Meg Rosoff made a remarkable debut as a fiction writer with her 2004 novel for young adults, How I Live Now. It won several awards, and reviewers recommended it as a suitable book for adult readers, too. The story takes place in a war-ravaged England of the present day or near future and follows the adventures of Daisy, an American teenager who has come to stay with her British cousins. War breaks out not long after she arrives, and an unnamed foreign army occupies England. Later, the cousins must separate, and Daisy struggles to keep both her and her young cousin alive on a dangerous trek back to the family farm. "Rarely does a writer come up with a first novel so assured, so powerful and engaging that you can be pretty sure that you will want to read everything that this author is capable of writing," remarked critic Geraldine Bedell. "But that is what has happened with Meg Rosoff's How I Live Now, which, even before publication, is being talked of as a likely future classic."
Rosoff was born in the late 1950s in Boston, Massachusetts. Her family was of Ashkenazi heritage, the segment of the Jewish diaspora (the mass dispersion of the Jews from their ancestral homeland of ancient Israel) who settled in eastern and central Europe. Her father, a surgeon, taught medicine at Harvard University, while Rosoff's mother was a psychiatric social worker. They lived in the Boston suburb of Newton, where Rosoff became a bookworm at an early age. "I knew my calling was writing at six or seven," she recalled in an interview with Meg McCaffrey in School Library Journal. "Throughout my life, everyone would say, 'You should write a novel.' But, you know, I was never good at plot."
Rosoff was a self-described outcast in her teens, with curly hair when the fashion was for long and straight, and unathletic in a suburban setting where playing sports like tennis was a social obligation. "I was quite an uncomfortable teenager, very unattractive and looking for love," she recalled in an interview with Benedicte Page for Bookseller. In high school, she applied to Princeton University for college, but was turned down for admission, and so she entered Harvard University instead, where she majored in English and fine arts. Even there, she told Page, she felt like an outsider. "I hated that smug, 'We are Harvard and we are the best' attitude," she said in the Bookseller interview.
"Teens may feel that they have experienced a war themselves as they vicariously witness Daisy's worst nightmares .... Readers will emerge from the rubble much shaken."
Publishers Weekly review of How I Live Now
Rosoff was happier when she took some time off from her Harvard studies to live in England and take classes at Central St. Martin's College of Art and Design, a prestigious art school in London. She eventually returned to the United States, finished her degree, and settled in New York City, "and succumbed [gave in] to the fate of all bookish, over-educated girls: the Publishing Job," she joked in an article she wrote for London's Guardian newspaper. The piece chronicled her unhappy career experiences before she decided to write a novel: she was fired from her second job, spent two years at People magazine, and moved on to the New York Times with her former People boss. After that, she left journalism and publishing for the advertising world and spent fifteen years as a copywriter, both in New York City and then in London, to which she returned permanently in the late 1980s. But she rarely stayed at one company for very long. "I kept losing my job, mostly for being mouthy," she confessed to Guardian writer Julia Eccleshare. "I sounded off about everything."
By 2001, Rosoff had married a painter—whom she had met during her first week in England in 1989—had a daughter, and was living in North London. She still worked, but asked for some time off from her job after her younger sister, Debby, died of breast cancer. She had an idea to write fiction, though she was unsure of how to do it. "I didn't know anything about writing a novel although I've been a fanatical reader all my life," she told Sunday Times journalist Amanda Craig. "I was used to writing what I thought were brilliant ads and then having a test-panel of housewives say they didn't like them."
As a kid, Rosoff had loved novels and stories about teenage girls and their beloved horses, and so she wrote a similar tale in the summer of 2002 and sent it to a literary-agent friend of her husband's. The agent passed on the story but asked to meet with Rosoff and suggested that she think about a different topic for her fiction. In the taxi on the way to that meeting, Rosoff came up with the idea for what became How I Live Now. "I was so grateful and so terrified, I wanted to impress her so much," Rosoff said to Bookseller. "And right on the way into lunch, I had this idea for a mad, eccentric family and their cousin who comes to live with them." The agent encouraged her to go ahead and start the project, but as Rosoff recalled in another interview, she was still unsure about how to do this. "What are the rules for writing a young adult novel?" she recalled asking the agent. "She told me there were no rules."
