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Inside the mind of crime writer Paul Cleave

Article originally published in 2009

Paul Cleave. Photo/Guy Frederick.

The dark underbelly of Christchurch is flayed open in Paul Cleave’s grisly serial-killer thrillers. In the first in-depth profile written about one of our most successful international authors, Joanna Wane paid a visit to the “Cleave universe”.

You know you’re working in a pretty sick industry when the highest praise you could get from a fellow professional is that what you wrote made him vomit.

Jack Heath, a hot young Australian writer, was on a plane reading Paul Cleave’s debut novel The Cleaner when he fainted. “I awoke seeing stars, hearing a ringing in my ears, and too dizzy to speak or move.”

It was when he came to and remembered exactly what had made him pass out in the first place – a deserted park at dawn, a pair of pliers and a left testicle flattened like road kill – that he threw up.

“I would not normally describe myself as squeamish,” he wrote in an email that still counts as one of Cleave’s favourite fan letters. “It has been a long time since something horrified me so much that I was knocked out by it, and I have never been so mortified that I felt the urge to vomit upon waking.

“Your ability to make me identify with the protagonist so much that I actually felt his pain was what impressed me most. If you ever need an advance quote, something like, ‘Made me vomit – seriously, it’s that good,’ let me know.”

Cleave responded by sending Heath an airsick bag and a signed copy of his book to replace the puke-spattered one he’d left on the plane.

If it had been a woman devouring that graphically depicted scene, she may have felt more inclined to cheer. (Joe, a serial rapist and killer known as the Christchurch Carver, is de-knackered by a potential victim who turns out to be as seriously twisted as he is.) Unless she actually lived in the Garden City. Then she might have decided to pack up and leave.

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Christchurch itself is the most enduring character in Cleave’s books as the population is killed off at breathtaking pace. A bleak backdrop to each subtly interconnected story, the city is depicted as a decaying, forsaken place where rundown neighbourhoods are spreading like a virus and the Avon is full of ducks, beer cans and Friday night’s urine. Even the lushness of its gardens is some­how complicit. “You can’t go there at night without getting stabbed or shot and having your body helping them to grow,” narrates Joe, in The Cleaner.

Cleave, 34, knows his territory. A homeboy who’s spent his whole life in the flatlands, he lives just a couple of blocks from his parents, who are still in the same modest house they moved into on Paul’s fifth birth­day. (The younger of their two sons, he pops round to mow their lawns and spends every Sunday with his dad playing snooker at the Riccarton Club.)

With international sales of his first three books expected to reach the half-million mark by the end of this year, it’s one way of putting Christchurch on the map. The only reason he hasn’t been lynched by a mob of outraged Cantabrians is that apart from family and friends, only a handful have read anything he’s written – although one local girl did email his website to ask him out on a date.

Since its release three years ago, The Cleaner has sold barely 2000 copies in New Zealand, although that’s considered a reasonable take in such a small market. Overseas, when sales were at their peak, it was selling that many a day. In Germany, where the crime-fiction genre is something of a national obsession, the book went straight to number two on Amazon’s bestseller list – holding its place for several weeks before being ousted by a new Harry Potter.

Cleave has a three-book contract in Ger­many – his third, Cemetery Lake, which comes
out there in October, has already pre-sold 25,000 copies – and so far he’s been signed in Australia, the UK, France, Poland, the Czech Republic, Russia and Japan. In Australia, The Cleaner made the shortlist for the Ned Kelly Award for Best Fiction. But when Random House New Zealand talent-spotted him back in 2005, it was Cleave’s first pay cheque in almost six years.

Local writers submit about 600 unsolic­ited manuscripts to Random House every year; only half a per cent make it into print. Last year, fiction publisher Harriet Allan released three new writers. This year she published only one. But the opening two pages of The Cleaner had her hooked.

“That first chapter was so scary I had to put [the manuscript] away for a week before I could go back to it,” she recalls. “When something does that to you, it’s powerful writing. It immediately stops being words on a page and becomes real.”

That you might need to be some kind of psycho to produce such chilling work did cross her mind, so she arranged to meet her new protégé with a degree of apprehension. He wasn’t what she expected. “Paul is so surprising. You don’t think this really sweet, lovely young chap could write about serial killers and get inside their heads. There’s something very disarming about him. It’s his sense of humour you have to watch out for. It’s wicked.”

