There’s so much in my life that needs to get done. I’m still helping Schwartz ready for our closing at the end of March. I’m rushing ahead with all that is entailed with reopening the Downer Avenue shop, perhaps even a bit earlier than scheduled.
With that on my plate, all I really want to do is work on Chris Cleave’s appearance for Little Bee on March 2nd at Downer Avenue (at 7 PM, as is usually the case). This guy’s coming over from London. What if we don’t get a lot of people? Will my customers be kicking themselves someday if they realized they missed this event? I think so.
I don’t even know how good this guy is at events. Maybe he’s shy. Maybe he’s boring. He’s smart, I’ll say that. I’ve become a regular follower of his blog and enjoy it quite a bit. Not to worry. I’ve got the feeling this is going to be a really good evening.
Hey, maybe I can ask him a few questions. Abracadabra! A little Q&A to get us to the next level here, interest-wise. But before we do, I’m going to excerpt Marilyn Dahl’s review in Shelf Awareness, a wonderful trade newsletter that focuses on indie bookstores. Of course, because it’s so smart, the readership is anyone who’s anyone in publishing.
Chris Cleave's novel will amaze and delight you, and break your heart. It's one of the finest books I've read in years, from its lyrical opening lines to its surprising end. It tells the story of a young Nigerian refugee, Little Bee, who has made her way to England but has ended up in a detention center. She is looking for an English couple, Andrew and Sarah O'Rourke, whom she met on a Nigerian beach two years earlier. Told from the viewpoints of Little Bee and Sarah, the story is tragic and sweet; its wisdom and power last long after the finish.
--Marilyn Dahl, in Shelf Awareness (read the whole amazing review)
Daniel: My favorite question #1: Where was the conception of this book? What came first?
Chris: In 1994 I worked for three days in the canteen of an immigration detention centre near Oxford. It was the summer vacation at my university, and I was taking on all kinds of casual work to make some money. What I saw in that place shocked me so deeply that I wanted to write about it ever after. For many years I didn’t think I was technically good enough to tell the story, so I just held on to the idea and worked on my writing until it was up to the task. I started seriously researching the novel in 2006, and wrote it in 2007 and 2008.
Daniel: What kind of research did you do for the book? How have political groups that support refugee rights taken to the book? One would think they would like it...
Chris: I did a year of research. I listened to a lot of Nigerian English, on the radio and in person. I interviewed asylum seekers and those who work with them (some of the transcripts are on my website). I learned a lot about the UK immigration detention system, much of it shocking and appalling. It was a year of education for me. I discovered a hidden side to the Western world, and not a pretty side either. And yes, there are lots of wonderful groups in the UK, the US and Australia that support refugee rights. Some of them like the book and some of them don’t. My greatest pleasure with the book was when three of the people who helped a lot in the research told me that they loved it. But some of the groups think I’ve gone too far, and some of them say I haven’t gone far enough. There are some activists who take pretty radical positions, including direct action and advocacy for a total removal of border controls. That isn’t really my style. I’m a writer, so I’m into change through peaceful persuasion. But I understand the anger and the sense of outrage that drives such people. You’d have to be made of stone not to freak out when you discover how the West treats asylum seekers.
Daniel: Has your depiction of the center (centre) gotten you into any hot water (watre) in the UK? (OK, you have to understand that I wrote this after meditating on the differences between the two editions, but I’m saving everything except this bad little joke for another post.)
Chris: No, not at all. First, because the UK is still one of the best places in the world to practice the art of free speech. That’s something truly great about Great Britain, and it’s a civil right that I and many others fiercely defend through regular exercise. We don’t have a Constitution or a Bill of Rights to enshrine it, so we must practice it in our lives until it becomes an inbred instinct of a free people. Second, I think my depiction of a British immigration detention centre is accurate in the salient respects. It’s based on meticulous research and it would be hard to take issue with it on factual grounds, so people haven’t. That’s not to say that everyone likes me for doing it, but frankly that’s their problem and not mine. The British treatment of asylum seekers brings shame and ignominy on the nation. I didn’t invent that treatment; I’m blowing the whistle on it. I don’t want to be like those people who lived right next door to Bergen-Belsen and claimed, at the end of the war, that they never knew it was there.
Daniel: I describe the way you structured the novel to be a line to the awful Nigerian scene--in the way you navigate your way out, it reminds me of several of the books I've read by Iris Murdoch. She would put these awful events in the novels, but sometimes they'd be at the beginning, sometimes the middle, and sometimes the end. Did you think about where this went and how this affected momentum? At any point in your book was it somewhere else? I imagined you starting with it and working backwards but I have no idea.
Chris: I experimented endlessly with the structure of the book. As you correctly guessed, I moved the beach scene to the start, to the end, into Sarah’s voice, into Little Bee’s voice, and so on. Having alternating narrators and a non-linear timescale makes it very complicated to thread this story together in a way that reads smoothly and maintains tension to the end. But this is what I love about writing novels. They are incredibly intricate engines, and if you change one little piece here, it can throw the whole thing out of equilibrium way over there. So you spend half your time with tweezers and a jeweler’s eyepiece, and the other half with safety goggles and a lump hammer. And eventually, usually at three in the morning, the thing just clicks into gear and runs. It’s the most uplifting feeling. I get it about once every three years.
Daniel: Another of my favorite questions: anything interesting change from first draft to final version?
Chris: Yes – almost everything changed. The first draft was rejected by all of my publishers, so I went away and rebuilt it - stronger and taller, as we say in London. I had five separate narrators in the original version and, believe it or not, none of them was Little Bee. She was a character but she didn’t speak. The breakthrough was when I majored on her voice. You can see that I don’t work in isolation: I have two great agents and three great editors to guide my efforts, and to tell me when I’ve got it right and when I’ve got it wrong. The more I listen to them, the more I learn about writing. The fun part, of course, is when they all disagree…
There’s a part two to this interview! It revolves around one of the most interesting aspects of this novel to me, and something I thought would disappear in the modern wired age--the book has different titles in the Eastern and Western hemispheres. So my advice to you, at least for now; don’t go to some UK site and buy The Other Hand, unless you want multiple copies of Cleave’s novel. It’s the same book…or is it? Stay tuned for the answers.