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
Stewart Lee (Gavin Evans)

comedy

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

music
Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
News
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
people
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
Yaphett Kotto with Julius W Harris and Jane Seymour in 1973 Bond movie Live and Let Die

film
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment

film
  • Get to the point
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.

    Where the spooks get their coffee fix: The busiest Starbucks in the US is also the most secretive

    The secret CIA Starbucks

    The coffee shop is deep inside the agency's forested Virginia compound
    Revealed: How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Loch Ness Monster 'sighting'

    How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Nessie 'sighting'

    The Natural History Museum's chief scientist was dismissed for declaring he had found the monster
    One million Britons using food banks, according to Trussell Trust

    One million Britons using food banks

    Huge surge in number of families dependent on emergency food aid
    Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths 2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

    2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

    Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths trove
    The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey, 25 years on

    The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey 25 years on

    The space telescope was seen as a costly flop on its first release
    Did Conservative peer Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

    Did Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

    A document seen by The Independent shows that a week after he resigned from the Lords he sold 350,000 shares in an American company - netting him $11.2m
    Apple's ethnic emojis are being used to make racist comments on social media

    Ethnic emojis used in racist comments

    They were intended to promote harmony, but have achieved the opposite
    Sir Kenneth Branagh interview: 'My bones are in the theatre'

    Sir Kenneth Branagh: 'My bones are in the theatre'

    The actor-turned-director’s new company will stage five plays from October – including works by Shakespeare and John Osborne
    The sloth is now the face (and furry body) of three big advertising campaigns

    The sloth is the face of three ad campaigns

    Priya Elan discovers why slow and sleepy wins the race for brands in need of a new image
    How to run a restaurant: As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food

    How to run a restaurant

    As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food
    Record Store Day: Remembering an era when buying and selling discs were labours of love

    Record Store Day: The vinyl countdown

    For Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
    Usher, Mary J Blige and Will.i.am to give free concert as part of the Global Poverty Project

    Mary J Blige and Will.i.am to give free concert

    The concert in Washington is part of the Global Citizen project, which aims to encourage young people to donate to charity
    10 best tote bags

    Accessorise with a stylish shopper this spring: 10 best tote bags

    We find carriers with room for all your essentials (and a bit more)
    Paul Scholes column: I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England

    Paul Scholes column

    I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England
    Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

    Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

    The heptathlete has gone from the toast of the nation to being a sleep-deprived mum - but she’s ready to compete again. She just doesn't know how well she'll do...