Last month saw the much anticipated release of Gold, Chris Cleave’s first novel since his bestseller The Other Hand prompted frantic chatter amongst a million book clubs across the globe and his third including first novel Incendiary. This new one was inspired by the announcement that his home town was to host the 2012 Olympic Games. Here Chris uses the theme of Olympic cycling in order to explore the nature of people who push themselves to the limit. His two main characters are women – top British cyclists Zoe Castle and Kate Meadows – and as they approach the end of highly successful yet stressful careers it’s clear that there is history between them that needs to be resolved.
The plot twists and turns and with more ups and downs than the Tour de France it’s guaranteed to keep you gripped to the very last page. I caught up with Chris and asked him about his inspiration and motivation for writing Gold.
You clearly researched competitive cycling very thoroughly. Why does it appeal to you? Is it the idea of the lone competitor pushing themselves to the limit that intrigues you?
Cyclists are irresistible to a novelist because they combine extreme physicality with bravery and intelligence. There is a great depth of character to write about, set in lives of sacrifice and hardship. Cycling is a complex tactical game, and I learned that the victors are not always the toughest physical competitors but the ones who are psychologically strongest, tactically wiliest, and most prepared to analyse their opponents’ weaknesses. It’s a set of character traits, in other words, that carries over into the characters’ personal lives away from the race. I was intrigued by the blurring of the line between competition and ordinary living.
We are all pretty useful psychologists, in truth. Life makes us expert in observing people very closely and interpreting the minutest aspects of their carriage and comportment. Or at least, it does if you’re small and unexceptional-looking. I think being 5’7” was better for my writing than was my formal study of psychology. It forced me to rely more on my observation and wits and less on my physicality. When I’m researching characters – which is nearly always – I’m just using the natural tendency to vigilance that is common to all prey animals.
The relationship between Kate and Zoe is a fascinating one, such an unlikely friendship. Do you believe that opposites attract? Or is their bond based on the sacrifices they must make and the determination they share despite their apparently very different personalities?
Their relationship begins because of that well-publicised inclination to keep one’s friends close and one’s enemies closer, and then it develops into something more beautiful and fragile. The psychology of rivalry is particularly interesting. Rivalry shares at least one important quality with romantic love, which is that it makes both parties greater than they could be on their own. I was interested in whether the nascent friendship could survive the escalating rivalry. It’s interesting because – assuming the friendship survives beyond the end of their sporting careers – the two women may well know and understand each other better than anyone else on earth.
In Gold Kate’s daughter Sophie is very ill. It must have been very difficult to write about a seriously ill child, particularly as a parent yourself. Did you find it stressful and upsetting to research and write this part of the book?
Yes, it was harrowing to be so close to parents and children who were suffering and frightened. At the same time, I also witnessed great happiness while I was doing the research at Great Ormond Street Hospital. Watching a child getting better is a beautiful thing, and 90% of children with the form of leukaemia I write about will go into remission. So it is a place of extremes, where every day is literally a life-and-death struggle. You witness the worst of outcomes and the best of the human character.
In my research I’ve always been drawn to lives lived at the edge of the human experience, because it is there that people are tested and it is possible to observe what we are really like.
You live in London and I’ve read that you wanted to write about London and the Olympics. Yet London doesn’t feature in this book. Did you think of setting the book there during the games? Why did you stop short of the games themselves?
The book spans three Olympiads and concerns itself with the hidden lives and the psychological journeys of rivals, rather than with the action at the Olympics themselves. None of the two main protagonists’ Olympic races are narrated – all that action happens ‘off camera’. In as much as it was possible I wanted to leave that particular stage for the real athletes who competed in Athens and Beijing, and who will compete in London. Partly that was out of respect for the athletes, and partly it was out of an acknowledgement of my place as a writer: it’s one thing to use fictional characters to illuminate the true hidden depths of the competitive psyche, but it would be another to provide an alternative history of the London Olympics. The Olympics are the greatest show on earth and when it was announced that they were coming to my home town I wanted to tell the story behind the Games, not to write the story of these Games themselves. That’s the athletes’ job.
In your next book you’re writing about an injured soldier who has returned from Afghanistan and also his carer. That sounds like a fascinating and potentially controversial topic. Do you believe that novels provide an effective way for authors and readers to explore difficult issues?
I think a novel can throw a useful light on societal questions – both timeless and timely – for a number of reasons. First, a novel has no responsibility to be objective or proportionate. My novel about refugees, for example, is free to range across the landscape of the issue, allowing its eye to settle where it will.
Second, a novel is not required to solve the problems it identifies. My novel about terrorism can ask: ‘Why, precisely, are we so terrified by terror?’ but is not likely to declare war on it. Third, a novel is not trying to get itself elected. It is mired in the same ethical and moral muck that politicians roll in, but it won’t pretend it doesn’t stink. So I think a novel has a unique freedom to light up the public debate around an issue. It has more space than the newspapers, more time than the movies, and more channels than TV. The novel also has a built-in honesty test: because it doesn’t deal in facts but in feelings, readers can decide for themselves whether the narrative is emotionally true. That is the novelist’s only responsibility: to be truthful with the reader.
Photograph above, with kind thanks to Lou Abercrombie.