Last night, I went to listen to Chris Cleave talk at the Brookline Booksmith, an excellent independent bookstore. (Earlier in the day, Cleave spoke at Porter Square Books, another lovely indie.) The talk was completely worth the crosstown trip in rush hour. Cleave is a delightful speaker; he’s energetic, articulate, intelligent, funny, and self-effacing. He talked about his writing process and about the research he did for each book, and then read a little bit from his newest, Gold, and answered questions from the audience.
Cleave’s approach, as a journalist-turned-author, is to investigate “timeless questions in a timely manner.” For Incendiary, the question was, “Why do governments take better care of rich people than poor people?” For Little Bee (published as The Other Hand in the U.K.), the question was, “Should we step outside our comfort zone to bring others into it?” And for Gold, the question was, “How much ambition should we give up in the name of love?”
Olympians, Cleave pointed out, have “a different scale of ambition.” For Olympic athletes, unlike the rest of us, it is “necessary for everyone else in the world to fail” for them to win. Rivalries are intense; but rivalry is similar to “romantic love…[it] lifts both people up better than they could have been individually.” In Gold, Zoe and Kate train together and push each other to be their best, each hoping that her best is the best.
In researching Gold, Cleave interviewed top-level athletes, as well as doctors and nurses at a children’s hospital. “These people operate at such emotional extremes….It’s my job to describe indescribable things…[to visit the] extreme edges [of] exceptional lives and report back.” Cleave also trained on a bicycle himself, discovering a “savage joy” in winning (“That’s why you do the research, to go out and find things you weren’t expecting”), as well as the “unbridgeable gulf” between top athletes and the rest of us. Cleave said that the race scenes between Kate and Zoe are the heart of the book (“reclaiming action for literary fiction”). As a reader I’m not sure I agree, though the race scenes are well-written and intense.
Of the two high-level struggles in Gold – Kate and Zoe’s rivalry, eight-year-old Sophie’s fight against leukemia – Cleave said, the characters either see the difference or they don’t. Kate, as Sophie’s mother, has more often sacrificed ambition for love than love for ambition; Zoe is the opposite, and whether she will or can change is one of the central questions of her character and of the book.
After Cleave read a brief passage from Gold (Kate and Zoe’s coach Tom Voss speaking with Zoe’s agent on the phone, early in the book), there was a Q&A period. The first question was, “How do you write children well?” As a father of three children (or “experimental subjects”), he observes closely, with special attention to speech patterns; Charlie, from Little Bee, was closely modeled on Cleave’s eldest son. “Moments are ephemeral, you have to preserve them,” he said. “I’m nostalgic for the present even before it’s become the past.”
Why, I asked, did all three of his books contain infidelity? “I’m interested in people who are in transition,” he answered. People in steady states aren’t interesting; you don’t see many novels about happy marriages. When characters are in flux/in crisis/changing, “there’s only so much you can change” – your city, your job, your partner. Infidelity isn’t one of Cleave’s “timeless questions,” and his writing about it is remarkably free of judgment.
Another woman in the audience asked how Cleave wrote women characters so well. “Well there is a lot of dressing up involved,” he joked. Asking taboo questions during interviews was one successful tactic; wearing headphones (sound off) in public was another. He then explained an early rule he set for himself: “[I'm] not writing about me.” Counter to the common advice to “write what you know,” Cleave sets out to “cross a boundary every time” he picks up a pen. “I’m very curious about people,” he said, and one can tell from his books that he is a careful listener and close observer indeed.
During the book signing after the reading and Q&A, Cleave was polite and engaging. When I asked him if he had ever considered another outcome for Sophie, he said right away that he had, in the first draft, but he changed it. “Sensitive readers,” however, will pick up on certain sentences that are so full of foreboding that they have nearly the same impact as another outcome would have done. (Sorry if that’s vague; I’m trying to avoid spoilers.)
All in all, I now have even more respect for this author than before. If he comes through your city or town on his tour, I encourage you to go see him, and of course I highly, highly recommend picking up a copy of Gold.
Read the Goodreads interview with Chris Cleave.
Chris Cleave’s books on Goodreads: