Chris Cleave adjusts the camera on his computer so it focuses on the bikes in the corner of the garage/office space in his London flat. He points to one in particular, a lighter bike, which he uses when it’s not raining.
“I haven’t used it for six bloody weeks,” Cleave says with a laugh, as we continue our Skype conversation.
Cleave is only an amateur cyclist. Yet in his third novel, Gold, he somehow inhabits the minds of Olympic-caliber cyclists who pursue that elusive medal to the exclusion of almost everything else. He researched every detail, from what kind of post-race recovery drink a world-class athlete might prefer to how cyclists follow each others’ slipstreams as they race around a velodrome at upwards of 50 miles per hour.
The two main athletes in Gold—Kate and Jack Argall—met as teens in an elite cyclist training program. They go on to marry, but only after a tumultuous courtship marred by a love triangle involving another young cyclist, the seductive and troubled Zoe. Jack and Zoe’s past decisions continue to haunt all three of them, who remain friends, competitors and eventually vigilant caregivers for Kate and Jack’s nine-year-old daughter, Sophie Argall, who is gravely ill with leukemia.
“I’m interested in what people are like when they’re pushed to the extreme,” says Cleave. “Do we put our career first or family first? It’s an abstract question until you have to face it. For this book, I thought, ‘What’s the most extreme job you could have?’ [Cyclists] are almost like monks. I like these people who sacrifice everything and for whom a silver medal is a total disgrace.”
"I hate when something as radical and raw as storytelling turns into this elitist sport."
Zoe, in particular, is a composite of several real-life athletes with razor-sharp focus on winning. Cleave cites British athlete Rebecca Romero, who won a silver in Athens in rowing. “She hated that so much that she changed sports, to cycling,” he marvels. Romero went on to win gold in that sport in 2008, becoming one of only a handful of female athletes to medal in separate summer Olympics in different sports.
“Sports are full of people like Zoe,” he says.
While Cleave might not be gunning for a place on the podium when the summer Olympics come to London this year, he does admit to being somewhat competitive himself, at least once he began an intensive cycling training program to research the novel. He rides in semi-competitive events—and is training about 15 hours per week for a London-to-Paris race this summer to benefit leukemia and lymphoma research.
“I enjoy winning,” he admits with a sly smile. “I enjoy beating people more than I thought I would.”
After a slight pause, he reveals that the weekend before, he was on a long ride and spent about 15 kilometers (he’s British!) riding with a very nice fellow.
“And then,” Cleave says, laughing, “he got a puncture and I was like, ‘See you.’ I feel a little bad about that.”
That incident notwithstanding, Cleave comes across as a thoroughly likeable, down-to-earth guy. It’s hard to believe he is a best-selling and critically acclaimed novelist (Little Bee, Incendiary), and for two years had a regular column in The Guardian in which he hilariously recounted his adventures in parenting. He gave up the column once his own children grew past “the sweet spot, that universal state of infancy” and into an age where they might be embarrassed by Dad laying their lives bare in the pages of a newspaper.
It needs to be said, though, that the columns are laugh-out-loud funny and worth looking up online. One delicious example: While on a trip to Paris when his wife was pregnant with their first child, they purchased a cot to place in the baby’s nursery. The French salesman mentions that the cot did not meet new European fire regulations. The cot was promptly dubbed The Slightly Dangerous Cot, and lasted through all three children.
Despite his successes, Cleave eschews the British writers’ scene, which he calls “quite cliquey,” describing literary events where novelists with a capital N stand quite literally in one circle and the lesser-known, slightly drunker writers stand in a second circle. Cleave also takes good care of his readers, regularly responding to their comments on his blog and interacting with them daily on Twitter. “2 wks to publication,” he tweeted in mid-May. “Psyched. If I was an Apollo rocket, this is when giant cranes would begin taking me from the hangar to the launch pad.”
“I think storytelling is something we all do quite naturally,” he says. “That doesn’t mean I can ignore the audience or am on another level from them. Quite the opposite. I hate when something as radical and raw as storytelling turns into this elitist sport. I want my work to be a starting point for people to have great conversations with each other, enjoy it and not put it up on pedestal.”
Equally important to Cleave is thoroughly researching his stories. “Then I’m reporting back: ‘This is what I’ve learned, what do we think about that?’ ”
To capture the unique voice of young Sophie, Cleave spent time shadowing a hematologist at a children’s hospital. He called the experience “harrowing.”
“I was there when he would give the original diagnosis [to families],” Cleave says. “It was very sad, very emotionally draining even for me—and I don’t even have skin in the game. I would go home at the end of those days on the train and try not to cry. My family was at once more precious and more fragile.”
Cleave describes one child who helped shape the character of Sophie, an almost unbearably brave girl who hides the true extent of her illness from her parents so as not to distract them from their intense Olympic training.
“His parents left the room to get a coffee or something, and he immediately changed,” Cleave recalls. “He told me, ‘Do you know what really makes me sad? It’s when Mum and Dad are worried. I sometimes don’t show them when I’m tired.’ You know, death is abstract but they do understand the suffering of their parents.”
Thanks to his research, Cleave brings wondrous life to Sophie, a precocious girl who finds escape in the fantasy world of Star Wars. Like the boy Cleave met at the hospital, Sophie goes to great lengths to convince her parents she feels OK, when in truth she has barely enough energy to visit the bathroom.
But Gold is more than a story about childhood cancer, or the incredible extremes required of an Olympic athlete. It’s about what people are willing to sacrifice to succeed. When Sophie is rushed to the hospital, desperately sick, Jack sits at her bedside, praying. If you let Sophie live, I will live for her from now on, he thinks. I will hang up my bike. I will make her life my only gold.
Yet, at that very moment Kate is competing in a time trial that will secure her spot in the Olympics—or end her career. Jack chooses not to tell her about Sophie’s turn for the worse.
“He closed his eyes and imagined Kate, untroubled by anything except the race ahead. He smiled because he had given her something rarer than gold: an hour outside time.”
In Gold, as with his previous work, Cleave writes with tremendous heart, displaying a keen eye for life’s absurdities, sorrows and triumphs. The story is riveting, the characters unforgettable. Gold has everything you could ask for in a story: adrenaline-soaked racing, wretchedly human decisions, laugh-out-loud moments and quietly heartbreaking ones.