Chris Cleave Interview, plus links to author biography, book summaries, excerpts and reviews

Chris Cleave
Photo: Lou Abercrombie

Chris Cleave

An interview with Chris Cleave

Chris Cleave talks about Incendiary (2006), in which a distraught woman writes a letter to bin Laden after her family are killed by a massive suicide bomb; and about Little Bee (2008), which "delivers a timely challenge to reinvigorate our notions of civilized decency."

In two separate interviews Chris Cleave talks about Incendiary (2006), in which a distraught woman writes a letter to bin Laden after her family are killed by a massive suicide bomb; and Little Bee (2008) which "delivers a timely challenge to reinvigorate our notions of civilized decency."

A Conversation with Chris Cleave about Little Bee

Why did you choose to open the novel with the quote from Life in the United Kingdom: A Journey to Citizenship? What does the typo in this quote mean for you?

The quote is "Britain is proud of its tradition of providing a safe haven for people fleeting [sic] persecution and conflict." I took it from Life in the United Kingdom, which is the text book given to immigrants preparing for their citizenship test in the UK. It covers British history, government and etiquette. It offers the excellent advice "If you spill a stranger's drink by accident, it is good manners (and prudent) to offer to buy another." Less gloriously, though, its summary of British history is rather selective, and the work as a whole is riddled with inaccuracies and typographical errors. My belief is that if a refugee is prepared to walk away from a regime that has imprisoned and tortured her, flee to the UK, apply for asylum, and commit to memory the contents of the text book we make compulsory for her, then for our part we should at least be prepared to have that text book professionally copy-edited. The typo in that opening quotation is a nice example of a bureaucracy that is pretending to care, but not pretending very hard.

What challenges did you encounter using two narrators? How did using two voices allow you to tell the story more thoroughly? What were some difficulties you faced writing from a female perspective? Sarah and Little Bee are each strong, extraordinary women; how did you show their strength through their very different styles of narration?

I knew this was a compelling story but after agonizing over which character would be the best one to narrate it, I realized that the strongest perspective would actually be a dual one. This is a story of two worlds: the developed and the developing, and of the mutual incomprehension that sometimes dooms them to antagonism. So by taking one woman from each side of the divide, and investing each with a compulsion to understand the other, I was able to let the story unpack itself in the mind of the reader. This was a huge breakthrough for me. One shouldn't underestimate the role of the reader in this novel. I wanted to write a story that was never made fully explicit; which relied on the reader's interpretation of the characters' dialogue. Once you trust the reader with the story, the writing is really fun to do.

It's not without its technical challenges, of course. As a man it requires concentration to write from a female perspective, but I see that as an advantage. If I'm consciously writing someone so different from myself, then I'm protected from the trap of lazily using my own voice to animate the character. It forces me to listen, to think, and to write more precisely. Using two narrators is difficult though. To differentiate their vocabulary, grammar and idioms is quite straightforward if you make an effort to understand and inhabit the characters, but the hard thing is how you handle the overlaps and the gaps in the characters' knowledge. When both narrators have witnessed an event, which one will you choose to recount it? Or will you let both of them tell it, and play with their different perspectives on what they've seen? When you use your narrators in series, you need to work to make it not feel like a TV show with bad links between segments. But when you use them in parallel, you need to take pains to avoid the text feeling repetitive.

Add into the mix the fact that the story is not told in linear time – the first half of the book is working backwards into history, while the second half works forwards into the future – and you start to see the complexity of writing like this. The trick is to make it read smoothly. It's scary how many drafts you go through till you achieve something that reads simply. There are days when you love the work and days when you wish you had almost any other job.

Lawrence tells Little Bee, "If you understood how serious your situation is, I don't think you'd smile." To which she replies, "If I could not smile, I think my situation would be even more serious" (p. 186). How were you able to find a balance between humor and gravity in a novel with such serious themes?

