In this latest insight into Writers' Minds, J. H. Abrams talks to Meg Rosoff, winner of the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award.

I met Meg Rosoff briefly at the Phillipa Pearce Memorial Lecture in Cambridge, 2015. Proud that I had dragged along my reading reluctant teenage son, even prouder when he asked her a question and said he enjoyed her talk. What’s not to enjoy? Meg is forthright, funny and a great writer, an inspiration to many others, recognized in 2016 when she won the biggest prize in children’s literature – The Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award. Thanks to Meg for answering my questions and confirming one of my favourite places to write, in bed, is one of the best places to write too.

1. Inspiration – where do your ideas for a story come from? Hunter or gatherer?

I’m definitely a gatherer. I don’t ever go out looking for ideas, they sort of drift into my head when I’m not paying attention. Usually they’re subjects I’ve been thinking about all my life — like what determines gender, or why everyone thinks God is such a good guy, and why is he a guy, anyway? My dogs lie under my desk when I work and I’m convinced they write themselves into my plots when I go down to get a cup of tea, so there are usually animals in my books somewhere. Sometimes I’ll finish a book and read it over a few months later, and think, “Wait a minute, I recognise that character! That's someone I haven’t thought about for 20 years!” The unconscious mind is a huge storeroom and things come wandering out of it into my books when I least expect them to.

2. Are you a plotter or a pantster – is there method in your process, or do you fly by the seat of your pants?

I’m absolutely terrible at plotting. I often start with a single line, or just a vague idea and set off from there. It’s the opposite of the way I travel in real life — carefully planning the itinerary before I leave home. So many of my books came from a first line that just came to me on a bus or in a dream: “My name is Daisy but nobody ever calls me that,” or “Jonathan came home from work one day to find the dogs talking about him." When you write a book with no real idea of where it’s going, it surprises you in the most amazing ways.

3. Shed sitter or café dreamer? Where do you write?

I have a lovely little office in my flat, but mostly I write in bed or lying on the sofa. I like the semi-reclining thing. More blood gets to my brain.

4. Do you have any artefacts, mottos or words of wisdom by your desk?

No. Just two big hairy lurchers under my desk who gaze at me balefully when they’re bored or hungry. I do have a favourite quote though, which I stole from Napoleon Bonaparte and keep carefully engraved in my head: "If you set out to take Vienna, take Vienna.” Writing is not for the faint of heart.
Meg Rosoff with dogs Blue and Juno (Photo: Andre Crowley)

5. Target word count per day or as and when it comes?

Definitely no word counts. Once I know where a book is going, I just write and write till I get stuck. Then I bang my head against the wall and write some more.

6. High days and holidays? Do you write seven days a week, or weekends and holidays off?

I almost never take an actual holiday. Partly that’s because so much of my “writing” time is spent on online browsing horses for sale or rescue dog sites, and partly it’s because I do a lot of other stuff, like teaching, visiting prisons, writing articles, filling in questionnaires.... I also travel a huge amount for work, so my idea of a holiday is to sit by the sea in Suffolk (where I share a house with a friend) and write. In many ways, my whole life feels like a holiday. When I’m slaving over the difficult bits of a book, it feels like working on a chain gang.

7. Quill or keyboard? Pen or technology?

Oh, definitely a quill. Every morning I catch a goose, pluck the feathers, slice the quill at a precise angle and… of course I write on a laptop!!! Does anyone in the world still use a pen?

8. Music or silence to write to?

Silence. I can’t walk and chew gum at the same time.

9. Chocolate or wine?

Wine. I’m not a big chocolate fan. Which is not to say I won’t eat a box of chocolates for dinner if it happens to be there and I’m too lazy to cook. Which I frequently am. I’ve been known to eat baked beans with a spoon straight out of the can.

10. Perspiration or inspiration?

Both. There’s an element of panic and fear every time I sit down to write. But when the story is flowing out like music, which it does sometimes, it’s heaven.

11. Where do you find the muse? Any techniques for inspiration?

I think ideas emerge when they’re ready. But having said that, you have to pay attention to your unconscious, because that’s where the ideas live. Listen to your dreams, think a lot about who you are and what you care about. There’s no point writing a murder mystery if you’re not really interested in crime.

12. Do you ever hear your character’s voice in your head? Have you ever seen them in real life?

I do hear voices in my head, but not speaking out loud. Sometimes it feels like my character is living in my head, and I have no control over what he or she will say next. That’s quite an exciting feeling, but I think it’s also the dictionary definition of schizophrenia. If my characters started telling me that I was the messiah, I’d probably seek professional help.

13. If there was one piece of advice or wisdom you could impart to other writers about the craft of writing, what would it be?

Don’t be in a hurry.
How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff, 2004

Meg Rosoff was born in Boston, educated at Harvard and St Martin’s College of Art in London, and worked in New York City for ten years before moving to England in 1989. She worked in publishing, journalism, politics and advertising before writing How I Live Now in 2004. Since then, she has won or been shortlisted for 21 international book prizes (including the Carnegie medal and the National Book Award in America). She was made a member of the Royal Society of Literature in 2015 and awarded the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award in 2016. Meg lives in London with her husband. Her most recent novels are Jonathan Unleashed for adults, Beck with Mal Peet (posthumously) for YA and Good Dog McTavish, her middle-grade debut.

Header photo credit: Eamonn McCabe

J.H. Abrams is an award-winning writer with an MA in creative writing from Birkbeck, where Michael Rosen was her tutor. She's also a ghost memoir writer for Story Terrace and a writer of novels for young adults.

Twitter: @joolsdares
Blog: shewhodareswrites.blogspot.com

Louisa Glancy is a features editor for Words & Pictures.
Contact: writers@britishscbwi.org
Twitter: @Louisa Glancy

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