An exclusive AUTHORLINK interview with Chris Cleave
Everyone Brave is Forgiven (Simon & Schuster – Paperback, 7 March 2017))
Columnist Anna Roins
Extraordinary writer-journalist, Chris Cleave, confirms his reputation as one of the most insightful novelist of our time with his latest novel, Everyone Brave Is Forgiven (2016). It was inspired by the story of his grandparents and set against the events of the Second World War between September 1939 and the middle of 1942 – when nobody knew which side was going to win. He is also the author of best-selling novel, Incendiary (2005) which was adapted into a feature film; the Costa-shortlisted New York Times best-seller, The Other Hand (2008) as well as Gold (2012), all of which found phenomenal world-wide success.
“I think there’s a thing I’ll call universal courage, a shared reservoir of bravery that we humans can draw upon in times of crisis .”
AUTHORLINK: Mr Cleave, thank you for talking to Authorlink today about Everyone Brave is Forgiven and your writing in general. Everyone Brave is Forgiven is an epic love story inspired by a memoir written by your grandfather, Captain David Hill, who met his fiancé, your grandmother, Mary, only nine times before he left to fight in the Second World War. They exchanged hundreds of letters over the course of three and a half years, written on everything from fancy stationery, to scrap paper, and even the back of a theatre programme. What was it like to write this novel, compared to your previous published three, given the familial connection emanating from the pages?
CLEAVE: I think there’s a thing I’ll call universal courage, a shared reservoir of bravery that we humans can draw upon in times of crisis. I don’t think courage is an individual trait. We will it into being collectively, and it shows up in the behaviour of people who feel strongly connected to others, either through empathy or common cause. I wanted to find a way to show this universal bravery coming into play, and I realised I could do it by using characters from my family – people I love. That’s the thing with novels – you try to use a small story to tell a big one. But I didn’t think of this story as belonging to me or my family. I had a sense as I was writing that the quality of bravery belongs to everyone. I hope that’s why people have responded to the book – because they see their own families in it, not mine.
AUTHORLINK: Yes, the messages of love and bravery are universal. You made an interesting observation once; you said, “One of the bravest things that people in that generation did was to trust each other and was to trust themselves to fall in love. They fell in love sort of differently from the way we do.” Why do you think that is?
CLEAVE: There was a war on, so they didn’t have our luxury of time and choice. Given time, and a whole internet full of choices, we tend to get picky. We buy into the fairy-tale illusion that there is “one special person” out there for us. We find fault in people who are near-as-dammit perfect. We keep our options open, hoping that someone will come along who ticks even more of our boxes. Whereas love, in truth, is much more an act of creation than a deed of selection. Our relationships are the sum of what we give: the energy, trust and good humour we put in. Viewed in this way – which I think is the way the wartime generation saw it – there are a million people you could fall cheerfully in love with, and if you’re lucky enough to bump into one of them, then you’d be a fool not to get started right away.
AUTHORLINK: Compared to the older generation, do you believe we have lost some of our natural courage living in this overregulated, highly sensitised and sanitised world? Are competence, virtue and integrity the same as what they used to be, in your opinion?
CLEAVE: Competence, virtue and integrity are immutable and transmissible, but they have no natural immunity to extinction. Courage is a minority position now. The majority position has become anger – a stewing, sullen, inconsolable rage. You have to be quite brave to get past anger. You need to recognise your own complicity in the world’s evils, and forgive others for their own complicity. It’s quite a sophisticated jump, forgiveness, and not as many people are making it as used to. We’re witnessing the majority’s reversion to a hyper-masculine, patriarchal, Old Testament way of thinking.
As to whether I believe over-regulation is to blame for the loss of courage: no, I don’t. Rather, I feel that regulation and sanitisation are the result of brave campaigners trying to protect us from the rapaciousness of evil men. Regulation is why apartment blocks have to be built fireproof and women can’t be fired when they get pregnant and black people can’t be dragged behind trucks anymore. Regulation is the fruit of bravery, and it’s the first thing tyrants rip up when they gain power.
AUTHORLINK: Very true. Readers are more discerning than ever and can detect when a novel has been ‘hashed’ together without proper investigation. Your research is intense and rather ‘method’ in the way you physically visit the places about which you’re writing to try and experience, first-hand, what your characters are going through. For Everyone Brave is Forgiven, we understand you did two solid years of research. You read novels by Evelyn Waugh and Dorothy L. Sayers to name a few, you listened to the radio shows your characters would have heard, and you researched in libraries instead of on Google. You even ate London war rations from that period and lost ten pounds in the process. During your research, you made a remarkable discovery. You found that white children were predominantly evacuated to the country for safety, whilst the black or disabled children were left in the city. You said, “I could not write an honest story about the Home Front without including race as a theme.” Would you kindly elaborate on this?
