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3am Interview













3AM: The story behind Incendiary and the circumstances around its publication are well-known by now, but can you tell us more about yourself and your life before the book?

CC: I was born in London in 1973 and then my family moved to Douala, Cameroun, where my dad worked at the Guinness brewery. It was brilliant out there. There was always music in the streets, and dancing. All us kids had our phone numbers written on our chests in biro. We were very happy and we'd play in the streets all over town and if you got lost someone would ring your mum and dad and they'd come and find you. It was that kind of a place. Moving back to London when I was six was a shock. It was colder and so were the people.

At school I was bright and shy and no taller than I am now. I went to Dr Challoner's Grammar School in Amersham, where I was good at maths and sciences. We used to miss a lot of school to see The Pixies, The Stone Roses, My Bloody Valentine. It was a strange school. Of the people in my year, one plays bass for the Sneaker Pimps, one is Music Editor of the Guardian, one committed suicide and two are serving life sentences for murder.

In 1991 I was in a serious car crash, wrote a novel called The Roadkill Cookbook, and went to Balliol College, Oxford. I felt an outsider at Oxford, being surrounded for the first time by people who were not into pop music, or who showed no obvious desire to kill themselves or others. Fortunately the free party scene was just taking off, and I was able to spend a lot of time dancing to techno in muddy fields. A group of us set up a sound system called Technical Support that we took around the UK and France. I also worked hard and left Balliol in 1995 with a First in Experimental Psychology.

My first job was picking up yachts in the south of France and sailing them to the Eastern Mediterranean for their owners. I can't overstate the joy of landfall after long weeks alone at sea. In the end the solitude of the ocean reminded me how much I like people, so I gave it up and went to the other social extreme, working as a busboy in a busy nightclub in Melbourne, Australia. After a whole year of collecting glasses from tables I went to my boss to ask him why I still hadn't been promoted to barman, and learned that I was far too bloody English, and far too bloody short. I decided to go where I thought neither of these would be a problem, and that's how I ended up at The Daily Telegraph.

I spent three happy but quite disastrous years with the Telegraph at Canary Wharf, where I was a sub-editor attached to their internet site. In my spare time I wrote countless feature articles which the paper was noble enough not to publish. This time I was insufficiently English, and still not tall enough. During these years I was living in Brixton and involved in music and community projects, and my views began to diverge radically from those of my employer. Finally I committed the ultimate stupidity of writing back to Telegraph letter writers with whose opinions I disagreed. I was memorably dispatched by an apoplectic Editor who, to his enduring credit, had the grace to let me fall on my own sword after collecting one more crucial paycheque. They are good people at the Telegraph and I let them down that time. I'm pretty sure they changed the locks after I left.

Next I joined lastminute.com, where it didn't matter how English you were, and where I concealed my true height by spending a lot of time sitting down. I loved lastminute.com. It was the kind of company where you could spend the morning fixing the photocopier and the evening appearing on 'Newsnight'. It was an honour to work for Martha Lane Fox. She built up a company from nothing to an enormous size in record time, and for the first time I understood the satisfaction of working very hard.

In 2000 I met my wife and the next year we moved to her home town of Paris, where we were married and lived until we moved back to London in April this year. In 2003 I quit my job to write, taking on occasional work for money. From January to September 2003, while my wife was pregnant with our son, I wrote a novel called The Gift of Lies, which I think will be published one of these days. Following my son's birth I started a novel called A Room Outside Time which I interrupted in March 2004, when events and my feelings for my son shocked me into writing Incendiary.

3AM: What drove you to write Incendiary, as opposed to, say, a Hampstead novel or something more routine? What literary influences do you have or authors you just appreciate?

CC: I just had to look up "Hampstead novel" -- wow, I'm pleased I never wrote one of those. I think the reason I didn't is that I am a reader before I am a writer, and the books I have always loved are page-turners where unusual people are placed in extraordinary situations. Sometimes the results are superb entertainment -- like the awesome dialogue of the lowlife scum in George V Higgins's books. The Rat on Fire is my favourite one of his. Occasionally, if the writer knows their stuff, I find that the extremity of their characters and situations can act both as a mirror and a challenge, revealing something to me about my own nature or daring me to deny it. That's why I love Cormac McCarthy -- he writes so well in books like Blood Meridian that you can't stop reading, and there is so much darkness in there that you have to make a conscious decision as a reader, whether to submit to his vision of humanity, or fight to remember why you prefer your own, perhaps gentler vision. Graham Greene had a gentler vision, a subtle one, but he too was able to articulate it in a very readable way by putting desperate characters into desperate situations. The whisky priest in The Power and the Glory is one of my favourites. Peter Carey's Ned Kelly in True History of the Kelly Gang is another great desperado, so exciting and so human.

