by Tif Sweeney
On Saturday, July 14, bestselling British author Chris Cleave dropped by the Saint Louis County Library. Cleave, most well known for his acclaimed novel Little Bee, was touring the US for his newest release Gold, just in time for the upcoming summer Olympics. Gold follows two fictional Olympic cyclists, training together since a young age, but competing against each other in the largest competition in the world. Cleave explores the relationship of rivalry and the balance between ambition and love using “the biggest show on Earth;” a show that is literally happening in his backyard in a matter of days.
In his younger years, Cleave’s physical education teacher reported, “Christopher does try very hard, but we prefer to pass him a book instead of a ball.” When he began researching for Gold, he discovered that he would not be able to put his story into appropriate words until he experienced some of the feelings himself. Cleave, the child with the book, began training to become an amateur cyclist to create his next story. He conducted interviews, starting with such questions as, “Why are you so fast, and I am so slow?” (He admits to not being the best interviewer!) He studied sports and race psychology. He became deeply immersed in an athlete’s world – feeling the pain, experiencing physical transformations after intensive training, and cheering through the savage joy of “winning.”
He began this writing journey worried about it being a difficult one to write about. After all, what we see most often from athletes is the quick interview snippet through our media after a race or event. However, Cleave came to discover that these cyclists are “extraordinary individuals with lots of depth,” who also just so happen to look like DC Comics superheroes in their sheer bodysuits. Ultimately, he found that he admires these athletes for living both lives – one of ambition AND one of love. Not only are they incredibly gifted, but also unbelievably admirable.
Unlike many authors, Cleave does not write what he knows. Instead, he prefers to dive into the research, discover new worlds, and maybe find some universality among them. However, he also has come to discover that every novel he writes leaves a trace and permanently affects him in one way or another. Consequently, he has learned to be very aware of his subject selection – choosing topics to write about that will leave a positive effect in his life, hoping it will bring similar results in his readers. Instead of focusing on the bad, he looks for more things in life to celebrate.
After an hour and a half of being enthralled with Cleave’s conversational tone and genuine humility, the event was reluctantly wrapped up to allow for individual signing time. Cleave left the audience with much to ponder beyond just the upcoming Olympic games. He left us with questions about relationships, personal challenges, differences in writing styles and processes, and so much more. I leave you with one topic mentioned briefly towards the closing of the event that has been bouncing around in my mind since: the difference between a novelist and storyteller. According to Cleave, a novelist makes a proclamation; a storyteller starts a conversation. Cleave categorizes himself as the latter, asking the ethical questions through a story, without providing the answers. As I writer, I wonder which category I would place myself in and as a reader, I look forward to experiencing the dilemmas that Cleave poses in his novels.