Hi Chris, welcome to the blog. I am giddy with excitement to have you here answering questions for us!
I always start out in the same place and then we’ll go from there: give us the two-minute Chris Cleave intro, please! And then regale us with one little-known fact about you (your favorite type of music, your least favorite season of the year, your weirdest memory from childhood, etc).
Two minutes is about ninety seconds more than a description of me requires. I’m a Londoner and a writer who mostly stays out of the limelight, preferring to work quietly and write novels based on deep research. It typically takes me three or four years to complete a book. I like and admire my readers, since they always seem prepared to embark with me on my forays into different literary territory each time. Something little-known about me is that I grow a beard every year in October and shave it off on the first nice day in spring.
Phew! Now that we have that out of the way, let’s dive in! I’m going to center this interview mostly around Everyone Brave Is Forgiven, since that’s your most recent (BLOCKBUSTER) book, but I will say that Little Bee is patiently waiting on my TBR shelf and Incendiary and Gold came up on my library holds list while I was preparing your questions, so they are en route to me as well! I cannot wait to read your other books, especially after reading so much about them all while I researched you. They each sound so fascinating.
You’ve spoken on many occasions (this is just one) about how you based the characters in Everyone Brave Is Forgiven on your grandparents, and especially how Alistair reflects your grandfather, David. It might seem like a silly place to start, but I’m interested as to why you kept Mary’s name the same as your grandmother, Mary, while your grandfather received a new name in this book? Also, I realize that you based most of the story on your grandparents’ letters written during the war. Were any of them alive for you to speak to while you wrote the novel, or read it before/after its publication?
I named my heroine Mary in honor of my maternal grandmother, since the details of her life differed so markedly from her namesake’s that I felt sure there could be no confusion within my family between the facts and the fiction. In the case of my maternal grandfather David, there is some very limited factual overlap with the character of Alistair in the novel, and in this case, I changed the name to make it clear that I was not equating the real person with the character’s story. My grandfather was my only surviving grandparent while I was writing the book, but it is a source of huge regret to me that he died before it was finished. I would have liked for him to be able to read the novel. He was a terrific writer himself, and I loved everything he wrote.
Along with sweeping, beautiful writing, this novel is also full of snarky, funny, and endearing dialogue between various characters (the girlfriend talk of Hilda and Mary, the rapport between Tom and Alistair, and the letter-writing of Mary and Alistair each had me smiling during my reading). I think when we consider war and the history of it, it’s hard for us to remember that those were REAL people. You said in this interview that there is “a slight current of hysteria underneath their humour. I felt the gap between what they are living through and what they are talking about would be where the emotional effect of the story lived.” How did you find that balance between the hard realities of war and the witty personalities of your characters? Do you think that most people living through a war (at home waiting or abroad serving) are able to retain their sense of humor and wit? Is that something you saw in your grandparents’ letters as well?
I think we laugh hardest about the things that scare us most – or at least, we do when our humanity is operating at full power. I really like the phenomenon of humor that emerges when good people find themselves in extremis. I did find it quite often in my grandparents’ letters, which is what made me curious to find out more about them. I think that dark humour is the measure of who we are, at our best. Do I think that most people are like that, when pushed to their limit? Absolutely not. Many people are cowards, many are selfish, many are self-pitying or narcissistic. We don’t find out who someone is until we take them way out of their comfort zone.
You deliberately made the writing of this book more difficult! You said here, “I had particular points in mind where the characters died. Then I went back and just arbitrarily killed them 25 pages earlier. It was brutal. I gave myself huge problems because they had died at very inconvenient moments. But that’s war—horrible, brutal, arbitrary. Death comes unexpectedly. I just cut them off midsentence. It was a real nightmare to fix the book.” And then you purposefully gave yourself additional misery by living on London war-time rations during the writing of the novel! As part of a generation that has largely grown up without seeing the up-close effects of war, do you think one or both of these techniques was especially helpful in making it (war) come to life for you, or placing yourself within that historical period?
It’s a good question. I think the reality for this (and the previous) generation of writers is that we have grown up not with war but with war novels and war movies. Typically these use a lot of foreshadowing – for example, when a character starts acting nobly, you just know that he or she is going to die in ten pages’ time. If you want to write honestly about war then it’s important to get part the idea that death has a gravity that precedes its arrival. You have to somehow convey the arbitrariness, the unfairness, the inconvenience of death to life and also to plot. People are cut off in mid-sentence. It’s extremely unsatisfying, from a storytelling point of view. But that’s the price of authenticity. For example, it would be frustrating if I got halfway through answering the part of your question that referred to wartime rations when suddenly and without warning I was –
You tackle the racial injustices of 1940’s London in the treatment of children throughout the book. While most white children were rehomed in the country in order to keep them safe, the disabled children and especially the Black children were sent back to danger in London, where they often roamed the streets. You’ve been called out for your characters’ language, which you defend as realistic in this interview with NPR. One of my highlighted quotes from the book says “It had taken the war to reveal London’s heart, centrifugal for white children and gravitational for Negroes”. As I’m an American, we are reeling here around the effects that brought on the #blacklivesmatter movement and the recognition of police brutality and racial injustice within the police system. Do you feel like your novel speaks to current events as well, despite its historical setting? Has racism become more systematized and subversive, or is it still blatantly obvious but just less-PC to speak about it? If London’s heart was revealed during the war, do you feel the beat of that heart has changed in the following decades? (interviewer note: should I pick up my family and move to London to get out of the craziness happening here????)
I am certain that every historical novel is really a commentary on the times that the author is living through. I wanted to talk about racism and class divisions in my country now, by exploring their deep historical roots. I do think racism is still a huge problem in my country, the UK. Over the years I’ve used a lot of different ways to write about it. Racism is actually getting worse here. Since the EU referendum result in June, racist attacks have soared and xenophobic rhetoric is everywhere. In answer to your question, it is absolutely blatant – and indeed the most shocking examples I’ve heard recently were from our ruling Conservative Party’s annual conference. So it’s a top-down as well as a bottom-up phenomenon. It sickens and also frightens me, which I suppose is why I keep writing about it.
Finally, as I pulled together article after article for this interview, I couldn’t help but notice that your previous books each find a clear center in a parent/child relationship. And, indeed, your debut novel Incendiary was written because of and for your first-born son. Everyone Brave Is Forgiven seems to be a clear departure from that, but I’m guessing you’ve placed your children in there somewhere, especially since you said here that “Different people have different things that lend their lives structure and meaning, but for me it’s our children and I think I’ve been a better writer since they showed up.” As a mom of three myself, I’m wondering where you see that relationship reflected most clearly in this new novel?
In my previous novels, as you say, there has always been a parent-child relationship, but here I wanted to explore a subtler relationship in loco parentis, between Mary and Zachary, the child she becomes partially responsible for. I wanted to show that he saves her as much as she saves him.
Okay, you asked that I limit myself to 5 questions, and so I promise I’ll let you go now! Thank you so very much for taking the time for me, Chris. I am so appreciative of each and every writer who agrees to my sending questions!
It’s an honor and a pleasure – thank you for reading Everyone Brave is Forgiven, and for your kind words about it. And thank you for taking the time to do interviews like this. On behalf of the writing community, I can say that it’s thanks to projects like yours that we can find a readership, which gives us the ability to pursue our vocation. Thank you! All good wishes to you and your readers – CC