Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for Gold includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Chris Cleave. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
Zoe, Kate, and Jack met when they were nineteen and recruited to compete for the elite British Cycling team. In this sport, time is their greatest rival—a fraction of a second could mean the difference between going home with the win, and just going home.
Fast-forward thirteen years and Zoe—a two-time Olympic Gold medalist—has enjoyed the most success in her career out of the three, but at the cost of nearly every personal relationship in her life. Kate has sacrificed two Olympic games to raise her daughter, Sophie—an eight-year-old with leukemia who escapes her illness with dreams of the Death Star and of battling alongside Han Solo. And Jack has fought valiantly to balance his career with being an attentive father to Sophie and a committed husband to Kate. As the three athletes start training for the London Summer Games, Sophie's condition worsens and the stakes rise: both women will be tested to their physical and emotional limits. They must ask themselves the question: What would you sacrifice for the people you love, if it meant giving up the thing that was most important to you in the world?
Echoing the adrenaline-fueled rush of a race around the Velodrome track, Gold is a pulse-pounding examination of the choices we make when lives are at stake and when victory is on the line.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. Discuss the opening scene of Gold where Kate and baby Sophie are watching Zoe win the gold at the 2004 Olympics. What did you learn about Kate’s personality as a wife, mother, and athlete in this one scene? How does this scene set the stage for the rest of the novel?
2. According to Sophie, “You could play boys’ games like Star Wars that had fighting and spaceships and made you look tough, even if you weren’t tough enough to ride a bike.” Consider Sophie’s obsession with Star Wars. What attracts her to these movies? What does she have to prove by playing “tough” boys’ games?
3. Consider Tom’s first impressions of his two star athletes: “Bit by bit, race by race, year by year, a girl like Zoe would stay afloat in the sport while Kate slowly sank under the weight of real life. Tom had seen it a hundred times.” How well does Tom predict their career successes and failures? In what ways does he underestimate Kate?
4. When Tom watches his group of teen recruits, he notices “Kate’s latent strength, and Zoe’s perfect flow, and Jack’s incandescent energy.” Compare Kate, Zoe, and Jack’s athletic strengths to their personalities. How do Kate’s strength, Zoe’s flow, and Jack’s energy help them face everyday life off the track?
5. Compare how Zoe and Kate handle the costs and benefits of being Olympic athletes. How does the press treat each of them? How do Zoe and Kate handle the media attention? What could they learn from the other about fame?
6. Discuss Zoe and Kate’s competition for Jack’s attention. Why does Zoe pursue Jack when he is in the hospital? Do you think it was just another opportunity to compete? Were you surprised by Jack and Zoe’s relationships?
7. If you were in Kate’s situation, would you forgive Jack for his affair with Zoe? Would you be able to raise Sophie as your own, knowing about the affair? Explain your answer.
8. Zoe realizes, “It was ordinary days now that frightened her—the endless Tuesday mornings and Wednesday afternoons of real life, the days you had to steer through without the benefit of handlebars.” How does Zoe handle real life? What is she afraid will happen to her when her racing career is over?
9. Discuss the lasting impact of Adam’s death on Zoe. Why hasn’t she forgiven herself for her brother’s accident? How does she punish herself? How does she finally come to terms with his death?
10. When Jack decides to let Kate race Zoe without knowing that Sophie is in the hospital, “He smiled because he had given her something rarer than gold: an hour outside time.” Did you agree with his decision? In what ways have these characters been racing against time their entire life?
11. During their final race, Zoe waits for Kate after Kate crashes on the track. How is that decision out of character for Zoe? Would you expect Kate to do the same for Zoe, if the situation were reversed? Why or why not?
12. At the end of the novel, Zoe’s role is as Sophie’s coach, not her mother. What kind of coach do you imagine Zoe to be? What kind of mother do you think she would have been to Sophie? Do you think she could have handled Sophie’s illness?
13. After winning gold in Athens, Zoe realizes, “Gold came out of the ground, and she had felt the weight of it dragging her back down there.” What does “gold” mean to Zoe, Kate, Jack, and Tom? What other types of gold (besides Olympic medals) do each of these characters strive for? Do they achieve it?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Visit the official website of the 2012 London Olympics to view results and complete coverage of the games at www.london2012.com. If you want to see track cycling action, watch Britain’s Victoria Pendleton compete for the gold in the 2008 Beijing Olympics: www.youtube.com/watch?v=0rq-PJzo4rU.
2. Visit the website of the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society at www.lls.org/#/waystohelp/ to find out more about research efforts and how you and your book club members can get involved.
