With the last time she drove us anywhere fresh in my mind, I don’t phone Meg Rosoff from the tube station for her to pick us up. Besides, it’s a short and nice walk, although the weather is wet and it’s a bit dark. The photographer grumbles a little, but that’s only to be expected from the young.
‘When did we last see each other?’ We come to the conclusion that it must have been at last year’s Puffin party. Meg looks better than ever, and I’m sure she has lost weight. She says she worried about being too heavy for her horse, now that she has taken up horse riding with a vengeance.
Having thought a lot about what to ask her, I mention this, and Meg says that Paul, her husband, had said she should interview me. ‘I think he’s right, actually. I showed him what your blog said about the last time we met, that you should start a blog, and because he didn’t know anything about book blogging, he said “publishers should send her books”. I said they do…’ And we laugh.
‘This is the first book launch I’ve had where I really felt that the weight of the bloggers is at least as heavy if not heavier in a way than other reviews. If you miss the paper that day, it’s gone. Bloggers are all over the place. Do you take milk?’ as she pours mugs of tea. ‘Which mug would you like?’
I pick the spotty Cath Kidston mug (so North London), and Meg takes the yellow mug. ‘Shall we eat now? Are you hungry? I have a treat for you. Let’s talk for a few minutes and then I’ll put the treat together.’
As is becoming the norm these days, we move on to talking about Facebook, and the previous night’s Booker prize for Hilary Mantel. I say I’d meant to check who won, before going to bed, but forgot, and the ‘first thing I saw this morning was your post on Facebook.’
‘I’m so happy. I think it’s the best book I’ve ever read.’
‘Yes, I know.’
At this point the photographer accidentally lets off a flash, and Meg asks ‘should she be doing this? I’ve not looked in the mirror…’ We assure Meg she looks fine! ‘I haven’t forgiven you for the last picture…’
‘That’s why I didn’t want to repeat it. If you chat to me and forget she’s there, we’ll get some good photos.’
I return to my little problem of not knowing what to ask Meg.
‘It’s OK, I can talk for Britain’, she replies.
So I start where I sometimes finish; ‘What question would you like to be asked?’
‘Hmm, well, I think a good question in a way is “how on earth I got here from being a nice Jewish suburban American girl obsessed with all these kind of English subjects?” Is that a good question?’
Interestingly it’s the same subject we had been discussing before coming here, so I ask her, if she’d stayed there, would she be writing now?
‘That is such a good question.’ Meg speaks slowly while thinking about her reply. ‘If I’d stayed there would I be writing now? Well, what if? You don’t ever know do you? But it’s a horrible thought to think I wouldn’t be. Because I was so unhappy doing anything else. I couldn’t stay there. I’ve thought a lot about this whole subject of why some people stay and why some people go. You know, all three of my sisters stayed within fifteen minutes of where we grew up. Why do people leave? What is it that drives people to leave? Because most people don’t want to leave.’
‘There’s such a huge percentage of people who married the boy next door, as well.’ Here Meg lets her thoughts run ahead, and she says ‘I trust you not to ruin what’s left of my tattered reputation.’ She mentions the Pop Bitch blog, and says how she’d like to write an anonymous blog like that. And then Meg’s off on some gossip that mustn’t be repeated, which instantly makes this interview rather shorter.
‘Could you base a book in America?’
‘I keep trying, but it’s too close. I’ve got too much fury in a way about America.’
We agree that in Britain we’re both outsiders, and can say what we like. ‘We’re grateful in a way for being adopted, but also you can be quite critical, and quite affectionate, at the same time. Which is harder with your homeland. Don’t you find?’
I do, and I add that changing languages makes some things easier to say, too.
Meg’s two dogs, Juno and Blue, are in and out of the kitchen as we chat, and I tell her I would like more dogs in her books.
‘I think you’re a rare person.’
‘But you have such nice dogs!’
‘Ye-es,’ she sighs, ‘you see I’m frightened really that the dog will take over. Dogs are better than horses, but there are enough people who get that look on their face when you say “yes it’s got lots of dogs and poachers” and you think “maybe no, not so many dogs in my stories.”’
‘The Bride’s Farewell is particularly nice because it has both the dog and the horses.’
