to write novels about current events—you can go to a different level of emotion, a different level of excitement, and so timing is really important. I have to pick the right story, and I have to pick the right angle, and I have to do that two years ahead of real time. And sometimes I get it right, and sometimes I get it really badly wrong, as you mentioned. [Laughs.] It’s a dangerous space to work in, but as an artist it’s a really exciting one, I think.
You immersed yourself in hands-on research for Gold, even training as a cyclist. Why do you feel that kind of firsthand experience was important for this book?
I always do very intensive research—for example, for Little Bee I interviewed dozens of refugees—but for Gold it was even more important, because I was never any good at sport. [Laughs.] In fact, just the opposite: I was terrible. I became a kid in the corner reading a book, which I was happy with—I just accepted that I was no good. And because of that, sport has always fascinated me—all these worlds where we can’t go are the most fascinating ones of all. I think that athletes are amazing people. They’re incredibly dedicated, and brave, and inspiring, and what they do is unimaginably hard. So I thought, OK, whenever I use that world unimaginably, I think, Well, actually, it’s my job to imagine it—so come on, please, try harder! [Laughs.]
I’d interviewed lots of athletes, and they were telling me stuff I just didn’t believe. They were saying that actually training doesn’t make you feel good and strong, training makes you feel terrible and you want to cry a lot of the time. And I was like, You’ve got to be kidding. So I thought, Well, I’m going to have to do this. I put myself through this program of training on a bicycle. For about two months I was doing 20 hours a week of really intense training, and by the end of it, I was absolutely broken. I didn’t feel good, I didn’t feel strong, I felt ill. I would often find myself in the rain—because it always seems to be raining in Britain—I’d find myself 70 miles from home in the rain trying not to cry [laughs], like, Shit, this is terrible! You go through these waves of euphoria where you think, Oh, look how much stronger I’m getting, this is great—you’re getting thinner, and you’re getting stronger—I remember one day just standing in the shower, looking down at my legs and thinking, These don’t look like my legs anymore! This is amazing! They have muscles and everything! And then the next week you’ll have overdone it, and you’ll find yourself in the rain, miles from home and too tired to get back, just feeling really sorry for yourself.
It just got worse and worse, and two months in to this program, I really did begin to understand the level of dedication that’s required to be an athlete. And to understand that, yeah, it’s true, I really am not one! [Laughs.]
The people who do it are just fabulous and interesting people, because they’re able to suffer in the pursuit of a very specific goal. That got me really interested in, OK, who are these people? What is it that means they can do this thing that’s so extreme? It’s so hard, what they do. What is it that’s given them that steel in their character? If they’re strong enough to train like that, what are the things they’re bad at? What are the things they’ve had to sacrifice in order to be that single-minded?
That got me thinking about how much you have to give up in order to be that focused, and how many other people’s dreams you have to trample on in order to climb towards your own. Because sport is about beating people as well as about winning—those are two completely different things. Winning sounds great, doesn’t it? Everyone likes a winner. But actually, in order to win, you have to smash someone else’s hopes on the anvil of your own ambition. It’s a brutal thing to do to someone. I got fascinated by their characters.
And I’d become so ill in training—I’d managed to really destroy my immune system by overtraining. I was ill for a couple of months, really quite ill, couldn’t-get-out-of-bed ill. And that was when I got a real insight into how I wanted to write the book. I felt that the best way to write a story about sport would be to interweave it with a story about illness, which is the antithesis really of the strength of sports people. And that’s when I decided I’d have this character, Sophie, whose parents are athletes, but her struggle is a completely different one—her struggle is with death itself.
And that’s when I started the second strand of my research, which is where I spent a lot of time in a hospital in London shadowing a doctor who works with children with leukemia, and just observed the daily life of the hospital. I was in the room when this doctor was giving the diagnosis to the parents, and then following the treatments these kids go through. It was a very traumatic environment, but full of these amazing stories of survival and hope. Ninety percent of the kids with leukemia survive, and 40 years ago it was the other way around. It’s been a huge turnaround, and the results get better every year. It’s actually a very hopeful environment, as well as being emotionally difficult, and the more I learned about that, the more I thought, Yeah, there’s going to be this kid, she’s going to struggle, and through this process we’re all going to learn a little bit more about what the real values are that underpin the lives of these really extreme sportspeople. And that was the bones of the story that I decided I wanted to tell.
