In a complete departure from her previous book (There Is No Dog, Putnam, 2012), Meg Rosoff creates a compelling mystery, and an ideal detective in 12-year-old narrator Mila (pronounced MEE-la), in Picture Me Gone (Putnam, 2013; Gr 5-8). As Mila and her father, Gil, prepare to leave London to visit Gil’s oldest friend, Matthew, in upstate New York, they receive a call from Matthew’s wife saying he has disappeared. The two proceed with their plans, in the hope they can help find Matthew. Mila is good at puzzles; her father is good at translating books, but not so good at reading clues. The trip changes them both profoundly.
How did you find Mila’s voice?
After There Is No Dog, I had a terror that I’d never write again. I thought, well five books is enough for anyone. Months and months went by. “How’s the new book coming?” asked my editor. I wrote a blog piece about how I name characters and use different websites. I came up with this name Mila, so that’s what I named my character. I knew that my editor read my blog, and that would shut her up for awhile. Then I was in the park, and this little terrier came up to me. I didn’t see any owner around. It said on the tag, “Mila.” I don’t believe in extraterrestrial communication, but I had a little bit of a feeling that someone was telling me to go to work.
And did you “go to work”?
I wrote the first line [“The first Mila was a dog”], and the book was all in my head. It was a moment of magic that happens sometimes with writing.
This novel may use language more precisely than any of your previous books. Did that come from Gil being a translator?
I became obsessed with translation when I became friends with my German and Dutch translators. They get in touch [when they’re translating] and ask me, “What on earth did you mean by that?” I once spent a week with my German translator, and she showed me a line and said, “This doesn’t make sense in English; I don’t know how it would make sense in German.” I know she’s a good translator because my books keep winning awards in Germany.
I’m word obsessed anyway, but there’s something about translation—the differences, there are things you can say [in one language] that don’t even exist in another language.
Through Mila, you raise that wonderful question about how we think of time moving from left to right, and contemplate whether those who read Hebrew and Arabic, which moves from right to left, think of time moving from right to left.
I have a friend who’s a Portuguese translator and he does a lot of literary festivals. I went to sit in on some of the conference talks, and that was one of the things they were talking about, the movement of time, and how significant that can be.
There was a fantastic book by Daniel Everett, called Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes. He went to the Amazon rainforest as a missionary to a remote tribe, to learn the language and translate the Bible. They have no concept of time—no past tense and no future tense. No concept of counting things; there’s one thing and many things.
What prompted you to write a mystery?
I don’t know. I’m so grateful if any plot comes into my books at all. I don’t think in terms of stories; I think in terms of emotional journeys. I had this image of [Mila and her father] going to see this old friend of his, and that [the friend] had left home. The minute you write it, you realize that 62 percent of all books ever written involve someone who’s disappeared. When I started out, I didn’t know why Matthew left.
After Mila discovers that her father was keeping something from her, she says: “So much relies on one person assuming the other is telling the truth. If a person can lie to you about one thing, he can lie about something else.” It is a domino effect isn’t it?
When I write books, I’m exploring the things I’ve figured out over 50 years. One of those things is, you can never take for granted that you know people. Even the most straightforward people turn out to sometimes have big secrets. You think your parents are on Earth for you, to be wise and protective, and there’s a slow dawning that you’re not as much like them as you thought you were. They may have secrets as well. It’s like the fall from paradise.
In There Is No Dog, God had his creature, Eck. Here, Mila has Matt’s dog, Honey. Honey turns out to be key to Mila’s discovery of who Matt is, doesn’t she?
Dogs are a fantastic foil for human characters because they don’t experience things the way humans do. I was so happy when I got to the end of the draft, [and discovered] the reason why Suzanne [Matthew’s wife] hated Honey. It was like applying thin layers of paint, draft after draft. Each draft got a little more complex. Honey loves absolutely. The way I describe it, she’s a light switch. When she’s with Matthew, she’s on, when she’s not, she’s off. She’s not affected by the complexities of the moral decisions he makes.
I didn’t want Honey to be a Lassie Come Home thing for Mila. The dog will tolerate Mila, but who the dog loves is Matthew. All those different kinds of love, and degrees of loyalty and love and dedication. It’s not like I sit down to write a book about all those things, but they drift out from my subconscious as I’m writing. If I’m very lucky, they cohere into a bit of a story.
The friendship Mila makes with Jake is so important to the girl forgiving her father for his betrayal. How did that subplot develop?
If I had to draw a picture of the book, there’d be a line down the middle of the page, with childhood above and adulthood below, and Mila is balanced on that line. That first glimmer when you feel that sexual attraction to someone is when you enter adulthood, and it’s also when you leave your parents. And you realize there’s a different kind of love. The future of her ability to love [comes] from Jake. It’s that emergence from family, where you can’t take for granted that your parents are your life. There’s a whole other web of relationships, and they will be the important ones as you get older.
School Library Journal’s review of Meg Rosoff’s Picture Me Gone is available online.
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