The story behind 'Incendiary'

I wrote a book that Newsweek called “arguably the strangest epistolary novel ever written.” The novel itself is eerie enough, and the grotesque coincidence of its publication made it even stranger.

I drafted Incendiary during six insomniac weeks in the spring of 2004, when my first child was six months old and I looked with horror at the world he was growing up into. This was the time of the train bombings in Madrid, and the snickering torturers at the Abu Ghraib prison. The airwaves were filled with body counts and brutish ideologies, and I needed to write something to remind myself of the simple human cost of this folly. And I think I wanted my son, when he was older, to understand something of the febrile nature of the times he was born into.

I wrote about a terrorist bomb in London, because London is my city, and I wrote about the death of a child, because we all love our children. But when it was finished I suspected that Incendiary was too provocative, too vernacular, too sexually charged, and just too downright weird to be published.

In fact, against the odds and thanks to the courage of a number of journalists and readers who have been unswerving in their support, Incendiary has become an international bestseller. It is published in 20 countries. I get email in languages I can’t even identify. People seem to like the book, and yet it has proved strangely divisive. 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 New York Times called the novel “stunning in its portrayal of a city living with terror”).

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.

I’m told the excitement around the publication of Incendiary was unusual for a first novel. It was certainly exciting for me. For a week beginning on July 1st, 2005, advertisements were taken out in magazines, reviews appeared in newspapers around the world, and hundreds of posters went up on the London Underground featuring the smoking London skyline and the headline: “WHAT IF?” (I cringe to remember it. My god – really – what were we thinking?) Time Out proclaimed “Incendiary could well be this summer’s Piz Buin-spattered bestseller.”

At the launch party, on the evening of 6th July 2005, all my friends showed up. I got to bed at 4.00 am on the morning of the 7th. At 8.00 am I walked my son to his nursery, and at 8.50 am three suicide bombers detonated their devices in the London Underground. One hour later the fourth bomber hit the bus in Tavistock Square. More than fifty people died.

So, on my novel’s publication day something fearful happened in my city, something that suddenly made fiction unimportant. Regarding the attacks I can say nothing that the families of the victims haven’t already said – much more eloquently and poignantly than I ever could – because it is their story. Reality is a place where writers of fiction have no right to go, and the dead were real people.

What use is there in fiction in times like these? In the days after 7th July 2005, as the posters for Incendiary were hastily pulled down, the advertisements cancelled, my book tour shelved, and the novel temporarily withdrawn from sale by many UK retailers, I didn’t have an answer.

Well, now the book is back and so am I. I started writing again, after a few rather dark months when I swore off the habit. I have a new novel coming out this summer. I have found a simple and personal answer to my “what is the use?” question and it is this: I love fiction. I love writing, because it helps me think. And I love reading, because it lets me see how other people think. I believe that the good-humoured and effortful struggle to understand one another’s lives is at worst a good way to pass long journeys, and at best an antidote to violence.

Incidentally, I don’t hold out any such grand claims for Incendiary. I guess it will do very little one way or the other for world peace. As for the questions I’m always asked – do I think Osama will read it? And do I think it will change his mind? – my answers are, sadly, no and no. Instead I’m simply proud of Incendiary because I think my heroine is riotous and unforgettable, and if you read it I hope you’ll like her too.

79 Comments

  1. Hi, Chris. I’ve just read through Incendiary. I come from China. I am a fan of Arsenal. Terror attacks seem far from us. But the pain and sorrow this mother went through still touched me. You at first I though this must be an inspiring story. But at last every character invovled suffered and couldn’t pull themselves together. I am so heartbroken about this. I have been to London and loved this city immediately. I can’t imagine what the city will be like with your description. Or is that the real London after the terror attacka in 2005? Did the anthortities take meatures like curfew?

  2. Really thought The other Hand was a wonderful book and as a second I thouht Incendiary was an inspired story.
    When i was half way through Incendiary i caught the first part of the film which I subsequently saw in its entirety once I had finished the book.
    What sort of participation did you have in the writing of the film?
    I came away with a very funny feeling after the film. It’s a completely different stpry.Even allowing for the constraints of time and storyline(s), I was surprised and did not come away with the….right feeling.It was a bit like Titanic without the ship sinking.
    I would be very interested to hear your thoughts.
    Can’t wait for the next.

