“I read a book that I think you would really like,” a friend said while I cut his hair.
“Oh yeah? What's it called?” I asked.
“[mumble, mumble, something] Little League,” he said, or at least that's what I heard him say.
“What?” I asked, wondering why he thought I would ever enjoy a book about baseball (I’m not exactly Sporty Spice).
“Little Bee,” he clarified.
“Oh. I haven’t heard of it. What’s it about?”
“I can’t tell you,” he said. “It actually says on the back of the book not to say too much about the story, because the magic is in how it unfolds.”
So guess what I ran home and bought on my Kindle as fast as I could? Little Bee by Chris Cleave is a book that hooks you on the first page. For me, it was the first sentence, “Most days I wish I was a British pound coin instead of an African girl.” From there on out, I wanted to know as much as I could about Little Bee, an adolescent Nigerian refugee who, the first time we meet her, is in a British detention center. The paradox of Little Bee is that she has witnessed horrors and violence that fortunately, most of us will never know in a lifetime, but she also possesses a startling innocence that most of us have lost entirely too early. How her life intersects with that of an affluent British woman named Sara, and what results from that collision, is the crux of the story. It’s a book about miraculous survival, global neighbors, and sacrificial friendship. I feel that Little Bee will soon be added to high school and college reading lists, perhaps alongside Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, as a comparable study in social justice, and the bloodletting divide that separates the rich from the poor. Enough said about that, because I certainly don’t want to ruin the story for you, and you should have an opportunity to extract your own message from the narrative.
Chris Cleave was gracious enough to answer some questions about his own creative process, and how he approached his second novel, Little Bee.
Kristin Russell: When you started writing Little Bee, did you set out to bring the social/political issues of refugees to the reader's consciousness?
Chris Cleave: With Little Bee, I consciously set out to make people think about an area of life that few people know about, and which I knew nothing about until I accidentally found myself working in an immigration detention center in the UK, back in 1994. I was appalled at the way refugees are treated in our Western democracies, and I wanted to raise awareness about it, ideally in a humorous or beautiful way if I could. I’m not in the business of lecturing people about right and wrong. My thing is that I find real life interesting. I just try to present real issues in an entertaining way, so that smart readers can make up their own minds.
KR: I read that you grew up near Nigeria. How many of your childhood memories did you bring to the book? Did you return for research?
CC: I spent my early childhood in Cameroon, West Africa. It’s a very different country from Nigeria, although the two countries are neighbors. I used a lot of detail of the landscape, flora, and fauna from my own memories, but all of the linguistic, cultural, and historic research was work I did specifically for the novel. I didn’t travel to Nigeria for the research — it was all done through interviews with members of the Nigerian community in London, and by reading through historical material. Nigeria is a diverse, exciting, and largely peaceful country, but the particular area of Nigeria that I wrote about — the oil region of the Niger Delta — is not a place I’d be brave enough to visit right now.
KR: What relationships have you made as a result of this novel? Have any surprised you?
CC: Through the research and after publication, I’ve made friends with several refugees. They are surprising and unsettling because they are weirdly asymmetrical relationships — they are more skilled, resilient, and experienced than me, but I am safer, happier, and richer than them. It helps to remind oneself every day that most of the good things we enjoy come not through personal ability, but through sheer geographical accident of birth.
KR: Tell me about your transition from being a psychology major to journalism to novelist. What were the obstacles, and did it go as you had planned?
CC: Well, I never did have a plan. I find it hard to resist following my curiosity where it leads, which is probably a strength and a weakness in a writer. I graduated in Experimental Psychology, then worked as a barman and a yacht deliverer for a couple of years before I landed a journalism job on a London paper. I had a couple of jobs after that, working for internet companies. The idea of those jobs was to pay the rent while I wrote novels, but I didn’t do much writing until I quit the job I was doing, in 2003, to give all my energy to writing. That was either brave or stupid — time will tell.
KR: How has being a parent shaped your storytelling?
