Memories of childhood summers can be of endless, lazy weeks filled with dreamy possibilities and the joy of freedom.
“Also, the emptiness of time,” the writer, Meg Rosoff tells me via Zoom, while moving around her kitchen feeding her two dogs their lunch. “That sense of everything being suspended is just magical.”
Rosoff channels that spirit of nostalgia in her ninth novel, The Great Godden, which is an evocative, coming of age, summer idyll of a book. Set in a house by the sea (in Suffolk, where Rosoff has a house and where she has been living since February), a family of four teenage siblings and their older cousins have their familiar holiday dynamic disrupted by the arrival of the Godden brothers: Kit and Hugo, the sons of a faded Hollywood actress, who have come to stay.
Kit is utterly charming, mesmerisingly handsome and very seductive — “a kind of golden Greek statue of a youth”. His brother, however, is awkward, rather plain looking and takes the role of a silent observer. Before long, darkness descends on this beach paradise, with long-lasting consequences.
The story is narrated by one of the teenagers, who remains nameless and genderless. But when Rosoff began writing the novel in 2011, she couldn’t focus the narrator and, uncharacteristically, abandoned the book. Returning to it 18 months ago, she then understood that the narrator wanted to stay hidden. “And once I made that decision, the book kind of fell into place.”
The Great Godden is the first in a series of three summer-based stories and reflects a combination of Rosoff’s summers as an adult and as a child, both of which were spent on beaches. “As kids we’d go to Martha’s Vineyard, off Cape Cod and just run wild. Not very much happened in any of my summers, so when you write a book about it, you condense 40 summers into one and add a bit more sex and romance. There certainly wasn’t someone like Kit Godden but there was the [feeling] that anything could happen.”
Rosoff grew up in Boston but has lived in London for decades. She worked in advertising before becoming a writer, springing to fame in 2004 with her debut Young Adult novel, How I Live Now. It won the Guardian Children’s Fiction prize, and was later made into a film starring Saoirse Ronan. She is renowned as a young adult writer but The Great Godden, as with all her novels, can be read by teenagers and adults alike. Indeed, The Times referred to it as, “far too good to be monopolised by the teenage market”.
Her father was a professor at Harvard Medical School and from a young age, Rosoff says she took being surrounded by Jewish intellectuals for granted. “As a child, I knew nothing else.” Being Jewish meant, “being intellectual, clever and educated. It didn’t mean being too religious.” Although she and her three sisters were batmitzvahed, Rosoff has been an atheist all her life but, “it doesn’t make me any less Jewish”. Her daughter, who was brought up more or less without a specific idea of religion, told Rosoff recently that so many of her London friends are Jewish. “When I asked why she thought that was, she said, ‘It’s obvious. Same sense of humour.’”
The Englishness of The Great Godden contrasts with the book she is working on now, which has a strong American Jewish narrative. A second summer novel, it features two Jewish girls, one suburban, one from NYC and is about their friendship over one long hot NY summer. “I can’t write about NYC,” she says, “without it being full of bagels, Zabar’s, Orchard Street and shrinks.”
Rosoff has said she is not a fan of being compartmentalised as a YA author, although the transition between childhood and adulthood is her main area of interest. “It has been pigeonholed as a period between 14 and 19 years but when you think about the questions that adolescents are asking: who am I, what am I going to do with my life, will anybody love me? — that goes on for ever. And even if it goes away for a while, it comes back.” Her previous book, Jonathan Unleashed, a romcom about a hapless 20-something New Yorker and his two dogs, was marketed as an adult book. But for Rosoff, there was nothing fundamentally different about that book from all her other novels.
She says she is not interested in writing books, “to be trendy. I’ve no facility for it.”She bemoans the lack of literary value in YA books, and, to some extent, in picture books, believing that there are never more than a few writers in any category writing books of literary merit. “When I say literary value, I mean Dr Seuss, Maurice Sendak, Madeleine L’Engel, KM Peyton. Genuinely creative, well-written, entertaining, thought-provoking books.”
At one point, the thinking was that YA books had to represent every race, sexual identity or disability, she explains, an agenda that came from Twitter, “woke” writers and publishers seeking to redress a non-diverse history. “But most of all from America, where there’s been a huge amount of internecine bullying, causing books to be pulled from publication etc. It’s been very nasty and doesn’t serve the cause of good, diverse literature, which of course we need more of. But it doesn’t mean that every book has to deal with those topics. First and foremost, you have to write from your soul, from who you are and what you want to talk about.”
I last spoke with Rosoff six years ago and much has changed for her since then. In 2016, she won the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Prize, the international children’s literary award — established by the Swedish government to honour the creator of Pippi Longstocking — one of the richest prizes in literature with its £430,000 cheque. Previous winners have included Philip Pullman and Maurice Sendak. Winning was life-changing, she admits with a sigh. “Mostly in terms of how it made me think about myself as a writer, because I had never in my wildest dreams imagined I would win. I’m not shy or modest about my writing and often [expect to win awards I’m put up for].”
But this one was different. She felt unworthy.
She thought she had to do everything asked of her. “I wanted to prove to them how appreciative and humbled I was to win. I travelled that entire year: giving speeches and talks, visiting Swedish schools, going to Norway and Germany.” Winning wouldn’t affect everyone that way, she muses. “Then you ask yourself, is that typically female? Feeling not really deserving?”
Learning about Astrid Lindgren also had a tremendous impact on Rosoff. “It sounds like the kind of pap people talk when they win a big award, but she was an extraordinary woman who became a great political force and made Sweden the first nation in the world to outlaw hitting children. She constantly was asking the question: why don’t we take children more seriously?”
But the constant travel for the prize, combined with an international book tour for Jonathan Unleashed and going to California six times to see her mother all took its toll. In January 2017, she attended the Women’s March in Washington, misjudged the weather, became ill and has not fully recovered since then. She has been diagnosed with a form of chronic fatigue and says that now, she manages about a quarter of what she used to be able to do. But she does not want to be perceived as being ungrateful. “The prize made a huge difference to the way I think of myself and so many aspects of my life and I would never in a billion years say I wish I’d never won.” Rosoff then apologises for “going on and on about it,” explaining that she’s never really talked about [the win], “as nobody’s really asked.”
Rosoff has thrived during lockdown. She and her artist husband decamped to Suffolk, while their Clerkenwell loft apartment undergoes renovation. This period has been absolute heaven for her, she says. “It’s the first time in 15 years I’ve had an empty diary. That makes it sound like I’m so popular but it’s not even that.” Writing for teenagers usually involves going into schools, giving talks and attending festivals. “And I’m 63, so I’m not desperately trying to get out there and talk to people. I’m well into mid-career,” she says, laughing. “There really isn’t a down side. I love it here.”
As well as her next novel, she has spent the past few months writing the final draft of the screenplay for Jonathan Unleashed, on which she had been working, on and off, for the past four years. Each time she sent her producer a draft, he would tell her, “it’s not there” so she decided to give it one last rewrite. “I thought I’m just going to do it exactly how I want it, take into account his notes and he’ll hate it.” To her surprise, he liked it and said he was going to start looking for a director. But Rosoff is resigned to the possibility that nothing will happen for a while. “Maybe never. But at least the script is there.”
The Great Godden, published by Bloomsbury YA, is out now