Writing from the heart: An hour with Chris Cleave

What has been the best day of your life?

What has been the worst day of your life?

What do you hope for?

What do you fear?

These are the questions Chris Cleave poses hapless interviewees during the exhaustive formal research he conducts for each of his novels.

His informal research he characterises as “quite creepy” and involves stalking innocent members of the populace foolish enough to have heartfelt conversations on public transport.

Like any great hunter, Chris uses disguise and cunning, he sits behind his targets wearing unconnected ear buds, nods his head in time to the imaginary beats and captures their vocabulary, grammar and idiom. You have been warned. Stay alert for insanely grinning Englishmen, they want to pinch your charming Kiwi-isms.

Host Kate de Goldi, who described Chris’s books as “politicised, moral and completely readable”, asked Chris about his debut novel Incendiary. Written as an open letter to Osama Bin Laden from a grieving mother whose child died in an imagined London terror attack, it was due for release on 7/7/2005. Two thousand pre-publication posters depicting a smoking London city-scape and the words “What if?” were plastered all over the London Underground. Then that same day, the real London attacks kicked off, and Cleave, with his publishers, had the novel pulled from the shelves. This was for him a “fraught, frantic and complicated decision” but he still believes it was the right one.

The Geodome audience then paused for a few minutes while a bumble-bee drunk on the aroma from some onstage freesia was corralled and dealt to by festival organiser Morrin “No8 wire” Rout.

Chris next talked about the influence of parenthood on his work. Incendiary was written to mark the occasion of the birth of his first child and engaged with themes that previously had been purely abstract: grief at the loss of a child, injustice and the task of keeping loved ones safe in a potentially volatile and dangerous world.

Chris now dislikes his pre-fatherhood writing and characterised it as smug, self-reverential, full of ridiculous pyrotechnics and hubris. His youthful writing was in the pursuit of glory and was as a result terrible.

This self-analysis prompted New Zealand product design writer Michael Smythe to ask whether this was exclusively auto-critique on Chris’s part or whether another party had nudged him towards this realisation?

Cleave gleefully admitted that yes, several rejection letters for at least two full length manuscripts had eventually caused him to reconsider the direction of his writing. The fate of these rejected masterpieces, The Roadkill Cookbook and Tequilla Mockingbird, was not alluded to but the “rather charming” publishers’ rejection letters are filed in Chris’s big envelope of bitterness.

This was a delightfully wise and witty session from an author of compassion and curiosity, and from a man who isn’t afraid to wear his heart on his sleeve. I’m going to ask myself some of Chris’s questions but I suspect they will, rather like his novels, make my heart hurt.

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