AMY J. BARRY, Special to the Day
Author of "Incendiary" and the number-one international bestseller "Little Bee," Chris Cleave is on a U.S. tour for his new novel, "Gold," that will bring him to the shoreline on Tuesday, July 10, in his only Connecticut appearance.
"Gold" explores the rivalry between Kate and Zoe, Olympic competitors, who became best friends in the elite-level sport of sprint cycling. Zoe is single and childless; Kate is married to Jack-also an Olympic level cyclist-and their child, Sophie, is in an ongoing battle with leukemia. Tensions mount when the Olympic Committee rules that only one of the two women will be eligible for the 2012 Olympics-their last and biggest chance for the gold medal.
Cleave recently discussed his new novel from his London, England, home, where he lives with his wife and three children.
Q. How did you come up with the intriguing storyline of two best friends, Kate and Zoe, competing for the Olympic gold and tying in all the complex personal issues of loyalty to one's friends, family, desire/obsession to excel and win, and the public issues of being Olympic stars in the spotlight?
A. My novels are about the beautiful and unexpected forms that human friendship takes, and this time I wanted to explore rivalry because it is one of the strangest and most wonderful kinds of human friendship?(Kate and Zoe) have to balance the value of the friendship against their desire to win gold, and they have to ask themselves if there isn't another, more valuable kind of "gold" to be won in their relationships. Throw in the fact that these characters are superstars in the full glare of the public eye, and it heats the crucible of pressure in which they have to race each other-and race their own demons-to survive.
Q. You're an avid amateur cyclist. Were you a cyclist before you wrote the book?
A. I was a fair-weather cyclist before I wrote "Gold," and it was during the research that I started to train hard. I wanted to know what it felt like, physically, to ride fast and to race without holding anything back, so that I could write the race scenes with authenticity. I discovered that I enjoyed the sport, and the company of cyclists, very much. So now it's part of me. I train five days a week and I'm quite competitive, though not at a high level. But I'm improving all the time. I like riding and racing, and the people I've met?Cyclists have a good balance of explosiveness, endurance, and mental strength. They're inspiring to be around.
Q. In "Little Bee" and in "Gold" you write convincingly from a female perspective. You seem to really get how a woman thinks. Why is that?
A. I'm very interested in how women operate?In very general terms, men still get the best jobs and the highest accolades without having to try as hard, while women still do all the truly important-and largely thankless-work of life. I think the relative hardship of women's lives makes women smarter and subtler. And because I'm open to that possibility?I just observe carefully and try to transpose my observations into dialogue and monologue.
Q. You also have great empathy writing from a child's perspective. Sophie is both so vulnerable and strong and we get deep insight into what it must be like to be a child so ill, and not only be the parents of that child, but understand how the child worries about the parents. How did you develop Sophie's character?
A. Sophie's character came straight out of one of many interviews I did while I was researching the novel at Great Ormond Street Hospital for sick children in London. I was talking with a child of about 8 (who) had leukemia and was gaunt and ill from the chemotherapy, although he was cheerful and attentive. When his parents briefly left the room to grab a coffee, (he) slumped in his chair and looked suddenly exhausted. I asked if he was okay. He gave me a long, tired look, then said: 'I make an effort when Mum and Dad are here'...I realized then that children are often handling more complex emotional situations than we imagine. This child was managing his parents' anxiety levels in addition to his own condition. That blew me away.
Q. How did leukemia and lymphoma research become a cause so dear to you?
A. Ah, I'm glad you asked! I was very moved by what I witnessed while researching "Gold" and I've been fundraising for Leukaemia & Lymphoma Research (a charity in England). The reason is simple: 40 years ago, 90 percent of kids with leukemia didn't make it. Now, 90 percent will go into remission. The difference is medical research, and that costs money. So it's a great use of money to fund accelerated trials programs, which is what Leukaemia & Lymphoma Research does.
Q. Jack, like Kate, juggles career and family, but doesn't make the same sacrifices as Kate. Why do women today continue to be so pulled between the people they love and what they love to do?
A. I've touched before on how I think women have harder lives and how this makes them more interesting people, certainly from a storyteller's point of view (and that) is especially true when talking about female athletes. These are people who reach the peak of their athletic careers at exactly the time when their non-sporting peers are having children. They have to make a stark choice that male athletes do not have to make, but with which very many women are familiar: career or kids? That's one of the dilemmas at the heart of the novel.
Q. You also delve into what it's like to be an aging coach in the youth sports culture and draw a poignant portrait of Tom. Any comments about Tom's character?
A. The novel is really about sickness and health, slowness and speed, death and life. It's important that the characters span three generations: Sophie at the start of life, the athletes in their prime, and Tom on the long downward slide?Kate and Zoe battle each other for milliseconds of the present, while Sophie struggles with the possibility of the entire future being taken from her, and Tom deals in memory and regrets for the past. Life is like that.
Our relationship with time is fractious and personal and in his various dealings with it, old Tom has accrued some small measure of wisdom to help his charges. He's my favorite character in the book. If the novel were a TV show, I'd give him his own spin-off. Maybe my readers could suggest a name for it?