Interview with Chris Cleave

Incendiary by Chris Cleave
Knopf, 2005

In early 2004, British author Chris Cleave was working on a novel set in 1980’s Brooklyn. Like many of us, he felt a vague anxiety about the world’s direction in the Age of Terror, & like many of us he looked for an escape.

After the Madrid train bombing on March 11, 2004, Cleave found himself unable to indulge in such escapism. He began writing; his new novel, Incendiary, was finished six weeks later. It’s the story of one woman’s letter to Osama bin Laden, after the terrorist bombing of a London soccer match kills her husband and young boy – and sends her country into a tailspin.

Cleave’s book was quickly picked up by UK publishers, set to go on sale July 7, 2005. That morning, four bombs exploded in London’s public transportation system, killing 56 people and injuring over 700 more. It was the single deadliest terror attack in the United Kingdom since the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103.

His outlet was his novel, Incendiary

July 7: your book is published, appearing the day of the London attacks. Can you talk a little bit about the aftermath of that situation?

It was pretty messy, actually, emotionally. The whole town was roughly split into two camps: the people who had been directly affected by it, who’d had friends or loved ones killed or injured just feeling absolutely awful, and the rest of the town feeling a sense of absolute horror at what had happened, and an almost guilty sense of relief they hadn’t been affected themselves.

I got that times two, really, because my book was so tangled up with what happened. The coincidence seemed too extreme. A book about a London terror attack published on the day there was one. I spent the next month talking to journalists a lot, and I also talked to the families of some of the people who’d died, trying to see if there was anything I could do to help. There’s really not much you can do for people in that situation but try to be sympathetic.

It was a horrible couple of months, really, for London. Right now I can see signs that London is recovering and has got its normal social and political life back. But you realize for how very many years that event is going to scar the city and inform what happens in British politics. [...]

What I find interesting is to compare that to what happened in the United States in 2001, which was two orders of magnitude more disastrous. All I can do is admire the way the US has responded to that. I’m not talking  in terms of foreign policy – I’ve got a few arguments there, frankly –  but what I admire is, domestically, how strong people have been and what sense of national cohesion there is. You didn’t let it split your nation apart, and there are a lot of interesting dialogues coming out of that. I can really only admire that. [...]

It surprised me to see reviews of the book that labeled the invocation of Osama bin Laden as “tasteless.” To see an aesthetic judgment applied to the use of a political figure -- it seemed as though they’d put him beyond discussion, beyond any kind of debate.

Isn’t that interesting? That review in The New York Times that said the idea of writing to Osama was a case of simple tastelessness – that’s really interesting, because for me a novel is many things. For one, it’s an aesthetic statement. It’s an emotive thing; it’s a rational, philosophical argument laid out as fiction; it’s ... you know, you can read it on many levels, but you can’t dismiss it on the grounds of taste without going slightly further to justify why you find it tasteless.[...]

We shouldn’t let Osama bin Laden become Lord Voldemort [villain of the Harry Potter series]. We shouldn’t make his name unpronounceable. We shouldn’t elevate him to this status of being beyond rational argument. As soon as we do that, we make ourselves as crazy as he allegedly is.

If you forbid yourself the possibility of treating someone as a human, then you have to act inhumanly towards them. That’s why we’ve restricted ourselves to this level of throwing armies against one another, which we’ve proven again and again is just a useless thing to do – it’s because we refuse to accept that the people we oppose are rational. We don’t agree with them. What they do is wrong. Some might even say it’s evil, if you believe in good and evil. What they’re not is crazy. What they’re not is unreachable. What they’re not is irrational. They’re highly-motivated, highly-effective, quite-together people. And they hate us. That’s what’s frightening. [...]

There’s been a lot of discussion about the place of art in the aftermath of tragedy. Many people have made arguments for silent healing, for not discussing it until we’re all “beyond it.” Recent books by Jonathan Safran Foer and Ian McEwan have dealt directly with 9/11; others have taken more oblique approaches. One generally positive review of your book concluded, “But perhaps now isn’t the time to read it.” How do you react to that kind of idea?

I’m quite tolerant of that idea. [...] I think it’s probably a minority of people that will want to tackle those issues head-on, whether to read about them or to write about them. I’m not claiming to write a book with universal appeal. That was, in fact, exactly what I wasn’t trying to do – I was trying to write a book that was quite provocative and quite confrontational and that not everyone would like. I was fed up with what I felt to be the mediocrity of the previous attempts to deal with that as a subject. There’s a risk that these books are sort of sentimental and glib and full of cliché. I wanted to address what the terrorist threat meant to our society, and how it exposes fault lines that already exist in our society.

But that’s not everyone’s cup of tea. I’m very comfortable with the idea that now might not be the best time for many people to read that. My wife, for example, says, ‘Oh, ok, I’ll read that in a few years time,’ and I respect that. If you’re of that mindset, it just increases your suffering, and that’s the last thing I want to do. I just want people who think about these things anyway to read it.

The question about what is the right time is interesting. I think now is the right time, because I don’t think it’s an issue that’s going to go away. I think terrorism is defining the decade we live in. It’s ushered in a new way of thinking about the world – and that’s not just negative. It’s really forced people to think about the kind of society we want to build; whether that should be a religious society, a secular society ... what kind of values we should base our society on.

I don’t think that debate’s going to go away just because we find it unpalatable. So for me there’s literally no time like the present for writing about it. I find it incredibly fascinating.  [...]

What you need to do in art is find the emotive event and then put it in the context of why that event is important, why it isn’t just the pornography of violence, why it isn’t just an entertainment. The reason it’s an interesting subject for work is because of what it means for the immediate future. These events are sort of the gatekeepers of the future.

I have no idea if my book achieves that, but I know that if I look back at some of the great books and works of art in history, I see that as the common theme. They write soon after the event or sometimes just before it, because they have an inkling of what’s going to happen. They don’t use the event for entertainment; they use it to show what it means about how the world is changing.

As a writer, where do you go from here?

I want to carry on talking about issues that are only made bearable by love. Against this whole backdrop of being interested in the social issues that are happening on our planet, I’m continually impressed by human beings’ ability to cope with those changes. I think they cope because, number one, they have to, and number two, because they have this reservoir of love in them. We have this love for each other – that really impresses me about people. Incendiary, for me, is a story about how massive love is, how unquenchable love is, how it gets people through the most extraordinary situations. I want to talk about the ‘human steel’ that is love, and how that’s immutable in the face of changes that are incredibly profound in society.

So that’s what my next book’s about. [...] There’s a few laughs in there, as well. [laughs]

Good, you need those! [laughs]

It sounded really serious the way I said it, but it’s actually a more light-hearted book than Incendiary was. I felt a real need to give people something that would make them feel happy and a bit light-hearted, because Incendiary is a bit heavy. I’ve had people in tears after reading it, and I want to do more than just make people cry.

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