An interview with Chris Cleave, New York Times bestselling author and 2017 Literary Sojourn master of ceremonies |

An interview with Chris Cleave, New York Times bestselling author and 2017 Literary Sojourn master of ceremonies

Chris Cleave, author of "Little Bee" discusses his work during the 18th annual Literary Sojourn at the Sheraton Steamboat Resort in 2010.

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — As an author, Chris Cleave believes his strongest responsibility is to his readers.

"It's quite a big thing you're asking of a reader — lend me your thoughts for five or six hours, and I'll try to show you something that's emotionally true," said Cleave, best-selling British writer and journalist. "So you have a responsibility that it had damned well better be emotionally true."

On Saturday, Sept. 16, Bud Werner Memorial Library welcome back 2010 Literary Sojourn author Cleave to serve as master of ceremonies for the 25th annual Literary Sojourn event, which will be held at the Strings Music Pavilion.

Cleave will also talk about his most recent novel, “Everyone Brave is Forgiven,” set during World War II and inspired by a personal family story. His other novels include "Gold” and "Little Bee" and "Incendiary."

Literary Sojourn, founded in 1993, is a nonprofit author-and-reader festival featuring five nationally and internationally recognized authors, who each talk about inspiration for stories and characters.

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Once again, Literary Sojourn is sold out for this year, but Explore Steamboat had a chance to catch up with Cleave and ask him about his inspiration, aspirations and how he goes about creating captivating novels.

Explore Steamboat: What is it that draws you to write? Is it an inherent need? To inspire change?

Chris Cleave: I'm curious about people – what moves them, what they're prepared to suffer, what they're capable of enduring, what makes them laugh. In my writing I like to give characters space to express themselves – because in a novel you can show a universal human experience that anyone might relate to. Sometimes, when I read a good novel it makes me feel less alone. Every one of the writers at this year's Literary Sojourn has had that effect on me. Their novels are astonishingly good. In my own way that's what I try to do for my readers too: to be there for them.


ES: Where does inspiration strike? Are you actively seeking stories or do they find you?

CC: People are just so eerie. The secret is to realize that you really don't understand anyone; that people have an inner life which is often very different to what they feel ready to show, even to friends and loved ones. You only need watch and listen closely, and right away you begin to see clues and signs. Lives are very layered. People live with ghosts of themselves that they've never quite laid to rest. So everything I do comes from feelings about people I meet. Often it's not their life story that hits me, so much as a feeling or an aura. Some people make my skin crawl and I want to think about why. Other people make me happy for no obvious reason, and again I wonder what it is about them. I watch and I listen, and try to produce those same feelings on the page.


ES: Where's the most surprising place you've found inspiration for one of your novels?

CC: I was queueing at a foreign consulate, for some immigration documents I needed on a research trip. It was a soul-destroying, bureaucratic abyss – nowhere you'd expect to feel anything except frustration. I'd been queuing for three days, each day getting almost to the front of the line just before the positions closed. Near the end of the third day I was close to the front of the line again. It was Halloween, and all the visa staff were dressed as witches, with pointy hats and purple wigs and green face paint. They were very happy, laughing and joking with each other behind the bulletproof screen. It was a teambuilding thing for them. They closed the shutters half an hour early that day. As we were turned away again, the woman next to me in the line began to weep, very quietly. She had scars on her face and neck. Whatever she needed that travel document for, it wasn't a vacation. She kept her head up in the most dignified way and said nothing at all, just turned with the rest of us and walked away with tears running down her face.


ES: You seem to have a way of finding unexpected humor in topics that are complex or one people may shy away from like in "Little Bee," how do you find that humor? When you find beautiful characters who have gone through hardship like that, do you feel a personal responsibility to tell their story?

CC: The strongest responsibility I feel is to my readers, actually. It's quite a big thing you're asking of a reader: lend me your thoughts for five or six hours, and I'll try to show you something that's emotionally true. So you have a responsibility that it had damned well better be emotionally true. Hence all the research and thinking I do. And also, the reader should feel that the five or six hours were enjoyable – because that's leisure time they could have been spending with friends and loved ones.

When you think about how precious those rare free hours are, the actual ticket price of the book is trivial by comparison – but again, it's $20 or $25 that they could have spent on coffee or sunblock or bullets. And that's why I also try to find humor in emotionally intense stories: because I feel I owe it to readers to acknowledge their full humanity, which includes laughter as much as it does intellect and serious intent.


ES: One of the reasons I'm drawn to your novels is the fact that you write about present day events but through a news/ historical analysis lens. Why? Have you ever shied away from a topic or does that just make the challenge more appealing?

CC: I do see novel writing as being quite similar to news reporting or historical analysis. The only difference is that you get more space than a newspaper can give, and more immediacy than a historian enjoys. As a novelist you are deeply embedded with humanity, reporting on emotional truths in the most honest way you can. And so the topics I cover are the ones where I think I can be completely truthful. The ones I've shied away from are the ones that might get too close to my own life. You have a duty to protect your sources, including yourself.


ES: Can you remember back to the moment you knew you wanted to be an author? Was it a particular novel? An author you look up to?

CC: I wanted to be a writer when I was six. At that stage I didn't see any lofty purpose in it, of course – I just liked writing sentences. Then in my teens, reading great novelists – especially Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Virginia Woolf, Cormac McCarthy, Milan Kundera – I realized that a novel can be as important as a person in your life, in terms of what it teaches you and how it changes you. So I wanted to learn as much as I could about people, and write it down in case it was helpful to myself and others. That's still pretty much where I'm at. I'm still learning faster than I can write it down. Life is – people are – bottomless.


ES: Is the writing life everything you thought it would be?

CC: No: the highs are higher and the lows are lower. A high is the quite supernatural two-way empathic connection you feel with readers. A low is the way in which the writing life makes you more aware of suffering. As I get older I find it harder, mentally, to have been involved in so many human stories and to know how good people are, and yet to see humanity all over the world becoming so politically divided against itself. Because I know the consequences of ignorance and resentment and greed now. I know people who've been through war, who've suffered racial and homophobic abuse, who've been tortured, who've been reduced to poverty, who've been raped. Along with a million other writers and reporters, I've written it all down and been amazed how little difference it makes.


ES: What do you hope your readers 'walk away with' after reading one of your novels?

CC: I hope they feel less alone.


ES: Anything else you would like to add?

CC: I'd like to thank the whole community of Steamboat Springs for the warmth and support it shows for the Literary Sojourn. This is a world class literary event, this year again featuring Pulitzer Prize winners and huge international bestsellers. Every author is honored and excited to come to this great town that punches way above its weight. To have an event like this is a credit to the amazing skill and commitment of Chris Painter and her team at the Bud Werner Memorial Library, and it's also a credit to a powerful, culturally-engaged and outward-facing community. Last time I visited, I wished I could stay forever, and I'm sure this time will be no different. Thank you.


To reach Audrey Dwyer, call 970-871-4229, email or follow her on Twitter @Audrey_Dwyer1

2017 Literary Sojourn Lineup:

  • Robert Olen Butler
  • Nadia Hashimi
  • Eowyn Ivey
  • Paulette Jiles
  • Amor Towles
  • Chris Cleave, Master of Ceremonies

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