[Interview] Adele Geras: poet, novelist and children's author

Award-winning poet and novelist, Adele Geras is one of the most versatile and prolific writers currently living in the United Kingdom. Over the past 30 years, she has written more than 90 books for children, nine novels for young adults and three novels for adults.

Her novel Troy was shortlisted for the Whitbread Children’s Book Award in 2000 and was highly commended for the Library Association Carnegie Medal in 2001. The novel was also a Boston Globe Honor Book.

Geras has published one poetry collection, Voices from the Dolls’ House (Rockingham Press) and has won several awards for her poetry.

Facing the Light, her first adult novel, was published by Orion in March 2003 and sold rights in 22 countries. Her second adult novel, Hester’s Story, came out in 2005 and her third, Made in Heaven in 2006.

Adele Geras spoke about her writing.

When did you decide you wanted to be a writer?

I came to writing by accident. I went in for a story competition in 1973 and enjoyed writing my piece so much that I decided to try and write some more …

[The piece] was a ghost story called “Rose” and it went on to be included in a collection of short stories called Apricots at Midnight, still available from Barn Owl books.

Who would you say influenced you the most?

Probably my wonderful English teachers at school and my dad who always read to me and directed me to many wonderful books. Miss Godfray used to cut out my extra and redundant adjectives. I was addicted to adjectives and purple prose as a child. They all combined great intelligence and critical acumen with the best sort of encouragement.

What are your main concerns as a writer?

Only one concern: to give pleasure to readers and enjoy myself while I’m doing it.

How have your personal experiences influenced the direction of your writing?

I suppose so … for example, I’m an only child and so I love writing (and reading!) about big families. Little Women was my favorite book as a child.

Which other books did you read as a child? Do you still enjoy them as much now?

All books about the theater that I could get my hands on: Noel Streatfield’s Ballet Shoes, and Pamela Brown’s books. Also the whole of Enid Blyton and things like Andrew Lang’s Fairy Books. Also by Andrew Lang, a book called Tales of Troy which I still have and which I knew by heart … it’s all about the Trojan war etc.

What would you say are the biggest challenges that you face?

There’s only one challenge: to write the best book you can and then try not to fret too much about what happens to it when it goes out into the world.

How do you deal with these?

I try and think of Chekhov’s motto: "Write without hope and without despair." That’s it … I try and write each day when I’m in the middle of a book.

What are your latest books about?

My latest adult book, Made in Heaven is about a big wedding and my latest teenage book Ithaka is about Penelope waiting for Odysseus to come home from the Trojan war.

Made in Heaven took about 9 months and was published June 2006 by Orion London. Ithaka took a year, but it was divided up into bits around my adult novel writing, if you see what I mean. [It was] first published by David Fickling Books in October 2005 and by Harcourt Brace in the USA in Jan.2006. Ithaka [has also] published in Corgi Paperback in August 2006.

Which aspects of the work that you put into the books did you find most difficult?

The hardest part is the beginning … and I mean as well as the beginning of the book, the starting up every day.

How do you get around this problem?

I generally start by correcting what I’ve written the previous day … this gets the fingers working on the computer and seems to give me the impetus to go on …

Which did you enjoy most?

The best feeling in the world is having written … I love that.

What sets your latest books apart from the other things you have written?

Well, the adult novel is a bit of a departure, in that my other adult novels tend to have a ‘looking back into the past’ element and this one doesn’t.

Ithaka relates to Troy. That’s my novel about the Trojan War and these two are the only things I’ve written set in the Ancient world.

In what way are they similar?

Well, they’re both written by me, and I suppose they’re full of my preoccupations and they are in my ‘handwriting’ as it were … my particular style.

What preoccupations are these and just how much space do they take up in your life? Why is this so?

What I mean is: all the things I like, theater, cats, fabrics, food, books etc come up in my books, that’s all … they take up lots of space in my life because they sort of are my life! I mean that you can’t help the things you like appearing in your books. I like relationships, seeing how families work. I like to think about the influence of the past on the present. I am interested in the way memory works … etc.

What will your next book be about?

My next adult book is about the consequences of a will. My next children’s book … I’m not thinking about quite yet.

What would you say has been your most significant achievement as a writer?

I reckon my greatest success is that people are still interested in [my books]. Publishers are still interested in publishing my work, after 30 years in the business and ninety-two books published. And that some people like reading what I write.

How did you get there?

By not giving up at the beginning when I was getting rejection letters for about eighteen months … by doing what I like doing but also listening to other people.

You are also one of the few writers who are catering for children, young adults as well as adults. Why would you say this is so? Do you approach each of your books for children, young adults as well as adults in the same way or do they present different challenges? How do you deal with these challenges?

Each book presents a different challenge. It’s not to do with age. Each book is its own ‘thing’. You have to approach each one with a fresh eye, as it were. The main thing is to decide: whose point of view are you telling this story from? And then it becomes like a kind of acting job and you just become whoever it is ... be it a fat black cat or a retired ballerina! And I like to change and change about because I don’t want to be bored with what I’m doing. And I never am! The adult books take longer … about a year, I suppose … because there are more words in them …

Facing the Light, your first novel for adults was published in March 2003. What made you decide to write a novel for adults? How did the idea for the novel come to you?

FTL, as I call it, was one of those lucky things. The idea for the twist at the end of the story came to me out of the blue. I wrote about 80 pages and a detailed synopsis of the rest and an agent became interested in it and sold it to Orion in a very good two book deal. It has also been sold to 22 countries round the world … just signed a contract for Lithuania!

It got a lot of critical acclaim and attention and more than either of my other two books, but still, Hester’s Story did better ( in paperback it ended up on the bestseller lists) and it’s too early to tell with Made in Heaven. Hester’s Story has sold to about 10 countries and Made in Heaven to about five so far, though this may change with time, especially if it does well in paperback here.

What do you think made it so popular? In terms of how, they have been received, how do the subsequent novels compare to Facing the Light?

You can publish anything you like but you can’t make people buy it in huge quantities. If there was a sure-fire way of doing this, all books would cover their advances but they don’t!

I think Facing the Light was popular because it combined a family story with a mystery. People do like to have a secret they have to find out. Hester’s Story has been very well received, in terms of the feedback I’ve had … also had very good reviews. Made in Heaven has had hardly any reviews but I’ve had lots of people say they like it best of all … it’s quite different from the other two, and is about a family preparing for a big wedding.

The biggest difference between writing for children and adults is the length of the book.

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