A Conversation with Chris Cleave
What inspired you to write a novel about Olympic track cycling?
I love athletes. There is a purity about what they do that inspires the rest of us to be better: to hone and to fully use the gifts we have been given. Theirs is a life of dedication—an ascetic life. And mine has always been a fiction of extremity—I seek out the extremes of human experience, and ask whether the eternal questions that we find there have some application to our own personal choices and dilemmas. So the life of an athlete is a good place to go if you want to ask questions about sacrifice. How much domesticity and comfort would you sacrifice in order to achieve your ultimate ambition? And conversely, how much of your ultimate ambition would you sacrifice if—on the threshold of attaining it—you realized that there was another human being who needed you?
Specifically, I chose to make the athletes be track cycling stars because I love the place where those people go to work: the velodrome, with its high banked curves and beautiful polished wood boards. In the novel, the character Tom describes velodromes as “these gladiators’ arenas, encircled by the roaring crowd, where human speed and human loneliness were contained so that they might be witnessed.” The sight of two elite athletes, trained to a point of furious perfection and battling each other in this floodlit arena is one of the most powerful pieces of theatre that the human race has produced. I felt compelled to write about it.
Finally, I wanted my characters to be Olympians because, at the time of writing, my home city of London was preparing for the Games of the 30th Olympiad. I felt like a local news reporter when a great world event takes place on his patch. And like that local news reporter I know some of the people involved and I can get to the human story behind the headlines. I became fascinated by the perfection of the Olympic motto: Citius, Altius, Fortius—Swifter, Higher, Stronger. I knew it would be intriguing to explore a complicated, messy, fallible human story behind that beautiful motto. And it was.
What kind of research did you do for Gold?
I was interested in life and death, so I went to interview them much as a reporter would. You can’t interrogate death directly but you can get pretty close to death’s proxy here on earth, which is illness. I was allowed to spend some time at Great Ormond Street Hospital for sick children, in London. I shadowed a remarkable man, the pediatrician I talk about in the “Author’s Note” at the end of the novel. I met kids of about Sophie’s age who were suffering with leukemia.
As I’ve mentioned, nine out of ten children in that situation will go into remission, so what I was witnessing was a very positive scenario in most cases. But a child with leukemia—even one who is likely to recover—is still desperately, heartbreakingly sick. You want to hug them but you can’t because their immune systems are shot to bits and the last thing they need is your germs.
The treatment protocol in many cases involves a chemotherapy so awfully toxic that it creates almost unbearable symptoms in its own right. Indeed, the children who do not make it could be said to have been killed by the chemotherapy as much as by the leukemia. This is an incredibly extreme situation for the parents: to see their child physically tormented to the brink of annihilation in order to make them better. You learn a lot about death, and families’ responses to living in its shadow, by spending time in a situation like that.
As for life, it’s like that friend you were sure was right next to you in the crowd but when you turn to look, they’re nowhere to be seen. The best I could do as a researcher was to find out more about health, which is rather like life’s P.A.—it knows how life can be contacted, and so it’s worth keeping on friendly terms with it. I was interested in health as manifest in the bodies of athletes. Sport at the elite level is the epitome of health and the opposite of sickness, and I was determined as a researcher to get as fit as the elite cyclists, to see what it felt like so that I could write about it convincingly.
I failed, of course. I got pretty fit, but that was all. I rode thousands of miles on the road, I raced around velodromes, and I pushed myself as far as I could go beyond the threshold of pain. After a few months I hit a limit beyond which I could get no quicker. All I learned was that I am physically very ordinary, and that the athletes I wanted to write about are extraordinary. They are like angels, in that they walk among us but are not of our flesh. That’s what I learned, and then I stopped training and cleverly ate donuts.
Gold has five very distinct major characters. Which of them materialized for you first? Do you have a favorite?
All five characters materialized together. The inside of my head was like that scene in the original Star Trek series where the whole team beams up at once from the surface of an alien world. First there is nothing in the transporter room, then those five shimmering columns of 1960s FX glitter as the inchoate forms fade in, and then there they all are at once: fully-formed, caught in mid-sentence, and wearing futuristic space pajamas.
My characters wear civilian clothes, but there is a reason they all appeared together. In my previous work I’ve always had a single hero or a heroine, which makes the rest of the cast—even some of the major characters—subordinate. I think that works well when the story is driven by a desire to expose an injustice or to give an unorthodox point of view. Incendiary (2005) was about the horror of being a victim of terrorism and Little Bee (2008) was about the evil done to refugees. In a story like that you can enshrine what is good in your primary narrator and embody the particular evil in the lives of the minor characters.
