National Writers Forum: The Clocks are Striking Thirteen, by Chris Cleave

Apparently Chris Cleave has been on the road promoting his new book, Everyone Brave is Forgiven, since January. On hearing this, I half expected a bedraggled Cleave to front for the keynote speech of our first National Writers Forum: crumpled notes in hand, world-weary and longingly counting down the days until home. Instead, Cleave presented the most calm, thoughtful, and compelling commentary I’ve heard on the current global socio-economic climate and the resulting challenges writers are facing, not just in their work, but also in their lives.

Cleave had obviously done his research. He started with a discussion of New Zealand literature and his experiences with a country that maintains a cultural focus while still having a healthy curiosity for the outward world. New Zealand, Cleave says, “punches well above its weight in literature”, sometimes much to his chagrin, what with all these New Zealand Man Booker Prize wins. Yet, he assures us, he doesn’t hate us.

But hate is on the rise, and the hard right is resurgent. As Cleave so aptly put it: “People are building walls again, and topping them with barbed wire.” And the problem with this hate? It’s catching – and so much more readily compressible; perfectly adapted to the digital medium. Rage has become the fuelling emotion of our era. 

So, in a world filled with viral sound bites of hate, what can writers do to be useful? Cleave detailed a list of five things that writers can do to matter in an Orwellian world of fuelled by “Two Minutes Hate” – I thoroughly recommend that you read this list, along with the full transcript of Chris’s speech, on his website (link below). They’re points that deserve thoughtful reflection, and a pause for breath.

Though I’m sure that all writers and the bookishly inclined will gain something different from Cleave’s list, the one that really stuck with me was number four: tell stories in a world no longer listening to fact. With science, reason and statistical analysis all failing to hold authority in our current political climates, storytellers have become the most powerful change makers. While this is a dangerous and somewhat scary thought, I do find something thrillingly Foucauldian about the idea. That this might be a step towards empowering subjugated knowledges – those low-ranking knowledges embodied and learned through human experience – is comforting in a way that cold, hard facts never could be.

 We live in a storied world. As Cleave puts it: “When we act like human beings we write like human beings. And when we write like human beings, people are drawn to read us.” Evil may be quick, dominating, and seductive; but appealing to humanity – something that writers have always done well – has the power to change this narrative, and to know when it has achieved its purpose.

Read the full transcript of Chris Cleave’s amazing speech here.

Event attended and reviewed by Emma Bryson

National Writers Forum: The Clocks are Striking Thirteen: Chris Cleave

Book Review: Everyone Brave is Forgiven, by Chris Cleave

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_everyone_brave_is_forgivenThis literary blend of historical fiction and wartime romance places you in wartime Britain, contrasting the fates of the upper- and lower-classes in London during the Blitz, and showing the effects of modern siege warfare on the British army men who occupied the island of Malta from 1940-1942.

Mary North is the first upper-class Brit we are introduced to in Everyone Brave is Forgiven, in a very dramatic first few pages – she joined the war effort the day it was declared, leading to her first job, as a schoolteacher. Not what she had in mind at all (as the daughter of an MP), but as she begins work, she realises that she thrives on teaching. Unfortunately, she isn’t quite what the head of the school had in mind either, so she just as swiftly gets let go before the children are evacuated into the countryside, but continues a relationship with Zachary, a little African-American boy who is the only person of colour in her school.

Mary meets Tom Shaw, head of the district her school was in, and persuades him to give her a new group of kids to teach: the ones left behind, and those that were rejected by the host families of the British countryside for being different, or difficult. Mary falls in love with the earnest Tom, who has himself decided to give the war a miss. Tom’s roommate Alistair, however, volunteers early on, and completes his basic training in time to walk backwards out of France with the rest of the British Army. Alistair and Mary meet while he is on leave, during a double date that was for the benefit of Mary’s friend Hilda. Looks are exchanged, plus Mary is the beautiful one, but of course there is the little matter of Tom.

Everyone Brave is Forgiven is based on the true story of author Chris Cleave’s grandparents. Both of his grandmothers were in London during the Blitz, and he took elements of truth from the stories of both – one was an ambulance driver at the time, the other got engaged to his grandfather while he was on leave from the Army – to create Mary North. His grandfather was stationed in Malta during the siege, with little hope of survival, and dulled instincts due to starvation rations.

First of all, did the upper-class Officers of the British army really go on like that? Blackadder really didn’t have to look too far for an easy parody, did it? The dialogue between Simonson and Alistair is probably meant to serve a leavening purpose, given they are at that point stuck in Malta for the foreseeable future, with too little food, and no way of getting more thanks to constant air siege, but I did want to throw the book across the room more than once. Perhaps Cleave reasoned that you couldn’t overlook the jolly good fellows, because the British class system is, in essence, why Malta held out for so long – over 180 nights of continuous bombing from the Luftwaffe. That didn’t make the waffle any easier to enjoy.

