Meet Meg Rosoff: young-adult novelist and self-confessed big mouth
Child abductions? They don't happen. 'The Lovely Bones'? Dying-teenager rubbish. As for anorexia, people in war zones don't get it, do they?
Sunday 30 August 2009
Meg Rosoff can't help upsetting people. Not that you'd think it on meeting the author of the award-winning novels for young adults How I Live Now and Just In Case. Face furnished with the kind of spectacles favoured by media types or academics, she is soft- spoken and considerate.
It is, seemingly, a front. "My husband says that if we were [living in an] occupied [country], I would be the first one shot. I was born with my head above the parapet," she confides as we talk across glasses of cool water in her sun-strewn garden at the back of her 1920s semi in Islington, north London.
We have met to talk about her latest novel, The Bride's Farewell, in which Pell, a young woman, flees pending marriage in search of identity and certainty. Set in Victorian Wiltshire, it nods self-consciously towards Thomas Hardy's naive heroines, notably Tess.
Considering Rosoff's track record (her books carry a red "Read with care" warning label in the US), it is hardly controversial: How I Live Now had a relationship between teenage cousins; What I Was, a homoerotic friendship between school-age boys; Just in Case, sex between a 15-year-old boy and an older girl. What's more, an attempted rape and a host of characters whose righteousness is undermined by greed, lust, drunkenness – or all three – in The Bride's Farewell are not exactly hardcore. In fact, they are the tropes of Victorian morality fiction.
So, it's not Rosoff's latest work, but rather her off-the-cuff remarks that risk offending: she simply cannot stop voicing opinions that will have the guardians of morality up in arms.
At one point, she asserts: "The truth about love is that you don't always fall in love with whom you are supposed to fall in love with. Love just hits you. It is a transcendent thing." Nothing controversial in that, you may think, but she adds: "Sometimes it is your best friend's husband and sometimes it's your father. It's weird. But that's a fact of life." Weird? I can hear Daily Mail readers everywhere choking on their croissants.
When I ask whether so many novels aimed at teenagers feature abuse and death because fiction is a safe place in which to face those subjects, she responds robustly: "The whole thing about society being a terrible place for children is rubbish. I utterly believe it is a big fat con." Don't be coy, Meg. "People are not going to abduct your child. That is why people love the Madeleine McCann story: it feeds into their worst fears. The chance of a stranger abducting and murdering your child is infinitesimal." It is said with the conviction of a preacher, each word punched home.
"I was born with a big mouth," she admits, looking at her hands. It may be a trick of the sunlight, but I could swear there is a glint in her eye as she says it.
Born in 1956 as the second of four sisters in a middle-class New England family, Rosoff was the rebel. Whereas her siblings followed her mother's insistence on polite, "ladylike" behaviour, and settled close to the Boston neighbourhood in which they were raised, she sought escape. In 1977, she pitched up in a London that was dirty and strike-torn. It was also "thrilling", she says, with watery-eyed nostalgia. "I just thought, 'This is what I have been missing all these years.'"
That reaction has informed all her novels. "The thing about adolescence is that you are emerging from a state of obscurity. You are coming out into the world from your family," she says haltingly of why that time of her own life fascinates her. "Your family can seem normal because it is your family and all you know, but in fact it is a mess." The night before we meet, the name of Baby P's mother had been revealed. The timing of Rosoff's remark is not lost on the author. It hangs heavily in the hot August air. "Today of all days?" I ask, as much to break the oppressive silence. "Yes," she replies, barely audible. "Today of all days."
A late starter for a novelist, her acclaimed debut, How I Live Now, was published when Rosoff was 48. The ensuing critical acclaim was bittersweet: the book appeared on the shelves in the same week that she was diagnosed with breast cancer – a disease that had already taken her mother and sister, and which now informs the way she lives.
"If you don't face the fact that it is all going to be over very soon, you put things off. I put things off for a very long time," she says. There is no self-pity in her voice; she is matter-of-fact: you live and you die, get over it, she seems to be saying. A thing she had put off was learning to ride horses. She giggles and leans towards me. Is she blushing? I expect a confession. Instead, she says: "People laugh at me like I'm mad. It's such a cliché taking up riding at 52."
Like her personality, Rosoff's approach to riding is fierce and fearless. I imagine her startling the Suffolk locals in the countryside near her second home, a galloping urbanite incongruous in her specs and jodhpurs.
That spirit is reflected in her writing. Her spare prose wastes no words on florid descriptions. This, too, rankles conservative readers. They want death packaged nicely, as in Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones or Jenny Downham's weepfest Before I Die: the kind of books where violent, premature death is softened by the promise of a heaven with burgers and shakes. Rosoff snorts in agreement. "I hate all that dying teenager crap because it feels voyeuristic," she says.
In part, what offends Rosoff is the cheap sentimentality that infuses death-lite fiction. "Writing really well about a living teenager who is living an ordinary life is much more difficult than saying, 'I know, I'll write about teenagers dying – that'll get them crying,'" she sneers. "And it does [get them crying] and people love it. It's exploitative." She almost spits the words out, startling a blackbird rummaging through the undergrowth beside us.
Rosoff is not thrown off course. "I think the bravest thing to write about is nothing, just to write a book in which nothing happens," she says. She is almost doubled up as she speaks, an intense knot. "Writers stuff books full of plot – escapes, twists, turns, explosions – because they are scared to deal just with emotional truths." A great advocate for the fiction of her rivals, she waxes lyrical about Hilary Mantel's Booker-tipped Wolf Hall, a book that says far more about Henry VIII's life, she claims, than "that ridiculous David Starkey exhibit down at the British Library".
Protests about her own treatment of subjects such as anorexia are shrugged off. "I had a lot of complaints about How I Live Now, as people said it had an anorexic who is cured by being in a war." She sounds exasperated. People think they know what anorexia is, she adds, but it has more than one cause and consequently more than one cure. "What I was writing was just as likely a cure as anything else." Is it a disease of plenty, I ask. "In a way," she answers. "You don't hear about people in war zones having trouble eating, do you?" Oops, more letters to the editor.
Publication of The Bride's Farewell coincides with Rosoff's involvement with a project being launched by the National Theatre and her publisher, Penguin, on Tuesday. Under 16-year-olds are invited to adapt for the stage a chapter from How I Live Now. The judging panel includes the playwright Mark Ravenhill, and the winner's play will be staged at the NT. Rosoff is "terrified", she admits, by the prospect of working with the other judges. "But it is a great opportunity to get kids involved," she adds.
It heralds the start of a busy autumn. As well as the new novel, she has completed the first draft of her next book, due next year. Called There is No Dog, it imagines God as a 19-year-old boy. "When you think about a teenager running the universe, it just makes sense, doesn't it? Why not take six months making the world and get it right? Because he was bored and grandiose, so he does 20 million species in six days and the minute he puts them all together they start eating each other. What kind of creation is that?" she asks. Is that a gasp from the outraged righteous I can hear?
For more information about the 'How I Live Now' project, visit www.spinebreakers.co.uk
The Bride's Farewell, By Meg Rosoff (Puffin £10.99)
'..."Five brothers!" crowed Mrs Bewes, hands clutched to her breast. "What a comfort for your poor dear mother."
Pell did not explain their circumstances further.
"And you are here to buy a horse?"... I am in need of work, Pell thought. I left home in a hurry. My brothers are dead and my mother has only Lou and the little girls at home.
I will never, ever marry.
A knot of panic formed near her heart...'
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