I go to visit Meg Rosoff in her new loft apartment, not far from Borough station. Her husband Paul and her two dogs are there too and it feels a little like the pages of her new novel Jonathan Unleashed, in which a spaniel and sheepdog have a starring role, have been brought to life. I have met her before and she sweetly asks engaged questions about me before I can turn the conversation back to her and Jonathan Unleashed, her first book for adults. I mention that the reader is never quite sure when things start to truly unravel for Jonathan. Rosoff says “Jonathan is a man living the wrong life, I think. He’s desperately trying to be normal which is something I’m quite interested in because my mother had a really strong belief in people being normal and I never ever felt normal. When my husband Paul first met my younger sister who died, he said ‘I’ve never met anyone trying so hard to be normal’. And my younger sister said to me once ‘I don’t know why you go out with non-Jewish men, it’s so much more complicated’. And I thought ‘non-Jewish’, the guys I go out with are usually just out of jail, married or… you know?”
We’re both laughing quite hard but she has a serious point to make. “The idea of someone thinking there is a way to be an adult and just getting it completely wrong is incredibly close to my heart. In the back of my mind, my favourite comedy of all time was Lucky Jim. It’s hilarious, an academic trying to impress his idiot of a boss and trying to get forward. I guess it’s the strain of trying to be something you’re not that kind of erodes Jonathan. Long before the book was even sold, I sat next to this guy at dinner who was so great and said to me that I had such a brilliant first line because either Jonathan has talking dogs which is seriously odd or he is seriously odd but you know the whole thing is just off-kilter. You never really know in the book if the dogs are actually plotting or if it’s all in his head. I wanted to tread that line really finely. I didn’t want talking dogs, I didn’t want anyone to be certain that oh yes this is what dogs do, they sort their owners’ lives out. But if you have dogs, they do sort of, they can get you out walking every day for instance, they get you talking to more people. There are things that they genuinely do without having to be particularly sentient about it.
Rejection is somebody telling you something you should already know. It’s something I came to really late in life.”
“One thing I really struggled with was how to make Jonathan sympathetic enough. If he was too lunatic or too weak or too completely bonkers, well… I had to toughen him up really. The classic sitcom thing to do if you see a couple not getting on, if you think of Girls, well, we love her, he’s a lunatic and she just doesn’t see it. What we don’t realise is that mostly when it doesn’t work it’s because they just don’t belong together. Because you’ve found someone who likes you in spite of how mad you are, you seem acceptable whereas put me with anyone else but Paul, I’d be such a harridan or so impossible to live with that everyone would say, ‘Well you can see why he divorced her!’”
Yes, often the combination of two people can be really toxic when in fact, separately they are fine, I say.
“Yes, and there’s a line I really love in this,” she says, pointing at my copy of Jonathan Unleashed: “‘Rejection is somebody telling you something you should already know.’ It’s something I came to really late in life, the fact that those people rejecting me were trying to tell me something and they were people I could never make it work with. It’s all about fit, I think, if you both have the same vision of the future. I always say with Paul that we always agreed about films so I knew it would work out.”
We talk about writing from the perspective of different genders when Rosoff says something surprising. “If I were growing up now, I might identify as queer. In the eighties, I went to a lot of gay bars but I was just never attracted to women. I always knew I was heterosexual. I never really felt female either though…”
I’m slightly taken aback, wasn’t it up to her to decide what being female should be like?
“Girls were supposed to be girls. I felt like I’m not a proper girl. I just couldn’t do it. I never really had proper boyfriends. My parents were asking my sisters if I was gay. The boys I went out with… one was a married alcoholic, one was my boss!”
A psychotherapist might say that she was deliberately choosing people that it wouldn’t work out with.
“No… I mean I fell in love with lots of other people but if you read all my books together the one thing you see is that all the characters are trying to work out how the world works, what the edges of the world are and what is real what isn’t real and how they fit into that. I found the most fantastic shrink when I was 30 and she just sort of untwisted me. She wasn’t a distorting mirror: I could see something accurate coming back. I sort of came into focus. And my shrink used to say that no one could fall in love with me if I was out of focus to myself. I came back into focus.”
Meg Rosoff grew up in Boston, Massachusetts and moved to London in 1989. She attended Harvard and St Martin’s College of Art and spent fifteen years working in advertising before writing her first YA novel, How I Live Now, which sold nearly one million copies, won the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize, was shortlisted for the Orange Award for New Writers and made into a feature film. Her other novels are Just in Case, What I Was, The Bride’s Farewell, Moose Baby, There is No Dog and Picture Me Gone. She lives in London with her husband, daughter and two lurchers. Jonathan Unleashed is published by Bloomsbury. Read more.
Alex Peake-Tomkinson is a contributing editor at Bookanista and writes book reviews and features for the Mail on Sunday, the TLS and the Daily Telegraph.
Author portrait © Jean Goldsmith
Jonathan Unleashed was serialised on BBC Radio 4’s Book at Bedtime. Listen again.