  3. I just finished reading Incendiary. After the first few pages, I couldn’t put it down. Its so original, funny, sad…everything. You definately succeeded in doing what you set out to do with the characters. I can’t wait to read more of your books.

  4. Hi Chris,
    I am hosting our recently formed book group and having loved The Other Hand, I suggested we read Incendiary. I am half way through it and really enjoying it, the death of Osama bin laden on May day has proved slightly eerie in relation to the book. I wondered if you have any questions to engage discussion at our meeting next week? I am struggling to find any through google.
    Your help would be appreciated.
    Warm Regards, Nicola

  5. Hi Chris (and Nicola),

    I am also in the middle of Incendiary. It’s been awhile since I have really thought about Osama Bin Laden. And yet for the past week I have read his name every night before going to bed. And then I wake up this morning, and…

    I am looking forward to Chris’ thoughts.

    Doug

  6. I too just finished Inendiary on May 2, 2011 I would have finished it today, regardless of world events, as I had 30 pages to go last night. (I had not heard of Osama Bin Ladin’s death until this morning). Interesting timing! As a widow (died suddenly of heart problems)…you captured the grief and post traumatic stress a person goes through. Brilliant novel. Thank you

  7. I reed Incendiary a few weeks ago. It was chosen by a man in my book group. I read it as a book about a mother’s grief. My son was 29 years, 11 months and 21 days when he died 9 years ago. I had a lot of proplems with the majority of the book but one or two passages about grief I did recognise. I am sure the other members of my group will love it. I hated it, but maybe that is bcause I approached it from a different angle. Did you ever contact The Compassionate Friends in your research? I just wondered as they do amazing work in helping us become functioning people who still experience great joy in life.

  8. This book is really wonderful.But ı wonder whether London is like you wrote.Generally, London is told as a wonderful place.I understood that the English is very good in advertising. Anyway, ı really wonder if this story is real or not.the incident was happened??:)

  9. As I sit here and watch the anarchy and riots in London, I think of Chris Cleave’s book and the darkness and hopelessness it permeates and generates for its readers –
    ‘They’ say Osama is dead and this current aggression and hopelessness is from a young indigenous people with nothing to lose – one is fiction and one is reality – or is ti?

  10. I’ve just read Incendiary for my book club, I’ve yet to hear what the others will say but I thought it was extremely powerful in many ways, shocking too. The heroine was extremely likeable and I found myself rooting for her all the way. Having witnessed the riots in London and Birmingham on tv it proves how quickly law and order disappears. I think that’s what I found so disturbing about your novel and your view that the working classes are more expendable than the middle. We will certainly have plenty to talk about.

  11. Hello Chris, I’m a 16 years old girl who lives in Italy.
    I read your book in march and now I’m reading it again; I loved the story, everything was so catchy and I couldn’t stop reading at night. Every day, I was with your book in my hand, and page after page I started thinking that even the city I love the most isn’t perfect.
    I wake up every morning and think ‘what is going to happen today?’
    Yes, what is going to happen today? You don’t know, you just have to live every single second of your life, as a Latin author would say, ‘carpe diem’.
    I’d been thinking ‘what if I go to London and something happen?’, but then I said to myself that everything can happen even if your doing nothing in a small town.
    I read the book because it’s about the city I love and now, thanks to you I love it even more.
    As you can see, I think a lot but it’s one of the best thing a person can do.

  12. Hi Giulia – I’m thrilled you enjoyed ‘Incendiary’ – thank you for your message. (Did you read it in English or Italian?) It’s great that you like London – it is a wonderful city and I don’t think I could ever leave it!

  13. Hi Chris! I am from a small town in Alabama (I’m saying this so you may have some kind of understanding of my surroundings and as an American). I absolutely loved Indendiary and Little Bee. I am an English major with hopes of teaching modern literature one day. I plan to make your novels a huge part of my class. I call both of your novels “thinking books” because they really make the reader think and question and learn and submit themselves to the novel. Seeing the world from the point of view of a Londoner or widow or mother or refugee allows the reader to learn. I think your novels can definitely help the evils of the world (even if only by changing one readers opinion of a person/idea). I love how you have made London a character with a voice. I think you are a fabulous writer. You have truly inspired me to put my pen to paper. Thank you so much for sharing your mind with the world!

