Saturday, 15 May 2010

An Evening With Meg Rosoff

Yesterday evening, my middle daughter and I went to a book festival event in a lovely old Quaker meeting room. It was in an ancient building I have passed many times and at last I was in there. There was a warm and friendly atmosphere in there under the oak beams, not to mention home-made cakes.

We were there to listen to Meg Rosoff talk about writing. It was wonderful. She is down-to-earth and chatty, sparkly and intelligent. She said many things that I could relate to, but I was too shy, even when prompted, to mention that I was a writer when she asked if any of us wrote. I was just there to absorb her wisdom, I think, not talk about myself. And she was mesmerising company.

Her novel for adolescents, How I Live Now, is one of my favourite books. I couldn't put it aside once I started it. If I picked it up now, I would do nothing else all day but read it. My daughter prefers her other books and is just about to start reading The Bride's Farewell, the latest one. They are all very different, but Ms Rosoff does not consciously make these changes. She just sits down to write, without planning, which she loathes, and sees where the characters take her. She claims to be a bad plotter. Her books are character-led. She usually 'cheats', she says, by using the trusted themes of 'stranger comes to town' or 'a journey'. Her first successful novel, How I Live Now, unwittingly contained both!

She gets the first draft done quickly, so that she can feel the relief of having a beginning, middle and end. She can't wait to show this to her publisher, unpolished and rough though it is. After that, she loves working with words and weaving her own magic with the characters. She claims to be hard to live with because she doesn't like to stop writing, even to cook.

She told of a writer friend, who works in a little room upstairs in his house. When he realises he's wasting time on the internet or gazing out of the window, he imagines his characters sitting downstairs at his kitchen table, saying, "When are we going to do something? When can we get out of here?" The guilt at his neglect of them pulls him back to his writing.

She became an adolescent late, in her twenties, which may be a reason why she can appeal so well to that market. In America, her books are marketed to adults, however. American youth, she says, doesn't read books the way the English do. She is herself an American, who has chosen to live in London and clearly loves it. She meets other writers belonging to the London Writers' group on a regular basis for dinner, but they never talk about writing!

Saturday, 1 May 2010

My Brother

This weekend is the ninth anniversary of my brother's death. He was forty four. Making his way downstairs for a drink of water in the middle of the night, he stumbled and fell all the way down. Unconscious, unable to move, he was trapped in a small area of the hall of his tiny cottage, his chin down on his chest. His wife phoned the emergency services and was advised not to move him in case his neck was broken. However, there were no injuries. He died because he couldn't breathe in that position.

I recall having a slight disagreement with him on the phone three days before his death. He wanted to organise a surprise party for our mother's 75th birthday. He was very excited about the idea, as he always was with ideas like that. I said she would hate it, that she loathed being unprepared and having things sprung on her at the last minute. He was disappointed and I felt bad for deflating his plans. He was a little withdrawn when we said goodbye. But he rang again two days later and said he thought I was right. He was cheerful once more and I was so relieved that I hadn't hurt his feelings after all. That was the last conversation we had.

It is good not to let differences of opinion fester. I have been the world's worst at sulking with people when things don't go my way. But I try not to these days, because you don't know if the chance to speak to that person again will ever come. And I could never have forgiven myself if my lovely brother had died when we were at loggerheads with each other.

He had been having a troubled life, but it was finally coming together for him. He could be infuriating, but was also funny and kind. Once, to help me out, he fed mashed Weetabix and banana to my daughter when she was just about a year old. It was a labour of love because he was repulsed by banana. However, he was actually a little intoxicated at the time. He sat her in the highchair and spooned it all in. Eventually, he announced proudly, "There, she's eaten all that!" He was a bit too unsteady to unstrap her and lift her out. So I did that. And a mountain of mashed Weetabix and banana cascaded from her lap onto the carpet.

He helped with gardening and wallpapering. When we were short of money, he gave us his car for nothing. He had a mischievous sense of humour. There was always a sparkle in his very dark blue eyes. The only child he had was adopted, back in the seventies, because he and his girlfriend were only young at the time. He would have been the sweetest father.

He is often in my stories, or at least many of his characteristics are, and I love and miss him more than I could ever express.

(And at the funeral I discovered he'd already invited everyone to the surprise party before suggesting it to me!)