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Adèle
Geras

1. Troy, your latest novel, and the first book to appear on David Fickling's new list, insofar as it has been published on a "children's" list, will be categorised as Young Adult or Teenage Fiction. So, can we begin with a question about audience? I can imagine giving this book to any number of adults who could read it without having the slightest inkling that it had been written for publication as a "children's" title. There is no pulling of punches or sparing of blushes. Boros must be the most loathsomely realised lecher in any literature, let alone children's literature. Was this very adult feel one that you were consciously aiming to achieve?  

OrderI have a thing about age-groups and books. Generally speaking, I think everyone of whatever age should read the books they fancy. Adults often don't seem to like reading books where the protagonists are young. I don't know why not, but teenagers read in what I regard as a proper manner: in other words, your average, intelligent, READING fourteen-year-old can read books in tandem, and some can be easy readers and some can be the hardest possible. My younger daughter was reading normal 'teen books' at the same time as biographies of Nelson Mandela, and Chris Mullin's book about the Birmingham Six. Also, the reverse is true. Lots of hard lads of thirteen or so fall on much younger books. They especially seem to go for Picasso Perkins in the Cats of Cuckoo Square series. I also feel that any desire to protect children from various horrors life has to offer is vain, as long as they live in the world as it is and watch TV and movies, etc. I'm much more exercised about the huge numbers of adults who will not stoop to read a children's book, (and I make an exception of Harry Potter who is sui generis in this regard!!) thinking it infra dig in some way, UNTIL IT BECOMES A MOVIE when all of a sudden, it's respectable for the whole family to like it. (See recent success of Goodnight, Mr. Tom, etc.) I also get very cross with anyone who assumes adult = difficult. Try reading an Agatha Christie book, or a Catherine Cookson, and then try Alan Garner's Stone Quartet, and then tell me which was easier...oh, I could go on for ages. With TROY, as with VOYAGE, I do very much hope that adults WILL read it. I felt this very much also in the case of my Egerton Hall Trilogy.
Having characters of all ages helps in the case of these two books, and the word 'child' not appearing on the jacket is also useful. When VOYAGE came out first in 1983, it was reviewed in Ireland with a bunch of adult books, because nowhere on the cover did the dreaded word appear! In the case of TROY, Ben Warner has done a deliberately adult-looking cover, which I love, and which I hope will draw in the widest possible audience. Also, some stories are just too good (and too well-known) to have punches pulled in their vicinity. I hope it's what the Australians call: a cross-over book. But having said all that, I never for one moment think of my audience when I'm actually writing. It's only later...when I'm in the midst of the work, it's entirely for myself, and possibly for Miss Godfray and Miss Sturgis (see answer to Q.7)

2. For someone like me, who had a watered-down, not terribly good classical education, studied Latin up to A-Level, and listened as a teenager to dozens of BBC Radio productions of classical drama, the epic stories in which gods and goddesses intervene in human affairs have always been compelling, but in a rather cold, cavernous way. Your treatment, if I may put it like this, has a seductive warmth about it. Do you think this is because you were approaching the story from, as seems to be the case from your Acknowledgements, the point of view of someone whose education was (surprisingly, since you went to school at Roedean) not so steeped in classical lore?

 


Well, I was steeped and not steeped! From my earliest childhood, the stories of the Greek Gods and Goddesses were part of my life. My Dad told them to me, and read them with me...then when I was seven, I was given Andrew Lang's Tales of Troy...I still have that book...and I fell in love with what is a brilliant story. Things don't survive 6000 years of changing fashion for no reason. At school, I did Latin till just after O-level...so you are better educated classically than I am!...but I just loved it and had a wonderful teacher, and was very good at it. I went in especially for translation, and I did a version of Aeneid Book 2 (our set text) in iambic pentameters. I adored the poetry, especially Catullus. But Homer I have read only in English, and when you see how good it is in translation, it wakes you up to how mind-blowing it must be in Greek.
I did Modern Languages (French and Spanish) and am very aware of the inadequacies of translation, even the best...Cervantes said about translations that it was like looking at the back of a tapestry...a very clever way of putting it, I think.
When I came to doing TROY, I took advantage of Anne Jackson, a friend of mine who teaches a course on Homer for the OU, and the tapes especially were fantastic...an expert walking you all round the site, etc. What also influenced me greatly was doing Shakespeare's 'Troilus and Cressida' as a text for A-level English. I adore that play, partly because it's so modern: "Wars and lechery, still wars and lechery. Nothing else holds fashion.' etc. There have been other versions of the story, like Anouilh's 'La guerre de Troie n'aura pas lieu.' I guess it's all been like a kind of compost for ideas.

