The Book Brunch Interview – Elspeth Graham

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The BookBrunch Interview: Elspeth Graham, children’s writer

JASMIN KIRKBRIDE • 19 August 2016

In March 2015, the renowned Children’s and Young Adult author Mal Peet passed away. He left behind his unfinished last novel,Beck, in the hands of fellow author Meg Rosoff and his wife, Elspeth Graham. Now, 18 months after his death, Beck is being released. I spoke with Graham about the process of finishing the work, defying genre, and her ongoing internal conversation with Peet.

Finishing a close friend’s novel might seem daunting, and for a family member unimaginably tricky, but that was not the case at all for Elspeth Graham when she worked on Beck.

“I miss Mal like mad and probably always will,” she opens. “But I think this year having had his writing to work with has been hugely important. That voice which in real life and on paper was just so strong has been there pretty much every day over the 18 months since Mal died. People often say, ‘God, that must have been awful,’ but it’s been the opposite. I’ve found it really comforting. If you’re going to be in my position and lose your husband, it’s just extraordinary to have their voice there with you all that time.”

The experience was similar for Meg Rosoff, in whose hands Beck was officially left when Peet found out he would not recover from cancer. “The best thing about the collaboration was that it kept me in dialogue with my friend for months after he died,” she wrote in an article for The Guardian last week. The key to reworking the novel, she continued, was when Graham visited her at her Suffolk home earlier this year. They took long walks with Graham’s dogs, looked at the sea, reminisced about Peet, and discussed problems with plot and voice.

“The time Meg and I spent together in Suffolk was important. We’ve been in constant touch really the whole way through – and we still are,” says Graham. “Meg didn’t just take over and finish the book, the last part of the book is actually Mal’s words. His voice starts and ends the story, while Meg works her magic by embroidering and singing alongside him throughout the book. That’s Meg’s brilliance. Mal had an ending he was going towards, but what Meg did was bring out the themes and intentions and pull them through.

“Meg did such a stunningly brilliant job. The book’s seamless. I don’t think anybody can tell who wrote what, actually. Apart from Meg and I, no one really knows. Occasionally, you might read a bit and think, ‘Oh that’s definitely Mal.’ But a few times people have told Meg they loved a certain bit she wrote, when actually it’s something Mal wrote!”

It’s a phenomenal achievement, but it’s not the first time Graham has helped on one of Peet’s novels. “Usually if he got stuck or had a problem, Mal would tell me about it on our walks. Often if he was stuck on names, we’d do that together, and I’d research for him as well. But those whole amazing complex narratives all came out of his head.”

Even on Beck, both Rosoff and Graham had the experience of remaining in conversation with Peet. “All the time Meg was working on Beck, Mal would be by her shoulder. And I think they had arguments, she’d be deleting and he’d say, ‘Not that bit, that’s a good bit!’ and she’d say, ‘Come on, Mal, we can do that in four sentences!’ She just kept a dialogue going with him, and I think when she got to the end, she felt delighted that she’d done it and heartbroken that maybe she’d lost the conversation. But, as she said, as time goes on she’s realized that conversation with Mal hasn’t ended and I feel the same.”

Not quite Young, not quite Adult

The novel itself tells the story of Beck, a half-African, half-Liverpudlian orphan boy. Born in 1907, he is shipped to Canada, where he is adopted and abused by the Christian Brothers and sold for slave labour on a farm. He runs away and, amongst other sweeping coming-of-age adventures, becomes a prohibition-era bootlegger.

“Beck was always going to have a difficult time,” says Graham. “He came particularly from a book calledLittle Immigrants that Mal had read. Mal got interested in the stories of those children who were shipped to the colonies and found it really awful. I suppose some of them – very, very few of them – found really compassionate, good homes, but mainly it was just slave labour and they were very badly treated. So Beck did have a really rough time. Parts of the book are quite shocking.”

