Chris Cleave has been a barman, a long-distance sailor, a teacher of marine navigation, an internet pioneer and a Guardian columnist. Now the 36-year-old is an acclaimed novelist, as well as a proud husband and father-of-three. Incendiary, his debut novel, won several prestigious awards and was adapted into a film starring Ewan McGregor and Michelle Williams. His second and most recent novel Little Bee is the current #1 The New York Times fiction bestseller for the third week running, as of the time of writing.
What led you to write Little Bee?
I wanted to put a human face to the world’s refugee crisis. There is so much conflict in the world now, and the media tends to focus on the noisy, violent episodes, rather than the quieter and more emotionally-challenging lives of the people who are displaced by those episodes. But I believe that those human stories are the real story of our world right now, so it was something I felt urgently drawn to write about. And I think that’s something one can do in fiction: to tell a story that is entertaining, enlightening and emotionally true, about events in our real world. On a personal level, I became involved with refugees for the first time in my early 20s, when I worked for a few days in the kitchen of an Immigration Detention Centre in the UK. It opened my eyes to a hidden world.
The characters in Little Bee have such distinct voices, from Little Bee’s poetic grasp of the Queen’s English to Batman’s childish chatter. How did you capture this?
I am obsessed with the subtleties of spoken language – I try to be a good listener, and to capture the nuances of what people say, the precise way in which they express themselves, and – vitally – what they do not say. So to write this novel, I interviewed many refugees and asylum-seekers, I talked with Nigerian English-speakers, and I did a lot of book learning around the grammar and idioms of Nigerian English. Likewise for the characters of Yevette, and Sarah, and Andrew – all my characters are linguistic constructions first and foremost. They have a particular voice before they have their looks, their clothes, their jobs, their histories. And you mention the character of Batman, aka Charlie, a four-year-old boy in the novel. He was based on my own eldest child, who sincerely believed that he was Batman at the time I was writing the novel. Sometimes I just took dictation…
Little Bee is a story told by two women. Why did you choose to present these issues through these two very different women’s voices?
I like writing in female voices because it’s a good way to ensure that I am not talking about myself. Whenever I sit down at my writing desk, I want to be someone different. That is the great escape of being a writer, and of being a reader for that matter – the freedom if affords us from the bonds of being ourselves. Plus I think that for a writer like me, who tries to explore the extremes of the human psyche, the job is best done through extended dialogue and monologue, to which I find that female narrators are more suited. Men have an inner life that is just as interesting but they don’t tend to express themselves to each other through words. Therefore, I find that female characters are often more suited to my purpose.
In Little Bee and your previous novel, Incendiary, you focus on a mother and child with a backdrop of explosive world issues. Why do you do this?
I guess I’m not the first person to believe that the mother-and-child grouping is the most beautiful conjunction in human life. It is a tender and moving image, and in various guises I tend to juxtapose it with scenes that are less tender – perhaps even horrific – for the mutual amplification that the contrast provides. Also, I believe that generalizations about our world are very rarely true or useful, and so as a writer I try to tell stories about particular human lives – often lives that are torn apart precisely by the people who believe in generalizations. In this way I try to explore big world issues through small individual lives, and there is arguably no smaller unit of life than the mother-and-child link.
How does being a journalist influence you as a fiction writer?
Well, I’m not working as a journalist right now – I recently gave up my Guardian column to concentrate on my novels – but I do hugely respect the work that journalists do, and I see the roles of a journalists and novelists as being similar in many respects. For example, I hope that as a novelist I look at the world with the hungry eye of a reporter – I ask myself: what is the biggest story that is happening right now, and how can I bring my readers right up close to it?
How does being a father influence your writing?
For the better, I’m pretty sure. First and foremost, I’m a happier person – I really like being part of a family, and feeling that I am of some use to people I care about. I think the happiness comes through in my work.
So far you’ve published two novels, and Incendiary has already been adapted for the screen, with Little Bee in the works. What are your thoughts on the adaptation process?
I think it very much depends on the novel. Some novels have the quality of being particularly suited to film – they are written in scenes, they have a strong visual aspect, and the story is mainly told through dialogue and action. In such cases it might be fair to describe the transition to the screen as a process of translation. But in other cases, for example where the style or the method or the atmosphere of a novel is more salient than its storyline, then it is probably more useful to think of the novel as the first creative spark that inspires a completely separate creative project; the making of a movie. I think my novels have a foot in each of those camps, so I’m fascinated to see what screenwriters make of them! I’m not precious about my work, and I don’t believe in the idea that a film should be “faithful” to the novel it is based on, so I would always be happy if the producer and the director and the screenwriter just felt inspired and liberated to go out there and make a great work of art.
What can we expect to see from you in the future?
Some good novels, I hope. I have made a choice to give up all professional distractions – however much I enjoyed them – and dedicate myself to producing the best novelistic work of which I’m capable.