INDIAN SUMMER

BOOKS From The L-Shaped Room to a surprise Hollywood hit: Andy Beckett meets the combative Lynne Reid Banks

IN 1960 a young journalist called Lynne Reid Banks published a novel about poverty and prostitutes and an unwanted pregnancy, just when people were starting to talk about those things openly. The L-Shaped Room was unflinching in its boarding-house detail, and strikingly modern in its fury at the "social conditioning" that made its heroine an outcast; it shocked and sold. Reid Banks denied the book was autobiography, auctioned the film rights for a vast (at the time) pounds 25,000, and then, by moving abroad and writing less successful novels, having a family and switching to children's books, slipped out of public focus.

Thirty-five years later, one of those quietly received little children's books, The Indian in the Cupboard, has stealthily sold five million copies. Less stealthily, it has become a $50 million film, bill-postered across America by Spielberg collaborators as "the next ET". And Reid Banks, after years when her highest profile publishings were waspish letters to newspapers, is letting journalists take the train down to her writer's refuge in heat- dozy Dorset.

She sweeps into the station in a bright yellow dress the day after her sixty-sixth birthday. She is tanned and jewelled; her black VW Golf boils in the carpark, radio still playing out of the windows. She drives along the dry lanes quite fast, scarves rustling in the draught, talking about how she likes the heat and doesn't like the government and how she went to Alaska recently and how one of her three sons is doing advertising in LA, and then, halfway through her local town of Beaminster, cosy stone walls bouncing back Provencal light, she suddenly brings the car to a stop.

"I've forgotten my husband!" she says. He is stranded at a garden centre. She must go back for him. She will drop me off first; I can use her pool - "Have you brought your swimming costume?" she asks, as she did (twice) on the phone. A quick zoom up a sunken track out of Beaminster, a dusty U-turn in front of her large hedged-in farmhouse, and she's gone.

Chickens scratch around. Through a small gate and past her husband's sculpture workshop, Reid Bank's pool shimmers; at the far end, "between jobs", her other two sons are basting. They hold the fort with casual criticisms of their mother's film and hints at her sales figures. Their wispy-haired dad appears, shirtless in a panama. Then Reid Banks rounds the corner in a black bathing suit, swims a few laps -"Won't you come in?" - settles into a pool chair and, her family gathered around her, reluctantly agrees to answer questions.

Does she like the film? "I think it's a nice movie. I'm in the business of talking it up at the moment ... So I'm not going to criticize it to you." She was invited to the shooting in the spring: "They gave me a lovely director's chair ... I was determined to enjoy that side of it, and I did." Since then, The Indian in the Cupboard has stalled slightly at the box office - takings are still less than half the budget - but her book has spiralled up and up on the warm winds of cross-promotion.

Reid Banks' book is about a boy who can animate his plastic toys with a magic cupboard. It reads better than it sounds: the set-pieces are slyly imaginative, the miniature animations are intriguingly grumpy, and their creator is precociously capable of wit. It has actually been out for 15 years; in 1985 it won a prestigious medal for children's literature in California; one pompously titled award led slowly to another until, out of the blue, Reid Banks' agent rang her to say that the paperback rights had gone to auction. She thought, "Maybe this is the one."

This success was not entirely, as Reid Banks puts it, "luck". Twice a year for the last decade she has been flying over to America, unprompted by agent or publisher, to talk in smalltown high schools, read in isolated Midwest bookshops, and generally promote her books and herself for two or three hard-travelling weeks at a time. "When I come back I think, 'Oh God. I'm so knackered,'" she says. "But I like the actual physical being there: I like meeting people, I like being in front of kids, I like the performances." She grins on her pool chair. "Ever an eye on the main chance."

"Lynne is passionate about deal-making and marketing," says Vanessa Hamilton, her old editor. Reid Banks reportedly sold one of The Indian in the Cupboard's three sequels for $650,000, three years before Martin Amis's similar-sized coup. All this from a yarn about a magical cupboard that she thought of to make one of her sons (aged eight at the time) shut up and go to sleep. "She has a robust attitude to children and knows what amuses them," comments Hamilton. Reid Banks' sons, now in their late twenties, still obey: after an hour by the pool, thunderclouds hanging on the horizon, she decides we will have iced tea. They hurry off towards the house, instructions about where to pick the mint ringing in their ears.

REID BANKS was an only child. From the start, her life had the trajectory of a children's adventure story: born to an Irish actress and a Scottish doctor in the year of the Wall Street Crash, she was evacuated from London to Canada in early 1940 when a German invasion threatened. For five years she lived in the "little prairie town" of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. The landscape seemed "bizarre", but not her high school: "You could drop a kid into a frozen igloo, and if the other kids will play, they're going to adjust," she says. "I loved it. I didn't think much about the war and the bombing."

