Monday, March 15, 2010

CHRIS CLEAVE Interview: N.Y. Times Best-Selling Author of "Little Bee"

I caught up with N.Y. Times best selling author, Chris Cleave, on his U.S. book tour in St. Louis, Mo. The book reading and signing, were held at the wonderful St. Louis County Library. It was truly an amazing night. Chris read from his book and then took an extended amount of time to answer questions in the Q & A session. He was was funny, insightful, warm, caring, and down to earth. It was during this Q & A session that I decided to approach Chris about doing an interview for "Signs & Wonders". His response was an immediate "consider it done". I am grateful to Mr. Cleave for taking the time out of what I know is a very busy schedule to answer the following questions. Thank goodness he had a long flight from Dubai to contemplate answers to the following questions. Here goes with Mr. Chris Cleave !

1) Now that "Little Bee" is a #1 paperback bestseller, do you see an upgrade to your shed in the near future?

No way – I like my leaky writing shed. Like in the Beatles song, the hole where the rain gets in stops my mind from wandering…

2) If you were to write in a masculine voice in a future novel, would you be able to still shrink yourself down†enough to be able to leave yourself out of the story?

Writing male voices is harder for me, because my own character keeps leaking into them. The novel I’m currently writing has one male main character, and I have to keep surgically extracting parts of myself from his poor fictitious body.

3) In St. Louis you said "the only honest ending is an open ending", which is like life itself. Do you feel most readers are comfortable with that on a regular basis,or do they have to have closure?

I think we are moving into a new era of the novel, where writers are going to have to think harder about the kind of closure they provide in a novel. We do live in a world where stories never honestly end; where shared events are continually recalled, reassessed and revised in the collective memory. So for a writer like me, who is interested in shared human experiences, it’s all about finding a storytelling device that provides the closure we all naturally need as humans, whilst staying true to my conviction that the best stories can never be said to be over.

4)In the U.S. it's easy to see where the global economy has its good and bad points. However, artistically it's a good thing don't you think?

I’m not sure about that. Try telling the guy who just lost his job and has to go and tell his wife and kids that they’ll have to move into a smaller apartment that the recession is good news for art.

5) The world is a much smaller place today thanks to the Internet, face book, twitter, etc... do you think that it can hurt the local sense of culture in some places? In music for example.

Great question. Actually I think that globalized communication tools like Twitter and Face book can really benefit a local arts / lit / music scene, and I’ve seen people use them to great effect to organize successful local events. What I worry about is Internet retail consolidation in the music and books business. It’s very hard now for a new rock band, for example, to start small and local and gradually widen their following from local to regional to national to global, because right off the bat they’re competing with these huge global mega-bands that everyone has instant access to.

6)Since "Little Bee's" success, have you been approached about becoming "a voice" in regards to the refugee problems in your country, and would you be comfortable with that?

I do often get asked to do exactly that, and I often say yes if I feel that my presence would be of net benefit to the cause. When I say no, it’s usually because I feel that the people who campaign full-time on refugee issues are better informed and more of an asset to the particular platform than I would be. For example I was on a panel in London last month with three other people: two were campaigners for refugee rights and one was a representative of the UK Border Agency. Halfway through the evening, I realized that my contributions, which tend to be emotive and slightly showboating, were actually distracting from the more patient, more data-driven contributions of the two refugee rights campaigners. I realized that sometimes the best thing I can do for the causes I believe in is to write my books and then shut up.

7) You are a very humble and generous man who enjoys being out amongst your readers. Do you worry at all about your success and the impact it can have on your life and the changes that might come with it?

Thanks, but in fact none of this changes me at all because I don’t feel any more of a success than I did on the first day I became a writer. In 2003 I was still unpublished and I quit my job to write, because I’d finally managed to save up about 18 months’ worth of money to live on. I wrote two novels in that 18 months, the second of which got published. And so far I’m still a full-time writer. Quitting my job back then is still the thing I’m most proud of as a writer, and I still see being a writer as a temporary state of grace that surely can’t last forever. Eventually every writer will either run out of money, or run out of health and energy, or run out of ideas. Every day where none of those three things happens is a wonderful day. It doesn’t matter if you have a book that doesn’t go big, or if you have a book that is the New York Times Number One Bestseller – and you can believe me on this point because I’ve experienced both. In the honest core of your being, the highs and the lows leave you largely unmoved. The only thing you are ever really aware of as a writer is the constant excitement of turning sentences, and the constant desire to tell your readers a story that will mean something to them emotionally, and the constant engagement to produce work that is ever better. A writer measures success only by how good they feel about the book they’re working on right now.

8) Are you involved in any charity work or causes? Not necessarily financial but things that you see that are wrong and would like to see righted?

Yes I do some charity work – probably no more than anyone else.

9)You mentioned that you are very happy writing in the twenty year gap of contemporary reality. Can you see yourself writing something out of that realm? Oh, say something like a period piece?

