Paul Cleave Q&A

NZ Booklovers chats with New Zealand’s internationally bestselling crime author, Paul Cleave, who is the author of The Cleaner, The Killing House, Cemetery Lake, Blood Men, Collecting CooperThe Laughterhouse, Joe Victim and Five Minutes Alone.

In your latest novel Five Minutes Alone your main characters are Theodore Tate and Carl Schroder – what is it that made you return to these characters, is this something you have had in mind for a while?

With every novel I write these days, I think about whether or not Tate and Carl can work in the confines of that novel. If they can lead the story, then that’s great, otherwise I’ll try to get them in there as secondary characters – more so in Carl’s case. I like to have all my characters from the books floating around in there somewhere if I can, just to remind the readers where those people are at, because one day I just might bring some of them back in a bigger way. The good thing about these two guys is they want the same outcome, but always go about it in very opposite way. Sometimes they can work together, but never on the same page. Over the course of the books, I’ve switched the way they approach things, having Tate behave more the way that Carl would, and having Carl behave more the way Tate would. It’s more interesting for me to develop the characters that way because it creates unpredictability – you really just don’t know how far these guys will go, or what they’ll do next, or how they’ll behave.

The novel plays around with the issues of revenge and justice, and shows how both of those elements are not always satisfactorily achieved by the way in which our justice system deals with people who have committed horrific crimes – what were you trying to say about those issues in the novel? Do you think there is a better way to ensure people are “punished” for their crimes?

Of course it always comes down to how horrific a crime is, and whether or not we think people have paid their debt to society. Somebody might go to jail for ten or twenty years for raping and killing somebody, but ten or twenty years later when they come out of prison the person they killed is still dead. Have they paid their debt then? The justice system says yes, but really you should be asking the family because they’re the ones hurting. That’s the premise of this book. In movies and TV shows, when people are hurt, family members always say to the cops “when you find the guy who did this, I want five minutes alone with them”. Because in real life, some of us would want that, wouldn’t we? That also gets explored, because it’s easy just to go “sure, I’d love those five minutes” – but it’s the consequences of that. It’s how it changes you. Do I think there is a better way to punish people? Perhaps. I think we all have ideas on that.

Both Theodore Tate and Carl Schroder see it as their duty to ensure that justice is done, and while they appear different in some sense their motifs (and methods) are very similar – who is the real hero of this novel, is it Tate or Schroder?

Ha! Well, that would really depend on your view of how justice is dished out. They’re both good men – at least I see them that way – but they’ve both done some very bad things. I think people are going to identify differently with them – some will see Tate as the hero, some will see Schroder. I see them as two men on very different paths, but those paths often cross.

The novel also revolves around being given “a second chance”, either by fate or society – do you believe that everyone – including characters like Dwight Smith – deserves a second chance?

No. Not everyone. Some crimes are too dark, too horrific – there is no forgiveness there.

Five Minutes Alone is set in Christchurch, the stomping grounds of Joe “the Christchurch carver” – will we see the return of Joe in another novel?

Honestly, I don’t know.

You have said that your books are much better received internationally, outside of New Zealand – is that still the case, and if so what do you think the reason is for this?

I’m not so sure they’re received better – but they certainly sell better. Sadly, people in NZ seem to have this cringe factor with NZ fiction. We love US and UK fiction, and Scandinavian crime – but often it feels as though many of us would rather chew off our own fingers than read a NZ crime novel. In the nine years I’ve been published, this is probably the saddest thing for me, really. We have writers here that are just as good as the best of the best from any country, but our books are hidden away in stores, and our sales here are a tiny fraction of international fiction sells here – and it’s a shame, a real shame, because the crime writers I’m friends with here are super nice people, super talented, and deserve recognition. Millions of dollars gets pumped into yachting and rugby etc – imagine the difference that could be made if some of that went towards supporting NZ literature. The good news is that NZ literature gets appreciated overseas – and for that I’m truly thankful.

You present a very divergent image of the New Zealand that is often promulgated overseas, i.e. your New Zealand is far removed from being an “idyllic paradise”. Nevertheless, do you think that there is an element of “exoticism” in regards to the New Zealand setting of your books for overseas readers?