By her return to England aged 15 Reid Banks was already writing, inspired by her mother's bedtime stories. But for a while the stage was more of a draw: she went to RADA and then, for five years, tried repertory theatre. She drifted back to writing, squeezing freelance pieces into the Radio Times, until one day in 1955 when she went to interview the head of the embryonic ITN. "I was sitting in this office in High Holborn, and I said, 'Are you going to have any women?' And he said, 'Well yes.' I pricked up my ears. 'What do you have to do to be one of those?' He said, 'You just have to be a good interviewer.' I said, 'I'm a good interviewer.' 'Okay. Come along and audition.' "

Reid Banks became one of the first two female reporters on British television. She soon became frustrated, however, by the constant pressure to do "Daily Mail stuff" rather than news stories. So she started using her ITN stationery and time to write a novel.

The L-Shaped Room's protagonist was a middle-class girl who saw a part of life she wasn't meant to see with a steady gaze she wasn't meant to have. She could easily have been Reid Banks; when the book started selling, this possibility became a certainty in the public mind: "Everyone assumed that I'd had a baby, even people who'd known me for years. I was getting strange letters, like, 'My dear, you have got us all guessing ...' My mother begged me not to publish under my own name. Everybody thought it was me and everybody still does. It was all pure imagination," says Reid Banks with a flourish.

But she was also making things up for a purpose: to ask questions about class and social expectation. She says that her "journalistic instincts and personal philosophy ... equally demand that everything be closely examined for grey areas"; having done so with middle-class morality in The L-Shaped Room and its 1962 sequel, An End to Running, she defied the norms of literary fame - "ITN Girl Sells Film For pounds 25,000" the London Evening Standard announced - and disappeared to live on a kibbutz for nearly a decade.

Partly this was to be with her new husband, whom she had met while he was on leave from the kibbutz in London. But exile of this kind also fitted Reid Banks' politics. Her parents had let Hungarian refugees have the top floor of their Barnes house after the 1956 invasion; she inherited their activism (she still canvasses for the Liberal Democrats in fox-hunting Tory Beaminster). In Israel she taught in hot tin sheds rather than writing for herself, and watched her three newly-born babies be taken away to the communal nursery. At times Reid Banks the idealist clashed with Reid Banks the rebel: "I kicked against the pricks of communal living although I loved it. One day I was sitting there [in the nursery] all alone with my baby ... I picked him up and took him home with such a sense of rule- breaking. This woman - she couldn't have been much older than me," Reid Banks snorts, "showed up on my doorstep and gave me dog's abuse."

She came back to England in 1973 with a rather adult children's book set on a kibbutz during the Six Day War and her appetite for probing "grey areas" undiminished. Twenty years later, she is still sharpening letters pages with protests about corporal punishment, Tony Blair and atrocities in Bosnia. Three years ago she went to Bosnia to help rescue a coachload of refugees. "It was the adventure as much as anything," she says. The refugees turned out to be rather middle class - "we thought, where are the poor?" - and the coach got in and out without so much as a gunshot.

The same candid spikiness has got her into trouble over The Indian in the Cupboard. It wasn't the title - she explains that "Indian" has now been adopted by Native Americans - but her characterization of the book's miniature brave as aggressive and plain-speaking. An Indian in British Columbia complained about stereotyping to the librarian at his son's school; the librarian took the book off his shelves, then persuaded other schools and libraries in his town to do the same.

In Montana the Blackfoot Indians held a workshop for people to attack the book. Reid Banks went along. "It was horrible," she says. "They objected very much to the fact that I used the term 'grunt' for several of the things that Little Bear [the Indian character] says. They claimed that no white man is ever described as grunting." Criticisms piled up; Reid Banks was forbidden to answer them. Despite feeling that she "probably wouldn't have written that book the way I wrote it, now" - and her Little Bear is an insensitive creation - Reid Banks would not concede a face- to-face confrontation. A compromise involving her books carrying a warning sticker was furiously rejected: "I said, they may not meddle with my book. I will sue them through every court." She pauses triumphantly. "That was the end of that."

BATTLES are Reid Banks' speciality. "She liked someone who would argue with her," remembers Hamilton. When the film of The L-Shaped Room came out, she didn't like the changes it made to her novel, and took 30 years to forgive the director. A publisher who does not want to be named says: "Publicity departments all over London do not like to work on her books because she's impossible - she rings them up from her hotel in the middle of the night and asks to be brought a drink."

She does seem sensitive about her reputation. Since her return from the kibbutz, Reid Banks has written novels, plays, books on Israel, and the Brontes, teenagers' books and children's books - 31 in all - and yet her literary stock has remained relatively low, that of the first-book prodigy. Even The Indian in the Cupboard has only done "okay" in Britain, while she has given up writing fiction for adults altogether after a traumatic rejection in January. She comes back to this repeatedly: "It absolutely knocked me for six. It was rejected in a particularly unpleasant way by my own publisher, who was just extremely dismissive. The fact that you've been on the shelves for 35 years, the fact that they've worked with you, the fact that one of your novels has sold a million copies, doesn't militate in favour of any kind of special consideration. Am I going to write again for the adult market? Only a fool would walk into a fire. I am very successful writing children's books. I've got lots and lots of ideas. I don't need to put pen to paper ever again from a financial point of view."

