This Wednesday evening I was back in the vaulted delights of the Bodleian Divinity School (where I’d been on Monday). It was a sheer delight to be in the disappointingly small, but very lovely, audience to hear Meg Rosoff talk about her latest novel in conversation with Suzie Feay.
I suspect that if Meg’s latest novel had been ‘YA’ the hall might have been fuller with many teenaged fans, especially as Meg has just been awarded the ALMA – The Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award – the world’s richest prize for children’s literature. Congratulations! She joins an illustrious list of laureates of whom Philip Pullman and Maurice Sendak are perhaps the best-known.
Now she has written her first ‘adult’ novel – and it’s a riotous comedy – perhaps explains the smaller audience? She sees this categorisation as purely a marketing ploy, she doesn’t see any difference between adult and children’s books, saying, ‘My books are not for children, they’reabout the relationship between children and adults, about adolescence, about coming of age.’
The hero of Jonathan Unleashed is just a bit older – an indecisive man in his early twenties working in advertising in New York and looking after his brother’s flat and dogs. For my full review you’ll have to visit Shiny New Books. Meg admits the plot was inspired by Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis, but she has made it completely her own.
Meg and Suzie talked about Meg’s writing process which is the other way around to most authors. Coming from the world of advertising herself which was the job from hell for her, Meg served her apprenticeship learning to write with as few words as possible to convey a story arc in an ad.
She explained how with this novel, the first line came first – which she had stored away until she had the time to write the book. Then, like a clay sculptor (she studied sculpture at St Martin’s School of Art in London after Harvard), she builds an armature of the story arc, and then adds layers and layers of detail rather than edit down from too much text.
She didn’t start writing novels until she was 46, and her first, How I Live Now, a spec fiction story of a teenaged New Yorker stuck in the English countryside with cousins as WWIII is about to start, was published in 2004 to great acclaim – just as Rosoff discovered she had breast cancer. She is a survivor, unlike two of her sisters who died from the disease, and that survival instinct comes across when you hear her talk – she is very straight-talking, a little fierce and bolshy, but also very funny and lovely.
Meg and Suzie discussed her love of dogs – they crop up in nearly all her novels (Honey inPicture Me Gone, my review here, is my favourite). Meg thinks that you don’t own a dog, theymould you into being the pack leader they want. In her novels, she uses dogs to ‘voice’ the things that humans can’t say.
Talking more about Jonathan, Meg admitted that her male characters like Jonathan tend to be a little weedy and lost whereas her women are always striving. Jonathan needs to find clarity, and in the novel it is the androgynous Puck/Ariel-like character Greely that is the catalyst. Meg talked about how it is difficult to write entirely without pronouns for a gender-neutral character.
Suzie turned to questions from the audience, and first to speak was one of Meg’s friends, author Barbara Trapido! It was a lovely talk, and afterwards while signing, Meg was charming and chatty. I said how much I’d enjoyed Picture Me Gone (reviewed here) in particular – Meg said it was her most personal book being about how you can’t protect children by lying (see here for an article in the Guardian by her about this theme).
Meg was lovely to listen to and Jonathan Unleashed is a chucklesome delight – I highly recommend it, and seeing her talk if you get the chance.
Read my Shiny review here
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Source: Publisher – thank you.
Meg Rosoff, Jonathan Unleashed (Bloomsbury, 2016). 978-1408870778, 288 pp., hardback.