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Chris Cleave's WWII Novel Draws From Family's Bravery


Writer Chris Cleave had a false start on the way to his latest novel. Intrigued by his grandfather's World War II experience on Malta, he set out to write a book about Randolph Churchill's visit to the besieged island. But then Cleave realized his own grandfather was much more interesting, so were his grandmothers, who were back in London coping with the Blitz. So in the end, Cleave's World War II novel, "Everyone Brave Is Forgiven," was inspired by his own family's wartime experiences. Chris Cleave joins us now to talk about the book. So good to have you with us.

CHRIS CLEAVE: Hello, Lynn. Thank you for having me.

NEARY: Did your grandparents talk to you much about their war experiences?

CLEAVE: The amazing thing is that they didn't, and not until I asked. I think it's typical of that generation, that they suffered a lot, they endured a lot, they did stuff that we would think of as incredibly brave and then they kept quiet about it, sometimes for 40 or 50 years. That was just part of their makeup. And they wouldn't talk until I went and asked them. And at that point, my grandfather opened up and told me some incredible stories about his life and what he'd experienced.

NEARY: Well, let's talk first about the character of Alistair then because he is based on your grandfather. For a large part of the book, he's in Malta. He also experiences Dunkirk and the retreat from France. These are both war experiences that were not all about glory at all, were they?

CLEAVE: No, not at all. And I think if you look at the British experience of World War II, it starts in 1939. And those whole first two years before America came into the war, the only thing Britain was doing was just holding on. They were grim times. And there were two great theaters of that war where endurance was really the only game in town. And that was the Blitz in London and the Siege of Malta.

NEARY: Let's talk about what happened on Malta because it may be a part of history a lot of people don't know. It really was not so much about fighting the enemy, as you said, as enduring. These guys were starving, weren't they?

CLEAVE: Yes. Malta was incredible. It was encircled for more than three years. No food could get in really. The people were starving. They were eating dogs, cats and pigeons. It was also the most bombed place on Earth before or since. And the conditions became really medieval.

So as a writer, that's an extraordinary place. You're looking at people who've been pushed way, way beyond the limits of ordinary human endurance. So how do they find that strength. And in the novel, one of the ways is the humor that they put into their conversations, the way they cheer each other up. And the second thing is this very fragile and beautiful bridge of letters between people who are serving and the people they love back home.

NEARY: And of course, the character of Mary, who is back in London, is based on both of your grandmothers. And the relationship that she has with Alistair is sort of thwarted by war because she's engaged when she meets him. They only meet very briefly, but there's a very intense attraction. These two had known each other for, like, an afternoon, I think (laughter). And yet they fell in love. And one of the ways they - that this love affair eventually worked out was through these letters, some of which didn't even get through.

CLEAVE: One of the bravest things that people in that generation did was to trust each other and was to trust themselves to fall in love. They fell in love sort of differently from the way we do. My real-life grandparents only met nine times before they were engaged. And so my grandmother's engagement ring had these nine tiny stones on it, one for each time. And that was one of the bravest things they did. It wasn't just that they were very stoical and that they endured so much. It was that they had faith in each other.

NEARY: Now, Mary is a character who was pressed into service as a teacher during the war. And through her story, we learn about a part of the war that I really had never heard before. And that is that some of the children who were sent away from London for safety out into the countryside, some of these children were essentially rejected by the people in the countryside. They were sent back to London. I had never heard that before.

CLEAVE: Yes, some of them were sent back. But more often, their parents called them back. The evacuation wasn't compulsory. Only about 80 percent of London's children were evacuated. And the cases where an evacuation was successful tended to be the cases where the countryside was more accepting of the children. And in the cases of certain disabled children and in the case of certain ethnic minorities, the countryside was less accepting. And so these people were less commonly evacuated.

NEARY: The book deals with the pervasive racism of that era, and some of your characters use very explicit racist language. Why did you choose to do that as a writer?

CLEAVE: I thought it was important to be realistic. And that is the sad and shameful aspect of how they spoke. And it would have been remiss of me not to use their language in the novel and not to talk about this stain on a time that we think of correctly as being populated by heroic people.

NEARY: You feel like you know your grandparents better now?

CLEAVE: I feel that I know the world they inhabited better. My admiration for them has deepened, and I feel that if I could talk to them now, the conversations I would have with them would be so different. It strikes me that the members of that generation have so much to tell us. And I think if we can go into listening mode in our families, they have a lot to tell us about how we can live now.

NEARY: Chris Cleave, his new book is "Everyone But The Brave Is Forgiven. Thanks so much, Chris. It was really a pleasure to talk to you.

CLEAVE: Thank you, Lynn. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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