Reid Banks' sons have disappeared. She is keen to get out of more questions and into the pool. Then, suddenly, her voice jumps an octave, back to her usual happy grandmother range: her youngest son is carrying a tub of ice cream and four plastic spoons, moulded to resemble characters from The Indian in the Cupboard. He's brought them back from a frozen yoghurt shop in the States; they change colour when they're dipped in anything cold. Now Reid Banks is smiling, pointing, delightedly asking about every little merchandising detail, digging a spoon into the ice cream. Her family round her; her husband's statues in the workshop; Beaminster glowing in the valley below; The Indian in the Cupboard spinning off more and more unneeded royalties - all these things seem enviable, quite possibly the dream fulfilled of the determined young journalist in those Sixties photographs. Lynne Reid Banks finishes her ice cream, picks her way over the hot tiles, and gets into her square-shaped pool.

! The film of 'The Indian in the Cupboard' is scheduled for release in the UK on Dec 26, with a paperback tie-in published by Collins on Dec 7

Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West found himself at the centre of a critical storm over the weekend after he apparently claimed to be “the next Mandela” during a radio interview
music
Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig and Rory Kinnear film Spectre in London
film
Arts and Entertainment
Attenborough with the primates
tvWhy BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Arts and Entertainment
Drake continues to tease ahead of the release of his new album
music
Arts and Entertainment
Former Communards frontman Jimmy Somerville
music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TVViewers predict what will happen to Miller and Hardy
Arts and Entertainment
Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in season two of the series

Watch the new House of Cards series three trailer

TV
Arts and Entertainment
An extract from the sequel to Fight Club

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant, Eve Myles and Olivia Colman in Broadchurch series two

TV Review
Arts and Entertainment
Old dogs are still learning in 'New Tricks'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Tonight we honour Hollywood’s best and whitest – sorry, brightest' - and other Neil Patrick Harris Oscars jokes

Oscars 2015It was the first time Barney has compered the Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Patricia Arquette making her acceptance speech for winning Best Actress Award

Oscars 2015 From Meryl Streep whooping Patricia Arquette's equality speech to Chris Pine in tears

Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015 Bringing you all the news from the 87th Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscars ceremony 2015 will take place at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles
Oscars 2015A quiz to whet your appetite for tonight’s 87th Academy Awards
Arts and Entertainment
Sigourney Weaver, as Ripley, in Alien; critics have branded the naming of action movie network Movies4Men as “offensive” and “demographic box-ticking gone mad”.
TVNaming of action movie network Movies4Men sparks outrage
Arts and Entertainment
Sleater Kinney perform at the 6 Music Festival at the O2 Academy, Newcastle
musicReview: 6 Music Festival
News
Kristen Stewart reacts after receiving the Best Actress in a Supporting Role award for her role in 'Sils Maria' at the 40th annual Cesar awards
people
News
A lost Sherlock Holmes story has been unearthed
arts + ents Walter Elliot, an 80-year-old historian, found it in his attic,
Arts and Entertainment
Margot Robbie rose to fame starring alongside Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street

Film Hollywood's new leading lady talks about her Ramsay Street days

Arts and Entertainment
Right note: Sam Haywood with Simon Usborne page turning
musicSimon Usborne discovers it is under threat from the accursed iPad
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
    A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

    It's not easy being Green

    After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
    Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

    Gorillas nearly missed

    BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
    Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

    The Downton Abbey effect

    Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
    China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

    China's wild panda numbers on the up

    New census reveals 17% since 2003
    Barbara Woodward: Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with the growing economic superpower

    Our woman in Beijing builds a new relationship

    Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with growing economic power
    Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer. But the only British soldier to be awarded the Victoria Cross in Afghanistan has both

    Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer

    Beware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor
    Alexander McQueen: The catwalk was a stage for the designer's astonishing and troubling vision

    Alexander McQueen's astonishing vision

    Ahead of a major retrospective, Alexander Fury talks to the collaborators who helped create the late designer's notorious spectacle
    New BBC series savours half a century of food in Britain, from Vesta curries to nouvelle cuisine

    Dinner through the decades

    A new BBC series challenged Brandon Robshaw and his family to eat their way from the 1950s to the 1990s
    Philippa Perry interview: The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course

    Philippa Perry interview

    The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef recreates the exoticism of the Indonesian stir-fry

    Bill Granger's Indonesian stir-fry recipes

    Our chef was inspired by the south-east Asian cuisine he encountered as a teenager
    Chelsea vs Tottenham: Harry Kane was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope

    Harry Kane interview

    The striker was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope
    The Last Word: For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?
    HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

    Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

    Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?