Suffolk: Meg Rosoff on chilling new film How I Live Now. ‘I’m not sure my mum’s going to like it much…’
- Credit: Archant
Something good has emerged from tragedy. Her sister’s premature death prompted Meg Rosoff to take life by the scruff of the neck and start writing. A decade or so later, that debut novel is out as a film. STEVEN RUSSELL caught up with the Suffolk-loving author
It’s been a stunning decade for Meg Rosoff. In 2003 – in her 40s and in the dying days of a high-powered but demoralising career in advertising – she wrote her first book. How I Live Now scooped several awards and was shortlisted for the Orange First Novel Prize. More fiction followed, and more accolades. And now that first tale is out as a film: promoted by posters on buses in London and a thrilling if chilling cinema trailer.
For good measure, a new title is out too – already longlisted for the National Book Award for young people’s literature in the author’s native America.
So: everything’s hunky-dory, then.
Except that, if you’re a creative type, there’s always a lurking grey cloud to cast a slight shadow on the brightest of sunny days. Easy contentment is hardly ever part of the deal.
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The writer’s excited about the film, of course she is, but success is too fragile a commodity for an author to rest on his or her laurels.
“At the moment I’m not writing, and I’m very worried I’m not writing,” admits Meg, nursing the cold that’s doing the rounds. “I think most writers live with a huge amount of anxiety that a book might be your last.
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“Someone came up to me the other day and said ‘Oh yeah, Meg: the movie… the book… you’re living the dream!’ And I thought ‘I really want to punch you!’
“It’s not that I’m not happy. It’s not a bad life. I’m not in some drudge of a job with a boss from hell. But it’s not easy writing books, and it doesn’t get easier.
“I once thought ‘OK, I’ve written so many; I get it now’; but, actually, for me at least there’s no formula. A lot of it feels like atheist prayer, where you’re just hoping you can have the inspiration; hoping you can write a great book, and then hoping somebody will buy it. But there’s no guarantee at any step of the way.
“There are small windows when you’re writing and it’s going well and it feels fantastic, but I would say it’s far more the exception than the rule. Most of it is the process of anxiety, depression and fear.
“I don’t mean to sound like I’m complaining…”
Ah, but you’d never want to do anything else but weave fiction, would you?
“I would like to be doing nothing! Honestly. People say ‘You’d miss it’. Oh, would I?! I would be really happy to have enough money so I never had to write another book! I then write another book at some point. Or maybe without the anxiety, without the pressure, you wouldn’t write another book. Think of all the great renaissance painters; they were painting for patrons. That was a paid job they were doing.”
So what would she do if she made it really, really big?
“I’d have a horse and a hammock and a pile of books! I’d be perfectly happy. And a house by the sea.”
She’s got the latter. Or, at least, a share in one. Since 2005, Meg and artist husband Paul have jointly owned with another family a cottage on the shingle of the Suffolk coast, on the stretch between Orford and Bawdsey.
The writer was there last month, making the most of her last free week for about six.
“I went up just for the peace and quiet: rode every morning, stacked all the wood, walked the dogs, and just used the place to think. It’s so hard to think in London. (They live in Highbury, north London.) We’re getting to the stage of spending more and more time up there, and hopefully it will go to 50/50 and then possibly more.”
It’s now “endless touring and stuff” that will be keeping her busy for a while.
There’s considerable interest in the film of How I Live Now (certificate 15). Have a look at the trailer: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1894476/
Her family having had enough of her attitude, self-imposed starvation and tension with her stepmother, New York teenager Daisy is dispatched to England to stay with her aunt (a peace negotiator) and cousins.
Against expectations, this urban punk whose mother died giving birth to her forges a strong relationship with her relatives and even begins to feel at home in the countryside. But war is in the air – the Third World War – and the children end up fending for themselves. They’re split up and life soon becomes a fight for survival in a familiar world turned horribly upside down.
For the writer of a book that sold 400,000 to 500,000 copies around the world, seeing her work turned into something for the big screen has been a good if sometimes odd experience.
The options to the film rights were bought in 2003 or 2004, even before the printed tale was published. “It’s been in development for almost 10 years. My mother kept saying ‘Are you ever going to make this film before I die?!’ I’m not sure she’s going to like it very much!
“It’s been through a lot of incarnations: different directors; different possibilities of casting. My daughter’s big line is always ‘Why aren’t you more excited?’ I am excited! At various moments I’ve been very excited.”
In many ways it closes the circle on a poignant dozen years or so. Meg was motivated to write How I Live Now, her first novel, following a sister’s death from breast cancer. It prompted her to re-evaluate life, put work on hold, and finally commit to paper the story that had been swirling around her mind.
It was, she says, “the fear of not being good enough” that had held her back.
There are differences between Meg’s original tale and the screenplay; so much so that she calls them “very different beasts”.
Daisy’s cousin Edmond is called Eddie in the film, “which I hated for a long time, but, you know, it makes sense in the context. He’s older than he was in the book. Saoirse Ronan (still only 19 but with an Oscar nomination as best supporting actress in Atonement) wasn’t anything like I imagined Daisy, but in a funny way I can almost not remember what I imagined Daisy to be. She’s interpreted differently by the director. He’s made her much more driven by what makes her nutty.
“She’s obviously a bit of a damaged soul and he sees her as driven by that kind of determination that made her not eat, whereas I saw her as redeemed much more by love.”
Oh, and there’s one character who’s still alive at the end of the book but who doesn’t last the film…
It must be strange for an author to create a family of characters and construct their stories, and then hand them over to someone else who will put face and form to them, tinker with the details, and give them movement and speech. What does it feel like to cede control of one’s “baby”?
