Interview: Adele Geras

A woman for all ages


"Hunger," says novelist Adele Geras, evoking life in besieged Jerusalem in 1948. "That's my main memory." Just four then, she vividly remembers sitting in the shelter at night hearing the guns, and later the victory parade.

Recalling the shortage of food, she describes how her uncle once managed to get his hands on a tin of sardines and sat all the cousins around their grandmother's big table. "He stood over us with his British policeman's truncheon to make sure the older kids didn't have more than the younger kids."

Geras has more true stories than most to draw on, which might explain how she has written nearly 100 books for children and adults. Born to British Jewish parents in Mandate Palestine, her father's Colonial Service job meant spells in Cyprus, Nigeria and Borneo, among other places, before a return to England, where she married Marxist historian Norman Geras.

And, since 1976, Geras has been charming readers with stories inspired by her experiences - from Other Echoes, set in Borneo, to The Girls in the Velvet Frame, about Jerusalem.

Her latest, her first adult novel in seven years, is Cover Your Eyes, a light but intelligent mystery involving a formidable designer, Eva, and a young reporter.

Geras is passionate about children being taught history through fiction; with her Kindertransport story, Candle in the Dark, she aimed to share "a corner of history which hasn't been written about that much".

Cover Your Eyes is partly about the Kindertransport, although Eva's religion is not touched upon, partly to simplify the plot, but also because "the minute you turn the spotlight on that aspect it casts it as a different sort of book".

Not that Geras hasn't drawn on her heritage. Voyage followed Jewish immigrants sailing to America. Golden Windows was about five generations of Jews in Jerusalem, while My Grandmother's Stories was based on Jewish folk tales. But she has no plan to write "any kind of polemic" about Israel and the Palestinians. "I go no further than 1960," she says. "After that things just got too messy politically."

With family in Israel, she is "heartbroken" when watching the news. "I tremble for Israel's existence," she says, and is especially appalled by boycott attempts. "You can express your anger with any government without boycotting," pointing out that a lot of the academics and writers targeted would inevitably be critics and opponents of the Netanyahu government.

Her late husband figured prominently in the vexed debates about boycotts, much of it on his celebrated "Norm Blog". With the blog's first yarzheit having just passed, Geras says Norman would have been "absolutely gobsmacked" by the tributes paid to him by journalists, and commentators.

With such horrifying events and phenomena as the recent Gaza war and the rise of Isis, Adele Geras is constantly asked: "what would Norm say?"

"I wish he was here to tell us. He would have been very dismayed by the world at the moment."

When their daughters - novelist Sophie Hannah and publisher Jenny Geras - were growing up, "it was hard to get a word in edgeways," says Adele. "Meals did become big debates."

Nowadays, Geras turns to Twitter for that kind of conversation. "I find it consoling. You know how when you read something ridiculous, and turn to your husband and say 'did you see what so-and-so said'. Now, if I have those feelings, I go on Twitter and air them to the world."

Aside from tweeting, Geras is working on two new books. Neither, she says, will be autobiographical. "I don't think I will write a memoir," she laughs. "My life is interesting until about age 10 and, after that, extremely uneventful. I've just sat in a suburban house , writing nice stories, meeting nice people. I'd rather make up exciting things from the safety of my desk."

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