Paul Cleave is a relative newcomer to United States’ audiences. Although his first book was published in 2006 and sold half-a-million copies, his books were not marketed in US markets until 2010. But with 10 novels now translated into almost 20 languages, Cleave has found a world-wide market for his work. His novels are regarded as thrillers, but the thrills are often punctuated by dark humor. In his latest novel, “Killer Harvest,” he adds a dash of science fiction, exploring the consequences of a transplant gone wrong.
This article was published in the Houston Chronicle on August 6, 2017.
Q: Which do you hear more often: “That was the darkest book I’ve ever read” or “That was a lot funnier than I expected”?
A: That’s tough, actually. People say, “I laughed so hard, but then I felt bad about laughing!” That’s mostly what I hear, but then you go somewhere like France, and you ask, “Did you find it funny?” And they say, “No, it’s just dark.” It’s really awkward.
Q: Tell us about “Killer Harvest.”
A: I like to explore the theme of justice, and this book is about that. It’s about a boy who has been blind for 15 years, but who gains the ability to see after undergoing a transplant. It isolates him at a time when he is also dealing with the death of his father. He was going to a school for the blind, but now he can see. His classmates no longer associate with him. He goes to a new school, but people think he’s a freak, one of the first to undergo this new kind of transplant. He’s caught between these two worlds, and while he is dealing with these issues, he begins to learn that his father, who was a police officer, did some rather dodgy things. And then I throw a serial killer into the mix.
Q: This novel has a science-fiction element to it. Did you worry about readers’ suspension of disbelief?
A: Yes. When I began it, I thought it might be a young-adult novel. But as I began writing, I realized I wasn’t going down that road. The novel starts down the road of science fiction, but I wanted to make the novel more emotional, more character-driven, more about the people, and more about justice. I wanted to put readers in the shoes of this young character, who feels lost in the world in which he is seeing for the first time.
Q: Did you do research on formerly blind people who gained the ability to see?
A: Not a lot. I discussed it with people, but for me, it was mostly a matter of reflecting on it. When we dream, we can use imagery of what we’ve seen, but when you are blind and you’ve never seen anything in your life, what are you picturing? I also skated over the transplant, because that technology doesn’t exist. But there are aspects that are accurate. For example, I am blind in one eye, so in a way I am writing what I know.
Q: Some of the characters’ names in the novel seem to be significant. Did you choose with a historical or cultural significance?
A: Not really. I often use a random name generator. Or, I will use names from posters in my room. Sometimes you choose a name, and you know that it’s just not right, so you treat it as a placeholder.
Q: One of the names in the book is Boris, and I thought of Boris Karloff, particularly in the context of this novel.
A: Ah, yes, one of the posters in my room is for the movie “Frankenstein.” I looked up from my desk and looked at it, and I was like, “Yeah, Boris, that’s it!” That seemed to fit, but for the most part, I use a generator, and I try to have names that can be shortened. This allows certain characters to call others by nicknames and allows for different levels of intimacy.
Q: Is there a fully honest police officer in any of your novels?
A: There was. The book “The Cleaner” features Carl Schroeder, who is pure and at the top of his game in that novel. But in later books, I threw as much as I could at Schroeder, and he broke. He was a purely honest officer, and I took that from him. More recently, I’ve introduced Officer Kent, and she is purely honest, and I am going to keep her that way.
Q: You don’t like to outline and, instead, you let the characters kind of roam. What are the pros and cons of that method?
A: In “On Writing,” Stephen King said that if he doesn’t know where a book will go, then the reader won’t either, and I think that is probably the biggest advantage. The disadvantage is you can get halfway through writing the novel and not know how to wrap it up! I have to put it aside, find where it went wrong, and pick it up from there and take it down a different path. But I’ve had books where I was 90 percent through, and I didn’t know who the villain was.
Q: Audio books have become a big part of the market, and that can be tricky. You need a narrator who is a New Zealander, but someone who can be fully understood by the rest of the English-speaking world.
A: I am glad you can understand me, because we (New Zealanders) all sound like we were born on a farm. I know how bad the New Zealand accent is. When I listened to the demo tapes for the audio books, I was cringing. It was awful. They were all Americans or British voice actors trying to do a New Zealand accent, and they all sounded like Crocodile Dundee. So I called my publisher and said, “Can’t you just find a British voice actor who sounds British?” And that’s what we did.