I was able to do it because I have good readers. I can have my characters explore some fairly dark humor – for example, listing methods for a young Nigerian girl to kill herself at a garden party hosted by the Queen of England – while trusting my readers to understand that I am not making light of a serious theme. Rather, I am offering up a dark theme to the light, so that it may be examined. This is the only way I know to tell a serious story about current events without it becoming a lecture. And when I interviewed refugees and asylum seekers while researching this novel, I found that some of them use humor in this way too. These are people with very painful stories to tell. They have learned that in order to survive, they must get people in positions of power to listen to – and believe – their stories. And they have further learned that such people are more likely to listen if they make their stories entertaining, by showing the joy of their lives as well as the tragedy. They are the masters at telling their stories - because if they don't get that balance right, they die. That's motivation, right there. As far as storytelling goes, they're playing in the major leagues. Novelists are rank amateurs by comparison.

How do you think American readers may approach the story differently from British readers? What might be lost on them? What about the story is universal?

Nothing's going to be lost on American readers. This is the story of an African girl coming to the Western world and struggling to be accepted. She encounters racism, hostility and betrayal, but she also finds good people and friendship, and she becomes a strong person - in some ways stronger than both the society she came from and the one she finds herself in. Americans are going to understand this story quicker than a lot of British people will. You have an extraordinary history of immigrants coming to America – either forcibly or voluntarily - and striving to find their place within it. Little Bee's personal struggle is an allegory of the struggle of every people that has ever hoped for a better life and known that it has something to contribute. This is a story that is written deep in your national identity, and my own country would be better off if we took a leaf out of your book.

Little Bee often talks about how she would have to explain things to "the girls back home." How can looking at our culture through the eyes of a foreigner help clarify things?

The "girls back home" are the novel's Greek chorus – they are a foil in whose imagined reaction the cultural dissonance experienced by Little Bee can be made explicit. It's a good device because it feels more natural than having Little Bee go around talking straight to camera and saying "Wow, I'm freaked out by this. And this. And this." Much better for us to have Little Bee's thoughts after she has understood the situation and can explain it to the "girls back home" from a position of superior knowledge. This allows us to appreciate the cultural gulf, whilst allowing the narrator to be comic rather than tragic.

So, Little Bee is the foreigner and the "girls back home" are her device. I look at human culture the same way science fiction does, but I look at it through the wrong end of the telescope. In sci-fi an ordinary protagonist discovers an extraordinary world, and the genre is exciting because of the emotional dissonance. But my thing is contemporary realism, so I'm always showing the ordinary world to what is effectively an extraterrestrial protagonist. It's fun to do. Through this lens the most mundane events – Little Bee drinking a cup of tea in Sarah's kitchen – acquire an immense significance and a certain beauty. Also, the things in our culture that are sad and ignoble – the fact, for example, that we can enjoy our freedom while imprisoning and deporting those who ask to share in it – appear in sharp focus through the eyes of an alien narrator. We have become accustomed to viewing our own immorality in soft focus, but the alien narrator has not yet acquired this cultural immunity. She sees us as we can no longer see ourselves.

How did Andrew help to characterize those around him? Both Sarah and Andrew are morally flawed. How do you expect readers to react to Andrew's actions on the Nigerian beach? How might they react to Sarah's affair with Lawrence?

I don't have a preconception of how readers will react to that scene. My aim was to create a scene that was perfectly morally ambiguous, and in which the reader might quite justifiably side with either Andrew or Sarah. Andrew isn't such a bad guy. What he fails to do on the beach is what most people would probably fail to do, myself included. Once Andrew realizes he's made the wrong choice, it's too late for him because the moment has passed and he is condemned to spend the rest of his days regretting that he failed life's test. Sarah is lucky, really. She's not inherently more moral than her husband, but just at that one critical moment she happened to do the right thing. This means that she can look back on her actions on the beach without too much guilt or shame. She can move on with the rest of her life while Andrew must enter a terminal decline. It's ironic because Sarah's infidelity is the reason the couple find themselves on the beach in the first place. And yet her premeditated affair goes unpunished by life, while Andrew's momentary failure of courage dooms him forever. Life is savagely unfair. It ignores our deep-seated convictions and places a disproportionate emphasis on the decisions we make in split seconds.

