By Mary Carole McCauley, The Baltimore Sun
September 29, 2012
When the British author Chris Cleave published his debut novel, "Incendiary," he fell victim to perhaps the worst historical coincidence ever to afflict an author.
The book, about a terrorist attack in a London sports stadium, was released on July 7, 2005 — the same day that three suicide bombers detonated their devices in the London underground transit system.
Cleave's publishers yanked "Incendiary" off the shelves and canceled Cleave's book tour. He was so depressed that for a time he stopped writing.
His second novel, "Little Bee," was released in 2008 and soon became a huge hit on both sides of the Atlantic. The novel spent more than a year on The New York Times best-seller list — and created sky-high expectations for any future novels.
So who could blame Cleave for bracing himself for another shock upon the publication of his third book of fiction, "Gold"?
The novel examines the rivalry between two elite female cyclists vying to compete in the 2012 Olympics and poses the question: "What will you do in order to win?"
Cleave, 39, recently chatted by phone about his extraordinary reversals of fortune in advance of his visit to Baltimore on Tuesday as part of his U.S. book tour.
Which was harder for you to handle as a writer, bad luck or good?
It actually was easier to come back from "Incendiary" than from "Little Bee." After a disaster like my first book, no one expects you to do anything except have another disaster. But after you've had a success, they expect you to be the good-luck guy and for everything you do to be magic. That's why I'm so obsessed with doing research for my novels. It allows me to focus on a world that's different and special without worrying about how my book will be received.
You've said that you spend a year doing research, a year writing and a year editing each of your novels.
That's right. I do more research than most novelists. My job is to think about things harder than anyone else has time to do. Often, what I do is called "an original form of novel writing" that's a hybrid between a modern novel and a kind of reportage.
It sounds as though you have a background in journalism.
I spent three years as a sub-editor [or copy editor] for a newspaper in England called The Daily Telegraph. After I started publishing novels, I was asked by The Guardian to write a column about family life. I did that for two years.
What kind of research did you conduct for "Gold"?
I trained as a cyclist very intensively, for 20 hours a week for six months. But because I'm not a lifelong athlete, I didn't have the physical endurance to cope with that regimen, and my immune system broke down. Within the space of two weeks, I went from being really very fit to almost being unable to get out of bed. No one knew what was wrong with me. I had lots of tests before they found out that my white blood cell count had gone down to a dangerously low level. For a while, they thought I had a form of leukemia. It was very scary, and I got depressed.
But you didn't have leukemia.
What I had was a syndrome of over-training. I'd been very stupid and quite arrogant and had believed I could push myself as hard as a pro athlete. I had to stop and let my blood cells recover.
That's when I became interested in sickness and health. I started shadowing a pediatric surgeon who treats children with leukemia so I could understand how Sophie [an 8-year-old character in "Gold"] recovered from a serious illness and how she went on with her life. I look back on that experience now as one of the most positive things that's ever happened to me.
A movie was made of "Incendiary" in 2008 that starred Ewan McGregor and Michelle Williams, while Nicole Kidman is producing and starring in a movie version of "Little Bee." Do you deliberately write cinematically?
No, I don't. I sometimes write in scenes, because that's how my head works. I sometimes think my books translate well to the movies because they're compact. I use the minimum number of characters to tell the story quickly. And of course, the movies love human drama. But in other ways, I don't think cinematically at all. For instance, I don't usually describe what my characters look like.
"Gold" was published three weeks before the London games. Some critics have described that timing as a cynical exercise in marketing.
The book's publication date was absolutely intentional; I try to get people to ask moral questions about the times in which we live. If the biggest story on earth is coming to my home city, of course I'm going to cover it. But does that make it cynical? The news outlets who made those accusations were themselves covering the Olympics. Why shouldn't artists be allowed to deal with the same contemporary events as journalists?
If you go
Author Chris Cleave will read from "Gold" and sign copies of the novel (Simon & Schuster, 321 pages, $27) at 7 p.m. Tuesday at the central Enoch Pratt Free Library, 400 Cathedral St. Free. Call 410-396-5430 or go to prattlibrary.org.
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