I guess a theme is starting to emerge here. The characters I love in books are the outcast, the dispossessed, the scum, the outlaws, the insane. Philip K Dick's characters are all of the above. John Steinbeck's work-shy rabbles in Tortilla Flat or Cannery Row are hilarious, and his dustbowl refugees in The Grapes of Wrath are so moving that you can read the book again and again and see more in it each time. (While we're on the subject I defy anyone not to have their vision of life changed by the last two or three pages of that book).

It doesn't have to be fiction. A couple of true books I've read this year have had me completely gripped. Nick Flynn's story of his alcoholic father in Another Bullshit Night in Suck City opened my eyes and was beautifully written into the bargain. Bernard Hare's book Urban Grimshaw and the Shed Crew, in which he tells how he befriended a group of glue-sniffing, joy-riding teenagers, has haunted me as much as any novel.

I could go on and on talking about the books I like, but what most of them have is characters who've taken a real hammering - they're damaged goods, yet somehow they show me a bit about what their writer feels like as a human. Of course there are some brilliant exceptions, where a very good writer can make an extraordinary story out of ordinary lives. Virginia Woolf did that with Mrs Dalloway, which I still think is a stunning read. Penelope Lively makes the ordinary thing seem exciting too.

Certainly what all these writers have in common is that they respect the reader, by making every page so interesting that it doesn't feel like a chore to turn to the next one.

3AM: You were given immediate right to reply when the advertising was pulled but what are your thoughts since you made that statement, given we know more now than we did then?

CC: I still respect the booksellers' decision to withdraw the advertising for the book in the UK. I think they did the right thing in not wanting to upset people at such a sensitive time. Now though, I wish they'd put the book back in the shop windows. It's still really hard to buy a copy of Incendiary in some places in the UK. I think the bookstores are worried that the book might offend, but I don't think that readers need to be -- or wish to be -- sheltered like that. I think readers are easily smart enough to make those decisions for themselves. And since when were books required to be inoffensive, anyway? It's frustrating to have so many good reviews, to even be 'Novel of the Week' in the Daily Telegraph, and yet to receive so many emails saying 'I read the review and I tried to buy your book but my bookshop isn't selling it.' I remind those people they can buy it on Amazon.

3AM: One press article argued that your use of metaphors (sausages for spilled guts etc.) was clumsy to say the least. How do you respond to that?

CC: I don't usually respond, I just listen carefully to what people say about my writing, and I find it all helpful. As a writer you're in a lucky situation in that you get a lot of feedback on your work, and therefore a lot of opportunity to improve. That's quite rare -- as a builder, for example, you don't get a full critical review of your recently-built house from everyone who walks past it. I like it that people say what they want -- good and bad -- about my writing. That's one great thing about this free society we live in. I can write what I like in my book and people can write what they like about my book. If they wish, they can write a book of their own. I just think it's very civilized that we can disagree using words, not bombs.

3AM: Do you think we're witnessing the birth of a separate genre, '9/11 fiction' or something like that? How is this any different to the various epochs our literary forebears went through? What do you think of books like Ian McEwan's Saturday, which assess the world after 9/11 but from a London perspective?

CC: I think it's wishful thinking to tidy away the books which reference terror into some 'post-9/11' genre. It implies that terror is a blip, a temporary phenomenon that will soon fade away and, with it, the literature which addressed it. Unfortunately I think 9/11 signalled an enduring change in our world, or at least in how we perceive our world. If you write about the present day but you don't acknowledge that sea-change in your novel -- either directly or implicitly -- then you haven't written a contemporary novel, you've written a fantasy. I don't think we should call books like mine or Ian McEwan's 'post-9/11' novels or 'terror fiction', I think we should just call them contemporary novels. It is right that novelists should be engaged with the times they live in -- that's the job, as far as I can see.

3AM: Incendiary is set in London but do you see it as a distinctly London book?

CC: I set the book in London because I know enough about the place to make the voices sound right. I tried to evoke the city so vividly that it almost became a presence in its own right. When you walk around London you can feel the history of the place encoded into the streets and the people. I've already mentioned how much I like Cormac McCarthy -- in Blood Meridian he talks of men "invested with a purpose whose origins were antecedent to them. My characters aren't as bloodthirsty as Cormac McCarthy's but when I write them I am aware of a similar intransigence in their nature, as though their free will as humans is dragging behind it a heavy burden of collective history. In Incendiary I keep coming back to the stratified nature of London -- "this whole place is built on plague pits and murder holes". Under the East End tower blocks is the rubble of the Blitz, and deep beneath that is a dark course of cinders from the Great Fire of London. In London you are constantly reminded that life is eternal but that we, the living, will soon become just another seam in the ground. Incendiary is a new story about an old, old city. It might have been even better set in Rome, if only I knew enough about the place, but London will do just fine.

