Cleave’s book, Incendiary, is an international bestseller that was published in 20 countries. A movie based on the book and directed by Sharon Maguire (director of Bridget Jones’s Diary) will be released this year.
Cleave is a writer committed to the political relevance of art and to the potential of novels in particular to do political and ethical work. His talk, “Better Make ‘Em Laugh If You Want To Change Their Minds” will be held Monday, April 14 at 7 p.m. in Independence Hall Auditorium, 60 Upper College Road, Kingston. On Thursday, April 17 at 7 p.m., the author will read from his forthcoming book in Paff Auditorium, URI Feinstein Providence Campus, 80 Washington St., Providence. A book signing will be held in the main gallery following his reading. Cleave will entertain questions from the audience at both events, which are free and open to the public.
Cleave’s visit is a result of his participation in an online forum where he discussed his novel with URI students. The forum was part of an honors seminar last spring taught by Alain-Philippe Durand, associate professor of French, film media, and comparative literature and interim chair of URI’s Department of English. The honors course explored the 2001 terrorist attacks through a selection of post 9/11 literature and film, including Cleave’s novel. In his book, an adulterous woman’s husband and infant son are killed in a suicide bombing at a soccer match.
“Not only did Cleave write a compelling and prescient novel, but he graciously and thoughtfully responded to every point the students made,” says Naomi Mandel, URI associate professor of English and comparative literature. “Not all the students liked the book, but Cleave took their reservations as grist for an engaging dialogue that ranged from who has the “right” to write about an event like this, to the centrality of football (or soccer) to the British, to how a novel is structured differently from a screenplay, to why it is or is not important for a spouse to be faithful, to religious fundamentalism in Britain and abroad. Cleave is more than a notable up-and-coming writer; he is also funny, irreverent, thoughtful, and eager to talk with and learn from URI students.”
Mandel and Durand joined forces this semester to team teach an honors seminar, Novels of the Contemporary Extreme, which explores emerging global literature set in an often apocalyptic world invaded by popular culture, permeated with technology, and dominated by destruction. The two professors edited and wrote chapters for a book by the same name published by Continuum in 2006.
The seminar is URI’s spring honors colloquium. Demand for the fall honors colloquium is high, so a few years ago the Honors Program began to offer a spring colloquium –a smaller, more intense student-focused experience without the weekly public component offered in the fall, according to program director Ric McIntyre. There are 22 students enrolled in this spring’s seminar. In addition to the public lectures, Cleave will teach the honors class and lead writing workshops for undergraduate and graduate URI students.
“People seem to like Incendiary, and yet it has proved strangely divisive,” reports the author. “The Telegraph called it ‘triumphantly convincing’ while the Observer damned it as ‘an insult.’ The Washington Post hailed it as “a mesmerizing tour de force” but The New York Times found it ‘a simple case of tastelessness’. Three days later, The NewYork Times changed its mind and called the novel ‘stunning’.”
“For me Incendiary is none of those things. It’s a story about a woman who loses her son, with all the simple sadness you would expect. I tried to make my heroine funny and generous, because I believe people generally are. I tried to make her clever, because I thought she needed to be in order to cut through the mire of political correctness and tell her story with insight. I got her to write her story as a plea against violence, directly to Osama bin Laden, because for a mother who had lost her son I did not see what could be more natural.”
The release of the book proved that truth is indeed stranger than fiction and in this case much sadder. On July 7, 2005 –the morning after the launch party–three suicide bombers detonated their explosives in the London tube, a fourth bomber blew up a bus. More than 50 people died. Posters promoting Incendiary featuring a smoking London skyline and the headline: “WHAT IF” were ripped down, advertisements were cancelled, Cleave’s book tour was cancelled and the novel was temporarily withdrawn by many retailers.
Cleave’s next book, Little Bee, will be released in the United Kingdom this August and in the U.S. in January 2009 by Simon & Schuster.
“The book is a continuation of my conviction that novels can address serious contemporary issues – in this case, immigration – in a humorous and engaging way,” the author says.
He’s currently writing a novel about life in Britain during Tony Blair’s decade in power.