August 17, 2017

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Answering the Call: Meg Rosoff on Finishing Mal Peet’s “Beck”

MegRosoff

Meg Rosoff is the writer of such brave and fearless YA novels as How I Live Now, Picture Me Gone, What I Was, and There Is No Dog. Her work has been awarded the Carnegie Medal, the Printz Award, the Guardian Children’s Fiction Award, and, most recently, the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award. With Beck (Candlewick, Apr. 2017), she has taken on perhaps the biggest and most challenging project of her career: completing a novel begun by the revered and awesome writer Mal Peet before his death in 2015.

Thank you for bringing this beautiful, heartbreaking, and ultimately hopeful novel to fruition. Can you give us a bit of the backstory? 
Mal told me just after Christmas 2014 that the severe cough he’d had for months was actually lung cancer. My blood ran cold. Having survived cancer myself, I try not to be overdramatic about it, but you don’t want to hear that one of your best friends has lung cancer. He tried chemotherapy, but by February 2015, it was obvious that it wasn’t working. Mal called to tell me that the hospital had sent him home to die, though he didn’t say those words. I felt so desperate about the news and desperate for something I could do for him that when he added, “I wish I could have finished this novel,” I immediately said, “I’ll do it!”

I hadn’t read the book, had never discussed it with him, and knew nothing at all about it. But I felt that if Mal had started it, I could finish it. We had such a similar sensibility and sense of humor, and I admired his writing so much. When his widow, Elspeth, sent me the manuscript a month after his death, I knew immediately what had to be done and that I could do it. A lot of the book had been written (beautifully written), but the dramatic arc and the development of characters needed work. I somehow had to convince readers that Beck would develop and emerge into a man, despite the terrible damage done to him in his youth. Unless I could do that, no one would believe that he could survive emotionally, that he would prove worthy of the love of a powerful woman.

Why was this the story that Mal Peet felt compelled to write? Why now?
From what I understand, Mal was traveling in Canada for some months and came across a book chronicling the appalling neglect and abuse suffered by British orphans who were sent to Canada around the turn of the century. Something about the story of these Home Children, as they were called, chimed with him, and a coming-of-age story began to emerge, a story of brutality, hardship, and the resilience of the human spirit.

Can you tell us a bit about the research that was involved writing about a time and a culture so very different from your own?
I was a voracious reader of Canadian literature in my twenties, and devoured Mordecai Richler and Robertson Davies in particular—so I knew a good deal about the late 19th-century wheat boom, emigration, bootlegging during prohibition, and rural Canadian life. The “Ironwood” trilogy by William Kennedy, though set in and around Albany, conjured such a powerful sense of life on the road at about the time the book was set that I’d absorbed it in my bones.

Having said that, Mal did most of the serious research for the book. I was more the “color commentator,” as they say in sport. The period is well-documented in both history and fiction, so the facts were there for someone who was interested—which both Mal and I were.

Was there ever a time when you felt completely out of your depth? What helped you get beyond obsessing over every word choice?
From the very beginning, I adopted the book as my own, and treated it as my own. I made every decision about what to change and how to develop the book exactly as I would for one of my own books. Mal’s death meant I had no real guide to his intention, but it also meant that I didn’t need to consult him every time I changed something. In many ways, it was a collaborator’s dream; I could make every decision according to my own instincts without constantly worrying about what he wanted. And to be honest, he probably didn’t know what he wanted. Many writers work in a very organic way, not knowing until the moment it happens where a book might go.

Ultimately, I understood that if I was going to raise someone else’s child, I had to raise it as my own, without constantly asking what I thought Mal would do. There were difficulties, of course—there are with any book. Mal and I use language quite differently, for instance, and though I never tried to imitate his style, I found myself channeling his sensibility.

At what point did the characters feel like your own creations?
I don’t think I ever worried about ownership of the characters. It would have been like fussing about DNA when you’re immersed in the day-to-day challenge of raising a teenager. I knew that if I cared deeply about Beck and his future that readers would, too.

Beck is a young man of few words and very little self-knowledge. What do you hope his experiences have to say to young people today?
I disagree that Beck is a young man of little self-knowledge. His early life is a blind scramble for survival, but he has a huge hunger for understanding, and he uses that hunger to grow, mentally and emotionally. His extraordinary determination and resilience are what save him. That, and his capacity for love. In many ways, Beck is every outsider in literature, and his journey is timeless.

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Luann Toth About Luann Toth

Luann Toth (ltoth@mediasourceinc.com) is Managing Editor of SLJ Reviews. A public librarian by training, she has been reviewing books for a quarter of a century and continues to be fascinated by the constantly evolving, ever-expanding world of publishing.

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