Today the film adaptation of Meg Rosoff’s crazy-good debut novel, How I Live Now, hits theaters. The YA book drops prickly, steel-spined American teen Daisy among cousins she’s never met in the English countryside, including Edmond, with whom she falls in love. But after England is effectively taken hostage by an unnamed country, her coming-of-age story unfolds against a backdrop of occupation—and her fight to be reunited with Edmond, who may or may not be dead.
The film, starring Saoirse Ronan and George MacKay, and directed by Kevin MacDonald, offers a raw, edgy take on Rosoff’s narrative, marked by incredible performances by its young cast and bewitching visuals of a country under siege. I recently spoke with Rosoff about the film, the writing process, and the importance of voice in fiction.
A lot of YA is very plot-driven, but How I Live Now is so voice-driven. Did you start off with your plot, or did you start with Daisy?
I never start out with plot. Having written six novels now, if I have even a vague idea what the book is going to be about, it’s pretty radical for me. Usually I start with either a single line, or in the case of Daisy, it was really the sound of her voice in my head. I actually first started writing it in the third person, which lasted about a day. But the minute I started writing in her voice, I thought yeah, I’ve got it.
I was working with a New York illustrator called Sophie Blackall at the time, and I sent her an email that said, “Dear Sophie, I’m writing the great British novel. It’s really boring, I think I’ll throw in World War III.” So because I’m really lousy at plot, I just took the oldest children’s book plot in the world: a kid goes to live with another family. And I was writing during the period in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq by the U.K. and the U.S., and it was a very frightening time. So that was really echoing around in my head, and whatever’s echoing around in your head comes out in your book.
Did you set out to write a YA book?
It was kind of by mistake. I wrote a practice novel, a horse book, and it became very, very dark. My agent said, “I don’t think I can sell a horse book with so much sex in there.” I said to her, “If it’s supposed to be a book for teenagers, what are the rules?” She told me that really there are no rules—just write the fiercest book you can write and I’ll sell it. Even as an intelligent feminist who grew up in the 60s and 70s, it was almost the first time anyone had said to me, “just be as fierce as you possibly can.” And I just unleashed the floodgates. And I still do when I write. I say to people, “You’re not trying to write a best-seller, you’re trying to write a book that resonates, that really breaks glass.”
So I was not writing for an audience at all, and I never have written for an audience. I always think I’m writing about adolescents rather than for them, and I think that’s why my readers, certainly in the U.K., are at least half and half (teens and adults).
How involved were you in bringing the book to the screen?
We sold the film rights before the book was published, and I wrote the first screenplay. The first director signed up for it was Thomas Vinterberg, who did Festen, and he had cast an almost completely unknown actress called Kristen Stewart. I was really upset when I heard she was in some low-budget vampire thing, because I thought she wouldn’t be able to do How I Live Now. So it went through a lot of incarnations, and by the time Kevin (MacDonald) was involved, I wasn’t very involved with it at all. I went on set a few times, I met all of the actors, who I really liked, so I was involved in a nice way, but not a responsible way.
Can you describe the experience of seeing your work on the screen? Did it feel close to you, or did it feel altered?
Possibly the weirdest moment was when I went into the house that they shot in, which was a complete art director’s artifice. All the peeling wallpaper, the funny junk, the unmade beds were stuck there by an art director, and that slightly freaked me out, because that house was in my head, and they had somehow managed to create it. In terms of the characters, they were all different from the way I saw them. I felt it was apart from me—it was Kevin McDonald’s version of a book I wrote 10 years ago, and I didn’t expect it to be a literal translation. The first time I saw it I was a little shocked by some of the differences. The strength of his film comes from real raw power, whereas the strength of my book came from emotional power. But by the time I saw it the second time, I was forgetting my own vision and looking at his, and I thought it worked amazingly well. I was pretty carried away by the power of it. And also by the acting: those kids were just astonishing, and what you saw on the screen was real. He had them together for a month rehearsing, and they bonded unbelievably. And of course Saoirse and George, who played Daisy and Edmund, really did fall in love on set.
The revision in the film that surprised me the most was the throwaway line saying that Daisy and Edmund weren’t biological cousins (as they are in the book). Do you feel like that detracts from what you were trying to do, or is it just a shift that had to happen to make it palatable for film audiences?