3. A large number of scenes take place in the Blood Room. This is where Boros makes his obnoxiously crude come-ons to Xanthe and where she nurses Alastor back to strength, demurely keeping her love for him to herself. The opening chapter is set here. What gave you the idea of making this such a central setting for the novel?  

I thought there must have been some kind of infirmary-type place for all the wounded. And I wanted Xanthe as a comforter and nurse from the beginning, because this is one of the things women do in all wars...pick up the pieces, basically. The story's main thrust was what the siege meant to the non-combatants, and the sick-room has always been a good place to situate drama (see Casualty, doctor and nurse romances, etc). Having decided that, the name of the Blood Room was one of the very first things that came to me. I liked the sound of it... and it's not in Homer, so I wanted to stake out a bit of territory of my own.
I started the book there, because I wanted to focus from the start on the private, the intimate, the feminine. I wanted girls to be hooked at once, and I calculated that a verbal assault from Boros would horrify and disgust enough to get people interested. I felt that if I could grab their attention in the first couple of pages, they might feel they wanted to continue with what is after all a FAT book. And everyone seems to be nervous about foreign names, etc. I didn't want to frighten them off right at the start with a lot of explanation about what the war was about, how it started, who was who, etc. So I devised ways of telling the back story: through the tapestry descriptions, the Gossips chatting, Zeus musing, etc.

4. While the high drama of war and siege life continues, the most compelling drama in the fiction involves the passionate physical affair between Alastor and Marpessa, Xanthe's sister. This resuts in tragedy and bitterness. A moralistic and 'childish' treatment of these events would have included censure of some of the characters, but the novel's strength rests on the way in which it invites the reader to feel sympathy for all parties. Are there times when you are torn between, as a writer, wanting to treat characters evenly and dispassionately and, as a person, feeling positive or negative feelings about them? Indeed, did you intend the reader to feel more sympathy for Xanthe?  

No, I feel equal sympathy for both sisters. I wanted to show, I think, some of the truth about the kind of love that is like a fever. In this book, it comes from Aphrodite, playing her games, but it hits people in all sorts of ways and can make them behave badly, while not making them bad people. Good sense often flies out of the window when that kind of love hits you...you sort of lose your reason. The 'arrow' metaphor is a good one, I think!
I don't think you can censure people for falling in love...but when they do, other people often get hurt. And I was just as interested in the relationship between the sisters as I was in the ones between all the lovers. I also wanted to show that there was another kind of love, or respect, or a combination of the two, which can with luck grow into a sexual love...In general, I like all my characters, and I'm very glad you hate Boros so much, because I always feel I can't do really horrible villains. Even Boros does one good thing, albeit by accident...

5. The barbaric treatment of Hector, after he has been killed by Achilles, is graphically described. Other key incidents of the war and the fighting are passed over more lightly. The death of Achilles, for example, takes up little more than a page. Is this because you were keen to create the impression, that in a long-running siege, the high moments on the battle-field did not loom particularly large in comparison with the high moments of personal and private lives?  

Yes, that is exactly what I was trying to do...spend as little time as I possibly could manage on the battlefield, which is not natural terrain for me. I'm more comfortable in kitchens and bedrooms. Also, I figured that Homer had really done all that was possible to do about the warfare. I was interested in the non-war. But Hector's death and in particular what happens to his body is so dreadful that I had to deal with it. I tried to do this as simply and directly as possible...just say what happened..and then show the reaction of everyone else who saw it and heard about it. With Achilles, in first draft, all I had was Polyxena and Xanthe meeting the rejoicing crowds on the way back from Frightful Phrontis' house.
David Fickling, (who is a very creative editor, and who can take the credit for the way the Gods appear in the novel ...I had them giving monologues in the first person at first!) said that we really ought at least to see Achilles' death as it's so important, and I agreed with him, so I put it in. I often agree with editors if they're right! But yes, the fact that Alastor was not at home is much more important to Xanthe...

