You landed in the young adult niche in 2004 with How I Live Now. What brought you to write for young adults precisely?
People often say their subject or audience chose them, rather than vice versa. I wrote a “practice novel” —a horse book— which was all I thought I was capable of writing, and with that book found a wonderful agent who had just switched over from editing at Oxford University Press. She had a new young adult list, so I always felt I slightly stumbled into YA writing, but I don’t think it’s that simple. I wrote my junior thesis at Harvard on Edith Wharton’s Age of Innocence, a coming of age story. My favourite works of literature are nearly all secretly YA—Pride and Prejudice, Henry IV, Hamlet, The Sword in the Stone, The Brothers Karamazov…. Adolescence has always been my subject, though I’m not sure it will be forever. I feel more that I’m writing ABOUT adolescence than writing FOR them. But there’s a degree of crossover in who my books appeal to.
You wrote How I Live Now which was your first novel at 46. What happened to make you write?
My sister died of cancer in 2001 and I wrote my first novel the following year. I suppose I thought I had put it off long enough and would (relatively) soon be dead myself. I didn’t want to spend my whole life working in advertising —a job I despised— so I figured I’d better bite the bullet and try to write a book.
How I Live Now tells the story of an American teenager caught in the outbreak of a third world war while staying in England. What inspired you to create that constellation of characters and incidents?
I came to London at 19 and it changed my life entirely, so Daisy is based to some extent on me, and my realisation that the world was much bigger than the American suburbs and Harvard University. I felt almost ecstatic with discovery that year, and also fell in love for the first time. Twenty five years later, I wrote How I Live Now—combining that first discovery of England and love with the fact that we were in the run up to the invasion of Iraq by America and the UK. As I began to write, I suddenly had a terrible image of what that invasion might do to the feelings of first or second generation British citizens whose heritage was from that part of the world. In the event, I think I was right. It has had a horrific fall-out.
How I Live Now won the Printz Award, Just In Case got the Carnegie Medal and Picture Me Gone was a finalist for the National Book Award for Young People's Literature. How has this recognizition affected you and your writing?
Every writer likes recognition and it helps with reputation, which helps you get published—particularly if you're pushing boundaries and writing somewhat difficult or uncategorizable books. So yes, I very much enjoy the prizes, but always keep some distance from believing them to be really meaningful. My job is to write what I write, what I’m proud to write, what I think is good. If someone else recognises the quality of what I write, I’m very happy. If they don’t, I try not to be too concerned. My job is to write the best books I can write and I try to concentrate on that.
How I Live Now was made into a movie recently. Were you involved in the project? How do you feel about the final result?
I was barely involved in the project at all. I enjoyed watching its evolution over ten years, enjoyed watching the film, but never really thought of it as having very much to do with me.
In Picture Me Gone Mia is a remarkable young lady. She feels very mature for a 12-year-old, probably because her ability to see the details made her wise. But she is nevertheless 12 and she shows her innocence. How did Mila come to life? Why her Sherlockian ability?
Like half of Britain, I was obsessed with the new Benedict Cumberbatch Sherlock that’s been on TV over the past five years or so. I’ve always loved Sherlock Holmes’ ability to see more in a scene than anyone else; it’s a wonderfully appealing talent and merely an exaggeration of natural human abilities. So I gave Mila a bit of Sherlock’s talents. I’m very interested in watchful children—my own daughter has extraordinary emotional perceptiveness and intelligence, something she didn’t inherit from me! The combination of innocence and the ability to pick up subtle clues is a quality peculiar to children (and animals).
The parental relationship between Mila and Gil (and also Marieka) is very special, quite atypical in comparison with the other parental relationships in the book. Why so? What was the decision behind that parental relationship?
I get tired of all the parents in YA books being villains, bullies or fools. The terrible destructive ignorant parents you see again and again are a boring and demeaning cliché in YA books. On the other hand, parents do make terrible mistakes without meaning to—that interests me much more than the parents who ignore their children or bully them.
Your novels differ a lot from one another and you have touched several themes in your books. What can we expect in the future?
I’m just finishing a book about a 23 year old living and working in New York City—in the wrong job with the wrong girlfriend. It’s my first flat out comedy and it was great fun to write. I have no idea what I’ll do after that….sometimes I shock even myself when my next subject emerges.
All your characters have an unusual way to see life, family and friends. How much of Meg Rosoff is inside them?
My characters are nearly all me in some form or another. Who else would they be?