London-based author Chris Cleave flies into town this week to talk about his 2009 novel Little Bee, the year’s Seattle Reads pick by Seattle Public Library. Though the Brit’s book topics tend to be heavy—refugees, terrorism—he manages levity with each. To wit: We chatted about squirrels on crack and Osama bin Laden before he arrived.
Last time you were in Seattle, you seemed to really enjoy our coffee culture. Are you looking forward to another caffeine spree this time around?
A few years back when I was living in Brixton, in South London, the neighborhood had a lot of problems with wild-eyed, overconfident squirrels. There was a rumor circulating to the effect that the squirrels had become adept at locating, unearthing and consuming the supplies of crack cocaine judiciously buried in parks and gardens by local users. In truth I’ve no idea how they got that way—maybe it was just an attitude thing—but the squirrels were pretty funny in the way that any hopped-up, three-inch-high herbivore is inherently comic. Anyway, that diminutive, confused, supercharged creature? That was me after my eighth coffee of the day on my last trip to Seattle. I just had no idea how strong you guys make the stuff up there, and I completely overdosed. I wrote a piece about it.
You’ve said Little Bee is about “the horror of being alive in a world where atrocities happen.” What do you hope readers will take away from this work?
The novel is about a refugee and what I learned while researching it—and what I hope people will take away from it—is that our lives here in the West, while often very hard, are rarely impossible. On a planet largely characterized by suffering, we are comparatively lucky. Even when we do not currently have a job, at least we have the right to seek work. Even when we cannot currently afford foreign travel, at least we have the right to hold a passport… These are things we often take for granted… If people take away a second thing from the book, I hope it might be the idea that we are not powerless to help refugees.
Your first book, Incendiary, is a novel-length letter from a grieving mother to Osama bin Laden. Do you think recent events will change the way the book is read?
I try to think how my protagonist, the bereaved mother, would have reacted to the news of bin Laden’s death. The letter she writes to him is an effort to make him understand what he has done in murdering her son… She writes: “I want you to understand what a human boy is from the shape of the hole he leaves behind.” … When dealing with evildoers, death alone does not bring closure. It seems with bin Laden, it was simply not possible to effect a capture—his death was the best available outcome. However, it means there will never be an opportunity to point a high-definition camera at his face while he is asked the two questions the bereaved victims would really like answered: “Why did you do it?” and “Do you truthfully feel no remorse?”
Will your next project tend more toward comedy or drama?
A good book should accommodate both comedy and tragedy. I think life makes us only one promise—that it will break us all—and I think we can make life only one promise in return: that we will not take it personally… If we can wrestle moments of humor from its jaws and laugh in its face, then we come out of the process with more dignity than life does. This, for example, is why squirrels on crack and writers on caffeine are both tragic and funny.
Chris Cleave discusses Little Bee at Seattle Public Library’s Central Library on May 13 at 7pm. He also meets readers at public libraries across the city from May 12–14. For more info, go to spl.lib.wa.us. UPDATED 5/11/11. Cleave will also be at the Sorrento Hotel on May 12, 8:30pm, for Night School.