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Author Talk: July 5, 2012

Chris Cleave, the author of INCENDIARY and the #1 New York Times bestseller LITTLE BEE, returns with his newest novel, GOLD, just in time for the start of this year's Olympics. In this interview, Cleave talks about the creation of his main characters, the research he conducted that allowed him to write so effectively about little Sophie's illness, and his evolution as a writer.

Question: GOLD has five very distinct major characters. Which of them materialized for you first? Do you have a favorite?

Chris Cleave: All five characters materialized together. The inside of my head was like that scene in the original Star Trek series where the whole team beams up at once from the surface of an alien world. First there is nothing in the transporter room, then those five shimmering columns of 1960s FX glitter as the inchoate forms fade in, and then there they all are at once: fully-formed, caught in mid-sentence, and wearing futuristic space pajamas.

My characters wear civilian clothes, but there is a reason they all appeared together. In my previous work I’ve always had a single hero or a heroine, which makes the rest of the cast --- even some of the major characters --- subordinate. I think that works well when the story is driven by a desire to expose an injustice or to give an unorthodox point of view. INCENDIARY (2005) was about the horror of being a victim of terrorism and LITTLE BEE (2008) was about the evil done to refugees. In a story like that you can enshrine what is good in your primary narrator and embody the particular evil in the lives of the minor characters.

But GOLD is a different kind of story. The injustice in GOLD is the ultimate injustice of dissolution and death, and all five of the characters are equally important as they battle against that destruction in their own way.

Sophie, stricken with illness at the very start of life, confronts the real possibility of her death: mostly obliquely via the cipher of the Star Wars mythology, and finally directly. Zoe, Jack and Kate, in the middle part of their lives, are realizing that age is about to call time on their careers and reveal their great animating rivalries as ephemeral and superannuated. And Tom, in his declining years, is confronted with his own physical degeneration. In passing on to the next generation whatever love and knowledge has accrued to him, he reaches for a kind of immortality.

I wanted to create a story where the five characters depended absolutely on one another as they faced up to this tyranny of time --- where their lives were inextricably bound up with each other, like the five interlocking rings in the Olympic logo which appears as a motif throughout the narrative.

I don’t have a favorite or a least favorite character. It’s important to me that there is no hero and no villain. As I get older myself I am more aware that the oppositions we create for ourselves --- like the epic sporting rivalry between Zoe and Kate --- are fleeting and insignificant beside that great opposition we experience as humans: we, on the one side, the living --- and on the other side, darkness and death.

As a writer I am interested in whether the love we learn to show to each other in life, as we surrender our personal ambitions, creates sufficient light --- on balance --- to illuminate our path.

Q: What kind of research did you do for this book?

CC: I was interested in life and death, so I went to interview them much as a reporter would. You can’t interrogate death directly but you can get pretty close to death’s proxy here on earth, which is illness. I was allowed to spend some time at Great Ormond Street Hospital for sick children, in London. I shadowed a remarkable man, the pediatrician I talk about in the ‘Author’s Note’ at the end of the novel. I met kids of about Sophie’s age who were suffering with leukemia.

As I’ve mentioned, nine out of ten children in that situation will go into remission, so what I was witnessing was a very positive scenario in most cases. But a child with leukemia --- even one who is likely to recover --- is still desperately, heartbreakingly sick. You want to hug them but you can’t because their immune systems are shot to bits and the last thing they need is your germs.

The treatment protocol in many cases involves a chemotherapy so awfully toxic that it creates almost unbearable symptoms in its own right. Indeed, the children who do not make it could be said to have been killed by the chemotherapy as much as by the leukemia. This is an incredibly extreme situation for the parents: to see their child physically tormented to the brink of annihilation in order to make them better. You learn a lot about death, and families’ responses to living in its shadow, by spending time in a situation like that.    

