Wednesday, August 15, 2018

"I Can See Clearly Now" - Paul Cleave feature interview

Paul Cleave winning one of his three Ngaio Marsh Awards (credit WORD Christchurch)

I can see clearly now... 

inspired by a lunchtime conversation, award-winning author Paul Cleave’s latest thriller blends magic realism with the darker edge of crime fiction

By Craig Sisterson

Joshua has his father’s eyes.

Not in the figurative “Oh, you look so much like your father” sense that well-meaning relatives and family friends might utter while ruffling your hair at Thanksgiving, Christmas, or other extended get-togethers.

Not in an ancestry sense either, where similar curves, hues, and any future need for reading glasses has been passed like a genetic baton from generation to generation.

But in a very literal sense.

When the bandages come off at Christchurch Hospital and shapes and light start filtering into Joshua’s consciousness after years of darkness, it is because of a gift from the man Joshua calls his father. Light streams into the teenager’s world because Detective Inspector Mitchell Logan donated his eyes to his blind child.

Detective Logan doesn’t need them anymore. He was killed in the line of duty, trying to corral a sadistic killer at a building site. Shot with a nail gun and tossed from the fourth floor.

It’s the second time Joshua has had a father die being a hero. The new light in his life is tainted by loss. As he tries to adjust, while grieving, everything is changed, so fresh, so vivid. Even when he closes his eyes; stark images come. Violent acts of crime and crime fighting.

Has Joshua received more than just his father’s eyes?

Paul Cleave’s tenth thriller, A Killer Harvest, takes the multi-award-winning New Zealand author into a slightly new realm, with its teenage protagonist and touch of the supernatural. It’s also a nod to his horror-writing roots as an unpublished author, before he broke through in 2006 with The Cleaner, a powerful serial killer tale that topped bestseller charts in Europe and sold a quarter of a million copies in Germany alone within its first few months.

“I pretty much only read horror when I was young, and for some time there I’d only read Stephen King,” says Cleave, looking back on his days growing up in Christchurch, a coastal city roughly the size of Minneapolis, backdropped by scenery from The Lord of the Rings.

“My guess is Stephen King inspired half the authors alive today to write,” continues Cleave. “I really, really wanted to be a horror author, but it didn’t work for me. It wasn’t until one day I realized that horror is scary on the page, but crime is scary in real life. I mean, you don’t go to a zombie movie and come home and lock your doors in case your neighbour is going to bite you. But you go to a scary crime movie, like The Silence of the Lambs, then you do come home and lock your doors in case your neighbour is going to try to bite you.”

Cleave likes to scare readers, and says he writes horror as crime. It’s been an evolution over the twenty plus years he’s been writing novels; it took him over a decade to teach himself the ropes, hone his craft, pivot, and first get published with The Cleaner. “Crime is scary, the things people do to each other is scary. I figured that stuff all out around the six-year mark after I first started writing, when I read books by John Douglas, the FBI profiler. So I switched from writing horror to writing what I think of as real-life horror, which is crime.”

There is a delicious malevolence to Cleave’s thrillers, tempered by dark humour and prose that crackles with energy and verve. He’s the kind of author that aficionados and fellow authors rave about, even if he isn’t yet a household name to casual mystery fans.

Cleave’s sense of humour, wry and twisted, comes through in person as well as on the page. He often writes, and talks, like he has a mischievous glint in his eye. “I’ve always liked to entertain,” he admits. “I was afraid to go up on stage and act, or talk publicly, but among my friends I’m always trying to make them laugh. Writing became an extension of that.”

During our interview, Cleave reminisces about getting scolded by his high school teacher for writing stories about Santa having a drug addiction. “My teacher held me back after school to ask how I knew about shooting heroin. I said my Mum showed me how.” When I ask him how writing from a teenager’s perspective changed the way he envisaged, researched and wrote A Killer Harvest, he starts with “I’d wait outside schools and watch teenagers”.

The truth is less creepy.

“I can still remember a little what being a teenager was like,” says Cleave. “The sense of awkwardness while finding your way in the world, all while having assholes at school give you a hard time. With Joshua, I wanted to have a character who was isolated - he used to be blind, but now he’s not. His friends from the blind school part of his life struggle with the knowledge that he can now see, and they can’t, so they’re jealous and shun him. And the new kids in his life think he’s a freak. He’s caught between these two worlds. I figure that’s a common way to feel, aside from the whole eye transplant thing.”

That ‘whole eye transplant thing’, and the associated idea of cellular memory – where transplanted organs carry memories from the donors – gives A Killer Harvest a touch of the supernatural, but it’s still firmly grounded in the mystery world. If Cleave was a literary author from Latin America, we’d call the book magical realism: an exciting tale with a primarily realistic view of our world, incorporating a single magical or fantastical element.

As his career has progressed, Cleave hasn’t been afraid to experiment and stretch his storytelling wings. His previous novel was the exceptional psychological thriller, Trust No One, centred on a crime writer suffering from early onset Alzheimer’s who starts confessing that he’s a killer and the crimes in his books are real. His carers don’t believe him, but people have been disappearing. Told from multiple perspectives from the same character (including a rare chunk of second-person narrative), Trust No One garnered high acclaim from critics across the globe, was feted as a ‘literary hall of mirrors’ with the ‘ultimate unreliable narrator’, and won Cleave a record third Ngaio Marsh Award in his home country.

