Friday, May 6, 2011

Meg Rosoff at the Wheeler Centre

on Tuesday evening was as entertaining as expected. She began by speaking about her new book, There is no Dog, coming out in August. The title, she explained, was inspired by the image of a dyslexic atheist standing outside a church with a placard proclaiming 'There is no Dog'. Apparently, in the novel, God is a nineteen-year-old boy who creates a world, but does it badly. He is selfish and self-absorbed and doesn't care terribly much about his handiwork; the second in command, who genuinely cares, is left to clean up the mess.

Meg hit the literary scene with a bang when her first novel, How I Live Now, was published in 2004 and garnered a string of literary prizes, and her subsequent novels have also achieved critical and commercial success.

A Harvard graduate, Meg said that 25 years in advertising was undoubtedly an excellent apprenticeship for becoming a writer, since advertising is about selling people something they neither want nor need - which is pretty much what a writer has to do. After all, 'no one really wants or needs your book. You have to make them think they do.'

Yet for all her humour, Meg has a sincere belief in 'the transformative power of storytelling', saying that 'the story you tell about yourself defines who you are. By changing the story, you can change who you are.'

To questions about her own process, Meg said: 'All my characters are kind of me, in extreme versions.' She admitted she is weak on plot so generally steals her plots from other books. She also said that there is more than one way to write a book - while she has written some books in the first person and it has felt like taking dictation, with other books she's had to struggle, painstakingly building the novel one bit at a time.

Meg spoke about the redemptive power of caring for somebody else, which I understand is one of the main themes she explores in her books. 'Once you're responsible for someone else, it's very freeing, because you can no longer be self-indulgent and self-absorbed.' Her point was that self-absorbtion is actually the cause of a great deal of pain.

Her tips for writers? Try not to use adjectives or adverbs. Aim for economy. Cut your manuscript by one third. Oh, and read a book called The Unstrung Harp by Edward Gory.

She clearly takes her own advice, as the extracts she read from her books were beautifully, sparsely written and superbly crafted.

You may be interested to know that when writing a novel, Meg runs out of steam at around 25,000 words (end of first draft), and the editor (a new one for each book since they always fall pregnant) is beside herself with worry, not seeing how Meg will manage to bring the story to the requisite length for a full-length book. And yet she does. Though her longest book to date was just over 50,000.

When asked her opinion on endings, Meg said only a cheerful person could write an unhappy ending, but that she herself is too depressive to get away with that, and must have an optimistic one. 'I could never write a really awful ending,' she said, 'because then I'd have to go off and kill myself.'

I can't tell you what I think of Meg Rosoff's books as I haven't read them. But I'm certainly planning to read them now.


  1. Sounds like a great time! I'm a little jealous about her ability to write a 25,000 world first draft and a 50,000 word complete one, though. Economy is something I struggle with.

  2. Thanks Robyn! I was so sad I couldn't go but it was my son's birthday. Now I feel like I was there after all! :-)