Article published on April 8, 2016.
Our MD and I have been longstanding fans of Chris Cleave’s work to date – Incendiary, The Other Hand, Gold. But he beat me to Chris’s newest book,
Everyone Brave is Forgiven, so it seemed only sensible to ask him to put some questions to the author.
Chris Cleave: My maternal grandparents met only nine times before WWII parted them; he to the siege of Malta, she to the Blitz in London. While apart they wrote hauntingly beautiful letters to each other, which I read in awe more than six decades later. Their letters affected me so deeply that I dared hope I could bring that time alive again on the page – the crucible of risk and loss, trust and separation that was the first part of the war, 1939 to 1942, when no one knew which way the thing would go. In the letters I witnessed these two young people falling more and more in love with each other even as the foundations of their world crumbled. I am so proud of them, and of the deep affection human beings can have for each other. They were the inspiration for the novel, which is about the bravery of hope.
AG: The Siege of Malta plays a big role in your tale. Plainly your research on the difficulties faced by the people of the island in WW2 was substantial. Why did you feel so keen to focus on that?
CC: Everyone Brave is Forgiven is a tale of two sieges. Malta was blockaded for years by the Axis powers, who came within a whisper of starving out the British garrison. And of course Britain was under siege too in that first phase of the war, with its supply lines decimated and its armies corralled. I was interested in hunger – deep, aching, demoralizing hunger – and its subtle effects on bravery. I researched the Malta siege in great depth, staying on the island for three months in the places my grandfather was stationed. I put myself on the London rations that my grandmother would have been eating, and was aghast at the changes in my morale, energy and determination. It made their ability to love and hope so intensely seem even more moving. I’m a great advocate of the kind of research you can’t do on Google. I’m a method writer, if you like. I’ve been that way for all my books, and that’s why they take years to research. I owe it to the reader to do these things so that they can believe in my characters. I know my books are authentic – not just historically accurate, but emotionally honest.
AG: I certainly felt the novel captured the enormous ability of our grandparents to ‘endure’ generally during this period. Do you agree that todays’ generation find it difficult to relate to that level of suffering?
CC: Actually I believe in today’s generation, and I know we would rediscover our reserves of dignity if life ramped up the level of challenge. I’m not one of those people who believe in a ‘golden generation’ that will never be equaled: our DNA hasn’t changed in those few decades. A certain type of human is still capable of amazing endurance and unconditional love. That’s why I wrote ‘Everyone Brave is Forgiven’. I wanted to remind myself of what we’re still capable of, even now, if we only dare to respect ourselves.
AG: The main characters in the novel are mainly ones of privilege, yet, there are hints in the book of the class inequality of the time and a possible move to the left that happened just after the war – was this deliberate on your part to highlight a changed society?
CC: I think that what the western Allies did in the years after the war – feeding Germany instead of punishing it, widening suffrage at home, relaxing social strictures – was just as heroic as winning the thing. The danger always in victory is in assuming the form of your vanquished foe, and it’s notable that we didn’t become the totalitarian power we had vowed to destroy. In Britain’s case, I think moving to the left and creating the NHS was beautiful and miraculous. So yes, in ‘Everyone Brave is Forgiven’ I’m always hinting at the seed of creation that is present in all the destruction. The seed of renewal is always there, and readers who enjoy ‘Everyone Brave’ should watch this space to see it planted in the next book.
AG: Racism is writ large in the novel too. The dreadfully demeaning way some of the characters are treated seems awkward to read today. Were you keen to display that generational societal shift?
CC: Britain, like America, was a brutally racist society: we forget this at our peril. Up until 1979 – think about that – 1979! – the most popular light entertainment show on British TV was ‘The Black & White Minstrel Show’. It makes ‘Top Gear’ seem positively reconstructed by comparison. So yes, I am furious at the honeyed nostalgia on display in so many books and films set in WWII. I am appalled that people imagine pre-Windrush Britain to have been an exclusively white society. To tell an honest story about WWII, you have to acknowledge that there were thousands of black families living in London and that they were treated shittily. And to tell a real story about Britain’s beautiful and extraordinary renewal after the war, you have to acknowledge the crucial role of black British people: not just of the Windrush generation, but of those who were here for the war. This is a thread that runs all through ‘Everyone Brave is Forgiven’, and it will thicken and gain new strands in the next novel.
AG: This is your first historical novel. Why did you make the conscious move to set your 4th novel in the past?
CC: I think historical fiction is a higher form, and a much more difficult one, and I began to hope that I had finally hit the technical level necessary to step up to it. Also, after twelve years of development, I believed in my research methods and their suitability for the task. With historical fiction you are telling a story within a greater story that the reader already knows. Therefore, you have the privilege of spending fewer pages building your theatre, and this affords you more pages in which to actually put on your play. You win pages to develop characters, and you gain space to let them talk to one another. For a writer like me, who is excited by a character’s deep psychology, historical fiction is a bigger and better stage. My novels always have a simple question at their heart – in this case, “What is bravery?” – and I can now allow myself to travel through time as well as space in order to find the best theatre in which to make my characters answer. I thought long and hard before taking the step. I asked myself why Shakespeare, who could so convincingly conjure tragedies and escapes, spent so much time writing history plays. And I wondered why I liked his history plays best. My answer – which may be right or wrong but which certainly informed my attraction to historical fiction – is that it is in the history plays that Shakespeare gets most quickly and most convincingly into character.
AG: At it’s heart, EBIF is a love story. Did you aim to highlight the strong relationships from such snatched, brief courtships – another aspect difficult to relate to today?
CC: I think there is much to love in the way those of that generation would pour their whole hearts into letters. There was an intensity and a privacy that we have lost. I think we have also forgotten how to be brave in communication. The high-frequency, low-intensity messages we send each other now are an impoverished way to fall in love. We seem to have become addicted to constant small reassurances – whereas of course love, and life, is all about the plunge.
AG: Incendiary was filmed back in 2008. Any news on optioning this one? Would you like to get involved with the scriptwriting if so?
CC: Yes, Incendiary was filmed, Gold is in development and The Other Hand is in talks as we speak. I do think Everyone Brave is Forgiven will be a film or a TV series, but I’m not sure where we are with it at this moment. [Interested parties have my thanks and should contact my film agent, Jennifer Joel at ICM associates.] Would I get involved with scriptwriting? Certainly, if they want me on board. People know by know what they’re getting with me: deep human psychology, scenes driven by dialogue, no car chases.
TSWS: Shtum by Jem Lester – They Say, We Say
IN CONVERSATION: Joanna Cannon and Jem Lester
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