  14. Hi Eden – I’m so glad you like my novels, & I’m honoured that you’re going to use them to teach. Honestly, there’s nothing that makes me happier as a writer than to hear that people find my stuff useful. Thanks & all good wishes – Chris

  15. Me again

    I was looking for a book to read whilst commuting from Kent to Canary Wharf and a collegue of mine gave me “Incendairy” I was captured from the first page and could not put it down. I related to the heroine so much, as in her take on life, her humour, her courage and strength her compassion for others and how she dealt with their betrayal of her. No frills just tell it like it is.

    I too see the world in a similar way and despair at how “The Big Boys” carry on. I feel powerless to stop all the evil in this world so I go about my business daily trying to make a difference for my family and friends. To have a reason for my existence and make life worthwhile. It all starts with Religion and then the world goes crazy. Live and let live is my motto and if every one thought along those lines there would be no wars. They should let people believe in which ever God they want to and stop jumping up and down saying my Gods better than yours.

    You have shown me how terrorism devastates lives long after the initial blast. The shockwaves go on for ever. You have also shown me how, through the eyes of Terence Butcher and our heroines husband the responsibility of our safety can be felt and how our Security Forces view the world, their day at work can be a living hell in comparison to mine. My heart goes out to all those who have suffered and I applaude their courage for continuing to live in the face of such pain.

    I think of all the lost/damaged souls out there from all walks of life and wish I could make it all better. But I cant change things on my own we all need to have an input. Maybe one day they will all come to their senses and make friends or just leave well alone – theres room for all of us here – its not difficult to get on – its simple xxxxx

  16. Hi Debbie – thank you very much for reading ‘Incendiary’ and for giving so much thought to it. I’m like you – I despair at the way we are led. I think all we can do, as you say, is to try to act well in our own lives and hope that our higher-ups will be influenced by our collective example.

  17. Hi,
    LITTLE BEE is one of the finest novels that i have ever read. I loved the way you made the reader think about each character’s morality. I loved that I was forced to ask myself ‘what would I have done in this character’s place’? Personally, I thought that the title ON THE OTHER HAND worked better as you were always asking yourself – although this character did thid, on the other hand he/she also did that.
    As for INCENDIARY, I am a widow, have had a house fire 10 weeks after moving into a brand new home (not my fault) and so I can relate to the some of the issues and reactions in the book. I love the fact that you did not give the main character a name, but am having a hard time understanding the overall structure of dividing the book into seasons. I know that there must be a connection, but I haven’t found it yet. Can you help? Please keep on writing!!!

  18. February 21, 2012

    Dear Chris,

    I am an ordinary bloke (an expression that might be used in your fine country or origin) living in Chicago who likes to read.

    December (past) my sister gifted me with your book: Little Bee, which really tickled my fancy. The way in which you crafted the story was most intriguing. It reminded me of a beautifully sung duet, where two dissimilar voices come together to create one melodious song; a song that one wants to continue to listen to over and over again. “The song” told by the two women in Little Bee is one I’ve shared over and over again.

    At the end of the book Little Bee, I discovered an advert for Incendiary, which I just finished reading. WOW! While I am not a literary critic or I educated in all the fineries of writing, I would like to posit a few thoughts about the story.

    I thought your use of the epistolary from was brilliant, a nice change of reading pace. Another stylistic change of pace you employee, that I find refreshing, is lack of use of quotation marks. I like your style of — instead of “”.

    A couple personal observations about the heroine of Incendiary:
    She lives with her demons. She does not hide them. It seems to me, that many of us spend a great deal of energy trying to run from or hide our demons. Hers are right out there, unabashedly for all to see as she struggles to make sense of them. What guts!
    I found her to be a kind woman. The foundation of her character does not want to give back (to anyone) the hate which has been measured on her life.
    A first example of this (from the story) that I will site is when she, Terrance and Jasper are in the pub, and Jasper is untowardly to her. Terrance offers her a choice that he (Terrance) can make this, “… the worst night of that man’s life.” She chooses NOT to destroy another human being—this requires strength and wholeness on the part of any person, especially one who struggles with as much as she.
    The second example of her strength shines forth at the end of the story. She’s in rage but once gain she chooses not to destroy another human being or herself.

