British author Chris Cleave—most well-known for writing Little Bee—couldn't have picked a better time to release his latest book, Gold. The novel follows Zoe and Kate, two world-class cyclists who grew up together as rivals on the track and best friends off of it, as they compete for their last shot at Olympic gold. Cleave's straightforward prose captures the speed, intensity, and struggle of competition during the racing scenes, leaving the reader feeling as if they're inside the head of the Olympic athletes they've been watching every day in London. I caught up with Cleave when he was in Denver last week.
5280: Gold is a behind-the-scenes look at elite-level competition. What type of research did you do?
Chris Cleave: I did two strands of research. The first was into the world of athletes and the psychology of rivalry. I interviewed a bunch of different athletes. I asked them about the tactics and the strategy of competition. I went for bike rides with some. I trained a lot on the bike myself. For several months, I put myself through some really intense training because I needed to be able to race myself and know a little bit about what it’s really like. I wanted the race scenes to be true. I wanted them to feel right. The scenes themselves on the page would raise the pulse and make you feel the action. It was the most intense bit of research I’ve done, but it was really fun. I enjoyed being able to ask the athletes questions when they were away from competition because they give very different answers when they’re interviewed trackside just after having won something. I think if we let sport be covered only by sportscasters then you do get a true picture of sport but a very one-sided one.
The second part was into the character of Sophie who is very ill, suffering from leukemia. I did [this] at Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children in London. I shadowed a pediatric hematologist who specializes in helping children with leukemia and lymphoma and got to see the work he does, meet the parents and their children, and follow-up in different stages of their treatment and in recovery. More than 90 percent [of kids with these diseases] will go into remission, but they get very, very sick along the way. I spent time with families in the most extreme of situations. How the families' lives are completely inverted and everybody's priorities have changed. Suddenly, nothing is more important than the health of their loved ones.
5280: What was the most surprising thing you learned from your time with the athletes?
CC: I realized how awful athletes feel most of the time. When we see them on our screens stepping up to the start line of an event, they seem to glow with health and with vitality and they look bionic. I learned that that’s actually because they’ve been resting up for a few days before their event. Actually, how a lot of athletes feel a lot of the time is exhausted and stressed and worried about injury and illness. You feel shattered all the time; you're operating on the borderline between health and illness.
Second, I learned how lonely it can be to be a top-level competitor. Very few people on Earth understand how hard they’re training and how much that precludes them from having an ordinary life—like going out for a beer with friends or relaxing on a Sunday. Athletes have a really weird job description. For most of us, it’s not necessary for everyone else to fail in order for us to succeed. That’s not true for athletes. They have to beat everyone. They have to shatter other people's dreams to achieve their own. Often the people who are their greatest competitors are also their best friends.
When you put those two together—how exhausted athletes make themselves and how lonely it can be at the top—I ended up having tremendous admiration for them. There's a psychological depth and strength to their character. When we read about sports people, I think we do them a disservice by focusing so hard on the competition and the result. There's a lot more about their life to celebrate.
5280: In contrast, researching children and cancer must have been difficult and psychologically draining.
CC: It’s very harrowing. I can't pretend it’s not emotionally difficult. I was in the consulting room while the doctor gave diagnoses of very serious illnesses to the parents. Being that close to it, you have a terrible, terrible feeling of not being able to help. I’m a parent myself [and thought], That could so easily be me, and I’m so lucky that on this day it isn’t. But I also can’t pretend it wasn’t really inspiring. A hospital is not a depressing place. In a children’s hospital, like this one, most of the people are getting better. You witness a lot of stuff that’s hugely inspiring. You see incredible strength in the parents, incredible devotion in the medical staff and the nursing staff. You witness people just digging deeper than you’d imagine people could. You see a lot of laughter. Children, as well as being very sick, they’re still children. It was like all of the emotional dials were turned up to maximum. You see stuff that really does make you cry, and you see stuff that really does make you laugh.
5280: You mentioned doing some cycling training yourself. What was that like?
CC: I trained between 15 and 25 hours per week, which is a lot. I did that for about five months. I had huge physiological changes. Your whole body changes. I’d always been sort of reasonably fit, but not athletically trained. It’s very interesting to feel every cell of your body buzzing like that. It’s addictive. I haven’t been able to stop. You can’t really just quit cold turkey from it. You have to sort of phase it out. I really haven’t managed to do that. I get really grouchy if I don’t get out on my bike most days. It changed me in a way I hadn’t expected. I started competing and still do from time to time. I was quite surprised to find within me a person who cares about winning or losing. I didn’t know I had the competitive streak in me. It’s not entirely unpleasant. It’s quite interesting to realize that that’s inside you.
5280: Having done this research and spent time with these athletes, does it affect your perspective when you watch competitions like the Olympics?
CC: It's made me realize how much is at stake in the lives of these characters. I am more aware of that when I watch an event in the Olympics, I'm watching the very last moment of the very last act of a long psychological drama in those competitors' lives. I'm more conscious of how much they’ve sacrificed, how much they’ve given up, how many tears have been shed along the way to get themselves to the start line. I have a compassion for the athletes that I didn’t have before. I have a kind of respect for what they’re doing for us. I think the Olympics are really inspiring.
5280: In developing a book, which comes first for you, the characters or the plot?
CC: It’s always the question that comes first. The question arises in my own life usually. It’s something I feel that I am challenged by and I don’t know what my answer is. And then I’ll go looking for what kinds of people could help me to pose that question in an engaging way. With Gold, if the question was, 'What comes first: ambition or love?' then I went out looking for the most ambitious people I could find, and that’s why I wanted to write about athletes. They’re the most ambitious people on Earth. The characters come out of the research, and then the plot forms itself around the characters.
5280: All of your books have some sort of psychological study of the human condition weaved throughout. Why is that?
CC: I’m interested in the big questions that life poses us. I think that’s all life is: It’s a set of questions that life is quietly asking you because it’s interested in your answers. This thing we call living is just a set of our answers to these questions. They’re timeless questions, and I try to put them into my novels. In Gold, the question at the heart is what comes first, the thing we’re ambitious about or the people we love? On paper that’s a really easy question to answer. Except that when you put that in the context of real life, people's answers are often different. All I do is I take these big questions that life asks us and I try to make them fascinating questions rather than academically interesting ethical questions.
5280: What's next for you?
CC: Right now, I’m working on a book about the veterans of conflict—when people come back from wars, the extent to which society either rehabs and reveres them or neglects and ignores them. I'm interviewing combat vets. [The big question is] if these people have fought to defend our way of life, are we going to defend their lives when they come back? People do understand what these soldiers are going through, whether you agree with the conflict politically or not. My question is how quickly will we forget that? In every other war that we’ve fought, we’ve shamefully forgotten the sacrifice these people have made and we haven’t looked after them afterward. There aren’t many ways to win this war we’re in now. The only marker is: Do we look after the people who come back?
Follow assistant editor Daliah Singer on Twitter at @daliahsinger.