Which doesn’t mean I didn’t worry about the reception Just In Case would get, but I couldn’t exactly treat it as a life or death issue. That year gave me a kind of ‘one foot in front of the other’ philosophy towards most things, including writing. Just In Case didn’t come nearly as easily as How I Live Now, but I just kept plugging away until (about 50 draughts later) it came out right. Of course, after 50 draughts, I had no idea whether it was any good or not. As we used to say in advertising, “it ain’t funny till everyone laughs.” So I’m waiting to see if everyone (anyone!) laughs.
Just in Case is about a boy who is convinced that Fate is out to get him. Why did you decide to explore the idea of fate?Is anyone NOT obsessed with the idea that life can pivot around a single moment or event? I’ve instinctively collected those “pivots” over the years, news stories about the tourists who were struck by lightning and found reduced to ash under a tree in Hyde Park, or the child who died falling off a swing, or the man who won the lottery, bought the Maserati he’d always wanted, and then drove it off a cliff a few weeks later and died. Fate is chaotic and unpredictable, I don’t believe there’s any order or pattern to it (you might guess that I’m not a terribly religious person…). I believe that the idea of fate as a conscious or directed force is a kind of madness, or perhaps the result of a depressive delusion. (And of course, as the character of Fate points out in Just In Case, he isn’t all bad. Life can pivot in amazingly positive ways too.)
If you were to reinvent yourself in order to escape fate in the same way that David does in the novel, how would you like to reinvent yourself?I suppose I have reinvented myself over the past few years – in the opposite way to Justin. I’ve spent most of my life trying to wear a persona that didn’t quite fit and when I started writing books, it was like finally becoming the right person. Though of course that doesn’t answer the question. I think I’d reinvent myself as a Tibetan yak herder and live in a yurt in the high plains in the Himalayas. That would be perfect.
Just in Case evokes the spirit of Richard Kelly’s cult film Donnie Darko. Did this film have an influence on your writing or did other films or books have a greater influence?I loved Donnie Darko though I’m not sure I entirely understood it (did anyone?). Donnie Darko was a strange disaffected teenager, as is Justin, but Justin’s madness is more specific – something happens that makes him realize suddenly how terrifying the whole structure of human existence is, and he has to find a way to live with that realization. I’ve started other books with a specific poem or song in mind (How I Live Now was originally based on a Talking Heads song called Life During Wartime), but Justin emerged from deep inside my brain – the place that tells me how lucky any single person has to be to get through any single day intact.
You have an unnerving ability to climb inside the mind of a teenage protagonist and get it just right. Why do you think you understand the workings of a teenage mind so well?It’s not from observing teenagers, it’s from being one. Like many other people of my generation I don’t think I ever really bothered to grow up. I wasn’t ever really a proper teenager until I was about 19, and maybe I got a bit stuck there, because it seemed to go on and on. I’m not proud of this, but then, who gets over all this stuff at 19 anyway? The kind of lack of clarity about the world that Justin grapples with is something most of us struggle with our entire lives.
Just in Case is written in the third person as opposed to How I Live Now which was in the first. Did you find this easier or more difficult?I find the third person much more difficult to write. It’s like directing a play with a whole cast of characters as opposed to producing a one man show.With first person you just crawl inside one person’s head and watch the world unfold around that person, see what they see, interpret as they would interpret. Trying to organize a whole bunch of characters all running around an imaginary landscape, each with his or her own story, is my idea of hell. I need a sheepdog to keep them all from running off into other books.What are you writing next?I’m working on another novel called The Dark Ages about two boys in the 1960s – one at a miserable minor boarding school and the other living on his own in a hut on the beach. It’s about falling in love (as usual) and the kind of deep friendships that form with members of the same sex when you’re about 15. It’s also about gender, and all those precise ideas about what men and women should be, as opposed to all the blurry reality of what they are. First person again, so no sheepdog required.
You are an American who has so far only written novels with a UK setting. Any plans to write about your home country?I’ve been away from America for 17 years now and it’s becoming something of a foreign place to me, though many of my friends back in America feel pretty much the same way. I like writing about England because I have a foreigner’s distance and a resident’s sympathy for life here, unsullied by all the emotional baggage of a native. I’m not sure I can write about America for the same reason I’m not sure I can write about adults – I have no critical distance on either place.
How I Live Now is a story of love, chaos and grief told through the eyes of 15-year-old New Yorker Daisy. Get to know author Meg Rosoff now with our quick fire questions.
Who or what always puts a smile on your face?My daughter.
What are you reading at the moment?Straying attention means I’m reading Gertrude Jekyll The Making of a Garden, Sienese Painting (1278-1477) by Timothy Hyman, and The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard – at alternate sittings.
Which author do you most admire?I admire explorers like Maurice Herzog or Wilfred Thesiger – climbing mountains or crossing the empty quarter of the Sahara with nothing but dates and camel vomit to eat, and then writing it down.
What’s your earliest memory?A nightmare about a gorilla.
What is your greatest fear?Not being able to breathe.
How would you like to be remembered?I don’t think I care.
Have you even done something you’ve really regretted?I regret having hurt people.
How do you spoil yourself?Sleeping.
What’s your favourite word?I love the sound of ‘assuage’. Deeply ironic, given my personality…
Who do you turn to in a crisis?My husband.
What makes you angry?Cruelty and stupidity.