But Gold is a different kind of story. The injustice in Gold is the ultimate injustice of dissolution and death, and all five of the characters are equally important as they battle against that destruction in their own way.
Sophie, stricken with illness at the very start of life, confronts the real possibility of her death: mostly obliquely via the cipher of the Star Wars mythology, and finally directly. Zoe, Jack and Kate, in the middle part of their lives, are realizing that age is about to call time on their careers and reveal their great animating rivalries as ephemeral and superannuated. And Tom, in his declining years, is confronted with his own physical degeneration. In passing on to the next generation whatever love and knowledge has accrued to him, he reaches for a kind of immortality.
I wanted to create a story where the five characters depended absolutely on one another as they faced up to this tyranny of time—where their lives were inextricably bound up with each other, like the five interlocking rings in the Olympic logo which appears as a motif throughout the narrative.
I don’t have a favorite or a least favorite character. It’s important to me that there is no hero and no villain. As I get older myself I am more aware that the oppositions we create for ourselves—like the epic sporting rivalry between Zoe and Kate—are fleeting and insignificant beside that great opposition we experience as humans: we, on the one side, the living—and on the other side, darkness and death.
As a writer I am interested in whether the love we learn to show to each other in life, as we surrender our personal ambitions, creates sufficient light—on balance—to illuminate our path.
Gold has a complex structure, moving back and forth in time between the characters’ preparation for the Olympics, and their thirteen-year history as friends and rivals. How did you keep track of what happens when for each of your characters?
The simple answer is that I don’t keep perfect track. I make a lot of mistakes in my handling of time, and I’m perpetually going back and redrafting to fix them. It is essential not just that the story should be told in the right order with no mistakes, but that it should read easily and not give any inkling of the difficulty involved in achieving that order. The finished product you see is the end result of years of experimentation in my workshop. Time, it turns out, is linear for a reason. However, I’m convinced that as a novelist you have to smash it into fragments and make it subordinate to the psychodynamics of your story. As Sophie observes in the novel, “Time and space were training wheels on a bike—you were pretty limited until you could ride without them.”
Sophie’s perspective, as a very brave and very sick child, is one of the most poignant parts of the novel. How did you write from the mind of an eight-year-old girl? Readers may be reminded of Charlie—Sarah O’Rourke’s four-year-old son who will only answer to “Batman”—from your previous novel, Little Bee. Why is it important to you to include children characters, like Sophie and Charlie, and their perspectives in your writing?
I have three young children, so my home is a 24/7 laboratory for the observation of small humans. I’m curious about how they see the world, and fortunately they are all very charming and chatty so I get plenty of insights. I include children in my novels because I am presenting the adult characters with hard choices and I see the presence of children as a reason to care about whether those adults make the right decisions. On one level it raises the stakes. On another level, I use children as my proxy for a presence of god, or a higher power, in my work. This is something I have always done, without necessarily understanding why until recently. I am convinced by the way Cormac McCarthy makes this relationship explicit in The Road when he writes: “He knew only that the child was his warrant. He said: if he is not the word of God God never spoke.”
Were you obsessed with Star Wars when you were a child, like Sophie?
Star Wars is threaded through my childhood and I can’t imagine growing up without it. It has all the archetypes and storylines one could wish for in a mythology. Of course it is just a glorious mash-up of every classical myth and hucksterish religion ever concocted on Earth, but the fact that it is transposed to a galaxy far, far away and has Carrie Fisher in it made it my blueprint for growing up. Some days it worries me that I learned about sarcasm from R2-D2, nutrition from Jabba the Hutt, wardrobe selection from Vader and dislike for convention from the young Harrison Ford. Other days I’m too busy practicing my Jedi mind tricks to suffer from that kind of angst.
I am very interested as a writer in how children relate to the world through the mythologies we bequeath to them. The world in its naked form is absolutely incomprehensible to us as kids. We first learn about the eternal truths of the human experience—which Faulkner listed as love, honor, pity, pride, compassion and sacrifice—by seeing them acted out in a stylized form in stories. It gives us some categories into which we can file the insane things we see grown-ups doing. In the case of Sophie, grappling with the specter of her death, I find it poignant that the ersatz mythology she relies on to make sense of her experience is so insufficient.
Scottish and English rock bands, from The Proclaimers to The The, could be the soundtrack to Gold. How many times did you listen to The Proclaimers’ song “(I’m Gonna Be) 500 Miles” while you were writing Gold? Does rock music inspire you as much as it inspires Jack?
