Why Meg Rosoff's best-selling teen fiction is secretly so Jewish
This is an exciting time for teen-fiction writer Meg Rosoff. Her novel The Bride's Farewell has just been shortlisted for the 2011 CILIP Carnegie Medal. The manuscript for her next book, due for publication in August, is with her publishers and shooting for the film version of her prize-winning debut work, How I Live Now, is planned for the summer. She has also recently returned from a two-week author trip to China.
Rosoff first arrived on the scene in 2004 with How I Live Now. However its success was double edged. Publication coincided with a breast cancer diagnosis, the disease that had already killed one of her sisters a few years earlier.
The Boston-raised Rosoff confesses to a "very long search for identity" and consequently came relatively late to writing. But with it came an urgency "to be the best in a way that I never felt about anything else that I've done".
In 2007 she was awarded the prestigious CILIP Carnegie Medal for her second book, Just in Case, and recalls being "absolutely struck dumb. For me the Carnegie is the big one because it's the prize for literary fiction and I consider myself a literary writer." Since then she has been shortlisted for numerous other awards. To date she has six fiction novels and three picture books to her name.
She is emphatic that she takes none of this success for granted: "You never tire - ever, ever, ever - because it could all disappear tomorrow. Fear is part of the process and it's what keeps you sharp".
Rosoff fell into writing for the teenage market by mistake - she acquired an agent who had just started a teen list - but is also a believer "that your subject finds you. Adolescence as a subject is very interesting to me. I don't consider that it necessarily takes place between 13-19. In fact between the ages of 20-40 I feel that I was an adolescent in every way. Getting fired all the time, being mouthy, not knowing what I wanted to do with my life". She finds the idea that "you have solved everything by the time you are 21 such a terrible thought".
I've been an atheist all my life but it doesn't make me any less Jewish
Yearning for a sense of belonging, identity and love are recurrent themes in Rosoff's work and she admits to thinking that "all my main characters are me". So when Pell, the heroine of The Bride's Farewell, escapes an impending marriage, it reflects Rosoff's own escape to London 22 years ago from the American suburbs. "I went as far away as I could, as soon as I could," she says. "I hated the suburbs."
Her father was a professor at Harvard Medical School which meant that "all the intellectuals we knew were Jewish. Everybody who was anybody was Jewish but it wasn't so much a religious thing. All four of us were batmitzvahed and I read Hebrew. I've been an atheist all my life but it doesn't make me any less Jewish," she says. "Being Jewish meant being intellectual, being clever, and being educated; it didn't mean being too religious."
At a recent event in Norfolk Rosoff was asked when she was going to write her Jewish novel. The questioner commented that she was always writing around the subject through her themes of belonging and journey. "Always the journey. All that introspection. I was quite excited about that," she says.
Although she acknowledges that these themes are not necessarily Jewish, she feels that Jews are always searching for something, "which I'm not sure that C of E English people do - this is their home, they belong here."
She claims also to have a constant sense of doom. She says that she would never give up her American passport and jokingly adds that she sleeps with it under her pillow because "you never know…"
'The Bride's Farewell' is published by Penguin