The language of murder (from left): Cemetery Lake (German edition), The Cleaner (in Japanese and Russian), and a sneak preview of Cleave’s new book, Blood Men.
Do goldfish bleed? Some fish from the pet shop and five minutes with a cheese grater gave Cleave the an­swer to that. At least that’s what he told the audience at the Christchurch Writers Festival last Sep­tember, explaining the research he’d done for a scene where Joe’s goldfish are mauled to death by a cat. “There was absolute silence. Then I said, ‘No, that’s not true... Actually it took 10 minutes.’” 

Picture the nervous laughter and uncom­fortable shifting in seats; they’re probably still not sure whether he was joking or not.

If only I’d called Harriet Allan before I went to Christchurch. Cleave and I are sitting in sunshine at a picnic table in his suburban backyard talking about the dark territory he navigates when I ask him how a normal guy could have such a warped imagination. He runs one hand through cropped black hair, and the blue eyes that are his most startling feature cloud with emotion. “Dad was an alcoholic; he used to beat us,” he says, quietly. “He’s in jail now...”

Poor bugger, I think. But hang on a min­ute. I’d phoned his father at home just that morning and he sounded like a perfectly nice man.

I later discover Cleave and his girlfriend had talked about arranging her bloodied body in the living room and leaving the front door ajar so I’d come knocking and stumble across a murder scene. (For the record, his dad Ray takes credit for the black sense of humour that leavens the gruesome nature of the books: “A lot of it comes from me.”)

A small, geeky kid who wore glasses and was a “bit of a ghost” at high school, Cleave failed sixth-form English and couldn’t see the point of Macbeth. But he loved horror movies and Stephen King. When he was 15, he wrote a story about Santa Claus shooting up heroin at the North Pole, where elves were put into a grinder and came out as ponies and racing cars. “Paul needs to learn that there is a time and place for his style of writing,” the teacher wrote in his school report. “This isn’t it.”

At a loose end after leaving school, he agreed to help out a friend for a few months at a pawnshop and stayed seven years, harvest­ing material that would come to flavour his novels. “It gave me a different insight into Christchurch,” he says. “There are a lot of desperate people who do what it takes to get through the day.”

He finally quit after one threat too many from a particularly nasty customer who’d been caught peddling stolen gear. By then he’d already begun writing in his spare time, switching from horror to crime. “Lee Child’s first book [Killing Floor] totally changed my life,” he says. “It was a whole new world.”

When the hugely successful UK writer came to Christchurch to promote a later novel, Cleave went to his book signing – and was almost the only one there. “I made up half the people who went to see him. He certainly made me want to write crime, and he certainly made me never want to have book signings if I was ever published. He was also a very cool guy. He made me want to be a cool guy too and have a British accent.”

You can’t say Cleave didn’t have fair warn­ing that, in Christchurch at least, crime writ­ers are never going to be rock stars.

Turned down for the dole because he wasn’t looking for a proper job, he sold his house and moved back in with his parents when his money ran out – holing up in his bedroom and writing into the early hours of the morning. His mother Jill remembers the return of each rejected manuscript. “Sometimes you could tell the envelope hadn’t even been opened. He got very disillusioned.”

Cleave thought he’d finally nailed it when Auckland publishing consultant Cathie Dunsford liked what she saw in The Cleaner and agreed to market it. But nothing came of that so he found himself an agent and landed a contract with Hazard Press (a small publishing company now in liquida­tion), who sat on the book for another three frustrating years until Cleave called in a lawyer to get back the rights.

On the verge of giving all up for lost, he resubmitted the book to three major publish­ers in Auckland. Random House told him it was the best manuscript they’d ever rejected and after yet another rewrite – introducing a new character and altering the ending – he signed his first contract in April 2005.

“There was a lot of rejection, heartache and false hope,” he says. “But part of me knows I needed that. Over time the book evolved, and so did I. If it had been printed [by Hazard Press], it would have sold 10 copies, never been picked up anywhere else and I’d be a heroin addict by now.”

With his first royalty cheque, he bought a flat-screen TV for his dad, a new vacuum cleaner for his mum and got braces on his teeth.

Sometimes I think Christchurch is broken,” I say, “and nobody is ever going to fix it.” – Private investigator Theodore Tate, Cemetery Lake.