CC: Before I was a parent I cared about things like justice and human rights in an abstract, intellectual, and rather ineffectual way. As soon as I had kids, I began to care about human rights in a more concrete sense. I want my children to grow up in a world that is fairer than the one we see now. And if I’m not successful in helping to bring about that fairer world, then at least I want to be able to prove to my children, when they’re older, that I really, really tried. I want to be able to look my kids in the eye and assure them that I was not just sitting on my arse watching TV while the world went to hell.
KR: How do you find balance in your life as a writer (family, health, social interaction, fun, etc.)?
CC: I just try to work hard and be helpful to my family — the same as anyone, really. I don’t think a writer’s life is different from anyone else’s in that respect. I’d rather my kids remember me as a good parent than a good writer.
KR: What are your thoughts on the future of publishing, and the involvement of social media? Is it difficult for you to write and promote yourself, now that the responsibility lies so heavily on the author?
CC: I don’t think social media has changed anything. I think it was always important that the author had an engaging personality and could talk about their work in public. Dickens is my hero and he was a terrific public speaker. He would have used social media in just the same way good writers use it today — to drum up a crowd and then to go out there in real life and talk about the work.
The danger of social media is that some authors, especially shy ones, develop an internet persona and hide behind it. That’s fatal. You have to go out there and meet your readers, in live events of all shapes and sizes, because it’s good and it’s honest and it makes you a better writer. If you don’t want to meet your readers and listen to their opinions in real life, then why do you want to be published? There are much easier ways of making a living.
KR: What music do you listen to? Are you inspired in your writing by music?
CC: I listen to all kinds of music, from the Middle Ages to now. I know that’s a hopeless answer, but it has the merit of being true. Music is a huge part of my life, but it’s completely disconnected from my writing. The two worlds just don’t seem to mix well — they’re like oil and water. So I keep the two in separate bottles. And I write in silence because I need to concentrate.
KR: Which authors have had the greatest influence on your work? Have you had any mentors?
CC: My greatest influences are Charles Dickens, Emile Zola, Virginia Woolf, John Steinbeck and Cormac McCarthy. I’m not really sure what a mentor is, once you’re a grown-up — maybe someone who knows you well enough to tell you when you’re being an idiot? In that sense, my family and friends are pretty good at keeping me in shape.
KR: Do you go through a grieving period after finishing a book?
CC: No, I’m really happy when I finish a book. By the time I get to that point, I’ll have had the novel on my mind for so long, and so intensely, that it’s a great relief to have the weight lifted. There’s certainly a period of readjustment, and sometimes I feel a little too depressed, or a little worryingly elated during that time, but it’s nothing so serious as when a real person dies.
KR: Speaking of grieving, I thought the way you handled survivors of severe trauma was spot on. I have read other readers who speak of this as humor in the book, but I felt it was a very true defense/disassociation mechanism that anyone who has lived through such unspeakable horrors would form. What circumstances inspired this observation and characterization in the book?
CC: Well, I’ve had traumatic episodes in my life, the same as anyone. I won’t bore you with the details. Again, I suppose the point is that my job is to look inside my feelings and describe them vividly. If I get it right, then that will resonate with other people, because I’m no different from them. Weirdly, as a writer of fiction, my job is just to be honest.
KR: Where does your moral compass come from? You obviously feel that we have a responsibility as human beings to look out for one another. Why?
CC: I don’t think I have a particularly accurate moral compass, and I don’t think it’s an unusual point of view to believe that humans should look out for each other. I’m not an especially good person. My point of difference is not that I am moral, but that I have a curiosity for exploring moral questions in a way that is entertaining rather than sanctimonious. I’m not going to preach to you in my writing, and I’m certainly not going to hold up my life as an example. I’m an ordinary person. The only difference is, it’s my day job to write about how an ordinary person feels.
KR: Finally, what gives you hope for people and this planet in the midst of all of the craziness?
CC: Doctors, teachers, scientists, and engineers give me hope. If I ever find myself losing hope, it’s probably because I’m spending too much time listening to writers, politicians, lawyers, and bankers, and not enough time listening to doctors, teachers, scientists, and engineers.
Many thanks to Chris Cleave for taking the time to answer these questions.
Kristin Russell lives in Nashville with her husband and son. She works as a hairstylist at Green Pea Salon, and also writes fiction. Find her at: http://hairinmycoffee.com.