by Kate Mahony
“You have to go beyond the surface story to get people to care about your story. You need characters to share the dark level of psychology with your reader.” UK author Chris Cleave speaking on writing at the National Writers Forum, Auckland, New Zealand, in September, 2016.
Cleave also gave the keynote address at the forum (see below).
Cleave said, for him, his writing became better when he stopped having answers and moved to asking questions. “The most important job as a writer/observer is listening and thinking. Think of yourself as an anthropologist and the whole world as your laboratory.”
Cleave is a fan of unusual ways of learning about people. In London, he will deliberately spend an entire day on the Underground – the Circle Line - for no other reason than to listen in on people’s conversation, arguments, and their speech patterns and so on. His favoured method is to wear ear phones – not in use – so that people don’t notice him, the equivalent of wearing a hi-viz vest. “As soon as you are outside to the conversation, you can listen with extraordinary intensity.” He listens to human beings as if the most unique characters he could ever meet. "People’s minds are as unique as their finger prints.”
When he is writing a novel, another technique he uses is to go out and interview people – refugees for one of his novels, but equally fire-fighters and so on. “Find people who are close to the characters you are trying to write about and interview them."
People are defined by what’s happened to them. Cleave has a set of questions he uses for his interviews:
And if you were wondering how to go into the psychology of someone really horrible (especially if you are not), Cleave has some answers: he follows them on Twitter (using an assumed name). “You can very specifically find a person on earth who is the polar opposite of you. Then go into the darkness – further than you wanted to go.”
If you dare.
Chris Cleave’s keynote speech at the National Writers’ Forum, Auckland, New Zealand:
Cleave is the author of the novels Incendiary, The Other Hand (also published as Little Bee), Gold, and Everyone Brave is Forgiven.
More on Chris Cleave: