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September 10, 2012 | by  | in Arts Books | [ssba]

Digging For Gold

Salient sits down with author Chris Cleave about Gold his new novel about two cycling rivals preparing for the London Olympics. 

Your characters have very complex life stories and their experiences play into their ambition as cyclists. Do you believe that human hardship encourages people to seek success?  

I’ve done something with this book which I haven’t done before, which is to try to find people who are just inspiring. I’m more and more interested in people who live extreme lives, who get off the couch and have done something wild. I’m getting older. I don’t feel I have many more years of life. So, I want to spend that time celebrating these people who do stuff that makes my heart beat faster. I hope that these people are inspiring and I hope that people who read it will think, not necessarily I’m going to start a career as an international sprint cyclist but, actually extraordinary things are possible and everyone can do stuff that surprises them. And I hope that’s the message of the book.

I think you have written a novel that is a great read regardless of whether your reader likes sport or knows much about it. Was it difficult to strike a balance between readers who are interested in sport and those who aren’t?

I tend to trust my readers to go to places that they are uncomfortable with. So, when writing about sport I’m really writing about people who push themselves emotionally and physically to the limit and I could have written it about sports people. I could also have written it about, for example, dancers, who do something very similar. I could have written it about people who push themselves as researchers or anyone really, who goes to a place where people don’t usually go. And I trust my readers to come with me on that journey because I write from a position of great humility, I think, and I didn’t know anything about the sport either before I wrote the novel. I just became fascinated by athletes, really. I researched them, I spent some time with them, asked them these questions about what drives them. I’d want to know what happened to them when they were seven years old that means they want to win so badly. I asked them these questions which I hope are interesting to everybody not just the people who are interested in sport.

I understand that you went through a lot of cycling yourself to investigate the sport for your novel. How have your experiences given you a new appreciation for athletes?

I rode with a lot of athletes; I went out on training rides with them. I got a coach myself. I went through several months of really high intensity training. I’m like a method actor, with my books I have to research the hell out of them. I want to know what my characters are feeling as well as what they’re thinking. There is much more than knowing what they ought to think in that situation. I’m not the kind of researcher who is just happy using Google and Wikipedia. I have to go and get my hands dirty and do the thing. So I researched a lot, I talked with a lot of athletes. I rode a lot.  I had a lot of physical changes in my own body responding to that training. It immensely increased my admiration for athletes. I didn’t know much about athletes before I wrote the book. All I knew was the interviews that they give on the finish line of races which are boring! You ask an athlete who has just won a race how they feel well they are going to tell you that they feel super. You ask someone who has just lost a race how they feel they are going to tell you that they feel gutted. They are not telling us anything we don’t know already. But I was interviewing them at different times. I was interviewing them two years before the Olympics on a rainy Thursday morning at 6 AM and I was asking them questions like “Do you ever feel like giving up?” These really sort of dark questions and they would give me quite dark answers, sometimes. I realised that they are human beings, just like us, and that they are most interesting at the points where the camera is not turned on them. As a novelist that is the thing that I want to explore. My admiration for them hugely increased.

Sophie is a young girl with leukaemia in Gold. She is also a Star Wars fanatic. From the novel, I took that she uses her obsession as an escape from her illness and also as inspiration to fight back against her cancer. Do you think that the genre of science fiction is generally popular for these reasons? Specifically, because it is an escapist genre and it often covers the fight of good against evil.

Sci-fi is a brilliant genre of fiction. At its best it explores ethical dilemmas that we all experience and puts them into an abstract, fantastical realm so that we can see them more closely. If you look at the science fiction of someone like Asimov and his Laws of Robotics they’re actually really interesting ethical discussions about how we should live and they codify in this science fiction, simple, pure, universe that he creates. But really he is talking about us. It’s an allegory, science fiction at its best. It’s like Aesop’s Fables, I think that those bestiaries, like the way that Aesop would write about animals is no different from the way Asimov would write about robots. They’re sort of allegorical examinations of how we should live. And so, if you look at the sci-fi of Phillip K. Dick which is 1950s, 1960s drug filled mayhem, it’s dark and it’s twisted, it’s a real evolution of the genre and it’s all about doubt, ambiguity, paranoia, the existential crisis. At its best, that is sci-fi. It’s an escape, I agree, it’s an escape into a fantastical world but it’s an escape into a world that where we look upon our own experience with a different set of eyes. It’s all about us still. Sometimes I put fantastical, heroic or science fiction elements into my work as a nod to that genre. I’ve never written sci-fi myself but I don’t exclude it. I’d love to write sci-fi, if I thought I could get away with it.