Welcome to the Cleave universe. His books are pure fiction – Cleave considers it immoral and insensitive to exploit real crimes for commercial gain. But beneath the city’s con­servative, genteel veneer, there’s a seedy side to Christchurch with its skinheads and queer bashings and underlying gang tension.

Three prostitutes have been killed there in the past four years, two of them dumped in the Avon River. This is where the devil “possessed” crèche worker Peter Ellis; where disgraced sex offender Graham Capill was brought to his knees; where Gay Oakes killed her partner and buried his body in the garden.

Perhaps it’s the very nature of the crimes that creates a perception of menace. In April, a Quality of Life survey showed Christchurch residents felt the least safe in their city centre after dark, despite police recording fewer violent offences than in any of our other large cities. In another local study, 71 per cent of women said they felt less safe than they did five years ago.

Cleave exploits that undercurrent of un­ease by setting his stories against a familiar landscape – the Port Hills, the cathedral, the Strip. And not all of the dysfunctional characters are his own creations. One of his favourite scenes describes a cyclist he saw biking along the footpath with a cardboard tube running from his nose to the bag of glue he was balancing on the handlebars.

“It’s not just flowers and puppies and rain­bows; you only have to look a little closer to see what’s simmering below the surface,” says Cleave, who – testicles aside – doesn’t linger gratuitously over grisly scenes, leav­ing the reader’s imagination to flesh out the horror. “But I do really play it up for the books. And the city keeps getting darker in every one.”

When Cleave’s in the zone, he works 10 to 12 hours a day, living on instant meals and pumping out up to 20,000 words in a week. (To put that in perspective, The Cleaner went through more than 15 rewrites before it was published.) His second book, The Killing Hour, was received more tepidly, but Cemetery Lake, his third, was hailed as a return to form – although it’s a genre that polarises opinion. The Age in Melbourne called it z-grade trash, while the Australian raved in a glowing review that referenced Stephen King, Edgar Allan Poe and a song by Crowded House.

Despite his bestseller status overseas, Cleave’s still in a precarious position finan­cially. His slice of the profits is less than $1 a book and when he did hit pay dirt in Germany, he paid a big chunk of it in income tax at the highest rate. Spread over nine years of fulltime writing, he reckons he’s earned below the minimum wage. “But if I could go back 15 years and tell myself not to start writing, I wouldn’t do it. All the frustration disappears when Harriet posts me down the first copy of my next book.”

Last year, he put his fourth novel on hold when he was approached by South Pacific Pictures to develop ideas for a new crime se­ries for TV3. That project foundered, but he managed to finish the book in time to meet the publishing deadline for this year.

Blood Men, which is about the son of a serial killer, hits the market in October. The book opens with Eddie remembering when he was nine years old and witnessed his father being arrested, “and the monster that was inside my dad came to live with me”. Another of the author’s trademark anti­heroes, Eddie is essentially a good guy who only does bad things to bad people. Even Joe in The Cleaner, a true psychopath, is humanised enough to extract some reader empathy. In fact, Cleave rather likes him. “Absolutely!” he says. “I just don’t agree with what he does.”

Cleave researched FBI files on serial killers before writing The Cleaner and Joe fits the classic profile, right down to his suffocating mother. (Her obsession with jigsaw puzzles is an affectionate nod to his own mum, Jill, who used to check his manuscripts for spell­ing mistakes and underline any “four-letter words” with red pen.)

In Blood Men, Eddie is convinced he has the serial killer gene. Cleave doesn’t buy that. “My belief is that [a predisposition to violence] is environmental, not genetic. Everyone knows what’s right and wrong. Some people just don’t care.”

The book cover splashes a ringing endorse­ment from UK crime novelist Mark Billing-ham, who met Cleave at the Christchurch Writers Festival last year when they shared a panel called “Killing Time” with Dunedin’s rising star Vanda Symon.

Cleave doesn’t plot out his novels; he was halfway through writing Cemetery Lake before he’d worked out who the killer would be. I wouldn’t let him tell me the knock­out twist when all is revealed at the end of Blood Men – so he won’t kill me if the secret somehow gets out. But his publisher, Harriet Allan, cried when she read the final chapter. Twice.

Cleave is excited about the new book, which has already been sold to Australia. He hopes it will help him attract a stron­ger local following and become at least a little more famous in his own backyard. “Without New Zealand readers, I’ll never reach my goal of being asked to appear on Dancing with the Stars.” 

This article was first published in the July 2009 issue of North & South.

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