Three months later, Rosoff had completed the first draft of How I Live Now. Some of the wartime details were borrowed indirectly from the tales she heard from older Britons about their experiences during World War II (1939–45; war in which Great Britain, France, the United States, and their allies defeated Germany, Italy, and Japan). Other ideas were taken from present-day events, as British citizens grew nervous as United Kingdom forces readied to join a U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in early 2003 (U.S. president George W. Bush [1946–] and members of his administration believed that Saddam Hussein's regime harbored weapons of mass destruction, and may have even aided al-Qaeda at some point before that group's terrorist attacks in New York City and Washington, D.C., on September 11, 2001. The United Nations asked to see proof of this before permitting an invasion, but many leaders of other European nations were suspicious of the evidence presented.) The work was published by Penguin/Puffin Books in England in mid-2004, and in August of the same year in the United States by an imprint of Random House.
Rosoff's unlikely heroine is Daisy, a jaded New York City teen who has been treated for an eating disorder. Her mother died while giving birth to her, and her father has remarried. Daisy's stepmother, whom she calls Davina the Diabolical, is pregnant, and as the due-date nears, Daisy's father suggests a visit to meet her cousins from her mother's side in England—a plan clearly designed to get her out of the way. As the novel begins Daisy arrives to stay with her Aunt Penn, her mother's sister, and her four cousins. They live on a large rural property with goats and dogs and are a self-sufficient bunch unofficially headed by Obsert, the eldest boy. Next are twins, Edmond and Isaac, and a bossy nine-year-old girl named Piper. Daisy quickly notices that they all seem to be able to read one another's minds. Aunt Penn leaves them alone when she travels to Norway to participate in a peace conference organized with the hope of preventing an international political crisis, but one day bombs rock London. Aunt Penn is stranded in the Scandinavian country as England is occupied by an unnamed enemy army.
Daisy and Edmond, meanwhile, have fallen in love and are conducting a passionate love affair on the sly. The British Army seizes Aunt Penn's house, and Daisy and Piper are sent off to live with a farm family some distance away, while another place is found for the three boys. In time, a civilian uprising breaks out, and the occupying army reacts swiftly and begins to terrorize the countryside in its door-to-door search for insurgents. The girls are helped by kindly British soldiers and allowed to stay in army barracks, but when the enemy moves closer, Daisy and Piper flee into the woods. Daisy knows that Edmond and his brothers are at a place called Gateshead Farm, and she and Piper set out to make their way there on foot.
Thanks to Piper's knowledge of edible plants, the girls are able to stretch their army food-supply kit provisions until they come upon the river they know will take them to the Gateshead Farm. They find a horrific scene there, with dozens of corpses littering the landscape, and decide to return to Aunt Penn's house. There, they survive on the last remnants of the crops, and Daisy realizes that she has conquered the eating disorder—more an expression of her stubborn personality and unhappy home life, she freely admits—that had sent her into psychiatric care in her prior, pre-war life in New York. "One funny thing was that I didn't look much different now from the day I arrived in England," Daisy reflects, "but the difference was that now I ate what I could. Somewhere along the line I'd lost the will not to eat....The idea of wanting to be thin in a world full of people dying from lack of good struck even me as stupid."
Though many of the political details of the war are unclear, there is a slow unfolding of events that serves to show how it came to affect the lives of Daisy and her cousins. Having to leave pets behind when their home is taken over by the British Army is just one detail. "I wanted readers to know what it was like to live through a war because I wanted them to get past the 'over there' syndrome," Rosoff explained to Ilene Cooper in a Booklist article. "There's such a tendency to look at people who aren't like you and think they don't suffer the way you do. The best letter I received was from a girl who said, 'Your book made me realize what it was like to live in a country where there's war.' That's exactly what I set out to do."
