Paul Cleave – Interview and author portrait

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New Zealand native Paul Cleave is a born storyteller. Even as a young boy he always wrote stories and they never were the sort about Hobbits and unicorns…
He recalls his days in school, when he was fifteen, having written a story about Santa Claus. Cute, isn’t it? Only his Santa Claus was a drug addict who shot himself up with heroin. Paul’s kind of Santa eventually killed his elves and shredded them in a machine that made toys out of them! Although he got a good mark for that story his teacher was bewildered at how accurate Paul described the bad Santa binding off his arm before tapping his veins and injecting the drugs – wondering if Paul probably knew such things from home.
Paul loves the horror genre, books and movies, one of his favourite authors being Stephen King.
Though we both once agreed that our favourite writer is John Connolly. When I passed that fact on to John he just remarked: “Oh yeah, if you asked Paul to push either me or Stephen King off a cliff it might not look good for me!” which was typically John! When I told Paul about it we had a good laugh and he tried to squirm his way out of it!
You can tell that Paul is a true horror fan, his stories are the darkest psychological thrillers that you will come across in the literary field of crime even though he is often simply categorised as a crime writer.
And Paul Cleave has received a lot of praise from many fellow crime writers, among them John Connolly himself, Mark Billingham, Simon Kernick and many more.
Cleave admits to having probably done about 90 minutes research on Wikipedia for his books – all of his seven books so far!! And he never plots out a story. He just starts writing with an idea and follows where the story will lead him. This fact having bounced back at him only once so far when he realised he was coming towards the end of “Cemetary Lake” and he still didn’t have someone who he had revealed as the killer, so he had to go back through the story to figure out for himself who had done it.
Paul Cleave is a wonderful personality: charming, intelligent, pleasant, easy-going, warm and very funny and I haven’t even mentioned his stunning blue eyes yet! He is also an avid moggy lover. He even dedicated ‘The Laughterhouse’ to his four mogs: The Mogue, Haku, McT and Loony, though Paul told me that sadly Haku has vanished and hasn’t returned.
If you read his books you’ll find what you don’t see on the surface. Cleave is a thinker, deep, with a lot of soul and someone who has a lot of empathy and understanding for his fellow human beings, and it seems especially for people who have faced great tragedies or have been wronged in their lives.
That is one of the factors that make Paul’s books so very unique to me. Not only does he write with passion about all his characters, he feels a deep compassion towards all of his creations that actually seem to come alive while reading his books. There are such emotionally laden moments when I’ve broken into tears during reading and Cleave does this with such a force that it feels you’ve been hit on the head while he keeps any hint of pathos or kitsch banned completely.
A very interesting fact is that most villains in Paul’s books are only baddies at first appearance. You get to know them better and learn about what happened to them to make them become what they are now and you cannot help but empathise and start siding with them. Even more, you even don’t want them to get caught or die at the end of the book despite of what they’ve done.
Cleave’s alleged protagonists mostly haven’t always done the right thing either or have made terrible mistakes in their pasts that more or less have come to haunt them now.
That is one of the most compelling aspects of Cleave’s great storytelling, that the boundaries of black and white are merged into more than one nuance of grey.
If police procedural thrillers are your kind of thing then you might be disappointed by Paul’s books. He doesn’t fill his pages with endless ranting about that DNA database or how an autopsy is performed from A-Z but he is one of the very best on character development and he knows all about storytelling that grips you right from the start.