As for life, it’s like that friend you were sure was right next to you in the crowd but when you turn to look, it’s nowhere to be seen. The best I could do as a researcher was to find out more about health, which is rather like life’s P.A. --- it knows how life can be contacted, and so it’s worth keeping on friendly terms with it. I was interested in health as manifest in the bodies of athletes. Sport at the elite level is the epitome of health and the opposite of sickness, and I was determined as a researcher to get as fit as the elite cyclists, to see what it felt like so that I could write about it convincingly.

I failed, of course. I got pretty fit, but that was all. I rode thousands of miles on the road, I raced around velodromes, and I pushed myself as far as I could go beyond the threshold of pain. After a few months I hit a limit beyond which I could get no quicker. All I learned was that I am physically very ordinary, and that the athletes I wanted to write about are extraordinary. They are like angels, in that they walk among us but are not of our flesh.

That’s what I learned, and then I stopped training and cleverly ate donuts.

Q: Do you love Star Wars as much as Sophie does?

CC: Star Wars is threaded through my childhood and I can’t imagine growing up without it. It has all the archetypes and storylines one could wish for in a mythology. Of course it is just a glorious mash-up of every classical myth and hucksterish religion ever concocted on Earth, but the fact that it is transposed to a galaxy far, far away and has Carrie Fisher in it made it my blueprint for growing up. Some days it worries me that I learned about sarcasm from R2-D2, nutrition from Jabba the Hutt, wardrobe selection from Vader and dislike for convention from the young Harrison Ford. Other days I’m too busy practicing my Jedi mind tricks to suffer from that kind of angst.

I am very interested as a writer in how children relate to the world through the mythologies we bequeath to them. The world in its naked form is absolutely incomprehensible to us as kids. We first learn about the eternal truths of the human experience --- which Faulkner listed as love, honor, pity, pride, compassion and sacrifice --- by seeing them acted out in a stylized form in stories. It gives us some categories into which we can file the insane things we see grown-ups doing. In the case of Sophie, grappling with the specter of her death, I find it poignant that the ersatz mythology she relies on to make sense of her experience is so insufficient.

Q: After the success of LITTLE BEE and INCENDIARY, did you feel pressure to write another political novel? Do you think you will go back to that realm any time soon?

CC: Well, I don’t think of LITTLE BEE and INCENDIARY as political novels. Really they’re novels inspired by anger. I like most of the people I meet --- I think ninety percent of humans are basically good --- and therefore like any sane person I get furious to the point of weeping about politicians and money men and thugs and mercenaries and the whole apparatus of mean-spirited fools that makes life hell for so many people. It just happens to be my job to write about those things in a way that hopefully generates more light than heat. I’m defusing the bomb of my anger in my novels. I’m using tools like humor and pathos and story and character to disassemble that rage into its constituent parts and then build those components back into something less ugly and more useful. That’s what a true novel is: a sword turned into a ploughshare. Anything less is just a rant: a blast pattern made by shrapnel.

In evolving through those first two novels to GOLD, I haven’t changed what I do as a writer at all. It’s just that I’m directing my anger at some harder and (to me) more frightening targets. I’m over being angry at policy and polity --- it’s the novelistic equivalent of shooting trout in a barrel. I always need a bigger enemy and so this time around I’m raising my game, with whatever success the reader will judge. I’m angry at death itself, in this novel. I’m interested to see whether as a writer I can apply my same trusted tools --- humor and pathos and story and character --- to disassemble that anger I feel against our own inevitable dissolution, and to build it back up into something beautiful.

I made a promise when I started out as a writer that I would never repeat myself and that I would try harder and harder every time to express something I’m still certain is true: that people are good, and that life can be beautiful. In my attempts to show this, I think my characters will be up against a stronger adversary with each novel.

I was having this conversation with a friend who asked me whether there was anywhere left to go, once you’ve made death itself the villain of a piece. My answer is that there is a lot I still want to write, because there are things I fear much more than death. I haven’t written a novel about insanity yet, for example. I haven’t written a novel about evil.

Q: What do you most want to be known for, as a writer?

CC: Someone who asks respectfully for the reader’s time and never wastes it.