3AM: You've said that your son played a role in your decision to write the book. Aren't you worried what his reaction will be in years hence when he reads that?

CC: Why would I be worried? In years hence I reckon my son will have more entertaining things to do than thinking about a book his dad wrote years ago, but if he does think about it then I hope he'll be happy to realise that he's completely changed the way I feel about life, and he's done that because he is a brilliant soul. If it's about anything, Incendiary is about a parent's love for their child, and how that love is the strongest force I can imagine. When parents say that they learn a lot from their children, they're not just being all cutesy, they really mean it.

3AM: What do you feel about the reviews it's attracted so far?

CC: I feel very grateful, and I feel encouraged to carry on and write another book. Most of the reviews have been excellent. Apologies if the following sounds boastful, but since you asked: Newsweek called my book "a stunning debut" and "a haunting work of art". The Economist said "fine writing -- and Incendiary is a very fine example -- is such an eloquent human instrument". The Telegraph called the narrator "triumphantly convincing" and made the book their novel of the week. The Washington Post loved the book and said all kinds of good things about it. There have been great reviews in the Guardian, the Independent, the Age in Australia, the Canadian Globe & Mail the list of positive reviews goes on and on.

A minority of reviewers have hated the book or bits of it, and that's fine too -- there's parts of it I think could be improved myself, frankly. Also, I don't think any interesting book can expect a unanimous reaction. Michiko Kakutani trashed it in the New York Times. The Complete Review didn't get the book at all. They even gave it a grade (C minus) as if they were marking my school homework, bless. The Observer despised the book and said some ugly things about me.

I don't mind the negative reviews when they are well written, because they are very useful feedback. Plus, some of them are unintentionally funny. One very respected literary journal wrote a rather superior review but perhaps let themselves down a bit by referring throughout to my unnamed narrator as "Liz". David Sexton at the London Evening Standard hated Incendiary so much that he even stooped to outright deceit to get an out-of-context quote from me to make me look like a fool. I don't think that kind of behaviour is very cool, but I like the fact that nobody is neutral about the book, and I like the fact that we can disagree. That is what freedom is all about.

The only reviewers who upset me are the ones who've just skimmed the book and got their facts all wrong, or the ones who opportunistically trash the book just because it's a good angle to hate the novel that's getting a bit of attention -- there is this popular idea that because the book has been hyped, it must be crap.

3AM: Some reviews have mentioned 'chavs' -- do you think the book assesses that particular phenemonon as well or is it just focused on Terror?

CC: 'Chav' is a vicious little word -- I hate it, and so does the narrator of Incendiary. Some reviewers have stated that my narrator is a "self-confessed chav". They wouldn't have to read any further into the book than page, err, two to see the narrator very clearly explain that she hates being called a chav. Let's be clear: "chav" means "working class". The word somehow gives the chattering classes licence to mock the working class and feel all prim and superior about themselves. It's pathetic. There is no such thing as a new chav "phenomenon" -- nothing has changed in the British class system, and that's the whole problem. I write about classism in the book for the same reason I write about terrorism -- it's an unfortunate fact of life and to leave it out of a contemporary novel set in Britain would be as remiss as leaving out, say, beer, or irony, or gravity.

I have also taken a bit of a hammering from some middle class critics for being a middle class man writing about a working class woman, and to those critics I say: spank me, you big sexy erudite brutes.

3AM: Do you have any plans for another book?

CC: Yes, I'll write it over the autumn and winter. This summer is going to be taken up with working on the screenplay of Incendiary and promoting the book in 15 countries, which is a more-than-full-time job, but after that I want to get writing again. The new book is forming in my mind and I like it. It's a huge idea and I will need to raise my game to do it justice. I'm scared. It's very different. I haven't discussed it with anyone except my wife, and I think it's going to be a big surprise for people when they see it.

This job is not easy and I don't know if I can keep doing it forever, but while I do I am going to put everything I have into it and I hope people will find the results entertaining. That's all I want, when all's said and done: to write a few books that hopefully give people as much pleasure as other people's books give me.




ABOUT CHRIS CLEAVE





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