Paul’s books are as dark as thrillers ever get while being streaked with the most devious and blackest humour you will ever encounter!
Paul Cleave created his own little microverse filled with his wonderful characters, what I like to call the ‘PC Universe’!
Cleave’s first book, ‘The Cleaner’, is about Joe. Joe is a nice guy that works as a cleaner in the police headquarter in Christchurch. He occasionally spices up his Mom’s coffee with some rat poison and he also kills women when he feels like it. And what happened was that I kind of fell in love with Joe while reading the book. No one, except Thomas Harris before with Hannibal Lecter, managed to generate sympathy for a serial killer in me!!
One of the major characters in Paul’s books, Theo Tate, is introduced to the readers in ‘Cemetary Lake’. Tate is an ex-cop with a very tragic past. His little daughter has been killed in a tragic hit-and-run accident caused by a drunk driver that has also left his wife in a vegetative state. She is alive but she can’t do anything herself nor does she recognise Theo or anybody else, neither is she aware of what happened to their little girl. That tragedy unhinged Theo’s whole life. Tate has gone from cop to private detective who tries to make a living while paying for his wife’s accommodation at a care home.
It is really very intriguing to follow Theo and the decisions he makes and how his life kind of just happens to him and that tragedy has always a way of finding him. You suffer with Theo, you hang on with him and you always keep hoping that Cleave will maybe one day just give him a fucking break! Theo is also the major character in the follow up to ‘Cemetary Lake’, ‘Collecting Cooper’, and the most recent book with him is ‘The Laughterhouse’.
Detective Carl Schroder, an ex-colleague of Tate who is one of the few friends Tate has actually left. An upright and hard working cop who has seen too much crap and who is always overworked and stressed out, being afraid that his wife will eventually leave him one day because of his crazy working hours. Schroder is a constant character being more or less in most of Paul’s books.
Edward Hunter is the central character in ‘Blood Men’. As the son of a notorious serial killer life wasn’t always easy for Edward. He tried to leave the past behind and lives a happy life with his wife and his little girl. But sometimes all it takes is being at the wrong place at the wrong time and a botched bank robbery completely unhinges Edward’s world in a matter of seconds. For me ‘Blood Men’ is one of the most tragic books by Cleave and one of my favourite of his – erm, actually all of his books are my favourite ones!
Of course the main part in all of his books definitely is Christchurch, Cleave’s home turf. As much as he loves his hometown it seems he tries to keep all the tourists away from there as he paints a very grim picture of it. He gives it a gloomy atmosphere with lots of crime and the inevitable boy racers blocking the streets at night as a modern scourge of the police and the inhabitants of Christchurch alike.
What strikes me as odd is that Paul is a superstar in Germany and France already, at the book fair In Frankfurt in October his publisher had no more books left to sign on Sunday and even the display at the publisher’s booth was about to be completely emptied by his many fans over here.
Cleave’s first three books, ‘The Cleaner’, ‘The Killing Hour’ and ‘Cemetery Lake’, have experienced some editing by Cleave himself for a re-launch for the US/UK and his home market in New Zealand. A fun fact is that while he wrote ‘The Killing Hour’ first, when he was only 24, ‘The Cleaner’ was the first of his books to be published in 2006.
‘The Cleaner’ is out in the UK since December 11th and you can order it through Amazon and bookshops alike.
‘The Killing Hour’ was unavailable for a long time and so it is unfortunately the only one of Cleave’s books that I haven’t read yet and I am dying to finally be able to get my hands on it. It will be out in spring 2013.