    I believe that she offers us (the readers) hope. She is an example of the ability to live through tragedy, to live with one’s demons and struggles; to be able to choose life rather than destruction. This takes real strength of character. She grapples not only with her own short comings, but those of the country in which she lives complicated by those imposed on her society by a foreign country and still she chooses life. She may not always choose well yet she chooses not to destroy others.

    Thank you so much for the book and its many messages. I shall look for your other two books to read.

    Sincerely yours,

    Thomas J. Samolinski

  19. Yes a good read for a change Chris! The other hand left you in the lurch at the end….will there be a sequal?
    Will now get a copy of ” Incendiary” to read and digest!
    Thanks again for a good novel.

  20. Hi Chris, posted on FB too as can’t get into Twitter due to technical stupidity on my part. You might remember I chose Incendiary to be my book when I was on Dubai Eye this week as the book champion. I was asked to talk about a book that had profoundly affected me and incendiary was my choice. It went well I think although I did chat on for about 45 minutes with not much structure other than my few notes. I’m hoping that the people who listened will be inspired to read about May Day and the girl and her boy. If I can get a podcast I’ll post it through to you for entertainment. Xx

  21. Hi Sarah – thank you very much for championing ‘Incendiary’ on Dubai Eye. I appreciate that hugely. Would be interested to listen if they do podcast it.

  22. Hi Chris,

    I have read Incendiary as part of my degree, the module is called Post 9/11 Literature and Terrorism and your book was the greatest we read. I was unable to put it down and subsequently structured my second 3,000 word essay around it, this meant re-reading and I got even more from it, as a mother, it touched me in a way that I could fully understand or at least attempt to understand the emotions she went through.

    My essay was based on the idea of class and I contrasted it with another English post 9/11 novel called Saturday by Ian McEwan which worked really well. I played with the idea of Social Darwinism and the nature/nature debate.

    Thank you for allowing me to have Incendiary in my life and have the chance to write academically about it. Kellie.

  23. Hi Kellie – thank you for writing about ‘Incendiary’ – I’m glad the book meant something to you. I like Ian McEwan’s work very much and I doubt that mine compares very favorably to it, but I’m still honored that you would talk about both books in the same essay.

  24. Thank you and I hate you .

    I have been walking around my house with your book in my hand afraid to keep reading it and fearful that I won’t have the guts to finish it.

    Thank you ……….. and I hope you understand the ‘hate’ part.(in case it wasn’t clear I do not hate you)

    Mark

    PS… best wishes for your charity ride. We do similar here in Canada. I personally jog and ride for various alzhimers causes . (or i think i do ?) grin

  25. Hi Mark – thank you! Best comment I’ve had on here for a while :)

  26. Hi Chris

    What a magnificent find!!! Bought this book a few hours ago and have not been able to put it down. Mesmerizing characters and plot. Hooked :D

  27. Greetings from Akron, Ohio Chris!
    I became a fan of your work after reading Little Bee, immediately returning to the book store to purchase Incendiary. I laid in my bed with my cat and devoured the book (along with a bag of cheetos), shedding tears and reading a ‘good book’. Now, a year and a half later, I picked it up for a second read (unable to just pop on over to the bookstore and spend money on a new one, with formula and diapers and whatnot to buy), and it has both broken and warmed itself an unnerving little spot in my heart forever. I’m hugging and kissing my beautiful baby girl just a little more fervently this afternoon. Keep’em coming!

  28. I did not know there was a book, I just finished seeing the movie on Netflix, I have never heard of it. This movie was so good, I will have to find a copy of the book perhaps at Barnes and Noble or Amazon.

    This movie fell into my hands on accident. I like Michelle Williams so that is why I watched it., I sobbed my head off, I could see and feel her pain. She should have gotten an award for her role in that movie, she was awesome.

    You’re writing is awesome, I hope you received an award as well, my favorite 2 lines in the movie are: Grief is like an animal with a life of its own and we are at it’s
    mercy, or that grief is like a quiet rain that never stops. These two sentences alone made me watch the movie night after night, so I can only imagine how compelling the book is. I must get it! Like someone said earlier, will there be a part 2 ??? I hope so.
    Thanks,
    Heather

    March 5, 2013

  29. Hi Heather, thank you for watching the movie. I agree with you about the performance Michelle Williams gave – it was superb, and very moving. If you read the novel, I hope you will enjoy that too. It’s quite different from the movie – a little weirder, maybe – so I’d be interested to know what you think. Thanks again for your kind words. Chris.

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