Thursday, September 29, 2011

Talking with Meg Rosoff, Author of How I Live Now

If you are a regular Carpe Keyboard reader, you know I had a minor addiction to post-apocalyptic YA fiction a few weeks ago. One of the novels I read during that genre marathon was Meg Rosoff’s How I Live Now.

Ms. Rosoff generously agreed to a CP interview. We discussed one of her many novels as well as the writing life she leads.

Welcome, Ms. Rosoff!

Carpe Keyboard: I thought How I Live Now was a beautiful story about family, loss and love. I was particularly interested in the shift in Daisy’s voice from the bulk of the story to the last section where we find out she’s been recovering back in NY from her war experiences. Voice for YA fiction is such a tenuous thing – and difficult for many writers to feel that they have captured an authentic young person’s voice.

How did the shift come about as you wrote this story? Did you plan all along to show Daisy’s changes and growth that way? Or was it more organic and her voice changed as you got to the end of the story?

Meg Rosoff: I don't really plan my books, so the voice develops in a completely organic way. The shift in voice was useful to indicate that time had passed, and Daisy had changed considerably from her younger self.

Why did you choose to have Daisy fall in love with her cousin? At first, I was taken aback, as an adult reader, when I realized how much Daisy and Edmond were in love. On the other hand, their situation and circumstances made their love story seem plausible. Did you have any negative feedback or concern from your agent, editor, or readers about this unconventional love story?

I'm fairly astonished that people endlessly commented on the cousin aspect of the relationship and not the fact that Daisy and Edmond were 15 and 14 at the time they were having sex. Almost no one (in the US particularly) worries about Daisy and Edmond being underage, but lots of readers freak out that they're cousins. Marriage between cousins is a traditional method of keeping dowry in the family and not "marrying out" -- it's not illegal in most places (UK and most US states as well) and I was really surprised at the reactions by some readers. It never occurred to me that it would bother anyone.

So much of How I Live Now was about family. Family to Daisy meant a distant father and an antagonistic step-mother…until she met Penn and her cousins. It was as if, in the midst of this time of war, Daisy uncovered a fundamental truth about family in a way that changed her life.

Were you writing Daisy’s story to send a message specifically about the importance of family? Were you inspired by your own life experiences or other stories to focus on meaning of family with this book?

I don't write books with agendas or to send messages. I'm interested in love, the complexities of relationships within families, adolescence, identity and coming of age, so that's what I explore in my writing.

What tools do you use when you write? Do you outline? Plot on index cards? Write character sketches?

None of the above. I plunge in and see what happens.

When do you carpe your keyboard? What are your writing habits?

I write almost every day, for most of the hours of the day -- when I'm not walking dogs or riding horses or (occasionally) paying attention to my daughter and husband. Some days/weeks/months i don't accomplish very much. I'm a very fast writer, so once I know where I want to go, I get there. Plot gives me a lot of trouble, and all my downtime is spent figuring out where to go next. I also waste a vast amount of time on facebook and wandering around on the internet or blogging (

Any advice for hopeful writers who want to “break in” to the business?

 Ha! Everyone's saying the book is dead. I don't think it is dead, but it is morphing into something a bit different. The best advice I can think of for getting published is to write something really really good. Publishers are (still) gagging for good books.

Check out Meg’s blog and her website to learn more about her other stories. You can read up on her latest novel, There is No Dog. Sounds like a great one!

Thanks so much for spending some time with us, Meg.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Yellow tears and skies the color of milk

I love fall. I love the colors associated with it – the ruby leaves, the khaki colored soybean fields ready for harvest, the blue, blue sky set against the still emerald grasses. When I was a kid, I used to love keeping tabs on the big crabapple tree that stood outside my bedroom window. I watched it shift from its deep green robes of summer to the confetti celebration of fall before my very eyes.

Maybe this is why, as I’m reading Markus Zusak’s Prinz Honor book, The Book Thief, I’m falling in love a little bit with his use of color. Somewhere in my head, I’ve always known that writing about any of the senses – the experience of color included – grows flesh on writing. But Mr. Zusak’s colors don’t just build virtual flesh. His use of color changes tone. Punches you in the gut. Whispers secrets in your ear. Sneaks under your skin and raises the hair on your arms.

Mr. Zusak writes of yellow tears and skies the color of milk. He shows us “orange and red embers” that  “looked like rejected candy” after a horrible bonfire. Liesel, our heroine, sees the “skull-colored part” in Hitler’s hair at a rally. Even light illuminating a man’s deathbed is “gray and orange, the color of summer’s skin.”  

Here are some others:

“A star the color of mustard was smeared to the door.”

“Still, with red tongues and teeth, they walked down Himmel Street, happily searching the ground as they went. The day had been a great one and Nazi Germany was a wondrous place.”

“The book was hot and wet, blue and red – embarrassed – and Hans Hubermann opened it up.”

Have you found examples of color used to bring such power to writing? Do you consciously work on including color – and other sensory details – in your writing?

Think in emeralds and rubies, sapphires and brass today when you sit down to write. Color your sentences with the deep red of blood or the glow of orange from a jack-o-lantern’s eyes.

Or can you color other senses? Can the sting of a bee feel a certain color? Can the scent of mildewed and rotting leaves smell a certain color? What about the heat of the sun on the back of your neck or the sound of rain dripping against a cold window pane?