You know something? That’s not in the U.K. version. I haven’t seen the American version, but I was wondering whether they’d make changes in that way. People are so freaked out by the whole cousin thing. You can hear people go “ew,” but I never thought about it, it never occurred to me that people would make a fuss about it. If anyone had said, “The world is going to be freaked out by the fact that they’re cousins,” I’d have changed it. It wasn’t like I set out to write a book about incest. But it seemed natural to me: They had never met, they lived thousands of miles away, and who do you fall in love with? You fall in love with the person who’s there, and who you connect with. In terms of my writing, I certainly wouldn’t shy away from something like that. I’m quite interested in things that other people find strange. And not for the sake of tear-jerking, like the cancer books that are written about kids. For the sake of the fact that life doesn’t always turn out the way you think it will.
Prior to becoming a fiction writer, you worked as an advertising copywriter. How did that affect the way you approached the job of writing fiction?
I was never suited to advertising, and I was fired 5 or 6 times, generally for insubordination, but I learned so much from doing it. Deadlines are good, and also that arc, that being able to see a bit of a rough trail from the beginning of the book to the end of the book has just proven invaluable. And I realize I do it naturally now. Also, writing in the fewest words possible. In advertising, you’re selling stuff to people that they don’t want. You have to be entertaining, you have to grab them, and you can’t assume that your audience is waiting for you.
Has it made you impatient with the idea of writer’s block?
I used to be impatient with writer’s block, and I used to say to people “It’s a job, just get out there and write,” but I find more and more that I have to wait for (my novels), that they percolate in my brain. I finished Picture Me Gone a year and a half ago, and nothing’s really happened since then. Finally I got really fed up and sat down and made myself write a novel, but it just didn’t work, it never really came alive. And then a couple of weeks ago, I woke up with the first line for a new novel in my head, and I knew it was the one. It’s a very weird and magical process, writing, and you depend a lot on what’s going on in your subconscious, I think, if you’re doing it well. And sometimes it won’t be rushed.
I just finished Picture Me Gone, and I noticed some parallels between Mila and Edmund, their kind of magical quality, and I’m curious why you’re drawn to creating that kind of character.
I feel that I’m kind of a dark, complicated, twisted kind of person—you know, in a nice way, a friendly, lovely way—but for some reason that I’ve never quite been able to understand, I’ve always attracted very pure souls as close friends. They’re rare. Piper and Edmund in How I Live Now are definitely that type, and Daisy is much more twisted. I love that juxtaposition. The contrast between the dark and the light is I think a very interesting one.
When you write, do you tailor your reading to what you’re writing, or are you just a magpie about it?
I’m pretty magpie-ish. If I’m really heavily into writing I don’t read as much, or I read nonfiction. I can hear my brain, I can smell it burning sometimes just trying to figure out plot, and I’m thinking about it all the time. But most of the time I’m not that distracted—like right now, I’m reading Far from the Tree, I’m rereading Lucky Jim, and a graphic novel called The Playboy. I usually have three or four novels on the go. Whatever I grab when I leave the house tends to be what I’m writing. You do hear writers say they don’t read very much, or they don’t want to distract from their own voice, but I think it’s the most important thing to read a lot, just to see what people can do. I was so excited by Hilary Mantel—Wolf Hall has the most amazing, radical voice, and I just found it so inspiring. It made me think, “What can I do? What can I do next?”
What are your votes for the great narrators in fiction?
They’re not always first person. I think Thomas Cromwell in Wolf Hall is just astonishing. Going back to my childhood, I think the books I loved best were A Wrinkle in Time, A Separate Peace, The Chosen, Harriet the Spy. When I teach voice I talk about poetry a lot, because you get incredibly powerful voices in poetry. I love reading early 20th-century adventure writing, because the voices are so direct and so unsentimental. For me voice is the most important thing in a novel. There’s a reason writers are often very dark, because they’re looking at stuff in the dark places, in the unconscious, and if you don’t pay attention to all that—the stuff you dream about, and the stuff you don’t want to think about, the things that aren’t all lovely and cheerful— then your work doesn’t have the kind of resonance it should. For me real voice doesn’t need much plot. Real voice is about how people feel and live and how they negotiate the world, and that is really what interests me.
Are you planning to see How I Live Now?