Is Charlie/Batman based on your own children? What do you hope his presence in the novel will help to elucidate for the reader? How might we benefit from adopting the worldview of a child who sees everything in terms of "goodys" and "baddys"?

Charlie is based on our oldest boy, who was four years old when I wrote the book. For six months he would only answer to "Batman". For a whole week I just listened to him and took dictation, which certainly beat going out to work for a living. Charlie's "goodies / baddies" worldview is endearing but of course it's naive and he's not in the book as an example of an ideal morality. Charlie is in the novel for two reasons. First because he's funny and loveable – he gives the novel an emotional centre; a reason for the adult protagonists to not simply walk away from the situation and disperse. Second, Charlie is a study in the early formation of identity. Little Bee is a novel about where our individuality lies – which layers of identity are us, and which are mere camouflage. So it's a deliberate choice to use the metaphor of a child who is engaging in his first experiments with identity – in Charlie's case by taking on the persona of a superhero.

In a video on your website you mention that the book is, in some way, about "the horror of being alive in a world where atrocities happen." Are there particular human rights issues you'd like to take this opportunity to call attention to? In the face of such monumental tragedy as is exposed in Little Bee, how can one person make a difference?

Well, that's a big question. I'm more qualified to answer technical questions about my writing but I'll try to answer this, so long as we both agree that my answer has no more weight than anyone else's. I guess I hardly need call anyone's attention to the reality that there is more horror than happiness in the world. A billion people are hungry, hundreds of conflicts and wars are ongoing, tens of millions suffer from eradicable diseases, there is always at least one genocide underway somewhere on the planet, more people still live under dictatorships or oppressive regimes than live in free societies, and arms dealers still make more money than farmers. Of course individuals can make a difference, but the fact is that evil has had the whip hand in this world ever since Cain. That doesn't mean we should stop trying to be good, but we shouldn't kid ourselves either. Evil is not going to be vanquished. Our job is to resist it, and to plant the seeds of further resistance so that goodness never entirely vanishes from the universe. There are degrees of resistance. It starts when you give a dollar to a homeless person and it escalates to the point where people give their lives, as Ghandi did, or Martin Luther King Jr. One person can make a difference by traveling as far along that continuum as they feel able.

In doing research for the book, did you come across any facts or stories of particular importance to you that did not make it into the final draft? Would you share some with us?

Yes, here's the true story that inspired me to write "Little Bee". In 2001 an Angolan man called Manuel Bravo fled to England and claimed asylum on the grounds that he and his family would be persecuted and killed if they were returned to Angola. He lived in a state of uncertainty for four years pending a decision on his application. Then, without warning, in September 2005 Manuel Bravo and his 13-year-old son were seized in a dawn raid and interned at an Immigration Removal Centre in southern England. They were told that they would be forcibly deported to Angola the next morning. That night, Manuel Bravo took his own life by hanging himself in a stairwell. His son was awoken in his cell and told the news. What had happened was that Manuel Bravo, aware of a rule under which unaccompanied minors cannot be deported from the UK, had taken his own life in order to save the life of his son. His last words to his child were: "Be brave. Work hard. Do well at school."

What can we expect next from you? Are you working on anything new right now?

Yes, I'm working very hard. 2008 was all about publishing and promoting "Little Bee" (or "The Other Hand" as it's called elsewhere), so 2009 is all about getting back to writing. I'm halfway through a third novel, which is about war. I'm also writing a comic novel and a crime screenplay, so it's going to be a big year for work.

Chris Cleave explains why he wrote Incendiary

In March 2004 I was still dazed from the twin shocks of the 11th September 2001 attack and the perverse Anglo-American response to it. Sickened by the images of horrors done in my name in Iraq and elsewhere, frightened by the shameless Orwellian manipulation of the public debate, I found myself mute before a growing global catastrophe. So I did what I do best, which was to pretend none of it was happening. I was writing a novel set in 1980s Brooklyn, and the more I disappeared into its escapist world, the less I had to think about the one in which I was living.

