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What I Was

by Meg Rosoff
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An Exclusive Authorlink Interview with Meg Rosoff

Author of What I Was (Viking 2008)

by Ellen Birkett Morris

June 2008

Like many writers, Meg Rosoff always wanted to write a novel, but thought she couldn’t do it. “It was when my sister died, in 2001, and I discovered that my other sister also had breast cancer, that I finally decided to stop hanging around and at least try to write a novel. I’d always compared what thought I could do to the finest novels ever written, so I felt sure whatever I wrote would be inferior. In the end, I wrote a ‘practice novel’ — just to see if I could do it,” said Rosoff.


She wrote a book about horses, a topic she’d read a lot about as a kid. That novel helped her get an agent, who wanted to see another novel.

“That novel was How I Live Now. I was 46,” said Rosoff.

Her latest work, What I Was, is a haunting coming of age story that centers on a boy away at boarding school, who makes a mysterious friend. Like her earlier novels, there are questions about the gender of certain characters, which serve to increase the tension in the story.

“I just start with a few ideas that intrigue me, a character, perhaps, or a relationship. ”

“A friend of mine said once that you don’t know what you’re interested in until you start to write. That has certainly been true of me. So many of my characters have fluid or uncertain gender…probably because I never felt much like a proper girl — in dresses with neatly crossed ankles,” said Rosoff.

“My mother’s repeated admonition to me as I was growing up was to ‘be more ladylike.’ Some people are more gender-ambiguous than others, which is not the same as sexually ambiguous. I always say that between Paris Hilton and Arnold Schwarzenegger, there are a lot of degrees of male and female. I love the edges of things — the edges of reality, the edges of gender, and the places where things start to get a little fuzzy. It’s where all the interesting stuff happens,” she noted.

Exploring the edges has made for compelling fiction for young adult readers and their parents alike.

Rosoff doesn’t plan her books before she writes.

“I just start with a few ideas that intrigue me, a character, perhaps, or a relationship. Sometimes I forget where the inspiration came from. It’s a little like looking into the fridge and seeing what funny leftovers might make a dinner,” she noted.


The idea for What I Was started with an article in an English newspaper that said due to Harry Potter, boarding school applications were up 40 percent.

“I immediately thought of all the twisted damaged people I knew who’d been through the boarding school system in the 50s and 60s. Of course it’s different now, but in those days, a lot of kids were sent away because their parents didn’t much want them around, and they lived very cold, loveless lives,” said Rosoff.

She also came across a newspaper story about a man in her neighborhood who had died recently, whose birth had never been registered, and who had been abandoned and left to fend for himself at the age of five.

“The thought of a person living outside of society appealed to me greatly. And mix that up with this stretch of the Suffolk Coast that I love so much, with all the first millennium history lurking under the surface, and voila! You have a story,” she explained.

In preparation for writing the book, she talked to friends who had been to British boarding schools in the 60s, read up about the Dark Ages, which provided the historical undercurrent for the book, read Tom Brown’s Schooldays, Beowulf, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, and about the lost city of Dunwich. She also spent time in the British Museum.

Prior to becoming a novelist, Rosoff worked in advertising, publishing and public relations.

“Unfortunately, I hated it while I was doing it (most of the time). But it taught me about editing, paring your work down, letting pictures tell half the story (even if the pictures are in the reader’s head), listening to other people’s comments, story arc, you name it. It also kept me from trying to publish a novel when I was 25 and knew nothing,” said Rosoff.

Her work mixes skilled writing with keen insights into the search for identity and the sense of alienation many adolescents feel.

“Being older when I started to write was (for me, at least) a very good thing. I was always a competent writer, always interested in words, but the world was always opaque to me. It took me a very long time to gain some sort of clarity about life and love and death and sex and family and all those big subjects. Perhaps because understanding didn’t come naturally to me — it was such a struggle, so hard-won — the process of gaining wisdom remained very fresh in my mind. I think that’s one reason I’m attracted to adolescence and coming of age as a subject — despite the fact that I’m fifty now, I feel as if I only recently emerged from the haze,” said Rosoff.

"My challenges almost always involve plot."




”The search for identity has been a long and difficult one for me, and isn’t something I sorted out at 15 and relegated to my past. The fact that I only discovered what I wanted to do for a living at the age of 46 gives you a hint!”

As with all authors, her writing is not without challenges.

”My challenges almost always involve plot. I’m fascinated and obsessed by characters, but I can never quite figure out what to do with them. Sometimes I just send them out to buy a newspaper and hope something dramatic happens to them on the way, like a piano falling on their head. . . I realized (belatedly) that you don’t have to be great at plot. Mainly I steal plots. They say there are only two anyway: The Journey and A Stranger Comes to Town.”

She works with an American editor and two English editors (both adult and YA).

“I love being edited, and always hope that some brilliant editor will add some vital spark that’s missing. My husband’s a fantastic editor as well — will always tell me when a story is rubbish, and when it’s working. I depend a lot on instinct to know what to incorporate and what to ignore in terms of advice. Sometimes my editors have been just plain wrong, sometimes their suggestions have been genius, and sometimes they’ve just offered basic practical suggestions (like autumn usually follows summer — continuity isn’t my forte). I always listen, painful though it may be,” she noted.

“Contrary to what a lot of people think, publishers are gagging for really fresh, original writing. ”

One of her editors suggested the addition of a strong third character, which became Reese.

“It was a fantastic suggestion (though she didn’t tell me who to choose and how to do it) —making Reese more important really helped make the book more three-dimensional. I need to have the weaknesses pointed out — it’s so easy to lose perspective as you write, and reminds me not to be lazy.”

When it comes to breaking into the business Rosoff believes “luck helps, talent helps, and asking everyone you know for help, helps.” She found her agent through a friend of a friend of a friend. “Contrary to what a lot of people think, publishers are gagging for really fresh, original writing. It’s doing it that’s the hard part,” observed Rosoff.

She is currently working on a novel, set in 1850, about a girl who leaves home on the day she’s supposed to be married and ends up falling in love with a poacher. Expect to be transported.

About Meg Rosoff


Meg Rosoff was born in Boston and lives in London. She is the author of How I Live Now, which won the Michael L. Printz Award, Just In Case which won the CILIP Carnegie Medal, What I Was, and other books.

About Regular Contributor
Ellen Birkett Morris

Ellen Birkett Morris is an award-winning writer whose work has appeared in national print and online publications including The New York Times. She also writes for a number of literary, regional, trade, and business publications, and she has contributed to six published nonfiction books in the trade press. Ellen is a regular contributor to Authorlink, assigned to interview various New York Times bestselling authors and first-time novelists.