BOOKS From The L-Shaped Room to a surprise Hollywood hit: Andy Beckett meets the combative Lynne Reid Banks
Sunday 20 August 1995
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
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