6. There is an atmosphere in the novel which encourages the reader to suspend disbelief when the gods and goddesses make their periodic appearances. An atmosphere that suggested to this reader that you are not averse yourself to believing that divine forces are involved in some way in human destiny. Am I right?  

I must come clean and say that I am completely non-religious. I've always been a firm atheist, (although a Jewish one!) but I do have a fuzzy, romantic notion of things being 'meant' in some way...no more strong than that. Not as firm a notion as Fate or Kismet, but something. Certainly I feel this enough to make a lot of it in my work, if needed. I also do not believe in ghosts, though I adore ghost stories (reading them and writing them) and I still regret the loss (out-of-print, as is so much of my work) of a book like A LANE TO THE LAND OF THE DEAD. This was a collection of ghost stories set in real places in Manchester. When it came out in Italy, they called it after another of the stories in the book...The Dracula Mask. The cover had a ghastly white mask dripping blood. There were fangs. There was Stephen King-type silver lettering on the cover....maybe if I'd called the book by that name here, I'd have had a similar cover, and people would have flocked to buy...as it was, it sank without trace, which I have always thought a great shame. And while I don't believe in ghosts, I DO most firmly believe in the past being felt by the present (as in the atmosphere you get visiting ancient sites, castles, etc) and in the fact that strong feelings of pain seem to leave a stain in the fabric of buildings... hospitals, schools, prisons....


7. What do you feel about the short shelf life of books?

 

I think that probably because too many books of all kinds are published, they have far too short a life. In the case of children's books, the audience for them changes all the time. Children grow up, move on, others come up behind them, and so the books can have a new lease of life, over and over again. But it doesn't work like that. If a book comes out and doesn't sell enough, it's gone, in a trice. And it seems to me that the only way the book can sell enough copies is either by winning aOrder prize or being on TV or movies, or be by a writer who has been a best-seller already. I come into none of these categories. Excellent reviews are great for my self-esteem and my scrapbook, but do not help to keep a book in print alas. Sometimes, the publisher is very creative, and looks at the books and says: this should have done better...maybe we can try something else...rejacketing, etc. This has happened with my LITTLE SWAN books, which are selling much better in their lovely new covers. But my BEAUTY Order AND THE BEAST AND OTHER STORIES, with spectacular artwork by Louise Brierley, was put out of print in the same week it got four stars in Books for Keeps... I also think that not nearly enough money is spent advertising books in the adult market. Which children's author (apart from a very select few) has an advertising budget attached to a book? As the people reading this are INTERNET BUFFS, I can say that amazon.com may now at least get you copies of books of mine that are IN PRINT in USA, though not here, like the Fantoras (Called The Fabulous Fantoras in USA) and the Egerton Hall Trilogy (The Tower Room, Watching the Roses, Pictures of the Night).

                                

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And, increasingly, there are reprint houses, like Ann Jungman's excellent
Order Barn Owl Books, which recently brought VOYAGE back to life. For the future, the best news I've had for ages is that my very first novel, a sort of Jewish Little Women, called THE GIRLS IN THE VELVET FRAME, is being reissued in the Modern Classics series by HarperCollins in October 2001. That's been unavailable for years and years. I feel as though a child of mine has been released after a long prison term!

 


8. I noticed several very vivid descriptions of eyes - one is described as having the colour of phlegm, another as being like a peeled grape. As a writer, and a poet as well as a novelist, are you conscious of being 'good' at some particular forms of description?  