Cleave ended up taking a year off after that book, travelling and learning to play the guitar, before the idea for A Killer Harvest, which had been planted while having lunch with his German editor during the Theakston’s Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival in England in 2012, sparked back into life. “The idea for Joshua and his story came out of nowhere at that lunch,” says Cleave. “Tim, my editor, said ‘would you ever consider writing a young adult novel?’ I said no, and he listed off some names of adult crime writers who were doing so, and out of absolutely nowhere, I said ‘well, if I were to write one, it would be about this boy who is blind...’, and right there I pitched the idea for what would become A Killer Harvest. Two minutes later I had the characters, the plot, and I even knew how the book was going to end. I’ve never had anything happen like that before. Boy was it cool.”

Because of other books, the idea was shelved for a few years, until Cleave returned to it after his post-Trust No One break. “Bang, six weeks later, I had a first draft.”

The book was no longer a young adult novel; instead an adult thriller with a teenage hero.

Still, Cleave says it’s a very different book from his previous nine, which have been bestsellers in several countries, translated into more than a dozen languages, and won the Saint-Maur Crime Novel of the Year in France to go with his three Ngaio Marsh Awards and nominations for the Edgar and Barry Awards in the United States. “In a way, A Killer Harvest got me closer to being the kind of writer I used to want to be when I was younger.”

One of the tricky things with this book was how to incorporate that idea of cellular memory, of organ recipients feeling like they might have someone else’s memories or emotions.

“This is one of the main reasons the novel was written originally as a young adult novel,” says Cleave. “You’re taking something very anecdotal, and stating it as fact. My other books are set in a firm reality, and this is not. So the first thing you need to do is have most of the other characters disbelieve it too – until there’s so much evidence they can’t dismiss it.”

The key is to take ‘this thing’ and make it subtle, says Cleave. “It may not be real, but you have to make it real. And books and movies do that all the time. Harry Potter is about a teenage wizard battling a serial killer wizard, and Star Trek is about breaking the laws of physics and flying around the universe in pants that are six inches too short. Nobody believes those things, but in those pages, on those screens, those things are real life.”

Although, since he’s writing thrillers that dance along the darker edge of crime, rather than fantasy or science fiction, the expectations and goal posts are a little different, Cleave admits. “You’re taking one small thing that isn’t real and putting it in a normal, modern-day world, and asking people to believe in it. You’re not creating a world in which to make these things fit. So with A Killer Harvest, it was important not to make cellular memory, and the eye surgery that made it possible, the biggest things in the book.”

For Cleave, while the idea of the eye transplant and cellular memory were the original acorns for A Killer Harvest, and a fascinating hook, they’re not what his tenth book is about.

“They set things in motion, and yes they’re an important part of the plot, but the book is about a teenager who feels isolated, it’s about a boy who misses his Dad who has died. It’s about a boy who learns what kind of man his Dad really was, the bad things in his family, about being bullied at school – all while being stalked by a killer wanting revenge.”

Vicious killers pepper the ten books that Cleave has published, but they’re not what elevate his writing above most serial killer thrillers out there. Along with his darkly hypnotic prose and powerful characterization, it’s that sense of underlying, universal themes that give added depth to his tense page-turners. In Blood Men, which won Cleave his first Ngaio Marsh Award back in 2011, a young man has to turn to his father, an imprisoned killer, for help when his world falls apart. How thin is the line between good people and bad acts?

Cleave’s eighth novel, the award-winning Five Minutes Alone (the fourth in his series starring troubled Christchurch investigator Theo Tate), features a criminal offering victims and families the oft-asked ‘five minutes alone’ with perpetrators. Where does justice lie?

Cleave, now 42, says he’s learned plenty since he first started out as a nineteen-year-old. He’s particularly grateful to the ‘brilliant’ editors he’s had over the years. “Like anything, except golf, writing is one of those things that improve with experience,” he says. “Back then I was basically just throwing ideas at a wall and seeing what stuck. Of course none of it stuck, but it was an important time for me because I got to figure out what I wanted to be as a writer. It would be six years before I ended up writing what would be my first book, and another five years of rewrites until that thing came out. Boy, what a learning curve!”

Nowadays, Cleave knows that fears of being unable to write another book are well-shared in the writing community. And that even if he struggles for months, a fresh idea that will have him excitedly tearing through another first draft can be just around the corner.

He’s already working on book eleven. “Next year’s book is different again from what I’ve written in the past, another standalone, but it’s too early to chat about now...”

Craig Sisterson is a lawyer turned writer from New Zealand, now living in London. He’s interviewed more than 180 crime writers, including onstage at festivals in Europe and Australasia, is a judge of the McIlvanney Prize, and founder of the Ngaio Marsh Awards. 

This feature was first published in the Fall 2017 issue of Mystery Scene magazine, and is published here online for the first time as part of the 2018 Ngaio Marsh Awards blog tour. A KILLER HARVEST is a finalist for Best Novel. 

No comments:

Post a Comment