30th Jan 2012
For Books’ Sake Talks To: Meg Rosoff
Meg Rosoff’s 2004 début novel, How I Live Now, earned her great acclaim as a new and exciting writer for children and young adults. She has continued with award-winning success in her subsequent works, including Just In Case, The Bride’s Farewell and There Is No Dog.
Her books are well loved and often controversial, branded with a ‘Read with Care’ warning label in America. For Books’ Sake interviewed her about censorship and the state of young adult fiction:
FBS: A few of your books have caused controversy, and There Is No Dog has been called blasphemous. Do you think e-publishing offers a way around censorship?
MR: The book radar for school libraries generally involves actual published paper books, but I’m sure that will change in the next few years as e-books become more prominent.
The bigger question is censorship, and I wouldn’t call it a huge problem in this country. If you censor a book, it’s always going to create more interest among readers, so it’s self-defeating.
And in the case of my book, I’d be quite surprised if the people who called it blasphemous had actually read it. It’s a comedy, and (if I may say), quite a thoughtful one.
You don’t come out of it thinking, “Well, that takes care of God, then.” I don’t think any book has the power to erase thousands of years of religious history and tradition.
But I’d like the reader to emerge from it thinking, “Now that‘s an interesting way to look at creation and all the mess humans have caused on earth.”
FBS: You wrote a blog post called The American Edit, about the complications of transatlantic translation. Beyond the specific words, can you describe the different cultural reactions to your work? Are some concepts harder to translate than words?
MR: There’s so much exchange of culture between the US and the UK that the biggest problem might be the one that editors imagine. Brits don’t see an American film and puzzle over the dialogue (and vice versa).
Because I’m American but have lived in London for more than 20 years, my US editor sometimes thinks an expression or a concept is British, whereas my British editor thinks the same thing is American.
I’ve taken to making things up (like ‘Squishy-woo-woo’ for sex in There Is No Dog). But there aren’t many concepts that don’t translate. Maybe if I were writing in German and wanted to get across a feeling of weltschmertz or shadenfreude I’d have a bit of a problem…
As for different reactions to the books, I don’t think anyone ever knows who’s going to like which books and where they’re going to sell.
That’s the beauty of publishing — there’s so much guesswork involved, that sometimes a book just takes off and no one quite knows why (cf. Harry Potter, or Twilight). As long as someone somewhere in the world likes my books, I’m happy.
FBS: Why do you think that children’s and young adult fiction is increasingly enjoyed by adults of all ages?
MR: So much really good YA fiction is being written at the moment — and the main difference between it and “adult” fiction tends to be the pace.
Both genres handle difficult subject matter, but YA tends not to hang around on the back story forever before getting to the good stuff. Huge generalisation there, but that’s my theory.
Also, a lot of YA deals with love, family, identity, and good vs. evil — not subjects that your average thirty-year-old finds irrelevant.
FBS: Do you have an audience age in mind before you start writing, or do you let the story dictate its own tone and register?
MR: I don’t think about my audience when I’m writing — the book has to work for me, and then I send it off into the world to drum up its own audience.
I will say that I think subjects choose their authors, rather than vice versa — so love, identity, family, coming of age — they’re my natural subjects, the ones I’m interested in. And they naturally suit a crossover audience.
FBS: Your books present young women with a strong cast of female role models. Do you find it worrying that not all contemporary youth fiction lives up to this standard?
MR: I worry about lots of things but that’s not one of them. There’s always been a huge range of female characters to choose from — from Bridget Jones to Lisbeth Salander, and everything in between.
I don’t think books need to be politically correct, there’s room for a little bit of everything. (Though I’ll admit to liking my heroines strong and intelligent!)
FBS: How I Live Now presents an interested and interesting portrayal of anorexia, and your work generally includes strong protagonists with fragile psyches. Can you comment on the ways in which sickness and disability are portrayed in children’s and young adult fiction?
MR: That’s a big subject! I never really thought of my work portraying strong protagonists with fragile psyches. I don’t think Pell (The Bride’s Farewell) has a very fragile psyche, or any of the characters in There Is No Dog.
But there are plenty of smart young women (and men) who haven’t quite grown into the confidence to be who they are, and they make quite interesting protagonists.
As for sickness, I can’t help thinking of the ‘dead teenager’ books — in which a 15 year old is dying of leukaemia, or is horribly murdered, but it’s okay because she loses her virginity first or gets to fly up to a nice comfy afterlife.
I dislike those books on principle — I’ve witnessed two people dying in my life and it’s ugly. It’s dishonest to pretend the experience can be mitigated.
FBS: Following on from the previous question, What I Was captures a beautifully complicated, and queer, teenage relationship. Do you think it is negligent to shy away from discussing sexuality in children’s books?
MR: Again, I don’t think it’s negligent. I’d love to write a book like Ballet Shoes (which, as I recall, wasn’t full of sexuality) but…just….can’t…do it.
I’d also love to write books about girls and horses (*sigh*) though the one horse book I wrote was pretty much full of sex. I’m very interested in complicated sexuality and gender and self-discovery, so that’s what I write about.
However, if what you’re interested in is trolls, that’s what you should write about. I don’t believe in censorship or self-censorship when writing for children, though how you handle the material is important.I think kids can handle some pretty tough subjects if they’re presented with honesty.
FBS: You once said “I think the bravest thing to write about is nothing, just to write a book in which nothing happens.” This statement is reminiscent of the post-modern Seinfeld philosophy – which books do you think fulfil its promise?
MR: Which of my books, or which books in general? I don’t think any of my books has much in the way of plot — plot isn’t what I’m best at!
I guess the book I admire most for nothing at all happening is Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett. It’s about the process of waiting and hoping, and that’s a pretty powerful description of the human condition.
FBS: All your most enigmatic characters have a close relationship with an animal – Piper and the goat, Finn and the cat, Estelle and Eck – do you think animals possess a magical quality within children’s literature?
MR: Animals represent what is innocent in the world — the side of humanity that is instinctual and vulnerable to human whims. So that makes them good foils for human behaviour.
My life is full of animals — dogs and horses, mainly — and I’ve always felt a very strong connection with the way animals think. The magical quality frequently comes from feelings we project onto them, but also their beauty, their power, their lack of self-consciousness.