Something happened yesterday that still has me reeling and I wanted to share it with all of you.
In INCENDIARY, the blog I posted just a few days ago about author Chris Cleave’s intense and beautiful first novel, I mentioned “The story behind INCENDIARY”, the piece that he posted several years ago on his own website, in which he shares the story of the catastrophic coincidence of the 2005 London Bombing and the launching of his novel.
The honesty of that piece moved me, and I was especially affected by his mention of the fact that he had written such an emotional and difficult story with a infant son—his first child—close by.
And so, I did what I always hope you’ll do here when you’ve enjoyed a book: I wrote a comment in the space provided below his text. I wanted him to know that I thought INCENDIARY was a beautiful book and that eleven years after its publication, it was still claiming the hearts and minds of new readers. I hoped that it would matter that I understood his book—that I “got it”—because I think that in the end, that’s what means the most to writers. I wanted him to know that this book that had come at such a cost to him was something I valued deeply and that it had left its mark on me.
And then I pressed Send.
Hope against hope, the author’s name popped up in my email Inbox yesterday, which gave me such a jolt. I of course immediately opened it (a gush of adrenaline saw to that), and there was the loveliest, most generous response I could have wished for.
Cleave’s words have reached me across the ocean. I’m still getting over the shock of the world suddenly becoming so small.
I’ve since obtained his permission to share our online exchange with you.
Chris Cleave’s personal and thoughtful response is a reminder of how important and real the drama of his story still is. To me, it also bears witness to the cost of all art that strives to be relevant, and perhaps especially writing, which requires such courage.
His comments about the aftermath, and how fickle our compassion can be, are cautionary.
Thank you once again, Mr. Cleave, for taking the time to share such a meaningful part of your life with us.
WHAT FOLLOWS IS OUR EXCHANGE OF MESSAGES:
Michelle Payette-Daoust says:
I don’t know if this page is still being monitored, but I’m giving it a try.
I only came across your name and work very recently (shameful really, but on the other hand, I now have a lovely stash of your books I can look forward to reading).
I loved Incendiary.
I visited London for the first time in September 2015, to see my son who had been studying at LAMDA for a year. I walked its streets for days, and with him, I discovered more of London than most tourists do.
I think that amplified the impact of your narrator’s words. It was easy to summon her in my imagination, visualize her flat, see her walking the streets shell shocked, drunk or simply lost.
She’s a beautifully realized, compelling character, and I would have followed her anywhere. I loved her edge, her hard-nosed common sense, her humour, her bluntness and most of all, how maternal she was.
It’s this part of her, of course, that does her in. Mothering Jasper, then Petra then Terrence was never going to fill the chasm inside her, was it?
I think you showed her little mercy by dumping her into the lives of a broken and predatory couple like Jasper and Petra. I hoped against hope that she would not be devoured by their dysfunction, but that wasn’t the story you wanted to tell. There was to be no one there to mother her.
And she would never overcome the deficits of being an Eastender.
I can’t imagine how you must have felt the day of the London Bombings. You had this beautiful, powerful book that you had put so much of yourself into (especially your own feelings of parental love); it must have felt like it had been blown up too. Like it had been turned to ash.
I remember hearing Mohsin Hamid explain in an interview how he had to go back and rewrite parts of The Reluctant Fundamentalist in order to integrate the events of 9/11, and I thought how disturbing that must be.
But you had to deal with the shock of your own prescience. My god.
Thank you for this gorgeous and deeply moving book. It took me just a few days to get to the end of it, but its effect still lingers.
I write a blog for my local library (in a suburb of Montreal), and Incendiary is my most recent post.
I offer it to you as an expression of my gratitude.
I promise to read all of your work: please keep it coming.
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I was enormously moved to read your comment and your thoughtful & generous blog post about Incendiary. Its subject matter made it a wrenching book to write – I was a very new parent at the time – and I thank you for your empathy in understanding that the circumstances of its publication were hard to deal with. (It really didn’t make me stronger, as such non-fatal trials are reputed to.) Through the novel I’ve subsequently met survivors of the 7/7 bombings in London, who of course carry far worse psychological scars – as well as physical ones. They have changed my life. I’m amazed at how little psychological and material support many of them have received. (Our fury at the terrorists is not always matched by our compassion for their surviving victims.)
Being a writer has proved to be a stranger experience than I’d expected. Fiction and reality interact in ways that are bizarre and powerful and often disturbing. But one of the unalloyed joys of this work is to receive a message like yours. When a book means something to such a thoughtful reader, it makes the writer uncomplicatedly happy. Thank you! All good wishes – Chris