‘That’s kind of why I went back to the 19th century, because you didn’t have cars then and you could just stick with the dogs and the horses and all that. I just really like that aspect of England. Someone was saying to me “how did you write about 1850?”, and I said “well, the thing about England is if you squint at it now you can see it. It’s the same!” We were in Birmingham at the weekend and there was a Morris dancing festival. Normally you would run away as fast as you could, but my daughter Gloria was completely obsessed with it and really, really loved it. Suddenly, you just squint at Morris dancers and you’re instantly back in Thomas Hardy. I have to say the footwear was amazing. I must look it up on the internet because I want a pair. Kind of really old-fashioned clogs, with a great bunch of silver bells on them. They were just divine, with slightly pointy toes. Beautiful. Just fantastic. It’s all there, isn’t it? You just have to kind of squint.’
‘And most of the houses were there.’
‘I went to Nomansland in the New Forest, rather a nice little place really. A teeny, tiny place, with a bunch of 1950s council houses. But behind the houses, there they were, you know. Four or five absolutely ancient tumble-down, thatched cottages. Two or three hundred years old, still being lived in. So yes, I like that. There’s no history in America.’
‘They get a little intense about it.’
‘Yes. “Oh look, history!”’ Meg laughs quietly.
‘Your American background suggests you might have been influenced by Little Women, or by Anne of Green Gables, or were you the one who had never read Anne?’
‘My mother’s favourite book was Little Women, and the four of us, we were practically called Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy, so we all hated it, on principle.
Anne? I know we did a family trip to Prince Edward Island, which was a practice trip. If we passed the practice trip, then we were going to go to Europe next time, but we failed. So we didn’t.’ She laughs.
‘That sounds sensible, actually.’
‘I remember my father shouting; “look at the view, dammit!” I mean, my mother was a great reader, but I don’t actually remember it. I’ll have to ask her. I read it to Gloria. But LM Montgomery is a quite purple writer. Too many adjectives. No, I was influenced more by A Wrinkle in Time (by Madeleine L’Engle). I must get you a copy. It’s never been out of print since it was first published. It’s one of the most beloved books in America, and the main character is called Meg. She’s got frizzy hair and glasses, and doesn’t quite fit in, and they had to travel in space to save her father and it’s an absolutely amazing, amazing book. I’ll see if I’ve got an extra copy. It’s got my favourite line in it. There’s a witch, and the little brother gets her spectacles, for extra vision, and to Meg the witch gives her faults. “Well, that’s what you’re getting”, and of course it’s the faults that save her. What’s extraordinary is when I read it, I knew that that was just the most important line, and forty years later I still think it’s the most important line. Isn’t it nice to be consistent?’
‘Also, kids forget that kind of thing, don’t they? Your faults are at least as important as your gifts. I tell myself that every time I put my foot in my mouth.’ She laughs.
‘Are you actually named Meg?’
‘Margaret. I’m so much not Margaret, that I don’t even use it on my bank account any more. I think I’m just named Margaret in order to be Meg, and in those days you could do that. So yes, it’s Meg, which suits me better anyway, I think.’
‘Do you put real people in your books?’
‘Do I put real people in my books? No, never a whole person. I couldn’t do it. I tried. I tried to put a whole villain in my book. In fact, because I was fired so many times, from various jobs, there are some people I hold serious grudges against and being an American I can hold a grudge really well. I believe Anthony Horowitz does it; puts them in and gives them their real name. I’d love to do that, but it just distracts me, and if I had a real world person in a fictional book I’d get all confused. But I use slices of people, or just a characteristic that I then clone into a different person.
For instance, I’ve said this before, but my husband is a very soft spoken, kind, funny, but very tolerant person, obviously, or he wouldn’t put up with me, and he’s got a kind of, I was going to say saintly quality, but he’s a very kind person, and I’ve noticed because I’m so much the opposite of that, I have a little bit of an ability to attract the very pure, kind people who obviously need a bit of corruption. They need something evil and awful in their life, and so that kind of slightly pure soul has a tendency to show up in my books. It’s because I admire it so much and I can’t even fight with him, because he’s so loving. That’s quite saying something, because I can fight with anybody.
So people like Edmund for instance, or Peter in Just in Case is a bit of a pure soul. I’m also slightly obsessed with sort of changeling children. Who you do meet in real life. A friend of mine has one, and they are just kind of odd, you know, in the nicest, nicest way. They look at you sideways, they don’t quite think the way everybody else does, they are old souls. So I use that quality, but not absolutely the whole person.’
‘How many books ahead can you see?’