I don’t know how I’ll feel about this in the future, but right now I’m fully engaged with telling stories in the contested space between the point where journalists leave off a story and the point where historians take it up. I want my eventual body of work to serve as a record of how it felt to be living through these times.

10) You seem to have "a voice" for social injustices, and crimes against humanity in general. Can we continue to look for you in the future to be confronting these same issues in your books?

Well what I do is to pose general moral questions in my novels, but to make them specific to the lives of my characters, and to do so in such a way that the reader might plausibly ask themselves the question: “what would I do?”. I think I ask questions about human nature in an entertaining way, rather than confronting issues.

11) You love children, that's obvious. Could you see yourself writing a children's book at some point?

Yes! I’d love to. That’s definitely on the near horizon for me.

12) In the U.K. a refugee may be detained from 2 weeks to 2 years or up to 7 years in some cases. The people making those life altering decisions have had as little as 5 weeks training in some circumstances. How can those people be qualified to make decisions that will have a huge impact on another persons life for years and maybe their entire life?

Well, that’s a rhetorical question and I admire where you’re coming from with the answer you’re implying.

13) Could these refugees detainment's be classified as Human Rights violations in some cases?

Good question, and I’m not a lawyer and I don’t really know. All I would say is that I personally believe that refugees from conflict zones deserve more than the treatment we currently give them, whatever the legal ins and outs of the matter. I believe this is especially true when the refugees have been displaced in the first instance by conflicts in which we have been instrumental – for example, the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. We can’t continue to use military intervention as a foreign policy tool without making any provision for the flood of refugees that war inevitably produces.

14) I believe you said you grew up in, The Republic of Cameroon, in Africa, which borders with Nigeria. What was your childhood like growing up there?

It was wonderful. But then, we had wonderful parents.

15) Your debut novel, "Incendiary" was well received and was made into a film with Ewan McGregor and Michelle Williams. Were you pleased with the adaptation from your book to film?

I think Ewan McGregor and Michelle Williams are amazing in it!

16) Has "Little Bee" been optioned yet? It would make an incredible film in the right hands?

Yes, Little Bee is being made into a film by BBC Films, and I believe Nicole Kidman is going to be Sarah. I am very excited about this film – the producer and the screenwriter are excellent, and there is every chance it will be a stunning movie.

17) You write a very funny column on your kids for the newspaper, "The Guardian". Is that a nice release from the grind of writing novels?

Actually I’ve just written the last episode of that column, having done it for two years without a week off, and yes, I loved every moment of it. It was wonderful to be able to write something that was simply funny every week, just to make people laugh & make them happy. You can check out all the episodes at

18) On your website, you list Cormac McCarthy and John Steinbeck as two of your favorite writers. I can see some similarities in their writing and yours.In their time,both of them have done an incredible job of exploring social issues, inequalities, and still having believable characters that can just see, don’t you think?


19)You are two-thirds of the way through your first U.S. tour. Has it been an enjoyable time and what have been some of the highlights?

It has been the best tour I’ve ever experienced. I love talking with audiences in the US because they are invariably good-humored and hospitable, and because the Q&A sessions tend to be so energetic. I try to put on a real show when I do live events – rather than to just read from my work and mumble at my shoes – and when the audience gets into the spirit of the thing, I think we all have fun and learn something from each other. I like to talk about other books as well as my own, and I like it when the audience lifts the discussion to a higher level. Literary events are so much more interactive than theatre or music or comedy gigs – it’s really a whole different art form where the audience is the co-star. Highlights on this tour were a person who came in a Batman costume, a woman who stood up in tears and announced that her parents were refugees from Nigeria, and that having read my book they had been able to talk about their experiences as a family for the first time, and a six-year-old boy with no front teeth who gravely shook my hand and told me this was his first book event. These are memories that stay with you as a writer.

20)The little boy in "Little Bee" is based on your own 6 year old son. Is your son a Batman fan?

You bet. I couldn’t have done it without him. He was my consultant editor for the Gotham City jurisdiction.

21) When and where did you first meet your wife?

London, 1999, in a nightclub south of the Thames. Technically speaking I suppose we were, in fact, partying like it was 1999.

21) Fatherhood is something that is obviously very important to you on many levels. Are your 3 children your greatest accomplishment?

Well, they and my wife are the best things in my life and they are far more important than my writing. But I don’t see them as my accomplishment. They are their own people – I just help look after them.

22) As news around the world becomes more and more instantly accessible , do you think we will be stirred to action when we see these atrocities, or we will continue to watch the 5 o'clock news, say that's terrible, and then go back to our dinner and ballgames?

I think we become hardened to atrocity through repeated exposure to reporting, although I don’t think it’s a phenomenon which is unique to our times. I think throughout history it has been part of the role of artists to make horror real for us again – to put it onto some canvas in a compact way that we can wrap our minds and our emotions around. That’s why paintings like Picasso’s ‘Guernica’ or Primo Levi’s ‘If This is a Man’ are important.

Final Question: When can we expect to see the next Chris Cleave novel in bookstores?

Spring, 2011. I’m already excited about it.