At this point I must mention my English teachers at Roedean, Miss Sturgis and Miss Godfray. They are the ghostly presences at my shoulder as I write. Miss Sturgis lives in the Isle of Wight, and I send her my books. I always think: what would they say about this? Or what would be their reaction to that? I was the sort of child...and I suppose I'm the sort of adult...who could easily have a whole book with nothing but descriptions in it. I used to love writing about storms at sea, sunsets, snow scenes, etc, and I still love a good, juicy description. I have to be very strict with myself, and imagine that I am wielding Miss Godfray's red pen. She used to put lines through unnecessary adjectives and write 'irrelevant' in the margin. I would describe every single dress, meal, ornament and natural phenomenon if I could. I think I'm a frustrated painter...which is where the poems come in. I regard them as pictures of some kind.
I have a very developed visual memory. I remember what things looked like from childhood. I can remember the decor of houses I've visited only once, I know what I wore to this or that occasion going back years. I can remember individual pieces of jewellery worn by my teachers at Roedean...etc.
My problem is PLOTS. I'm not very good at those. That's why to have an underpinning of sorts, like Homer in TROY and the three fairy tales in the Egerton Hall trilogy, is a boon.
About poetry, I write this alongside the prose. I have published one adultOrder collection, and have won various prizes, but have yet to write a collection for children. Lots of what passes for poetry these days is bobbins, both in the adult and children's field, but there is still plenty of excellent stuff too. I was hoping Carol Ann Duffy might get the Whitbread for Children, but it was not to be! I have written one picture book in verse called 'FROM LULLABY TO LULLABY' published in the USA by Simon and Schuster. Amazon.com to the rescue for anyone who wants to get hold of it...

9. Your first book was published in 1976. Since then, your work has shown an enormous range. You have written a number of series for very young readers. The Cats of Cuckoo Square is a sequence of chapter books. These books are narrated by cats, as are the Fantora Family books. Do you have a special liking for cats?  

Yes, I love cats more than any other creature! We have a cat called Mimi (Meems) whom we love to pieces. And cats are wonderful narrators. Ozzy, the Fantora's cat, in particular is huge fun to be, and of the Cuckoo Square cats, my favourite is Perkins, who is a bit like Ozzy. The Cuckoo Square series is already in French, and they work so well in that language. I have a really gifted translator called Rose-Marie Vassallo, who has done the most brilliant things with these books. Cats have that elegance that fits French somehow. Ozzy comes out sounding like a feline Voltaire!
But on the subject of writing different sorts of books, this is because I am in the business, first and foremost, of pleasing myself, so I vary things as much as I possibly can. I like being able to write a picture book one day (the hardest thing in the world to do well...TROY is a doddle compared to writing a really excellent text for a picture book!!) and a complicated novel the next. Also, people come to you with suggestions...the Little Swan books came about in this way. Miriam Hodgson (another inspired editor) asked me to contribute a story to a collection of stories about the ballet. I wrote a story about Weezer, and that was that. Some years later, an editor from Random House USA said she'd seen this story and thought it would make a good chapter book...could I expand it? So I did, and wrote 'Little Swan' the book. Then my agent (the incomparable Laura Cecil...not enough credit is given to agents!) suggested to Random House here that they publish the book...Random House said: Good idea, but could we have three more to make a nice set? So I wrote three others...so it goes!

10. Another series of short chapter books is the Little Swan ballet series. According to the Puffin website, much of your time at university was spent acting and singing. You have professional stage experience, having appeared in two shows which transferred to London's West End: "Hang Down your Head and Die" and "Four Degrees Over". In what sense did your stage experience help you with these books?  

My stage experience didn't really help with the Little Swan books as much as it helped with some others. The main one (out of print, natch!) is 'HAPPY ENDINGS' which is about some young people putting on Chekov's Three Sisters during one summer holiday. I put a lot of what I feel about the theatre into that book, and I live in hope that it may reappear one day...it did well in its time, and even once appeared on a list, of the bestseller variety...it was number 5 on a list at the back of the Bookseller called 'TOP TEN TEEN ROMANCES.'
I am also in the process of writing a trilogy for Piccadilly books set in a Performing Arts School...the first appeared last year, and it's
Order called 'STAGESTRUCK!' and I'm presently in the middle of writing the second, which is called 'LIGHTS, CAMERA, ACTION!.' I love writing this kind of book...wish fulfilment...let's do the show right here, etc. I am basically a frustrated singing star. I should have been someone like Barbra Streisand...never mind. In fiction, you can be anyone you like!

11. The Orchard Book of Opera Stories was something of a labour of love. You talked about the conception and realisation of this book in an article in Carousel (Winter 1997). Your wish was that everyone who reads this book will become an opera fan. Why?  