One of the reasons the books sell so well overseas is because readers see NZ as an exotic destination (they’re my publisher’s words). But Christchurch, in the books, won’t actually feel that unfamiliar to them – because it has a universal feel to it. Yes, I put a lot of the city in there (a darker version, mind you…) but for the most part you could pick up the characters and story by the scruff of their necks and dump them into another location and it’d all work out the same. I’ve honestly had several people email over the years and say they won’t come to NZ because of the way my books portray it – often I wish I could do a deal with the council here – get myself some reduced rates and in exchange I could make Christchurch more appealing. But the fact is they are crime novels, and my stories work better in dark places, and I’m not writing to bring in the big tourist dollars… I’m writing in the hope that people will double check to make sure they’ve locked their doors and windows because their local friendly neighbour might not be as friendly as they thought.

You travel a lot and spend a lot of your time residing overseas – does the travelling and living in new places provide inspiration for your writing, or what are some other things that inspire you?

I reside much less overseas now. I was often away for five or six months a year – but these days I’m only away a month or two. I actually never find inspiration overseas. Often it’s hard to find time to work – you’re in a different environment, dealing with life, and writing takes a backseat to life. I can’t really say what I draw inspiration from. Not the news – which many people would think. Stories often come from ‘what if’ ideas. Like ‘what if your dad was a serial killer’.

I am sure that you get asked this a lot, but what would be your advice for any aspiring crime writers out there, and what is your particular writing routine, or ways you make sure to stay creative and productive in your writing?

You have to read. A lot. Then read some more. It’s the most important part. Good stuff will inspire you, bad stuff will inspire you to write better. I try to write what I know – which is why the books are set in Christchurch. That way I can bring a reader into my world, show them around a bit. If you’re writing crime, then read some true crime novels, learn about what makes people tick. Try to make every character perfect, and at the same time try to make every character flawed. I don’t have such a great routine. When I’m writing, I write twelve or fourteen hours a day, living off crisps and coke and getting fat because the novel will consume me, no running, no gym, no tennis, no cooking – just writing. That’s when things are going well. If things aren’t going well, I’ll try to write for an hour or two, but if things are going badly, then I won’t write at all – in which case I do all the other things I don’t do when I am writing.

3 comments… add one

Tanya is a freelance writer, reviewer and blogger with a background in comparative literature. When she is not reading fabulous new books or writing about them, you can find her horse riding or walking her dogs in the beautiful Waitakere ranges. Visit Tanya at

  • Mark McGinn February 5, 2015, 2:26 pm

    Nice interview and for those who’ve read Cleave’s books, it’s pretty clear the humour is in the man, not just in his writing. It’s a shade or two darker in the books, as you’d expect!
    As to punishment, and speaking as someone who worked in courts for many years, there are people we shouldn’t let out. Prison will never reform or rehabilitate. That said, I think we over-imprison, using that form of justice because there’s not enough going into crime prevention.
    The police are trying to do their bit with prevention but they need more help in the education and welfare sectors. Cleave’s got it right about the desire for 5 minutes. You can tell that through victim impact reports, some of which are either heavily censored or not submitted at all!

  • Chris Cawdron February 6, 2015, 12:04 pm

    Great interview. Have to admit I have not read any of Cleaves books. I will borrow one next timeim at the library

  • Craig Sisterson June 25, 2015, 9:15 pm

    Cleave is one of our country’s finest writers, of any genre. But criminally underrated/underappreciated here at home compared to continental Europe, where his books sell hundreds of thousands of copies.

    It would be easy to focus on the entertainment aspects – the gripping plots he creates, the layered characters – but his writing talent goes deeper than that. Stylish prose, black humour, and an undercurrent of psychological and sociological themes and insights, raising questions about aspects of real life, not just fictional tales.

    Years ago, I had doubts about the depth and calibre of New Zealand crime writing on a global scale, aside from Paul Thomas and Dame Ngaio, of course. But I was wrong. And Cleave, with CEMETERY LAKE, was one of the authors that made me realise our contemporary crime writers can stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the world’s best.

    It would be good if New Zealand readers started realising that.


Leave a Comment