‘Oh, God. I’m like a lemming, walking the edge of the cliff. I’d like to be one book ahead, at least, in my head. At the moment I’m not. I think something changes when you’ve written four or five books. At the moment I’ve got a kind of depression or anxiety. I’ve done four and a half, almost five books in about six, seven years, and every once in a while I get into my bed thinking, “oh my God, what if I live to be 90” – I should be so lucky – “and then I have to write a book every year.” At the moment There Is No Dog, which is not going to be There Is No Dog… We had a conversation about it yesterday and they seemed very adamant that it has to be something better.
So there are themes, there are things that I’d like to write about, things I’d like to talk about, and actually I was saying to my agent yesterday that one of the reasons I’m finding writing so hard this year is because I’m rediscovering my passion for riding. It has been a passion my entire life, but I just haven’t done it. For the first time in my life I’m taking proper lessons. I just love it so much, and it’s all I can think about. Totally stupid, but it has been a huge satisfaction. ( Meg sounds very, very enthusiastic.) I keep thinking if I’d fallen in love when I was very young, everyone would have thought it was a distraction, but when you’re 52 and have fallen for a horse…’
‘They’re just jealous because they don’t have anything to be passionate about.’
‘It’s a wonderful thing to discover at an advanced age. Every time I have a lesson I think that I can still be better, and the better you get, the more you realise you could do. So there’s all of that, and I’m finding it harder to concentrate, and also it’s a difficult book, because it’s about God, you know. My husband said, well you’ve chosen a subject that actually is a bit tricky to grapple with! I’m just worried about not finishing the goddamned thing. It feels like digging a hole. With each book you forget that with every book there is a point where it is like digging a hole. There are times when it is honestly just like moving dirt, and it’s not much fun.’
‘What do the publishers do? Do you get to bring them a book when you’ve written it?’
‘They make it clear what they want, but nobody gives me anything as gross as a deadline. That’s the privilege of having started with a bestseller. If I had started with any other book, I would have had a much more conventional trajectory. I’ve been very good, and very responsible about getting them in. Usually the first draft before the summer, and then a much better draft September or October, and then a final one before or after Christmas, for August or September next year. This time, I don’t know. I’m kind of writing my way, I add more characters, I try to make it better. I’m getting into the last quarter of the book now, and I’m just, honestly, praying that it all comes together, and if it does then I will breathe the biggest sigh of relief, and if it doesn’t, then I have to go back again.’ She sighs. ‘But they would like another draft soon.’ Snorts .
‘So far I’ve rather foolishly.., I didn’t really want to be under contract, when I was writing. At the moment the Germans have bought Bride’s Farewell and There Is No Dog, but they want to publish There Is No Dog first, and they paid me for one or both or whatever, and I just find the stress of that absolutely awful. I don’t want to have money for something I haven’t done yet. It just stresses me out completely. I’d rather just write it and they say “OK, that’s lovely”, but again, it’s a balance. For instance I don’t have a contract now in America. My new publisher wants to read There Is No Dog when it’s finished. If they don’t buy it, and it’s reasonably good, probably somebody else will. But, you just don’t know. Some people just write a few good books and then never again. So I don’t take it for granted. I hope that the muse sticks with me.
This incredible thing happened to me. I was triple jumping and going into the third jump, suddenly the horse just went sideways, and I thought a dog ran out in front of us. I went flying on my head and I thought, “well that’s why the horse ran out.” I said “where is the dog?” and everybody said “sit down, there is no dog.”’ Meg laughs. ‘And there was no dog and it was just a weird experience. A thing you will hear a lot if you get into weirdo horse people, is communicating in pictures, and a dog is a prey animal to a horse, and I swear to God, I’m convinced the horse saw a dog, and then I saw that.’
‘That does sound likely.’
‘For my next book; it’s not an idea for a book yet, but somebody was telling me that as the writer you start to see things that nobody else sees. I used to be able to tell when couples were about to be divorced. Quite good at it, and that’s like clever Hans, you know, the horse that used to add up numbers. They proved it was a fraud because he couldn’t add, but what he could do was see the absolutely imperceptible relaxation of its owner, when he got to the right number. In a way that’s just as skilled a response. I’m kind of quite interested in all that, the edges of reality, that sort of stuff.’
‘Yes, definitely witchcraft. How’s yours?’
We talk about sensing things, dreaming of death, things you can’t quite explain. ‘I believe in whatever these feelings are.’