My son Louis was six months old and I was falling in love with him. I never believed it was possible to love someone so infinitely. I became terrified that he was growing up in a world descending into cruelty and barbarism. A lot of new parents have told me they feel the same fear. To cope, I tried to block out the insane events taking place in the world outside our flat. But they kept getting through my defences. It wasn't the big, obvious brutalities that got to me. To learn that 30 people had died in a car bomb, for example, provoked no strong reaction. Instead it was the small, domestic ephemera of the growing tragedy that touched me. To see a pile of mangled bodies left me unmoved, but seeing a photo of a child's sandal abandoned on the floor of a bombed-out building reduced me to tears. Such images made me understand that all of the people destroyed and traumatised by the jihadists and by our armies were loved by their own families as much as I loved my son.

On the 11th March 2004, my son stood up on his own for the first time and jihadists killed 191 people in Madrid. It went on and on like that all that week. Each day something beautiful happened in my flat while something terrible happened outside. It was this constant dissonance that began to affect me and stopped me from being able to feel good about my day-to-day life. I found I could no longer stay silent.

I wrote the first draft of Incendiary in six weeks. I hardly slept, and when I did I had nightmares which were indistinguishable from the next day's news. In April the Abu Grahib torture scandal broke, and in May Abu Musab al-Zarqawi released the first beheading tape, of Nick Berg. I felt while I was writing that our own minds were the battleground on which the world struggle was being fought. I felt I would be psychologically broken unless I could write characters who not only lived though the horror into which our world is plunging, but who had depths of love and humour that were equal to it. My story is an examination of love: what the narrator of Incendiary feels for her son is what I feel for mine. My question is whether love is strong enough to defeat horror, or whether in the end the best we can hope for is some miserable truce. I never found the answer, which is why it was a difficult and frightening book to write.

The battle lines drawn in Incendiary—between East and West, between East End and West End, between men and women, between faithfulness and infidelity, between mothers and career women, between working class and middle class—have no real existence. They are only lines we allow to be drawn in our own minds. Whenever we as loving humans allow these lines to be established there will be violence and, as the narrator of Incendiary believes, all the violence in the world is connected. That is why it is possible to write the whole global narrative into her intimate tragedy.

I think the book is truthful because it isn't political. It looks directly at our deepest fears, and places the responsibility for them in our own hands. It doesn't blame our leaders or their shadowy antagonists for the world's current descent. This tragedy is ours: we made it, we own it, and we can stop it. We propagate it when we allow our politicians to act cynically in our name, and when we allow them to own the language of the debate.

Incendiary is an attempt to win back the language and start a more honest debate. I would like a lot of people to read it, then I want to listen to what they say. I think if I keep listening then I can keep writing stories that people find relevant and useful.

—Chris Cleave, London, December 2004

Chris's novel published in the UK on July 7th 2005 - the same day that four bombs exploded in London.  In this letter Chris responds to the London attacks and the subsequent commentary about his book:

"Dear Osama London burned WITH INCREDIBLE NOISE AND FURY is what the Monument [to the Great Fire of London] has written on it. People thought it was the end of the world. But the Londoners got up the next day and the world hadn't ended so they rebuilt the city in 3 years stronger and taller. Even Hitler couldn't finish us though he set the whole of the East End on fire. Bethnal Green was like hell my grandma said. Just one endless sea of flames. But we got through it. We built on the rubble. We built tower blocks and the NHS and we kept on coming like zombies. You've hurt London Osama but you haven't finished it you never will. I am London Osama I am the whole world. Murder me with bombs you poor lonely sod I will only build myself again and stronger. I am a woman built on the wreckage of myself."