You can read excerpts of Paul Cleave’s books on his official website:
www.paulcleave.co.nz
and you should follow him on his official Facebook page:
https://www.facebook.com/PaulCleave

Paul and his beloved frisbee (unfortunately the old one was fatally injured in a hotel room recently and now there is a new one) surely get around! And he personally answers to comments and mails that reach him though his FB page!
If you like strong and sympathetic characters in sombre and gripping stories do yourself a favour and treat yourself to Paul Cleave’s books – fucking hell, why not go and buy all of them right away!? You won’t regret it!

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And here comes the very funny interview! Thanks again, Paul, for letting me hit you with all those questions!

What everyday situation drives you mad?
Traffic, getting caught in traffic – and people.

Your favourite music and the best live concert you’ve ever been to?
I’ve got a lot of favourite music: The Doors, Pink Floyd, Springsteen, The Killers…
The best gig I’ve ever been to was David Bowie 2003, in Wellington, we had front row seats, and when the concert started everyone moved forward but the security guys kept everyone away from the front row and so we had all this free room – it was just brilliant!

Colours you’d never wear?
Hmmm….black! (Cleave says that to annoy the fuck out of his friend, German thriller author Wulf Dorn. Dorn, who is sitting right next to us during the interview, dressed all in black, laughs out loud hearing that comment) It just makes you look gay! (Cleave grins like the Cheshire cat) I don’t think there are many actually. I even have a pink t-shirt.

Normally my next question would be “What is currently in your fridge?”
Two of my cats
Oh, I thought you’d rather say…
…a severed head or body parts?
Exactly!

Three books that you read that made you want to become an author?
The Bible….No, it would be Killing Floor by Lee Child, Needful Things, then it would probably be another Stephen King novel.

It’s movie night – which films do you choose to watch with your friends?
The Thing – my favourite movie! I’d watch something like Psycho or Alien and Bridges of Madison County…
Yeah, or The Horse Whisperer…
(grins) Also Silence of the Lambs and probably a Bond movie

Your idea of a perfect holiday?
No people!

Favourite literary or movie villain?
I like Goldfinger, Buffalo Bill and Norman Bates
Buffalo Bill, you mean the guy that killed all the Native Americans? (bear in mind he just named Silence of the Lambs as one of his favourite movies before!)
No, no, no, Silence of the Lambs, the serial killer!
I sigh and turn to Wulf Dorn pointing towards Cleave “He still doesn’t get my irony” and Cleave realises he just ran into a well set trap of mine…
Oh, that was very mean!

Your favourite Hitchcock movie?
Psycho, definitely. I’ve seen quite a lot of them but Psycho is a movie that I wish I could watch again without knowing how it goes, that’d be very cool!

That was the part of the general interview questions, now on to the questions about Paul Cleave’s work.

The ‘villains’ in your books like Caleb Cole in the recent “Slaughterhouse” or Adrian in “Collecting Cooper” and of course Joe and Melissa X, they are people who kill and do a lot of wrong but somehow as a reader you can never bring yourself to judge them just for that and you never want them to get caught or held responsible…was that always a conscious thing you wanted to do when you started writing?
Yes!
Oh come on, squeeze a little more out of yourself!
Yes I was (grins)…No, absolutely I tried to make them all sympathetic. I tried to give them character trades, like Joe, he’s got the goldfish, the crazy mum, these are all things we can relate to and make them likeable. They all have justifiable reasons.  They all do things some of us would do or would like to do given their situations. Not so much like Adrian or Joe, but certainly like in “Blood Men” or “The Laughterhouse”. You sympathise with the guys, they’ve gone through so much loss and you could snap in the same way or make the same kind of decisions.  I always try to make the bad guys sympathetic and likeable. It’s really important and I think it makes it more unique compared to other novels where you don’t like the bad guy right away that is too evil. I think it’s a little more conflicting for the reader if they do like the bad guy. Also you can tend to get away with more comedy as the good guys have little funny things happening to them. It is definitely a conscious decision.

In your books you have many people that suffer from major psychological issues like Adrian or Edward who thinks he hears voices and thinks he’s inherited the killer gene from his dad. Are you doing a lot of research on that?
No, I don’t.  It was like 10 minutes on Wikipedia and I just made the rest up. I don’t want research to get in the way of a good story in case the facts aren’t right. (grins)

You already admitted to not doing a lot of research, how organised are you as a writer? Are you making spreadsheets?
I never plan out a book, I just have a little notebook where I put things down when I think of something for the future, but I just start writing and see how it goes.

For readers that visit New Zealand and especially Christchurch do you have any secret tips?
Don’t come!
Don’t come?
Yeah, that’s my secret tip!
Come on, you love that city! Well, maybe except the boy racers…
Boy racers were outlawed about a year ago, if you drive down the same road repeatedly you can now be arrested and your car can be taken away from you, so you don’t have to worry about these guys anymore!