How do you define the genre of your novel [Gold]?

My novel? I don’t think anyone else does what I do. I think I created a new space. It gets called “novels” but I don’t know if that’s the right word for it. I find it’s exactly half way between reality and fiction, so I would say it’s a hybrid between reportage and the novel. It occupies the five year space in between newspapers and history and the reason why I’m interested in occupying that space as an artist is because that’s the space where public opinion is formed. That’s when we decide what it feels like to live through the time we are living through. That’s the space I want to claim as an artist.

For the character of Sophie you researched alongside doctors at a children’s hospital. Did you witness things from this experience that you didn’t expect? Did your experiences alter what you intended to write for Gold?

Yeah, I had expected to research suffering and misery but I was amazed to discover that actually that children’s hospital was a very joyful place. What’s happening there is that children are getting better as they are getting treated for diseases that 20 years ago most certainly would have killed them. So it’s actually a place where we celebrate the progress that medical science has made in the last two decades. It’s a place where children are undergoing a kind of miraculous transformation. They would have died. Now of them most of them do make it. It was a surprisingly joyful place.

In your book it says that nine out of ten children with leukaemia now recover. 

Yep, 40 years ago nine out of ten died. One of the things that I noticed researching in a children’s hospital was that it was a place that we can all be proud of. We look around at the world we live in and there are a lot of people who moan, a lot, it’s very easy to be negative about our politicians, the way society is run, about the economy, about the problems that the world has with immigration, with social disorder, with drugs, with the beneficiary culture. You can look around and you can think that the whole world is turning to shit. And it some ways it is and it certainly will if we don’t celebrate the amazing things that we can do as well. To me it very important with a novel like Gold to say, look, this is amazing, a children’s hospital is an amazing place that we can be proud of. Olympians are incredible people whose characters we can explore and celebrate. Let’s rebuild, let’s look at the things that are positive and say those are the things that represent our society. How can we be more like that.  So, that’s what I’m all about now as a writer.

Were there challenges in discussing current events such as the London Olympics? Or, future events that would happen after the time you wrote Gold? 

Yeah, it’s always a challenge talking about the future. One of two things can happen. One is that it can come true and the other is that it won’t. Both of them are problematic when writing about the near future. A lot of my work does predict the near future quite accurately, actually, because it’s not hard to do. It’s surprisingly easy to say well I know what people are going to be thinking about next year. If you make it your job to read the social indicators and work out what is going to be on people’s minds in the next two years’ time you get a pretty high hit rate. It’s the spaces we’ve talked about that I want to inhabit as an artist, that space where public opinion is formed. It’s difficult and it’s risky because sometimes you can be in a situation where you write about something that is horrible and it does come true and then you become the person whose work of art is associated with something everyone remembers horribly. People don’t think logically, they think almost in terms of sympathetic magic sometimes: “Oh yeah – you’re the guy that did that bad thing with your book.” It’s dangerous, but I still think it’s a good space to be in as an artist.

Your characters are under the eyes of the press. What is your opinion of the media frenzy that comes along with being a well-known athlete?

Well, the media interest is what makes professional sport possible. Amateur athletes aren’t seeking income from what they do so they don’t need the press interest. So, really any press, especially negative or personal press, is intrusive for those people. But for professional athletes that media interest, good and bad, is what feeds and clothes them and this is one of the weird ambiguities of professional sport. That you don’t just have to play the field but you have to play the media too. I became so interested with the relationships that those people have with the press that they have to be in the papers all the time in order for their sponsors to keep getting mentioned, in order for the photo, wearing their sponsors’ kit to keep being on the front pages. The athletes who accept that, who play that game, intelligently, do really well. I feel sorry for the people who are poorly advised by their coaches or whose management teams don’t see the media management as part of their problem. You see people who manage it well, people who manage it badly but I think it’s impossible now to disassociate the media interest from professional sport. What I would always suggest, as a writer, and as someone who really admires the athletes, I wish sports journalism would start asking more interesting questions, athletes are very interesting people but the questions that they get asked make them sound dumb. They have a lot more to say and I think they have a lot more to teach us. I think their lives are exemplary. I think of them as holy people. In the past someone who dedicated themselves to service of god would go into a monastery, for instance, and pray for a long time and achieve a kind of level of understanding through that dedication that they can then share which is very interesting. To have that the level of dedication for athletes, to make a consecrated course, they have learned something that you can’t learn on the sofa. I wish that the press would respect them more and be interested in them in that way, rather than wondering who they are sleeping with.

