Incendiary: Chris Cleave

January 11, 2011

" ... literature is my tool of persuasion."

The term incendiary has a lot to do with bombs, as does Chris Cleave's latest novel, INCENDIARY (launched today by Simon & Schuster).  Incendiary also means "tending to inflame the senses," and "a person who stirs up strife, sedition, etc.; an agitator." 

I spent last year writing a novel which I dedicated to my mother.  After reading several pages, she shut it down.  She refuses to read it. It agitated her, stirred up strife, and inflamed her senses in such a way that she couldn't bear to continue ... not even for her daughter.  

A big part of my wanting to write the novel (DUST) was to persuade my mother to open up and finally see my perspective regarding who I am, who we are together, and what we are missing.  In the best way I know how, I committed myself to expressing my opinions about the deepest and most serious issues in our adult relationship.  I knew that those opinions and emotions reflect various universal truths that go beyond one mother and her daughter, thus providing the basis for a great novel.

It wasn't an easy story to write.

Yes, a part of me is devastated that she won't read the book.  That pain has already been neatly packaged and tucked away by all those efficient coping mechanisms I worked so hard to create and perfect beginning the day I emerged into my mother's stressful life.  Meanwhile, the manuscript sits in my computer now, a lonely file, waiting to be discovered by someone who will not only read it, but who will also appreciate its intrinsic literary and entertainment value.

Hearing this strife-filled, family drama, sob story, you might ask, "Did you say entertainment?" 

Absolutely!  Like all my novels, DUST not only serves as an enlightening, persuasive work of art, it also aims to absorb, enthrall, engross, captivate, and even provide a little comic relief.  In the end, I seek to entertain.  In the words of my guest today, author Chris Cleave, "Although my work has a strong persuasive element, I aim to write novels that are joyful and interesting things, rather than political tracts." 

After all, isn't that what truth in literature is all about?  Regardless of our views, ideologies, religions, politics, etc, our shared humanity is what enables us to understand and ultimately navigate through the perplexing landscape surrounding us ... wherever that may be.  Each of us is absorbing, enthralling, captivating, and even comical.  We are all part of a universal story.

My 22-year-old daughter pointed out, "If your mother was actually capable of reading and understanding the book, you'd never have written it." 

As a creative individual, I've come to terms with who I am.  I'm a person who can write a book like DUST, a book I believe in despite my own mother wanting to bomb it.  It relays something important to the world; it contains truth.  In a weird sort of way, my amazing mother gave me that gift.

I'll not stop hoping that someday she'll read and understand my words.  Until then, I'll continue to accept the support and peace of mind I gain from the wonderful guests on Aberration Nation.  When I read the inspiring words of folks like Chris Cleave, Marya Hornbacher, Antwone Fisher, Darin Strauss, Tom Grimes and all the others, I am renewed.  I carry on, believing that someday I will also be heard.

What's your writing story? Tell us how LITTLE BEE became such a success. Beyond being a fantastic novel, were there any specific pivotal events or situations that helped fuel its success?

I started writing when I was a kid – I drew satirical cartoons about our schoolteachers to make my friends laugh. I wrote a few novels that weren’t much good, and then in 2003 I quit my job, just before our first child was born, so that I could try to write full-time. I’ve had two novels published since then – INCENDIARY in 2005 and LITTLE BEE in 2008 – but I’ve written two or three more that were a bit too weird to publish. INCENDIARY has just been re-released by my publishers, which I’m delighted about because I think it’s my best work and I think people will enjoy it. I’m currently nearly finished on what I’m sure will be my third published novel.

Beyond the work itself, there are several factors that made LITTLE BEE a success.
  • First, I think the American reading public should take a lot of credit for taking the book to their hearts – it is after all quite a political and a challenging novel at times - not what one might typically expect to be a bestseller. So, more power to them.
  • Second, booksellers were very important in launching the book. We didn’t have much of an advertising campaign, so it was the kind support of the independent booksellers and the public librarians that brought the book to people’s attention.
  • Third, I was lucky to get a lot of support from Borders, who put the book front-of-house pretty early on.
  • Fourth, I worked my ass off touring the book and trying to give an interview to everyone who wanted one, big or small.
  • Fifth, I worked hard online to tell people about the book.
Also, and most importantly, I had an incredible agent, a terrific editor, and a courageous publisher. That’s not always the case when a book is published, and that’s why there were better books than mine published this year that didn’t do as well as mine.

You have said, "I see my job as providing new information in an entertaining way." That vision is certainly apparent in LITTLE BEE. I've always wanted to write novels that not only entertain but also bring something new to the table for the reader, whether emotionally or intellectually. For me, entertainment alone just isn't enough when I consider how to spend my time, and how to explore, dissect, and/or share my world. Why is it important for you to write novels that surpass being merely entertaining?