“I didn’t really think about it then. I am a trusting sort of soul. I was very lucky in many ways, in that I had very good producer and they hired a very good director, and he cast an amazing cast.
“The film I would have made would probably be a tiny little indie film, in the same way I write rather small indie books. And so you kind of hope somebody will take it and reinterpret it, and make something different out of it.
“I think the spirit of the book is very much still there. But a lot has changed.
“The one moment where I did feel a real jolt of ‘God, this is freaky’ was when I went and saw the house.” The one in Wales where the British relatives live. “The house was so like the place in my head that I did have a real moment of vertigo. But I didn’t feel that so much with the characters. They had been interpreted differently, so I didn’t feel possessive, particularly.”
Meg had been sent location pictures. “It was a perfect modern house, and the crew had come along and put mouldy wallpaper on the walls, and old books. And dying plants on the landing. Such a surreal process to create a world that feels completely real but is completely fake.
“I’ve worked in advertising and been on sets, but I never experienced it as much before as I did on this one. And presumably it’s now back to being a beautiful, modern, bed-and-breakfast again.”
Aside from a visit to the house, though, the writer had no involvement with the film process. She saw the finished movie at the end of May/start of June, and says director Kevin McDonald (whose CV includes The Last King of Scotland) was very wary about how she’d react.
“When I went in to see it, he was standing in the bar as I came out, looking absolutely petrified!”
So what did she think?
“I was slightly in shock after seeing it for the first time, because a lot of it wasn’t what I (expected). I had to get my head around it. It wasn’t until the second viewing when I started to think ‘Oh yeah, this really works.’
“I really do like it. But if anyone’s going to have an image of the book in their head, it’s going to be me. There were certain things I didn’t really understand why he had done them that way, but overall I could tell. All around me were people in tears, and I was on the edge of my seat for the whole thing.
“For me, it was a very internal process – I hear Daisy’s voice all the way through – whereas he had to externalise the war. It’s a very dark film, very shocking, but I think he did a very good job.
“I don’t feel possessive of it. Mostly, I feel ‘Oh, look. How I Live Now is a film…’”
It’s a tricky story to label, she accepts. “And a lot of people are having a lot of trouble with that. Especially the brigade that says ‘What do you mean “This is for teenagers?” This is much too dark for teenagers.’
“In a way, what I love about it is that it’s difficult to pigeonhole in the same way that my books are difficult to pigeonhole. I got an email this morning from someone I know, who said ‘Well, I’m bound to say I’ve read my first of your books’ – this is the new one – ‘and it certainly doesn’t seem like a children’s book to me!’ And of course it isn’t, really. Teenagers aren’t really children, and I’m not writing for teenagers; I’m writing for myself. I’m writing about adolescence – which doesn’t mean it’s all nice, happy, moral.
“It is complicated. I think it will get a lot of press and exposure in this country. What I’m interested in is what happens in America, because America is so completely swamped in violence – both in real life and the cinema – but it’s a cartoon violence; and this is a dark ride. And it’s not Bruce Willis, either. So it will be really interesting to see what they make of it.
“You know, 10 years in production… and it’s perfectly possible for stuff to disappear after a few days. I don’t think it will happen with this film, at least in the UK, but I didn’t know that until quite recently.”
Uncertainties aside, it is satisfying to have had her tale chosen for the big screen.
“Listen, I feel very lucky. I know lots of writers who absolutely loathe the adaptations of their books. The experience of it being turned into a film is a strange one, and you do have to be willing to give it over. But if you don’t want to give it over, then don’t take the money.”
Here’s a question. Meg insists she’s pretty fearless – a few years ago, for instance, she took up horse-riding again and hasn’t been deterred by a number of falls that left her with concussion – but her writing is full of anxiety, upheaval, instability and uncertainty. Is she sure she’s really not very, very scared at her core and that her fiction is therapy?
“I wouldn’t say it that way. I think most of what I’m writing about is the process of self-realisation, maybe. Which sounds very self-help-bookish. I don’t mean that so much as the process of discovering identity – which in so many ways is what adolescence is about: trying to figure out who you are and why you’re here and what you’re going to do.
“And then, along with that, there’s the whole aspect of friendship and love. Who will be my friend and who will love me? There’s that anxiety.”
Such concerns are not just for teenagers, she suggests. Meg knows a fair number of people in their mid 50s who have been doing a job for 35 years and been in a marriage for 25 years, and are experiencing everything breaking down.
“I see a lot of divorces and people are asking a lot of questions again: ‘Will anyone ever love me? And what will I do? I don’t want to be a lawyer any more. I don’t want to be a teacher any more. What will I do next?’
“Suddenly we’re getting into the same kind of questions as you get with adolescents. I never thought those questions went away at the age of 19; they continue through life. They just go in and out of importance.”
Meg’s new book, Picture Me Gone, has related themes. It’s about a 12-year-old who goes with her father on a road trip across America, looking for his missing best friend.
Mila is a sensitive girl, spotting the small signs, hearing the unspoken words and reading the subtle atmospheres of life that adults often miss, and coming up with her own understanding of the world.
“Picture Me Gone is a very quiet book. I love it, and it wasn’t one of the really painful ones to write. It’s a very personal, very gentle and insightful book, I think; but that doesn’t mean anyone’s going to read it!”
Come, come. Chances are it will do well, like its predecessors, and that literary life will continue to go swimmingly.
“Let’s talk in 10 years,” says Meg, before a sharp intake of breath.
“See, I just had a spasm of panic when I said ‘Let’s talk again in 10 years’! The image that flashed before my eyes was me in rags, living in a gutter. Seriously. But then I think writers are by nature depressives. We probably all see the future as doom!”
So there is a well of anxiety underneath your “fearless” exterior, isn’t there?
“Yeah, yeah…” she laughs. “Definitely.”