Raging and defiant, this is how the narrator of my novel 'Incendiary' addresses Osama bin Laden in the aftermath of a fictitious terrorist attack on London that kills her husband and her son. Yesterday, on Thursday 7th July - by sorrowful coincidence the day my book was published - its fictional world became murderous, brutal reality. I don't think my book is unusually prescient - we all knew this was coming – but none of my months of imagining the horror prepared me for the reality of it. Yesterday the voice of my narrator was joined by real voices: the angry, brave, compassionate voices of Londoners responding to an act of savagery in our city.

I have been up all night listening to those voices. On TV, on the radio, out in the street with my friends and neighbours. I've been listening to London's reaction and comparing it to the reaction I have been imagining for so long.

Well, the truth is braver than fiction. In this terrible time something extraordinary is becoming apparent: the determination of Londoners to reply to the faceless murderers with dignity, with calm strength, and with a collective refusal to show fear that is the most inspiring thing I have ever witnessed. The emergency services were superb. The Met was exemplary. The response of ordinary Londoners was inspiring, simple and rather subtle. No hysterics, no hyperbole, no glorification of heroes: just simple statements of fact.

A woman emerging from the Tube - with such an accumulation of soot around her nose and mouth that it was obvious she had narrowly escaped suffocation - looking into the camera, smiling, and saying very calmly that there had been a lot of smoke and that the evacuation had been quite orderly. A man on talk radio at 4 a.m. who apologised, without undue theatre, for having simply walked away in shock from the bus blast rather than offering comfort to the wounded. Our neighbour knocking to see if we needed a hand looking after our child.

These revealing details of London's psyche went beyond not what I could imagine, but what I could hope for. We have not lost the force that got us through the great plague and the great fire and the Blitz. I never dared hope that Londoners could still be so fiercely noble.

Along with millions of others yesterday, the only thing I could think of when the news started to come in was whether my loved ones were safe. Cellphone problems meant it was three hours before I found out that my wife, who had been travelling to work on the Tube, was okay. During those three uncertain hours I went through an accelerated procession of all the emotional states that I had rehearsed through the voice of Incendiary's narrator. I felt her raw shock, her anger, her defiance, and her lust for revenge. Disturbingly, I didn't yet feel her compassion. Despite one thousand hours of writing a narrator with sufficient love to escape terror's cycle of violence and retribution, in those early moments all I wanted was vengeance against the murderers.

I became a liberal again the moment I saw my wife's call flash up on my cellphone. I wonder how long that transformation would have taken, had things turned out differently. Honestly today, I once again believe that terrorism is not a fire we can fight with fire. Predictably, I believe that if we are to invoke the rhetoric of good and evil, then we'd better make sure we really act good. But then, my family survived yesterday intact. What can I say to those whose families didn't?

The answer, of course, is nothing. I can only try to imagine the distress they're going through today, but something yesterday taught me was the difference between imagination and experience. In the weeks and months to come I will be listening, along with the rest of the world, to the families of the dead. It is their response that must inform our reaction as a city and as a society. Those families will be drawn from the 91 nationalities, practising dozens of religions and speaking over 300 languages, that make up this extraordinary city that I love. The families of the dead will be London, and London's voice will be theirs.

-- Chris Cleave, London.  8th July 2005.

Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.

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Everyone Brave is Forgiven jacket Gold jacket Little Bee jacket Incendiary jacket
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All the books below are recommended as read-alikes for Chris Cleave but some maybe more relevant to you than others depending on which books by the author you have read and enjoyed. So look for the suggested read-alikes by title linked on the right.
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    Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie was born in Nigeria in 1977. She is from Abba, in Anambra State, but grew up in the university town of Nsukka where she attended primary and secondary schools and briefly studied Medicine and ... (more)

    If you enjoyed:
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  • Sefi Atta

    Sefi Atta

    Sefi Atta was born in Lagos, Nigeria, in 1964 and currently divides her time between the United States, England and Nigeria. She qualified as a Chartered Accountant in England, a Certified Public Accountant in the United ... (more)

    If you enjoyed:
    Little Bee

    A Bit of Difference
    by Sefi Atta

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