Report by Lisa Nightingale
‘It never occurred to me not to be a writer.’ began Chris Cleave award winning author of Everyone Brave is Forgiven.
Thanks to his mother who filled their home with books his discovery that he loved writing came at just age six.
At seventeen, he submitted his first book to all the agents in London. A short story about a man roadtripping across Mexico eating only what he found at the side of the road. Chris had never been to Mexico and of course being only Seventeen couldn’t drive. The book was rejected.
Following the birth of his first child, he found that the issues such as human rights which as a teenager had been at the forefront of his mind were now burning in his heart.
The next novel he wrote, Incendiary was published most successfully. His next three novels followed suit.
‘As I’m among friends ….’ He said feeling that as writers we would make more use of his sharing his experiences of research and his own writing journey.
Chris doesn’t start a novel with planning, narrative curves and character arcs. He starts with a question:
Can you ever recover from a broken heart? – Incendiary
How far would you go to help a stranger? – The Other Hand
Isn’t it wrong to strive for and achieve your dream by crushing those of your friends? – Gold
He then interviews the people and the ‘life’ that will go into the book. ‘Let them talk to each other’ he tells us.
In the case of Gold, Chris spoke to athletes, daring to ask the questions that other might shy from. He found excitement when their answers came so different to what was expected. Talking to your subjects gives you a deeper insight into their behaviour patterns than any other form of research.
Only then does he interweave the plot.
The mantra that he has adopted whenever he begins to write is to cross a boundary. So he writes as a woman or a different culture. This forces to keep the story away from himself. He finds a true story and using fiction reports back on it.
‘You’re only really listening to the conversation when you’re not in it.’ He says and imparted two strange tips for finding out how people really speak. 1) Disguise yourself as an IPod listener on the top deck of the bus, but don’t switch your IPod on. Instead listen to the conversations around you and 2) read Dating sites.
Having learned his lessons which are securely sealed in his ‘big, brown envelope of Bitterness’, Chris never uses a setting in which he hasn’t spent a lot of time. See the vista that the character will see or stand in their footsteps. This exercise will raise questions of its own. Questions that you would never have known to ask had you not been there.
Chris is deeply thankful that he and his Clinical Nutritionist wife are able to ‘tag team’ their childcare needs allowing him valuable research and writing time.