Dealing with strong themes is something you would expect from Peet and, accordingly, Walker Books is selling the book for 14 readers. “I think that’s right,” muses Graham. “But you say things like that and you know there are a lot of younger children who would be absolutely fine reading it.”e

Strong themes are typical of Peet’s writing, and his Young Adult novels are famously crossover, this one perhaps more so than any other book. “The broad audience of the book is really important, it is such a crossover novel. I’m quite sure that there will be some reviews that will echo Lynne Reid Banks, who felt so outraged last year when she bought David Almond’s Guardian winner, A Song for Ella Grey, because it had themes she felt were inappropriate.”

This is not something that ever daunted Peet, feeding into what Graham calls one of the “Big Debates” – what is YA? “What’s appropriate is often very much debated. It’s actually kind of manufactured because nobody’s even quite sure what YA is. Is it someone who is 16-25? It might be, but then younger teenagers tend to read YA as well, and some books that go out as YA are essentially for younger teenagers. Then some YA books – Meg’s Picture Me Gone, for example – are just so engaging they are absolutely books written for adults. It’s a difficult though because once you’ve got a categorisation, then people build up rules.”

Peet himself tended to ignore any such “rules” when he was writing YA. He once said: “I see genres as generating sets of rules or conventions that are only interesting when they are subverted or used to disguise the author’s intent.”

Writing Beck was no different. “Mal was aiming it for YA – but like all his books Beck is so crossover because he didn’t compromise. I know he felt absolutely no need to simplify.” What he did do was include historical information he felt younger readers might not have, as he did when writing about the Cuban missile crisis inLife: An Exploded Diagram. Often, Graham points out, this kind of knowledge is just as helpful for an adult reader. “Mal was very thoughtful to the younger reader, but the compromises he made were explanatory more than anything else.”

Even so, sometimes the strength and depth of the themes in his writing did affect Peet. “It’s that strange writer thing. I’d work downstairs and he’d be in the attic room at the top of the house and he’d come down at lunchtime or the end of the day and sometimes he was quite visibly shocked by something that had happened. It wasn’t always what he expected.” He once had a character who he’d fully intended to survive for the whole story, murdered part way through the book.

“I’d just think, ‘Well, yes, but you did that!’” Laughs Graham. “It sometimes didn’t feel like that to him though, I think. Those kind of writers just write and it reflects so much of what disturbs them in the world. I’m sure that’s true of all the writers who write because it just comes out rather than writing to an agenda.”

Staying busy

Graham is also an author in her own right, and collaborated on many books with Peet, including non-fiction for Oxford University Press and a host of picture books, including Cloud Tea Monkeys, which was shortlisted for the Kate Greenaway medal in 2011.

They would work out the plots for their picture books, with Graham telling the stories to Peet on long walks, over and over again over many weeks. Once they had it figured out, Peet would write it down. “The words on the page are his – just beautiful, beautiful words. It feels like such a privilege, to come up with a story and then have someone as amazing as Mal write the words on the page, and to have artists as amazing as PJ Lynch and Juan Wijngaard do the stunning illustrations.”

Since Peet passed away, Graham has been busier than ever. As well as working alongside Rosoff on Beck, Graham has been helping handle Peet’s last complete novella with David Fickling Books; finishing a picture book that she and Peet collaborated on which is with Nosy Crow, due out 2017; and working on two other picture books for illustrator Tudor Humphries. As if that wasn’t enough, she’s also been curating the Exeter Children’s Literature Festival, running this October half-term.

“That’s taken up a lot of time, it’s been a really lovely thing to do. It’s quite a wide festival, and it’s very arts-based as well, so it involves the museum, the library and Northcott Theatre and theatre groups, as well as Michael Morpurgo’s children’s charity Farms for City Children. So I have been really busy – but thank God I have!”

Talking to Graham, what is striking is how much she and Peet did together, from writing books together to campaigning for copyright with the ALCS, from supporting libraries to visiting local schools. But, just as Rosoff found after she sent the manuscript of Beck to Walker Books, Graham seems to have kept that connection going.

“My conversation with Mal has certainly not ended,” she finishes, “and I don’t suppose it ever will.”