Because Opera, which is always perceived as being immensely difficult and off-putting, is so much fun! Children, if they meet it early enough, will not balk at the unnaturalness of people singing instead of talking. It's musical drama...what could be better? When I was a small child, we saw about three films a week and lots of them were musicals. I know whole scores of these by heart...opera is just a high-brow version...with strong elementsOrder sometimes of pantomime, etc. Why shouldn't children love it? I believe that when work is done with kids in Opera workshops etc. they have tremendous fun. And it needn't be elitist and exclusive. Opera North has a tremendous education programme. My Opera Book is coming out in paperback in August, and a percentage of the royalties is going to Opera North...please buy in your millions!

12. As well as an opera lover, you have been described as 'a lifelong movie-goer'. In what ways have films influenced the way you write.  

I was a child in the days before TV, so the movies was where we went...all the time! And I've continued to love them all my life. They must have provided half of the furniture of my mind...the half that wasn't provided by books! How they've influenced the writing is harder to put one's finger on, but certainly in matters of technique, they have made such devices as flashbacks, dissolves, dream-sequences, fadeouts, etc. available to writers...and to me, too, I guess. I'm a bit like Enid Blyton in one thing...I see the scene I'm writing about in front of me as though it were a movie, and I can hear the dialogue in my head. A good game to play is casting movies...I should be so lucky!!! But I can divulge to readers of TROY that Paris looks like David Ginola, the footballer...

13. You were born in Jerusalem and Stories from Jerusalem collected together two earlier collections--My Grandmother's Stories and Golden Windows. It's a tremendous book that presents a mixture of traditional and original stories of Jewish life. Now you live in Manchester, and have done for most of your adult life. But is there a special sense in which your childhood in Jerusalem and other places has formed you as the writer you are today. #FFCC00

Yes, I think one's childhood does inform what one writes. I left Jerusalem when I was five, but kept going back there because that was where my mother's family lived. I am the seventh generation born in the city. My mother's family have been there since the middle of the nineteenth century. And it's a most beautiful place. My schoolfriends in Nigeria when I was six didn't believe me when I told them I was born there. "You can't have been," they said. "Jerusalem's in Heaven."
Also, being lazy, it's easy to write about people and places you know...and although I have said I'm not religious, I have the Jewish way of life in my head, as it were, and don't have to do research, etc. when I write about Jewish themes. THE GIRLS IN THE VELVET FRAME, my first novel, is based on an actual photograph of my mother and my aunts, which I have hanging in my house. Photographs are often inspirational...or else spooky! I was pleased to be able to Orderuse an ancient, out-of-print book called 'Beyond the Cross stitch mountains' as the basis for the other stories in 'GOLDEN WINDOWS'...I like it when I can recycle things like that.

14. How did you come to write 'A CANDLE IN THE DARK?'  

This book is part of the Flashbacks series, which Pat Thomson originated. She thought Primary children might enjoy historical novels which fitted in with the National Curriculum in History. She asked me if I'd like to do one, and I seized the opportunity to write about something not a lot of people seem to know about: the Kindertransports. It's a short novel for young children, but it was used in the SATS exam a couple of years ago, and lots of children recognise me from that. Also, the sales were helped greatly by being on the SATS paper. My novel had a happy ending, but I added a note at the back telling readers that of the 10000 children who came to Britain in 1938/9, 9000 never saw their parents again. I feel historical novels are very important, and can never understand why they are not as popular with children as I think they should be.

15. Anne Fine believes that too much attention is currently paid to the covers of books. ACHUKA has repeatedly emphasised the importance of covers, especially for older fiction. The cover that Puffin gave to your 1998 novel--'silent snow, secret snow'-(one which made it look like a cosy and wintry story for 9 yr olds), was singularly inappropriate. What's your line on covers?  