I say I don’t want to feel anything other than that someone is about to win a literary prize. ‘I felt you’d win the Guardian prize; I was so sure of it, I hurried to write to you before the date of the award, because I was so sure you would win. I just knew.’
‘Like the Booker. Hilary Mantel’s book was so good I couldn’t imagine it wouldn’t win.’
‘How much do you read? You always seem to have read so many books; long books.’
‘Ahhhh, I don’t’, she says wistfully, ‘I spend a lot of time… I do tend to read what people send me, even if I read just a little bit, because someone once did it for me, and I think it’s a nice thing to do. You can tell pretty quickly whether you need to read more than two pages. I don’t have a huge amount of time, but it takes up enough time, and I don’t read nearly as much as I’d like, but I read on buses. You can do that in London. There’s nothing else to do. You can’t bring a computer with you. No, I’m very badly read, but I probably talk about the books I have read a lot, and I also try to be fairly selective. There are a lot of books I will have started. There are so many things I can’t quite get through. A lot of it is reading for work. You’re very good; you read a lot don’t you?’
‘I start a lot more than I finish.’
‘Also, I’m such a style snob, that if things aren’t well written, unless they’re well plotted I just … Interesting point how people read. I hate car chases. Even in Harry Potter, I go “oh, not another dwarf, or a three legged dog.” I love all the details about the school and the relationships. I have a bit of OCD about grammar. I hate it when it’s wrong, and I love it when I don’t think about it. It’s beautiful writing when it all flows, without stops. If you have a narrator I want to trust that narrator, and if the narrator can’t spell… I heard somebody on Radio 4 today saying “Labour has less schools than”… I shouted at the radio; “fewer!” Paul said “you’re not correcting the radio again, are you?”’ She laughs. ‘It makes me feel funny to hear “less” when it should be “fewer”. But there you go.’
‘Oh, here comes another dog,’ says the photographer.
‘How do you know it’s another dog?’ I ask. I need to see them next to each other, to tell them apart, rather like matchboxes.
‘Where’s the other one?’
‘There is no dog,’ says Meg, peering under the kitchen table. ‘Shall we have something delicious to eat?’
We talk about not wasting too much of our time on cooking dinner, and Meg says ‘Paul is a lovely man in every way, but he’s not much of a cook, and I’m not much of a cook.’
‘That’s not very useful!’
‘It’s so not useful. Do you hate fruit?’ she asks as she gets the fruit out. ‘I have blueberries, raspberries and strawberries and I’m going to put them on meringues with cream.’
The photographer says ‘I’ll eat the strawberries.’
At this point I decide it could be worth turning off the recording, since listening to three people eat cream meringues isn’t terribly exciting. They are a real treat, and it’s yet another sign of how well Meg looks after her visitors. Mid-meringue there is someone at the door, and it turns out to be the neighbour’s children. They call by on most days to walk the dogs, or to clean the car, but today Meg decides it’s too wet for car cleaning, and borrows a pound off me to pay them for a brief dog walk. She clearly can’t say no.
Her daughter has had braces put in, and Meg suspects there is no point saving a meringue for her. While we wait for her to come home from school, we follow Meg upstairs as she searches for a book, which she can’t find. Meg’s always wanting to give us things, and for some reason the photographer decides to discuss what’s on her birthday wish list, and mentions the Twilight DVD, which I had somehow managed to miss. “Oh, I’ve got a spare’, says Meg and goes to find it. “It’s not everyone I can give a slightly used Twilight to’, she says with satisfaction.
I go searching to see if Meg’s got a piano, and she does. I have read several times that she considers it a good day if no piano has fallen on top of her, so wanted to know if she can supply her own piano. And while the photographer persuades the dogs to pose, I admire Meg’s fire building skills. The family make the most of what they find, and earlier Paul came in, soaking wet, carrying some wood he’d found.
The walls of the house are covered in art, but not Paul’s, for some reason. It’s his artist friends’ work, mostly. And speaking of friends, I have to ask Meg if she only has new friends, in the book world. She mentions them often, and they clearly mean a lot to her. Meg says that she doesn’t have that much contact with people from her old jobs, and there is the fact that she kept getting the sack. And then she’s off on more tales from the advertising world.
Since I wasn’t really serious about my earlier comment on Meg’s driving – or not very much – we are happy and grateful to accept her offer to drive us to our next destination, which she is almost sure she knows how to find. I think maybe you need to be as carefree as Meg, to drive round central London and stay sane. And this time there was no road rage.
(Photos by H Giles)