CLEAVE: I was amazed to discover that there were 10,000 black families living in London at the outbreak of war – and that many more came to the UK to help fight Hitler, only to be prevented from joining up by rules that mostly barred black men from serving. All this has been written out of the version of history I learned at school – I only discovered it by accident during my research. Furthermore, I discovered that black children were not evacuated in the same proportion as white children. It wasn’t that they weren’t eligible for evacuation – more that they were generally less welcome in the countryside, and tended to return to the city, or to be held back from leaving in the first place. Happily, there were exceptions, but the overall picture isn’t particularly glorious. So, having discovered a lot about the endemic racism of Britain in the 30s and 40s, I had a choice about whether to write it in, or leave it out. I chose to tell it as I found it, including the use of the foul racist epithets in vogue at the time, sparing the reader nothing. I think to do otherwise would have been a racist choice: I would have been belittling the impact of racism in our own time by denying the damage it did in a previous generation.
“Writing is a craft like any other – I’ve improved in proportion to hours spent working.”
AUTHORLINK: Yes, understandable. You are highly articulate, exploratory and exacting in your narrative prose. Your sensitivity and morality shine through which make your books sumptuous to read. Was there ever a time you felt – perhaps in your earlier days – that words didn’t come easy? Or put in another way, how do you feel you have evolved as a writer? If you had the chance to go back and do it all again, what would you have done differently?
CLEAVE: Thanks for your kind comments about my work. Writing is a craft like any other – I’ve improved in proportion to hours spent working. Also, my attitude to readers has changed: I no longer take it for granted that people should read my stuff just because it’s me writing it. I will work much harder now to deserve six-to-ten hours of their attention. I spend years on each novel and I will rewrite a sentence thirty times until it feels as if it has just rolled with the ball of my pen. I like my readers wherever I meet them, at festivals and events. I feel connected with them, and I want reading to be a joy for them. At the beginning I think writing was all about my desire to prove something to myself, whereas now my motivation is just to give people pleasure and the chance to escape for a little while. I now believe that art should have curative properties – it should make you feel enlarged, or recognised, or less alone. It should leave you feeling better, somehow, at the end.
If I had the chance to go back and start over, I don’t think I’d change anything. It’s been a journey that’s changed me about as fast as a mule like me could have changed. We just stumble on – don’t we? – from one revelation to the next. I daresay there’s more change to come.
“I’m interested in people who’ve been broken by life and who have begun, tentatively, to build on the ruins.”
AUTHORLINK: Do you feel your past studies in psychology have given you a keener insight into human nature? Why is it so compelling, do you think, to explore the fracture lines in relationships and to see whether they’ll hold if exacerbated by tension? A great way you show this is by the dialogue in your books – even the unspoken dialogue. You said this once, “I like to win space for my characters to talk in a way that advances their character rather than the plot.” How does the plot then unfurl in this way?
CLEAVE: Psychology teaches close observation, plus curiosity as to what damage can teach us about normal functioning. I’m interested in people who’ve been broken by life and who have begun, tentatively, to build on the ruins. So as a writer I’m always pushing characters until they break, because I admire people’s capacity to remake themselves according to their own lights. Wisdom, patience, humour, grace – these are learned qualities, and subtle ones, and better exposed through dialogue than, for example, through car chases. So yes, I make space for my protagonists to talk. Really, the development of their characters is my plot: once you’ve made that jump, the specifics of what actually happens in the book start to matter less. It’s all about dialogue for me. A particular spoken line might have the same beauty whether the character, while speaking it, was watching a city burning or a peach rotting or an evening tending to night.
AUTHORLINK: Lovely. The story contains confronting language that is not politically correct, but true to the somewhat collective (racist) attitude towards minorities at the time. This gives the story a documentary-style authenticity and shows your courage in not whitewashing the truth. What has been the general reaction in relation to this?
CLEAVE: I’ve had the full spectrum of reactions. My question is: shouldn’t a writer’s duty to historical accuracy come first? Isn’t it a mistake to whitewash historical language in an attempt to spare the modern reader’s blushes? Isn’t it patronising to position the writer as the arbiter of what the reader can handle? In my work I give the reader credit for being as alive as I am. Indeed the reader is more alive, more capable of fine judgment than I am, because the printed words that I wrote during my present will always be speaking to the reader from the past. I can’t guess the mores of the future reader’s time – don’t I therefore owe them the unvarnished mores of the time that I have researched? That said, I do understand why it makes some people very distressed right now when my characters use the N-word. I do understand that some people believe I have no right right now, as a white person, to have my characters use the N-word. I understand that argument – I don’t think it’s a dumb position to take – and I’m sympathetic to it. But then, what should I do with the fact that the generation I’m writing about really did use the N-word? That they used it callously, casually and cruelly? Should I give them a free pass? Should I pretend it never happened? I accept that the debate is nuanced, and I understand that there are feelings I can never feel, emotions I will never have, because of who I am. But I can only write using the feelings with which I’ve been issued – and I can’t get past the feeling that I would be wrong to use my platform to forgive my own race for its mistreatment of another. Forgiveness is not mine to give: it belongs to the reader, once apprised of the facts, to dispense or withhold at their pleasure.