Jack’s taste in music is pretty much what I grew up with, so I’m very affectionate towards it and towards his character because of that. My musical world has widened a bit since I was a kid, but I don’t think the soundtrack to your teenage years ever loses its force or its power to inspire. I do think music is important in animating a life, or a character. You’ll have noticed that each of the characters in Gold is associated with a song—Jack has “500 Miles;” Kate has “Uncertain Smile” for its superb line: “Uncertain emotions force an uncertain smile;” Sophie has the Star Wars themes; Zoe has the Blade Runner outro music because of my lingering suspicion that she might fail a Voight-Kampff test’ and poor old Tom has “In the Air Tonight.”
You say in your Author’s Note that Gold went through six drafts. What was the first draft of the novel like? What did you learn from the process of rewriting and revising?
The first draft was unremittingly bleak. It wasn’t obvious to me how to write about sick children in a way that had some hope and some humor in it. It took me a while to find my way, and I was conscious of the fact that many of the people who helped me research the book as parents of sick children would be reading it. I also knew that a great many people I would never meet would be reading the book, and that many of them would have sick relatives or children.
Therefore, I wanted to strike the right balance between acknowledging the seriousness of the situation and outlining the very real grounds for hope and high spirits. It took me a few tries to get the tone of the book right, and then a few tries more to make the novel read smoothly while getting its manipulation of time to work in concert with the psychological dynamics of the developing characters. If that all sounds a bit technical, it was. I think what I learned was that you can’t ever do too much work on a novel. There is always an extra mile you can go, and I am very fortunate to have publishers who respect my readers enough to allow me to do that work. I don’t think my next novel will take anything like as long as three years to write, but I have no regrets that Gold did.
Like Jack and Kate, you juggle family and career. How do you negotiate the demands of writing and parenting at the same time?
Actually I have no complaints and I find it possible to give my full attention to both projects. I think I have it easier than most in that respect because I get to choose the hours I keep, so I’m lucky enough to spend time with my kids when they’re awake and do my writing while they’re asleep or at school. I think I juggle it the same as anyone in their thirties: sleep less, live more.
After the success of Little Bee and Incendiary, did you feel pressure to write another political novel? Do you think you will go back to that realm any time soon?
Well, I don’t think of Little Bee and Incendiary as political novels. Really they’re novels inspired by anger. I like most of the people I meet—I think ninety percent of humans are basically good—and therefore like any sane person I get furious to the point of weeping about politicians and money men and thugs and mercenaries and the whole apparatus of mean-spirited fools that makes life hell for so many people. It just happens to be my job to write about those things in a way that hopefully generates more light than heat. I’m defusing the bomb of my anger in my novels. I’m using tools like humor and pathos and story and character to disassemble that rage into its constituent parts and then build those components back into something less ugly and more useful. That’s what a true novel is: a sword turned into a ploughshare. Anything less is just a rant: a blast pattern made by shrapnel.
In evolving through those first two novels to Gold, I haven’t changed what I do as a writer at all. It’s just that I’m directing my anger at some harder and (to me) more frightening targets. I’m over being angry at policy and polity—it’s the novelistic equivalent of shooting trout in a barrel. I always need a bigger enemy and so this time around I’m raising my game, with whatever success the reader will judge. I’m angry at death itself, in this novel. I’m interested to see whether as a writer I can apply my same trusted tools—humor and pathos and story and character—to disassemble that anger I feel against our own inevitable dissolution, and to build it back up into something beautiful.
I made a promise when I started out as a writer that I would never repeat myself and that I would try harder and harder every time to express something I’m still certain is true: that people are good, and that life can be beautiful. In my attempts to show this, I think my characters will be up against a stronger adversary with each novel.
I was having this conversation with a friend who asked me whether there was anywhere left to go, once you’ve made death itself the villain of a piece. My answer is that there is a lot I still want to write, because there are things I fear more than death. I haven’t written a novel about insanity yet, for example. I haven’t written a novel about evil.
What do you most want to be known for, as a writer?
Someone who asks respectfully for the reader’s time and never wastes it.
What do you hope readers will take away from Gold?
I hope they will be happy. I hope it’s a happy story.
What can your fans look forward to next? What projects are you working on now?
Right now I’m ensorcelled by a new novel, which is going very well. It’s about war. I’m about halfway through the first draft. I’ve joined a very old library in London where I have a little desk to work at, right at the top of the building in the dusty stacks. It’s a place of intense concentration, and I hope I’m using it to write the most emotionally engaged and psychologically nuanced novel I’ve attempted to date.
I’d like to thank my readers for their faith in my work. Your kindness and support mean everything to me, and when I get messages on my website saying that you have enjoyed one of my books, I am always very moved. Thank you. I am determined to always work harder to produce books that mean something to you.