Write today. Write with all of your senses – and use the colors of fall as your inspiration.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Landing softly on a hard day

On this anniversary of 9/11, I find myself searching for something soothing. Something that will ease the ache of the horror I remember vividly – even though I was a thousand miles away from the Twin Towers and felt like a spectator, powerless and destroyed at some level, watching the events unfold on television.

Without realizing it, I choose a book last night that help a bit. Natalie Babbitt’s Tuck Everlasting – with its lovely language, gentle plot, and wonder at the power of time and the grace of being able to die – provided a soft place for me to land on this Sunday morning.

Ms. Babbitt’s settings are part of what drew me into the story. The contrast between the Foster house and the Tuck’s home – along with the sense of strict order versus jumbled ease… life strangled versus life going on – is powerful in a way I’m sure I didn’t fully grasp when I read this book as a child.

Here is the first glimpse we get of the Foster’s house:

“…a square and solid cottage with a touch-me-not appearance, surrounded by grass cut painfully to the quick and enclosed by a capable iron fence some four feet high which clearly said, ‘Move on—we don’t want you here.’”

Later…we see the Tuck home:

“So she [Winnie] was unprepared for the homely little house beside the pond, unprepared for the gentle eddies of dust, the silver cobwebs, the mouse who lived – and welcome to him! – in a table drawer.”

She goes on to mention “dishes stacked in perilous towers without the lease regard for their varying dimensions”

“every surface, every wall, was piled and strewn and hung with everything imaginable, from onions to lanterns to wooden spoons to wash tubs. And in a corner stood Tuck’s forgotten shotgun.”

In fact, the entire first few pages of chapter 10 (in case you have a copy handy) is one of the best, most comfortable descriptions of a house possibly in all of children’s literature.

For some reason…the controlled chaos, the clutter, and the well-loved, well-lived feeling of that house reminds me of my house when I was a kid. No one ever accused my mom of having a perfectly clean house. (Sorry, Mom!) But it was far better, in my mind, to trip over dogs and toss shoes in a pile and move books from almost every flat surface (even to draw hearts and write my name in the dust on the dresser tops) than it was to visit the house down the street, where the living room furniture was quite sadly covered in clear plastic sheeting and no one was allowed to step on the carpet.

And it probably is also worth noting that I might have found this story soothing today in part, because I think Mae Tuck reminded me of my own mother. Round and soft, full of hugs and ready to feed anyone who walked through the door. Mae even feeds that mouse living in her table drawer with flapjack crumbs after dinner…something my mom would have done in a heartbeat.

At any rate, I am glad to have found some sense of peace in this story, on this day.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

What Can We Learn from The End of the World?

I walked away from the public library with a stack of novels from the YA section last week. Only upon checking out, did I realize I had a theme going on: After The Apocalypse. Each novel was about young people struggling to survive and make sense of life after some horrible event (plague, total natural disaster, unknown set of events) almost eliminated civilization as we know it.

As you might imagine, four novels of the same theme over the course of less than 2 weeks was a little much. By the last one, I had started to see similarities I probably would have missed if I’d read these books over time with other stories in between.

For example:

·         Love story. All of the stories had an element of YA romance involved. (Apparently, love survives even when white bread and hot showers do not!)

·         Young heroines play a major role – and they are TOUGH. (‘Nuf said. Girls rock.)

·         Boys, after the apocalypse, still have strong arms and chests worth resting your hand on. (If you’re a tough girl who really wants to have a boyfriend in the midst of learning how to survive.)

·         Food is really important – and when you’re hungry after a plague or other disaster destroys everything, you’ll eat just about anything.

·         Villains don’t all end up dead when the end of the world as we know it comes. Where there are good guys, there are also bad guys.

·         A journey must be taken, with very little food or water, over treacherous landscapes (deserts, post-earthquake or post-tsunami wreckage, behind enemy lines, etc.).

In the meantime, I also learned a little bit about technique from each of these authors.

From Meg Rosoff and How I Live NowChanging voice in the story is a powerful way to create a distinction between a character’s mental state at different times in their story. Ms. Rosoff’s style for most of this novel is very “stream of consciousness” and rather rambling. (Took some getting used to, honestly.) But the end of the story – clarity is revealed. You discover something about the heroine through not only her words, but how she communicates. Her whole voice coalesces into something new, which fits in with who she has become.

From Jo Treggiari and Ashes, AshesDon’t rely too much on formula or your reader will be able to predict too much of your plot. Unfortunately, I knew early on who the “betrayer” was, who the “perfect guy” was, and who would be the game-changer in this journey. Although I thought Ms. Treggiari had great, gory descriptions of butchering a turtle. (Ick!)

From James Dashner and The Scorch TrialsHow to make the second book in a series even faster and riskier than the first. I didn’t think he could live up to the pace and fear-factor of The Maze, but Mr. Dashner ratcheted up the speed, the terror, and the consequences of everyone’s actions in this one. Breakneck pace. I felt like I’d run a footrace through the Mojave Desert by the time I reached the last chapter.

From Carry Ryan and The Dead-Tossed WavesEven zombie stories deserve poetic language. Like The Forest of Hands and Teeth, Ms. Ryan continues to use lovely language to describe a horror of a world where zombies infect humans and society has been reduced to small pockets of villages connected by fenced-off paths through the forests. In eerie scenes, Ms. Ryan’s storms bring not only the threat of flood and water to this post-apocalypse word – but the threat of the “downed dead” rising from the ocean floor, to awake and seek out victims again.

Have you ever picked a “theme” for a week or a month? Ever focused on a specific genre over and over until you see patterns emerge?

Maybe next week, I’ll pick another literary deep dive. What should I choose?