Monday, October 29, 2012

Conversation with Chris Cleave RE: "Gold"

Before the London Olympics, I did not know the Spandau Ballet song "Gold." Almost every night of the Games, the BBC played this tune during their medal count segment. Catchy.

The title "Gold" also caught my attention when NPR aired a pre-Games segment introducing Chris Cleave, the award winning British author of "Incendiary" and "Little Bee." Cleave and his publisher's P.R. team were debuting the author's auric text about British cycling at the Olympics in Athens, Beijing and London.

Intrigued by the radio review of the book and Cleave's down to earth interview, I requested a publicity copy and started reading "Gold" on the July flight to London. I finished it (via audiobook) on a late summer drive to Oklahoma, now overdue for a blog review. You could say the review's been circling in my mind like wheels in a velodrome.

Then I learned of Cleave's two Oct. 6 Atlanta book signings and seized the opportunity to interview him and gain clarity on some solid "Gold" questions. Before delving into Cleave's answers, here's my quick take, er, book report.

In his third book "Gold," Chris Cleave takes readers on a dizzying and high-speed ride into the world of Olympic track cycling.

The story opens with two of the five main characters, Team GB's Zoe and Tom; respectively, she is a first-time Olympian about to enter the Athens Olympic velodrome as hell on wheels, and he is an elder Aussie Olympian-turned-coach who missed bronze by an agonizing one-hundredth of a second -- a fourth-place one moment in time he's regrettably relived daily, hourly or worse since the 1968 Mexico City Olympics.

Also competing in Athens: Jack, the rising men's track cycling star for Britain. His young wife Kate is stateside watching the cycling drama unfold on the BBC's live broadcast from Greece. Kate and Zoe are teammates and best mates, and readers soon learn the former opted out of the 2004 Games to care for her newborn daughter, Sophie. We later discover that Zoe, Kate and Jack met young, and their mutually ultra-competitive natures led to a five-ringed love triangle in their early 20's.

Following the Athens opener, more pages are filled with detail of Sophie's struggles with pediatric leukemia.

Before proceeding, let me write here that one critic at The New York Times nailed it when he wrote that "Gold" is like "Beaches" on bikes. I love that, though I don't foresee Bette Midler and Barbara Hershey portraying Olympic cyclists when "Gold" hits the big screen, which I believe it will, just in time for Rio 2016.

My only complaint about "Gold" is that at times, too many times, the would-be-tearjerk detail about Sophie's illness and treatment is over the top, more of a cringe-jerk for this blogger.

Reading the book en route to London, I winced again and again at the medical jargon and play by play of young Sophie vomiting into her toys, which happen to be a collection of "Star Wars" vehicles (the girl is a big fan of the George Lucas series).

Listening to the audiobook, too often my hands moved to cover my ears while I hummed to drown out the treatment-speak with "La-la-la-la-la." When young Sophie suffers a seizure mid-text, I could not hit fast-forward quickly enough.

On the flip side, Cleave's play by play about track cycling, elite training and all that Olympic bike champions are made of -- that was all, how do they say in England (???) -- it was all brilliant!

Reading "Gold," I could not get enough of Cleave's detailed descriptions from within the helmets and heads of its fictional Olympians. He unknowingly wrote "Chariots of Fire" on bikes. And for the record, I think "Chariots of Fire" director Hugh Hudson should also direct "Gold" for the silver screen.

During my conversation with Cleave, the author revealed extensive research went into each of his books. For "Gold," the research included several months of training with national level cyclists and coaches, which led to Cleave's excellent second by second descriptions of Olympic velodrome racing (as it turned out, Cleave also researched pediatric leukemia in as much detail).

As readers of this blog post will find in the videos of Cleave's comments, the London Games brought to Great Britain as much elation and positive energy in 2005 as in the summer of 2012. Though Cleave never attended the Olympics prior to writing "Gold," it's clear his experiences with the book and as a London 2012 spectator may lead him to attend Rio 2016 as he predicted. Will he write another five-ringed story? Probably not. Will Cleave write again about individual pursuits? Likely yes, as he hinted his next work may delve into the world of a person struggling with a long-term recovery.

But the focus of "Gold" comes down to one thing, in Cleave's words.

"I wanted to write about a rivalry," said Cleave. In the pages of "Gold" he said, "Zoe and Kate live their lives, their rivalry in very different ways."

In his remarks at one of the book signing events of Atlanta, Cleave described Zoe's path as a trail of descruction, and that through his own cycling training the author learned the "savage joy" of winning against his training partners. He touches a bit on another result of this training in the video for this post (hint: hospital).

Another off-camera conversation briefly tied back to "Star Wars" trivia. Cleave shared that his birthday is May 14, the same day as Jedi creator George Lucas, Talking Heads front man (and cyclist) David Byrne, and the author of one Olympic blogger who aspires to the same level of creativity as these fellow Tauruses (Cleave was born only hours before I was on that May morning of 1973).

In the weeks since meeting Cleave in Atlanta, his other books made it only my library reserve list. If you enjoyed his prior works, you will likely embrace "Gold" as well. And if you are new to Cleave's style, "Gold" is a good entry point to his works. Happy reading!

Photos and videos by Nicholas Wolaver

P.S. Driving away from the Cleave interview, my route took me past a pawn shop for which a man donned signs advertising "We Buy Gold!" With a straight face I rolled down the window and offered him an autographed copy of Cleave's book. Pregnant pause ... then the sign guy laughed as loud as anyone I've heard in a long time.

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