With the London Games approaching, Chris Cleave would seem to have hit the trifecta. He’s British, his new novel about rivalry is set at the 2012 Games and it’s titled appropriately enough “Gold” (Simon & Schuster). So we couldn’t resist reaching out to the author of the acclaimed “Little Bee,” who lives with his wife and three children in Kingston-upon-Thames. Here’s what he had to say about the nature of rivalries, his timely tome and his faves, Tonya and Nancy.
“Gold,” which revolves around the relationship of two young women who are Olympic cyclists, is one of several recent fictional works about rivalry, including the plays “Magic Bird” and “Federer vs. Murray.” What drew you to the subject?
“The true, balanced rivalry is the rarest of human relationships and also the most fascinating to write about, as it has the quality of inspiring both parties to be better than they could have been on their own. Even at its most bitter, a sporting or workplace rivalry causes everyone to raise his game. And when the rivalry has run its natural course – when there are no more races to run, if you like – it often turns out that the rivals know each other better than anyone else. If the fragile friendship can survive the years of conflict, it has the potential to become a unique and beautiful bond. This is the line I take in the book — that razor edge between love and hate that characterizes the relationship between exceptional people who are trying to best each other.”
Tennis coach Nick Bollettieri has said that it’s not really possible for rivals to be friends, especially when there’s big money at stake. So is the notion of a friendly rivalry merely a literary conceit?
“Well, let’s examine the terms we’re using. Rivalry, in sport, is a specific thing: The game has rules and umpires, and the two available results of victory and defeat are binary and incontestable. Friendship, by contrast, is a catch-all term that incorporates a broad spectrum of the more lovely human relationships – from a nodding acquaintance at the grocery store at one end right through to the devotion of the Apostles at the other.
“Of course, there is overlap between friendship and rivalry, and what makes sport so compelling to write about as a novelist is the interplay between the formalized rules of rivalry and the anarchic codes of friendship. The very fact that we have to ask the question – Can rivals be friends? – shows why it’s such a great narrative to draw out. The best stories live at that ambiguous intersection between two sets of human rules, where the heart does not know which way to turn.”
One of the most fascinating aspects of actual friendly rivalries is the shift in dynamic when the one who was No. 2 or even No. 3 becomes top dog, as we’ve seen with Phelps/Lochte and Nadal/Djokovic. Do the shifting professional and personal fortunes in rivalries also figure in “Gold”?
“It’s certainly true that when the pupil becomes the master, the friendship must be re-evaluated. Think about the analogy in the workplace, where your assistant is abruptly promoted to be your boss. It would take a big heart and a period of adjustment for the friendship to survive a shock like that. In ‘Gold,’ Zoe finds it easy to like Kate, so long as Kate comes second. The novel steps up a gear when Kate beats Zoe for the first time in a national championship and suddenly the gloves come off.”
Can teammates be rivals or must they put aside rivalry for the good of the team?
“Teammates are always rivals first. Think of any elite-level team: All of the members have fought tooth and nail to make the team selection. That means they have battled each other for months or years, before suddenly ending up on a team together. They know each other – and each other’s weaknesses – very well, and they will continue to compete with each other to stay on the team and to shine on it, unless the coaching and motivation are superb.
“A great coach will make the members of a team feel that their positions are secure, which helps to sublimate the individual ambition in service of the team’s goal. And there are all kinds of things teams do in order to lock themselves into a collective mentality. All of them involve the invocation of a higher power. Some football teams pray together before kickoff. The New Zealand rugby team performs a traditional ritual dance. The Brazilian soccer team has been known to indulge in a little samba.”
Do you have a favorite sports rivalry?
“Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan in the run-up to the 1994 Games in Lillehammer. If I invented Tonya Harding in a novel, people would say she was implausible and soap operatic. But that’s what I love about writing characters who live at the extremes of life. They really are, quite often, stranger than fiction.”