I’m from London and I like the UK, but I think it’s fair to say that we don’t have much of a democracy. We have two houses of parliament: the smaller (the Commons) is elected by the public from a set of candidates appointed by the established political parties, and the other - the larger in terms of the number of members - is simply filled with political appointees and hereditary law-makers (the Lords). There are no primaries, no fixed term limits, and no written constitution to protect the political process from the rapacious interests of media and banking tycoons. The main parties are centrist, establishmentarian and weak, and the civil service runs rings around them.

Since I believe in the potential of the political process to make life better for people, but faced with the reality that one’s vote counts for very little in the UK, I’ve decided that the best way for me to be politically active is to work on changing public opinion about political issues such as terrorism and immigration, using persuasion rather than violence. Literature is my tool of persuasion, and happily I enjoy the work too. I aim to make books that are joyful and interesting things, rather than political tracts.

Was there someone in particular who inspired you to love books and/or take an interest in writing?

Yes, my incredible mother.

Where do most of your creative ideas come from?

I don’t know. I’m sorry. I just sit quietly and think about things, and ideas come into my mind. I know that’s an unsatisfactory answer and I’m sorry – but I just don’t know how my head works.

With regard to your current creative focus, was there an "ah-ha" moment you can tell us about?

I’m working on a book about athletes at the moment, and the relationship society has with them. The big moment for me was when I was starting the research, and I went to watch some high-level cycle racing. I saw a huge crash, in a criterium race in the rain, and I watched all these young men picking themselves up, bleeding profusely, and getting back on their bikes if they could. And it was freezing, and no one was getting paid much, and people were riding with broken bones. I finally understood the everyday suffering these people go through just so that one or two of them can prevail and the rest of us can get a nice patriotic feeling once every four years when we watch them race in the Olympics. It made me feel a bit sick.



Do you believe some of the various attributes related to being highly creative have caused you aberrations in life, helped you deal with life's aberrations, or both? How so?

The work I do is creative, in the sense that I’m producing something out of nothing, and when that is channeled into a project that is going well, I get on a terrific high because it feels like magic. That in itself is a problem, because it means that I neglect everything else. And when the work is going badly, or I can’t get other people to like my work and I end up in a vortex of re-writing, I have this quite terrifying abandonment of everything else in my life as I struggle to make the work right, because I do believe in my stories and I am fiercely determined to make them work.

I love being a writer but I don’t find it an easy job. You’re working with strong forces, and strong people, and you can’t always be the master of them. That’s true in a lot of jobs, but few of those jobs are so solitary. I think that’s the crux of it – there’s no one to quietly tell you: enough.

Have you ever had to deal with people in your life failing to understand your creative personality, interests, or drive? If so, can you tell us about it and how you've dealt with it?

I have some wonderful people in my life – my wife and children, my family and friends. People are very kind to me on the whole, and I think they make allowances for the fact that I am sometimes preoccupied or reclusive. I just try to do my best, and I think people appreciate that’s all I can do. And most days, I think I’m pretty entertaining company. I hardly ever have problems with people.

Have you developed a specific creative process that enables you to meet your writing goals? If so, can you tell us about it, and also share any thoughts you may have on the role discipline and organization play in reaching creative goals?

My default setting is to work all the time, so really my biggest creative challenge is not discipline or organization, but finding a way to switch off sometimes. That’s easier said than done.
  • First because (as in any worthwhile job) it’s exciting and it keeps you awake.
  • Second because you can’t really plan your time.
You might deliver a book after a year of very intense work, and be planning a month off to recuperate, but the publisher doesn’t love the book and you need to get back to work immediately, and on an even tighter deadline this time. Combine that with newspaper deadlines and family commitments, and you can see that the greatest challenge to your creativity is the very real prospect of burning out. I’m sure the creative challenge is the same for all writers – you need to find a way to sit down at your keyboard remembering that it is fun to be there.

What's next for Chris Cleave?

Deliver the new novel. Take a month off. Do things real men do, like shop for power tools and sledge across Alaska, eating the huskies if necessary.

What is your primary motto or mantra in life? Why is this important to you?

What a great question. I toyed with some glorious mottos that made me sound tenacious, brave and dashing, but in truth I suppose my motto is the same as any parent’s: “Try not to die or go mad until after your kids have left home and settled down.” I would rather my wonderful children remembered me as a good parent than a good writer, so my aim in life is to provide for them and have fun with them. Actually that’s a pretty good rule to live by, because it puts everything else in perspective.

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