I agree with you, and I think they are quite vital! My new Little Swan covers seem to have transformed the perception of the books...and I hope that TROY's lovely cover will entice readers. I think the look of a thing is very important, and while not wishing to take anything away from my friend Jacky Wilson's immense success, I do think Nick Sharratt deserves credit for providing her fans with a 'look' they can recognize and home in on at once. While a bad cover may not put off a devoted reader, I'm sure a good cover attracts people to your book who would otherwise not go near it. I can see this operating in myself...there are certain kinds of cover I will not even approach, unless someone points the book out to me, and urges it on me... About 'silent snow...' I'm not altogether sure I agree...the picture could probably have been somewhat more adult in tone, but I like the irony of it looking cosy and Christmassy... with all hell breaking loose inside. I guess that's a bit subtle, but that was the idea, I think.
I've had several wonderful cover artists. Emma Chichester Clark did the covers for the Hardbacks of the Egerton Hall trilogy, and they were beautiful, but the paperbacks were not nearly as good...can I blame their out-of-printness on that? I don't think so, but I think better covers would have helped. An ancient collection of ghost stories called LETTERS OF FIRE had a superb cover by Anthony Browne, and the wonderful Jane Ray did the cover for the Orchard Book of Opera Stories, which I have up in my kitchen as a poster! Whenever two writers get together, horrible covers figure large. But mostly I've been lucky, with one or two hideous exceptions...

16. Is it true that you visit your local library practically daily?  

I do. I'm a total library junkie. I simply could not afford to buy all the books I want to read. I read very quickly indeed. When I see a book reviewed that I like the look of, I pay 75p and order it. There are a few writers I will buy at once in hardback: (Carol Shields, A.S. Byatt, Margaret Atwood) but mostly I go straight to the library. We are currently struggling in Manchester to preserve our Central Reference Library, the oldest public library in the country, from the Philistine plans of the Council...I hope we win. I cannot understand a Government supposedly keen on education cutting off funds to libraries...it's so short-sighted. I give all my review copies of children's books to libraries of one kind and another...often school libraries, which are strapped for cash.

17. How has e-mail affected the contact you have with other writers?  

It's been completely brilliant! I have written by snail for many years to such friends as Jean Ure and Jacqueline Wilson, and there is nothing nicer than a fat envelope dropping on to the mat! But email has brought me many other friends: Rosie Rushton, Celia Rees, Mary Hooper, Julia Jarman and my TOP PEN PAL, Linda Newbery, who is the perfect correspondent. She writes long, interesting, gossipy, detailed proper letters practically every day...and so do I! So I really feel I know her, though I've only met her briefly...it's great! Another wonderful letter-writer is Susan Hill, who also has the great advantage of being a Manchester United supporter. I would draw the attention of anyone who is interested in books to her excellent magazine BOOKS AND COMPANY, which she publishes and edits...it's wonderful! Men I write to, like Tony Bradman and occasionally Philip Pullman are fun too, but not so unbuttoned as women...or maybe that's just me. And of course, it's great for business...You can keep in close touch with agent, publishers, editors of Achuka, etc. And being able to send whole novels across the Atlantic, and down to three people simultaneously in London at the touch of a button is MAGIC in the literal sense as far as I'm concerned.

18. You regularly review other writers' work. What is your general impression of the current state of children's fiction in the UK, and how does it compare with books from America, Canada and Australia? Which contemporary authors would you automatically read?  

Children's fiction is very healthy I reckon...lots of writers at the top of their form, and everyone knows who they are... the usual suspects. But also people like Linda Newbery and Celia Rees are producing excellent books which are largely unsung. Then there's KM Peyton, who wrote a wonderful book recently which I have not seen reviewed anywhere except in the TES, which I did...
I read all books that are by my friends, of course, and apart from them, I would read anything I could get hold of by Robert Cormier, Russell Hoban, Maurice Sendak and Jane Gardam and Penelope Lively and Jill Paton Walsh... Lots of these have gone on to write adult novels, but I follow them there, too.
I love US books. They seem able to do the first person, chatty, direct narratives better than we can...and the Canadians are as good, judging from the recent excellent 'Bats' by Susan Withrow. Australian books are also full of vigour and fun and energy. I love their sense of humour. I don't know much about how teenage books sell over there, but the ones that we get of theirs over here are like a breath of fresh air. They just seem to have more space in the narrative in some way I can't quite define. And they often have a very strong sense of place, which is something I think a lot of modern books lack, and which is amazingly important. I think you remember the setting of novels..., the place they happen in..., long after the details of the plot have disappeared.

 

 


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