Chris Cleave is the author of the bestselling novels Incendiary, which won the Somerset Maugham Award, Little Bee and Gold. His fourth novel, Everyone Brave is Forgiven, was recently published by Bond Street Books. He lives in London with his family.
Why did you write your new book?
I wanted to discover what it is that makes us brave. I think we are more courageous people than we allow ourselves to believe. I also suspect that we are capable of forgiving one another more surprisingly than it might seem, especially in this current time of bitter partisan politics and social fragmentation. Forgiveness is a hugely underrated quality, because it brings unity. So I went back to the last time that our societies were united in a brave purpose, which was the victory over Nazism. I wanted to write that era so engagingly – with all its romance and humour as well as its heartache – that you could escape into it completely, and almost forget you were reading a novel. I wanted you to be swept away in an immersive experience and emerge feeling strong and well, with your own ideas on how that golden generation used humour and tenderness to stay brave and united. My own view is that it's all still inside us, and that we can be just as strong again.
Whose sentences are your favourite?
I love how Virginia Woolf writes, with every sense alive. When she tells you that Big Ben chimed, she says of each bell note that "The leaden circles dissolved in the air."
What's the best advice you've ever received?
Don't stick pens up your nose.
Would you rather have the ability to be invisible or time travel?
This is such a great question. My first three novels are all about becoming invisible, by which I mean that you as the reader can become a fly-on-the-wall and witness a very intense part of the world we live in now. They take you respectively into the worlds of traumatic bereavement, young refugees, and female high achievers. My new novel, by contrast, is definitely time travel: as the reader you get to feel that you really are in London, in 1941, with every sense open to the sights and sounds, and your mind tuned in to the astonishing differences in the ways people thought back then. And I'm guessing that the places I go in my novels are a kind of wish fulfilment – an expression of what I would do with those special powers if I had them. So I think my honest answer is that I am an invisibility fan who has recently turned time-traveller, and is loving it.
If aliens landed on Earth, which book would you give them to teach them about humanity?
I like this question and its cheerful assumption that the aliens would be interested in learning about us, rather than in boiling us, canning us and shipping the tins back home to feed to their space cats. Well, I would give them a dictionary: a high quality one, with word origins. If they were interested in us then they'd have to start with our best human achievement, which is language. Every word holds our deep history. A word is formed and changed and usurped and polished by the tongues of a thousand generations, so that when we speak or write we cannot help but do so with the voice of all humanity. A sentence is the most beautifully human thing. And I hope the aliens also wouldn't find it … well, too alien.