You really have achieved an amazing level of success, and I know you can relate to writers dreaming of one day getting to where you are, and feeling that frustration of trying to launch their careers. What’s your best advice?
I think the frustration is a really positive sign, for a start. If it didn’t bother you, then you wouldn’t be a very good writer. I remember it being incredibly frustrating trying to get people to read my stuff. And now, I still get incredibly frustrated with myself, because there’s always such a difference between the book that I try to write and the book that I end up with. I just wish that I was technically good enough to achieve the vision in my head at the start of a book.
I’d say the first thing is that the frustration and the heartache is a really good sign, because it means you care. The second thing I’d say is that it doesn’t go away. You were saying, “How does it feel to be successful, and to have all of these things that you wanted to achieve, and you’re achieving them?” Well, it feels terrifying. It feels really scary, because there’s a different set of pressures that kick in that want to take you away from this honest relationship you have with your readers. I used to have my email address on my website until very recently—you could just email me, and people did, and I would end up in these long correspondences with people. And so many people were using it that I just couldn’t keep up. It scares me now that I don’t have that super direct relationship with my readers that I used to. Let’s not forget these are the people who saved me. I got saved by readers, not by publishers. So the second thing I’d say is the fear and frustration don’t go away, they just repeatedly change their form. I think being a writer is about being frustrated and fearful and freaked out by things. That’s sort of why we write, to try and make sense of that, and try and transform it into something beautiful.
But I think there’s a lot of super practical advice I could give as well. Thing one is trust your readers, and that applies at every single level of writing, from the sentence level—you don’t need to hammer a point home, you can hint at things because readers are super smart—all the way through to the level of the whole novel. You can trust readers to let you write about difficult and dangerous and complicated subjects. You don’t have to dumb it down for them. You don’t have to write the bestseller the publishing industry thinks is bestseller shape. If you look at all of the greatest novels that have ever been published, they’ve all broken every rule of publishing. Those writers had an amazing trust in their readers. They said, “Look, if I’m honestly excited about this story, then other people will be, too. I’m going to trust my readers and believe in them and be honest with them.” I’ve learned that you can give the reader a lot of respect because they do half the creative work with the novel.
Second is: When I was starting out writing, I put writers up on a pedestal, and thought that they must feel transcendent and different all the time and their life must be one of wisdom and insight. And I was thinking, When am I going to start feeling like that? And I’m still waiting. I feel very, very ordinary and uninspired most of the time. My novels come as the result of working for a long time and going through a lot of failure. The only thing that’s changed is as I’ve slowly had more success, I’ve gotten to work with better and better people who are psychologically more supportive of me and who trust in me more, and therefore I can trust in them more, and it’s been a very slow process of people helping me to develop as a writer to a point where now I think I can write a novel that’s not too bad. Given three and a half years and a bunch of chances, I can eventually get there! [Laughs.] But I couldn’t get there straight away on my own. It took a long time, and I don’t feel inspired or different now.
I can’t stand that school of thought that says that writers are an elite, and a great writer should be above the fray, and shouldn’t get involved with ordinary life, and be media shy, and just make a pronouncement in the media every six months.. I don’t think that’s a healthy thing. I think that being a writer is a trade, like any other, and you learn it and you slowly get good at it.
And third: Make sure you’re excited about your work. When you go out and research a story, it should feel like life and death. And when you come to writing it, it should feel like, It will be devastating for me if I don’t make this story as exciting as I know it can be. You should get up every day and just think, If I’m not super excited about the 2,000 words I’m going to do today, how can I make it so I am super excited? It should never feel like a chore. It should never get to that stage where you’re just saying, OK, I have to crank out 2,000 words today, and you’re basically looking at the clock and trying to get to the end of it. If it ever gets boring, the reader can tell straight away, and if you’re bored of it, then you’re not being honest with the reader. And so you need to put the pen down, step away from the desk, and change something, and not come back to the desk until you’re excited about the paragraph or the line or the chapter that you’re about to write.
To read the complete Writer’s Digest magazine interview with this talented bestselling author, don’t miss the September 2012 issue.