How I Live Now won two notable honors: the Guardian Children's Fiction Prize in the United Kingdom, and the Michael L. Printz Award for excellence in literature for young adults from the American Library Association. Rosoff's debut became one of the most highly recommended books of 2004 on both sides of the Atlantic, and the film rights were sold almost immediately upon publication. Though written as a young adult novel, many reviewers asserted that it possessed great "crossover" appeal for adult readers, too. Mark Haddon, one of the judges of the Guardian newspaper's annual book awards and himself the author of a crossover novel, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, hailed it as "that rare, rare thing, a first novel with a sustained, magical and utterly faultless voice," according to the London Evening Standard.
Rosoff had also written a children's picture book before setting out to write her first novel. Inspired in part by her young daughter, Rosoff penned a tale about a quartet of misbehaving boars, or wild pigs—Boris, Morris, Horace, and Doris—and the little boy and girl who try to point them in a more sociable direction. When the contract to publish Meet Wild Boars was finalized after an auction among British and American publishers, Rosoff quit her advertising job. The title was published in early 2005 in the United States, with illustrations from Sophie Blackall, whom Rosoff knew from her advertising days.
Yet as How I Live Now was winning rave reviews and literary honors, Rosoff was in the hospital undergoing treatment for breast cancer. She had been so busy in the pre-publication whirl that she missed her annual mammogram, the screening test for this form of cancer. "Then they found it," she told the Sunday Times. "Two of my sisters have had a particularly aggressive form of the cancer. You don't get a prognosis about whether you're going to live. I'm halfway through my chemotherapy and with each dose it gets worse. It doesn't hurt but you feel nauseated the week after so that even cranberry juice makes you feel sick because it's the same colour as the medication." Still, Rosoff's realistic outlook and somewhat cynical nature helped her put her situation into perspective. "I'm not a worrier. When people rang up and said, 'What a tragedy, your family is so unlucky,' I said that I expected it," she said. "You don't get through life without something terrifying happening."
Rosoff plans to continue her second, far more satisfying career as an author. In the article she wrote for the Guardian about her years in advertising, she wrote that "the first question everyone asks is: Don't you wish you'd done it sooner? And the obvious answer is: no. If I'd written my first novel 20 years ago, I'd still be trying to get it published today. It would have emerged tortured, humourless, and overlong; a thinly disguised autobiography attracting enough rejection to cause permanent psychological damage....Above all, I wouldn't have had the pleasure of not working in advertising—possibly the best thing about writing books. "
Rosoff, Meg. How I Live Now. New York: Wendy Lamb Books/Random House, 2004.
Bedell, Geraldine. "Review: Books: Fiction: Suddenly Last Summer." Observer (London, England) (July 25, 2004): p. 16.
Cooper, Ilene. "Meg Rosoff." Booklist (March 15, 2005): p. 1289.
Craig, Amanda. "Suffering? It's How I Live Now." Sunday Times (London, England) (November 14, 2004): p. 5.
Davey, Douglas P. Review of How I Live Now. School Library Journal (September 2004): p. 216.
Eccleshare, Julia. "Saturday Review: Childrens Fiction." Guardian (London, England) (October 9, 2004): p. 33.
"Living It Up." Bookseller (November 19, 2004): p. 15.
Mattson, Jennifer. "Review of How I Live Now. " Booklist (September 1, 2004): p. 123.
McCaffrey, Meg. "Answering the Call." School Library Journal (March 2005): p. 46.
Page, Benedicte. "Living Through Wartime." Bookseller (June 4, 2004): p. 28.
Review of How I Live Now. Publishers Weekly (July 5, 2004): p. 56.
Review of Meet Wild Boars. Publishers Weekly (March 28, 2005): p. 78.
Rosoff, Meg. "Saturday Review: Commentary: How I Jumped out of the Sack Race." Guardian (London, England) (November 20, 2004): p. 7.
Sexton, David. "Dabbling in Disaster." Evening Standard (London, England) (August 2, 2004): p. 65.
Bookbrowse: Author Biography. http://www.bookbrowse.com/biographies/index.cfm?author_number=1059 (accessed on August 23, 2005).