Interview with Chris Cleave

Chris Cleave 2

Our NUI Galway Intern Laura Enright interviews #1 New York Times best-selling author, Chris Cleave

 London born & based journalist and writer Chris Cleave is no stranger to success. His debut novel Incendiary was published in twenty countries and has been adapted as a feature film starring Ewan McGregor. His second novel, the Costa-shortlisted New York Times best-seller The Other Hand has found phenomenal success world-wide. His third book, Gold, confirmed his status as “one of the most powerful, important and psychologically insightful novelists.”

Chris’ latest book Everyone Brave is Forgiven, shot to the top of the best-seller list when it was published this year. We are delighted to confirm that Chris will be discussing his newest novel when he joins us at this year’s Listowel Writers’ Week on Friday 2nd June. In the mean-time, we’ve asked him some questions that we’ve always wanted to ask, and the results are unusual to say the least. After reading these, it’s acceptable to begin to get excited for his event in June. We’re looking forward to it!

Hi Chris! What got you into writing in the first place?

I was lucky: I had a teacher at primary school one year who defied the official curriculum to give us an hour of “creative writing” every week. She just used to write a title on the blackboard (remember blackboards?) and we would have to write a story to fit. With a beginning, a middle and an end, and a finger space between each word, as she was fond of saying. And thanks to her, I discovered that I loved writing. Otherwise, I might never have realised it. I’m big on this issue. I think schools are terrible at nurturing creativity. The teachers would love to do more of it, but they’re prevented from doing so by national curricula – which in turn are driven by a Daily Mail culture that bullies creative people.

So you started early. What would have been your favourite book as a child?

I remember a picture book called The Chocolate Rain. My mum read it to us before we could read. It rains chocolate drops. Then they melt in the sun. There’s a chocolate flood. Chocolate fish and chocolate crocodiles appear. It is miraculous.

What book has made the biggest impression on you?

Recently, A Manual for Cleaning Women by Lucia Berlin. It’s out in paperback from Picador. She had such a tough life, but she writes with humour and insight – and without bitterness. She has an extraordinary virtuosity, fluid and unpretentious. The book is a collection of autobiographical short fictions. It’s a winner.

And what are your favourite books now?

You can find a wise line in a trashy book, just as you can find an empty line in a masterpiece. I’m all for reading outside the canon. I like zoological research papers, debut novels and the niche magazines in my dentist’s waiting room. There’s a good lyric by my friend, the musician Dan Black, in the song Tangled Up In Headphone Leads, it goes: What music do you like? / I like anything that’s good.

Who’s your favourite fictional character and why?

I don’t have favourites for the same reason – but I’m fascinated by villains because I don’t write them myself. My novels are about people who are flawed but not evil, trying to do their best in situations that are really messed up. So it gets my attention when a writer captures something of that disturbing psychopathic humour that sends a chill up your spine. I can’t channel it myself. So maybe Patrick Bateman in American Psycho – “Not quite blonde, are we? / More of a dirty blonde.” Or the Judge in Blood Meridian. “The judge smiled. Men are born for games. Nothing else.”

Who is the most under-rated Irish author in your opinion?

I remember a chalkboard sign outside a pub that read: “HAS YOUR DOG DIED? WORRIED ABOUT THE SIZE OF YOUR PENIS? YOU CAN NUMB THESE PROBLEMS TEMPORARILY WITH THE HELP OF BOOZE!” I thought whoever wrote that ought to get more recognition.

Where / how / when do you write?

I write early, from 4 or 5 am until lunch. I like the dawn hour, I like the stillness. It doesn’t matter where. Then I ride my bike or I go to the gym. I’m into my routine. Flaubert said: “Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work.”

What is your best piece of advice for an aspiring writer?

What Flaubert said.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever gotten as a writer?

Write. You can waste a lot of time talking about it.

What’s your favourite word?

Ensorcelled. (We looked it up. Def: enchanted or fascinated, from the word sorcerer)

Your novels are often brim-full of history and facts. What’s the most research you’ve ever done for a piece of writing?

For Everyone Brave is Forgiven, I did two solid years of research. Document and audio archive work, interviews with veterans and survivors, time in all the locations. I even went onto WWII rations for a while. All of it was necessary, because that time was so different from now. It was like going to another planet and learning about its population from scratch.

Though this shouldn’t be a problem because your novels have been met with critical acclaim, what weight do you give reviews? How important are they?

Four out of five literary critics are pitiable creatures, but the fifth is a genius who can tell you the truth in a way that will change you forever. As writers, we must learn to tell one kind from the other. It’s hard. What has been the happiest moment for you so far in your writing career?

Ah, it’s all good. You have to love the process. And I like the unexpected discoveries. Realising I can make rooms full of people laugh and they go away with happy memories. Realising I can teach. Getting messages from young people who’ve read my stuff, and maybe by chance it’s the first decent novel they’ve read, and it’s opened the door to reading for them.

What has being a writer taught you?

To respect people’s struggles. To be curious rather than opinionated.

Laura Enright is studying the BA in Creative Writing English and Irish at NUI Galway

All events at this year’s festival can be booked from Friday 7th April 2017

Full details available on:

Find out more about Chris Cleave here:


Laura Enright

April 2017