Interesting, the media don’t really talk about the people that are behind the scenes. Your coach, Tom, is an extremely dedicated coach who uses some unusual methods to ensure success in those he is training. Did you meet any coaches who inspired you to create this character?

Yea! Yea, I have a coach myself. A guy called Jay McStay, he’s a lovely guy, keeps me on the straight and narrow. Tom’s character is not based on my coach but I meet a lot of other coaches, I was fascinated by them. You get really good in sport and your body will eventually fail you, really early, way before your mind does, way before your will to win fails you. And so what do they do? The good guys and girls, they start helping the next generation. They live vicariously through the next generation, they still want to win but they have to do it with other people’s arms and legs. I love that about them, I love the will to win, I love that it’s transformed into a will to help the next generation to win. That for me is the thing that is very beautiful about sport, that you are handing the baton, literally and metaphorically, to the next generation all the time.

Tom takes the characters’ life problems and breaks them down. Did you coach also do that for you?

No, that’s not the relationship I have with my coach because I’m not at that elite level where it is important to deconstruct everything and put it all into the surface of the sport. But there is an extent that a psychiatrist’s outlook and a coach’s outlook are very similar. They break down insurmountable problems and turn them into manageable ones. If you can write a list of the ten reasons that you think are the reasons you are not happy, well let’s address them one at a time and work out how to fix them and it’s as simple as that. If it’s going to take two years, great, admit that means you won’t be happy for two years until you have fixed them. That’s what great coaches or great psychiatrists do. Thinking about coaching helped me a lot with my own life. I found things that were keeping me from being the best person I wanted to be, I started fixing them the way a coach would and it was really interesting. It’s a work in progress but sport gave me a different way to look at my psychological makeup. Everything can be fixed, everything, it’s just a question of being honest. Just say, I’m going to address it, I’m going to be hard but I’ll fix it.

Why do you think people idolise athletes and are outraged when they make mistakes, such as, the Tiger Woods media sensation? 

I think people are extremely judgemental. I think people are enthralled by success and they are also very jealous of it because they feel entitled to it themselves. There is a certain type of person that gets a thrill when someone who is portrayed as super human is revealed to be a human. The most vociferous critics of people like Tiger Woods are people with the most baggage in their own lives. A chilled out way of looking at what that man did is saying: there is a man that is incredibly good at golf, that doesn’t mean he is incredibly better at life. I didn’t join the chorus of people condemning him for having a difficult marriage. A lot of people do, they just don’t happen to be really good at golf as well. I’d say to just break them down and make them two separate things. I don’t see why there is a fascination with bringing people down, a triumphant cry of rage about these people that are suddenly revealed to be human. People like Lance Armstrong and Tiger Woods. I think it’s ugly to rejoice in the downfall of people. I think it’s legitimate, I’m not saying we should pretend it hasn’t happened. I always find it amazing the adulation that comes with it, the sense of personal disappointment. People need to grow up, they didn’t let you down, they let themselves down.

What did you set out to portray as the main motivation for the characters to win gold at the Olympics?  

Well, that’s the difficult thing, they don’t know. What they have is a momentum that they built up simply as kids, saying to themselves, you can go for gold, you can win it. They never stopped to question why, whether there might be a greater goal to be achieved in their lives. It’s never made explicit what their motivation is and I hope that as you go through the book it becomes more and more of a haunting question when these women are approaching the end of their careers and they are asking themselves, does this really matter as much as we thought it could? That for me is the question and my answer to it is yes and no. Yes, it is the most beautiful thing ever invented. This quest to push yourself harder than anyone has ever pushed themselves and see what happens. That’s beautiful, that’s the same spirit that put us on the moon, the same spirit that means doctors have reduced the death rate for childhood leukaemia from 90 per cent to ten per cent. It’s that same urge to push yourself where no one has ever gone. On the other hand, what is more important than enjoying the tenderness and peace with the people you love? Both of those things have equal weight.


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