Come on, give me like two or three places in Christchurch you really like!
There is this place called Bottle Lake Forest Park, they have a horse track, mountain bike tracks, running tracks and the forest leads to a beautiful beach.
There is this outlook on the way between Sumner and Taylors Mistake on a hill and it looks out over the ocean and parts of the city. That is really quite a special place as well!
If you come to Christchurch you need to go to Hanmer Springs, which is about an hour and fifteen north of the city, it’s got hot pools and a little village surrounded by mountains and it’s absolutely beautiful!

If you’d have to advertise your books to readers that haven’t read any of your work yet what would you tell them?
They’re awesome!  (devilish grin!) I’d say that if you don’t like dark fiction don’t buy them, if you like dark fiction you’ll love them.

Oh, and this is a question of special interest to me! How accurate was your research regarding this one special scene in “The Cleaner” which caused even me as a woman phantom pain when Joe gets one of his testicles crushed…
Well, my neighbour asked “How do you know that?” and I said “It’s from experience!” and she thought I was serious and we were like texting and she said “I am very sorry and I feel very honoured that you shared this with me!” It was all very funny!

On your website I read that you (used to?) renovate property. Do you still have time to do that? Did you do that as a job before your books became so extremely successful?
Yup – I used to renovate property. I’d buy a house, live in it for six months or a year or a few years, fix it up, sell it, then repeat. I can actually do a lot – I can paint inside and out, paint a roof, build walls, build a fence, retile floors and walls, rip out kitchens and put in new ones, plumbing, replace windows, wire in new light fittings – only thing I would never do is put down new carpet – for that you need an expert. I don’t do that stuff anymore because the property market crashed and I’d lose money if I tried that now – but I will have to work on my own house soon as it got damaged a little in the earthquake.

You spend your time divided between London and Christchurch. Is it complicated to organise your life in two different countries or do you feel it is just part of the busy life of an author?
It is difficult. Thankfully I can write in either country. But the travel is tough – immigration is tough – but I do like the endless summer…

As a native of Christchurch did your life change in any way after the devastating earthquakes?
My life changed a little, but the books won’t change – for now the books don’t have earthquakes in them. All our lives changed that day last year – and walking through town reflects that. It’s so different now – so many buildings have gone, the entire landscape of the city has changed. And we’re all nervous there’s going to be more. I’m very aware now of where my furniture is, how secure it is, what can fall over or fall off walls and hurt people.

There are many characters that re-appear in your novels, sometimes playing a major part, sometimes just as cameos, how much do you get attached to them and how hard is it for you to decide if someone should die?
I do get quite attached to them. Which makes it hard to kill them off. But I am in the process of working on that – some characters will start to disappear soon…

What was the funniest and/or most awkward thing that ever happened to you meeting a fan?
Hmm… not too much really. Though in Lyon last year people kept coming up to me to say how much they loved my books, asked me to sign them, then pulled out books written by ‘Tim Willocks’. That’s awkward…

How does it feel for you as an author that your novels have become so successful?
Nice.

What novels have you read lately that you would recommend to others?
I started reading Sebastian Fitzek’s books – man, he’s good. Super good.
Stephen King’s JFK time travel novel is great, and his son’s book ‘Horns’ is brilliant, too.
I loved R.J Ellory’s ‘Bad Signs’. That was simply an amazing book.

You are an avid moggy lover! Have you always been a cat person or did it happen by accident like it happened to your character Joe in ‘The Cleaner’? Judging by your porn name ‘Fluffy Leighton’ your first cat’s name was Fluffy?
We’ve always been a cat family. I don’t mean we were raised by cats – or ate them – I just mean growing up as a kid we always had a family cat. And yes – the first one was called Fluffy. I’ll probably always have them, too.

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