“[Faulkner] expressed his belief that the only stories worth telling are those concerned with love, honour, pity, pride, compassion and sacrifice. If those aren’t your themes, Faulkner maintains, then you’re not writing about the heart, merely about the glands.”
AUTHORLINK: We understand your perspective wholeheartedly. How do you differentiate between all your good ideas for a story to end up writing a book about one? What are you looking for in amongst those big questions?
CLEAVE: My best answer to this excellent question is actually Faulkner’s, from his 1950 speech in Stockholm, in which he [Faulkner] expressed his belief that the only stories worth telling are those concerned with love, honour, pity, pride, compassion and sacrifice. If those aren’t your themes, Faulkner maintains, then you’re not writing about the heart, merely about the glands. I’m with him absolutely – although I’d maybe add humour to his list, because I think it as essential an antidote to fear as love is to despair. I recommend Faulkner’s speech to anyone unfamiliar with it – it’s a two-minute read and has perhaps the highest signal-to-noise ratio of any after-dinner speech yet delivered by humankind.
AUTHORLINK: Thank you for this – it’s inspiring. We understanding you are now working on a sequel to Everyone Brave is Forgiven, with the same characters, that will take place during the first three years of peace after the war. Can you tell us a bit about it yet? What is the question it is asking? How is the writing process is going?
CLEAVE: I have a detailed plan for a sequel, which is set in the smoking ruins of the war and is called Everything Sad is Forgotten. It’s about the extraordinary optimism in the first years of peace, when the young people returning from the war realised that they didn’t have to put the world back together exactly the same way they’d found it. In the UK they built social housing and the National Health Service, and took women’s rights to the next level. The novel’s question is: How would you remake this world? It’s a timely book as it’s about the solidarity and social optimism that was built after the war from the bottom up, and is currently being corrupted from the top down. But I’m putting the work on hold until I’m not so furious that my hands shake when I’m writing. Because sustained anger is an admission of defeat, and I’m not ready to quit yet. We should get past anger before we can write – or live – with grace.
“As for a talent, I’d love to be able to step up to any piano and do requests.”
AUTHORLINK: Yes, you’re right. Finally, just a few light-hearted questions…which person, living or dead would you like to meet and why? And, which talent would you most like to have other than being a gifted writer?
CLEAVE: I’d like to meet the biologist E.O. Wilson, originator of the biophilia hypothesis, which suggests that we have an inborn desire to seek connections with other species. As for a talent, I’d love to be able to step up to any piano and do requests – the full spectrum, from Erik Satie to Kenny Loggings – while wearing some kind of a hat.
AUTHORLINK: (Laughs) That’s great. Mr Cleave, we appreciate the opportunity to talk to you. Thank you for your books. We wish you well and for your continued success!
CLEAVE: Thank you for your thoughtful and well-researched questions. It’s an honour to be interviewed by you. All good wishes to you and your readers too.
AUTHORLINK: The honour is ours. Many thanks.
About the Author:
Chris Cleave’s newest novel, EVERYONE BRAVE IS FORGIVEN, was an instant New York Times bestseller when it was published last year. His debut, INCENDIARY, was an international bestseller and multiple prize-winner. His second novel, the Costa-shortlisted, New York Times #1 bestseller LITTLE BEE has found phenomenal worldwide success. (In the UK, Australia and NZ it goes by the title THE OTHER HAND.) His third book, GOLD, confirmed his status as “one of our most powerful, important and psychologically insightful novelists”.
Cleave’s novels are published in thirty languages and have been adapted for screen and stage worldwide. He is a regular newspaper and broadcast contributor to the cultural debate on parenting, literature and human rights.
Outside writing, Cleave’s interests are refugees, education and psychology. He is 42 and lives in London with his wife and three children.
See more information at: http://www.simonandschuster.com/books/Everyone-Brave-is-Forgiven/Chris-Cleave/9781501124389
About Anna Roins:
Anna Roins is a lawyer, previously of the Australian Government Solicitor, as well as a freelance journalist who writes about social and community issues and has edited dissertations, websites, and books.
She has studied creative literature with The University of Oxford (Continuing Education) and the Faber Academy, London.
Anna enjoys writing novels and is a regular contributor to AUTHORLINK assigned to conduct interviews with best-selling authors.