This story is interleaved with that of our heroine Mary North, the privileged finishing-school student who is eager for adventure during the war. Her relationship with Zachary and latterly the other negro orphans who pitched up at London’s Lycaeum Theatre during the siege was well-formed, if stretching the imagination a little at times. I appreciated the injection of reality coming in the form of one of the senior minstrels from the Lycaeum’s blackface show, telling her to move on, because they were concerned that people from higher up might notice the fact they had a few legally dodgy operations going on there.

I was disappointed overall with this book. I was telling a friend how flowery and over-wrought the prose was at times – there’s even a one-page wondering about what happens to conkers when the children aren’t around to play with them – and she reminded me of Cornelia Funke, who noted during Writer’s Week that when writing for children you don’t get to play around with language – it is pure plot. That is not to say that beautiful writing, and long books can’t be incredible, but the writing in this book wasn’t extraordinary enough to be leaving extraneous description, or wonderings, on the page.

I believe that for every book that one person dislikes, there will be another 1000 people who will love it, given the opportunity to look between the covers. So if the rest of the story sounds fascinating, and you want to peek into areas of wartime London that you haven’t yet read about in fiction, then this may be a book for you.

Reviewed by Sarah Forster

Everyone Brave is Forgiven
by Chris Cleave
Published by Sceptre
ISBN 9781473618701


Email digest: Monday 27 August 2012

This is a digest of our Twitter feed that we email out most Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Sign up here for free if you’d like it emailed to you.

If you’re a fan of author Chris Cleave then tomorrow he’s starting his NZ tour in Auckland.

From around the internet
HarperCollins: ‘We can’t think of ourselves as book publishers any more

Love Your Local: Taupo Bookstore goes Indiebound

Author interviews
The view from here does a great interview with John Boyne and Noel Murphy will be doing one next Mon 

Book Reviews
The Fatkins Diet: Calorific Meals for Serious Eaters by Rhys Mathewson

The Next Best Thing by Jennifer Weiner

River of Destiny by Barbara Erskine

New release books
Scholastic NZ : September titles

Made in NZ by Chris Mirams & Ross Land

Book review: Gold by Chris Cleave

This book is in bookstores now.

Chris Cleave’s second book, The Other Hand, was the kind of book that changed your life and left you bereft when you finished it. How do you follow that?

Well it seems you wait three years and write something completely different. Gold, his latest novel, is for all intents and purposes a book about cycling. Olympic cycling no less.

Kate and Zoe are best friends and rivals, constantly switching between 1st and 2nd in the world. They’ve known each other for years, grown up training together but one of them chose love, marriage and a child and temporarily got off the bike. The other kept going and has the money, fame and endorsements to prove it. They both have feelings for Jack – appropriate for one – she’s his wife, not so appropriate for her best friend. And then there’s Sophie. A daughter. With leukemia who wants her Mummy to go and win gold, but still wants her Mummy there with her at night.

I’m not going to say anything more than this is so much more than a story about Olympic cycling. It’s not a cheap, cash in on the Olympics story; it’s the Olympics that add the extra background to this.

As always Cleave has crafted characters you can believe in, you can hope for. Sophie in particular is very well written – whilst it’s hard to feel anything but sympathy for an 8 year old that might be dying, Cleave has resisted the urge to man handle our emotions towards a TV movie “disease of the week” finish. Like Charlie the Batman lover in The Other Hand, Sophie is a real child going through a tough time.

The obvious parallels between dealing with suddenly changing rules as you compete for a gold medal, and fighting a potentially fatal illness are obvious. So too is the idea of personal integrity being the harshest judge of all yet Cleave manages to write in a way that makes us forget the obvious and dwell in the tiny details that say so much more. Yes, a lot of this novel is about the sport of cycling but it’s not about the bikes – it’s about the people racing them and the people that keep their lives running. It’s about love and loyalty, ambition and loss. It’s about people; after all, that’s what Cleave writes best.

A perfect book for a wet weekend or book group.

Reviewed by Sarah McMullan

 by Chris Cleave
Published by Sceptre
ISBN 9780340963449

Email digest: Wed 18 July 2012

This is a digest of our Twitter feed that we email out most Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Sign up here for free if you’d like it emailed to you.

Tonight on the North Shore The Story of Peter Blake is being launched at 6.30pm

Ladies’ Litera-Tea – now there are two of them!

Book News
2012 winner of the Text Prize for Young Adult and Children’s Writing announced

Costa’s new short story award to be judged anonymously

Book reviews
The Big Music: selected papers by Kirsty Gunn

From Under the Overcoat by Sue Orr

A Micronaut in the Wide World: The Life and Times of Graham Percy by Gregory O’Brien

Velocity by Ahmed Ajaz and Stefan Olander

Bligh by Anne Salmond

The Frog Footy Player by Chris Gurney

The secret lives of authors
A blog where I talk about my author photo being taken

Dame Fiona Kidman talks The Trouble with Fire (Fiction finalist for the New Zealand Post Book Awards)

Meet Chris Cleave author of ‘Gold’

From around the internet

Fifty Shades of Grey in pictures

“What is the reason for the sex-novel craze? Is it the public or the novelists to blame?”

A maze made of 250,000 books at London 2012

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