Wednesday, May 4, 2016

There are no words to describe how nervous (and excited) I am to be talking to Chris Cleave tomorrow at Boswell. That's Thursday, May 5, 7 pm.

You have to understand that in many ways, our first event with Chris Cleave (photo credit Lou Abercrombie), for Little Bee, was a test run for Boswell. The closing of Schwartz had been announced, but we decided to keep our event with Cleave and have me run it. I had read a bound manuscript and had fell in love with the book. I didn't know much about the author, other than he was the author Incendiary, a wonderful book (I can still hear my rep's enthusiasm, that nonetheless had some bad release timing.*) And then we wound up with so many readers that it solidified my conviction that we could sell a lot of it.

And the Cleave was so great. I thought, "Maybe I can do this."

And then just before Christmas, I happened to get to talk to Susan Stamberg on Morning Edition and talk about how it wonderful Little Bee was. And Simon had all these things come together and was able to break the book out in paperback. And I knew I was just a little cog in the wheel, but really, it felt great! Gold came out and we had another wonderful, relatively straightforward event with Cleave.

So now Everyone Brave is Forgiven has just come out in hardcover in the United States. It has the same title in the United States and Great Britain (unlike Little Bee, which was sometimes called The Other Hand). Here is my recommendation, corrected from the first draft, which had at least one incoherent sentence.

"When World War II breaks out, young socialite Mary North takes the unusual step of enlisting, though instead of going to the front, she's placed at a local area school, soon to be evacuated to the countryside. But Mary is not one to follow decorum, and her rule breaking and particular attention to Zachary, a disenfranchised black child, costs her the post. Meanwhile, roommates Tom Shaw and Alistair Heath have taken different paths. Alistair has enlisted for officer training while Tom stays behind to run a school district, and when he takes an interest in Mary, posts her at a city school for the children who were unable to be taken in by country villagers, including Zachary.The story is more than a classic love triangle set during wartime. It's about the obvious and sometimes unexpected casualties of war, and the persistence of class differences and racial injustice that were often exacerbated in war's name. And while Cleave makes sure not to romanticize World War II, he still brings to light the indomitable human spirit in the face of long odds in this devastating, but also devastatingly beautiful novel."

The book is based on his grandparents, of all things. There are so many wonderful novels that come out that are inspired by family stories. Both Paul Goldberg's The Yid and Eleanor Brown's The Light of Paris are grandparent stories, though Goldberg's has to be exaggerated, right? Find out when Goldberg is at Boswell on June 6. Brown will be at the Lynden Sculpture Garden on July 19.

The format is going to be a bit different too. We've been doing a lot of conversations, most recently with Liam Callanan talking to Sally Mann, but on May 14 (2 pm) we'll have Claire Hanan of Milwaukee Magazine in conversation with Fredrik Backman. So I decided to ask if I could do the conversation with Cleave. I want to have the best event we could have and I figured I haven't done this before so maybe folks would show up to see if this guy from Kathleen Dunn and I Remember can actually hold his own in person.

There are standard questions people ask where you can tell they did not read the book. That will not be me. But I really think I should have reread all four of Cleave's novels and I did not do that either. I will definitely ask him to recommend a few books from other writers. I will not ask him whether he writes in the morning or evening and whether he uses a laptop. I'm going to leave that for you.

One cliched question that I do find sometimes interesting is whether the author is a planner or a pantser. That means "seat of the pants." I am surprised by how many mystery writers don't know who did it while they are writing. I'll probably ask that one.

Here's a lovely profile of Cleave in the Financial Times. These question-and-answer formats are so great because you definitely don't have to read the book and you can use the same questions over and over. And that's why the FT is such a successful newspaper. But why does everybody desperately want the Saturday edition so much, compared to the rest of the days. We have had customers come to blows over it.

Hannah Beckerman in The Guardian reviewed Everyone Brave is Forgiven. She notes: "What Cleave’s first three novels share is a timeliness, an immersion in the political and social issues and events that have shaped the past decade. It is a departure, therefore, that Cleave’s fourth, Everyone Brave Is Forgiven, is a historical novel set in London and Malta during the second world war. The story is, Cleave discloses in an author’s note, inspired by the lives of his grandparents: his maternal grandfather served in Malta, and his paternal grandmother drove ambulances during the blitz. But dig below the surface of this novel, and Cleave is back in familiar thematic territory, exploring the ways that external events beyond the individual’s control influence the private lives of his characters, with either devastating or transformative consequences."

Below left is the UK jacket. It's a very interesting image - matter of fact destruction.

She notes that Mr. Cleave has been accused of sentimentality, but that he does it very well. There are reviewers, like David S. Ulin in The Washington Post, who said exactly that. Carol Memmott in the Star-Tribune, like Beckerman in The Guardian, had no issue with this. Every book is not complete until it connects with a reader (I stole that from an art critic) and not every reader is for every book. Many a prize winner has been disparaged by perfectly intelligent readers, though I will note that there are certain books that are not disparaged in public by critics. This must be a thing decided behind closed doors.

The battle of literature is between the head and the heart. Focus too much on one and the book gets lost in an elite ghetto, featuring raves but miniscule sales. Only awards can turn this around. Focus too much on the other and you might have the blockbuster bestseller that critics love to trash. Too many scares, too much crying, or too many laughs can be the kiss of death, though a book that is funny in a satirical way might well fall into the first camp. But Cleave is an author who has always done a great job of the head-heart balancing act, and I applaud him for it.

The original, or at least, earlier American jacket is below right. I like it! But the new book definitely has more of an All The Light We Cannot See vibe. Since about 50 covers in the wake of Little Bee used its once-rare silhouette cover treatment, I think that's fair.

Oh, we've got lots more to talk about! I am fascinated by the difference between the way Americans and British approach World War II, the real story of whether the children sent to the countryside could be rejected by families for being black or disabled, and were there schools for those left behind? I'm sure you have questions too. Having read Kate Atkinson's Life After Life not that long ago, I wondered whether there is a whole library of Siege of London literature and what are some of the other good titles. Join us Thursday, May 5, 7 pm.

*Incendiary was a book about a bombing that came out the week of the London subway bombing (which they refer to as 7/7).

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