Novelist Chris Cleave will be in town Thursday at the Columbus Museum of Art to talk about his newest book. “Gold” explores the tension between the friendship and ambition of two elite cyclists and how that affects their loved ones. We reached him by phone in dreary (on Tuesday, anyway) Washington, D.C.
For “Gold,” you actually trained for cycling and spent time in a hospital with leukemia patients. Is this Method Writing?
I really believe in doing the research because what I’m trying to do is tell stories about the times we’re living in now. That involves going out there and finding out a little bit about them.
In each of my books, I try to explore a world that’s hidden. You can’t find out about [cyclists] just by listening to anodyne interviews they give on TV. They were much more interesting than that. They had a lot of depth of character.
So what is that physical act of research like for you?
I don’t have a certain set of points I’m looking for. Quite often our perceptions of what a person’s job must be like are different from the reality. I will tend to go spend a day and listen, and as soon as I’m out of the presence of the people I’m researching I’ll sit down in the nearest coffee shop and download my brain.
It’ll be a set of disconnected things that people said, a lot of throwaway comments are revelatory to me about the way they’re thinking about their job. I’ll have all these random pages of paper that won’t make any sense to me anymore.
How did you convey the intangible experiences of speed and velocity in this book?
I put lots of physiological cues into it. I struggled for months to write scenes with speed. It’s very difficult. Writers don’t usually go there; writers don’t talk about the body very much at all. We have these ideas of people as these massive brains and the body exists only to supply them. Do you remember the cartoon character the Mekon? If you read a novel from the Brontes or Jane Austen, you’d think that we were Mekons.
There was this big taboo, which was to write a sex scene. I’ve done a few in my time. The other taboo is to write about the athletic body, and people don’t really do it. I sort of worked out why — it’s really hard. I had to really push myself and get in touch with my own physicality to do it.
This is the technique I settled on to talk about speed and strategy. To talk about it aesthetically it didn’t work. Putting in very pointed physiological cues at a particular point, saying what the lungs were doing, what the heart was doing, which muscle fibers were twitching, what the wind felt like. If I interweave these specific pointers with the narrative of the scene, if I pace those physiological cues correctly, if I say ‘fingers twitch on the handlebars,’ you can feel that. It creates a physical link between the reader and my character so you start to inhabit her body.
I did a bit of racing on the track and on the street when I was writing it, and I wanted to do justice to that experience. It’s really fun.
You’ve said you’re reaching for big themes in your books, striving to tell stories about the human experience, about life, rather than simply telling a good story. What drives that goal?
I think it comes from a lack of understanding myself and my own lack of understanding of other people. I don’t think I’m a particularly bright or wise person, and writing is my way of getting close to some truths about this life that we’re living, which is so incomprehensible to me. It’s beautiful and utterly incomprehensible. We’re sort of dropped without a manual into the most intricate mechanism.
My way of exploring it is to go out and find these characters who maybe live extreme lives but who have the same moral and ethical questions we have. How are we meant to live now and in this world where on one hand we are relatively comfortable in the West? How are we meant to square that with the amount of poverty and disease there is in the world? How can we look at that and be cheerful? What is life really for in the end?
These questions sort of torment me and I don’t know the answer. My novels are a way of trying to explore them.
You wrote a column about parenthood for the Guardian for quite a while. How was that process different from your fiction writing process?
It’s really fun. Just on a very pragmatic level I liked having a weekly deadline. Novelists, their job is go away, write something very interesting and come back at which time we might remember your name we might not. Whereas the job of journalist is write this and you had better file it or you won’t have a job.
I had my 650 words, which isn’t very much — it’s good for three jokes, three places where you can laugh and maybe on a good week I would manage to make a philosophical point. I really enjoyed the interactions with other parents. Sometimes people would leave hilarious comments, just brilliant. I felt a real sense of connectedness to those people that we were all in it together.
I love the immediacy of journalism and I’m quite jealous of journalists; it’s a pretty great job because of that connectedness that you have, that daily or weekly communion with your readers. There’s nowhere to hide. As a novelist you can have a bad year and it’s hidden. I can go off and have a year where I’m basically depressed and no one needs to know the gory details, whereas as a journalist you’re very engaged.
What were your early experiences with books?
When I was really young, I read books like the C.S. Lewis series of Narnia, which I look back on now and I really don’t like them at all. But it was amazing. I was completely transported into their world. Those are the earliest books I remember getting into.
When I was 10 or 11, I read Stephen King stuff, “Christine,” “The Shining,” “It.” I still love Stephen King. “It” is an incredible book. In my mind, it’s one of the greatest books ever. It subconsciously brings a small town life and the horrors of the human subconscious together.
Horror is a very interesting genre because it really confronts the boundary between the polite society we live in and the true savagery of humans. I want to write horror one day.
Milan Kundera, I read all of his stuff in my teens and then took to some of the great English novelists. Virginia Woolf, in terms of the modern novelists, is an all-time favorite. Some of the Brontes — you can get lost forever in the Brontes. They’re beautiful.
In my 20s I got more adventurous, into South American and North American writers. Cormac McCarthy, Annie Proulx. I read novels now to learn about different cultures as much to learn about [writing]. It’s the way I travel.