Shortlisted for the U.K.’s prestigious Carnegie Medal, Beck is a coming-of-age tale about a mixed-race English orphan shipped off to Canada in the early 20th century where he is first sexually abused and then sold into brutal servitude on an Ontario farm. British writer Mal Peet started the story before his death in 2015; his good friend and fellow writer Meg Rosoff stepped in to finish it. PW spoke with Rosoff, the Carnegie Medal-winning author of How I Live Now, about her friendship with Peet and the challenges and rewards of inheriting the project, from her home in London.
How did you come to be involved in this project?
First, I must say that I wouldn’t do this for just anyone. I loved Mal to pieces. I joked all the time that I’d run away with him if only our spouses would agree. He called me between Christmas  and New Year’s and told me the chemo wasn’t working, and the doctors advised he stop treatment. I was devastated. I felt as completely desperate as anyone would when you get a phone call like that. What do you say to a friend who’s dying? Being Mal, his big complaint was about the book. He said, “It’s a real bastard because I thought I could finish it.” So without really giving it much thought I said, “Here’s something I could do. I’ll finish it.”
Did you already have a familiarity with what he was working on when you made this offer?
I had no idea. We talked a lot about writing but I don’t think we ever talked about specific projects. It was more like he would say, “Oh, it’s going so badly. Why did I ever think I could write?” and I would say, “Mine is going so well now.” And then two weeks later he’d say, “I’ve cracked it,” and by that point I would have to admit that mine was disastrous.
Did you get to talk to him about the novel before he died?
I didn’t. We had that phone call after Christmas and then, in January, my mother had a stroke and I flew to California to be with her. I missed the chance to see him. By the time I got back, he was gone. Maybe a month or six weeks later Elspeth [Graham, Peet’s wife] sent me the file, which I read, greatly relieved to realize I could do what I’d promised. Actually, I had a certainty about it. He never wrote anything that I didn’t love but, even more than that, I knew where he was going. I couldn’t do it for any other writer perhaps. If someone asked, “Could you finish this 800-page tome on the Spanish Civil War that Hilary Mantel started?,” I’d have to say, “Actually? Maybe not.” But after I read the draft I knew exactly what had to be done, as if it were my own book. And the fact that he was gone made it much easier. If he’d still been alive I’d have felt the temptation to call him and say, “Here’s what I’m doing. Is this okay?” or to check every time I took three words out of a sentence.
How much of the novel was finished when you took it on?
That’s a hard question to answer. A lot of people want to know, “What’s the last word that he wrote and where did you begin?” but that wasn’t how it worked. A lot of it had been sketched out; it was mostly written. But I know he would have gone back and changed stuff. He had written three of four sections, and skipped ahead and written some of the ending, including the last scene. I worried about writing that fourth section from scratch and I talked it over with [Candlewick editor] Liz Bicknell, who is terrific, and she agreed that might be tricky. So I went back to the beginning and changed the arc a bit so that the story peaked earlier, but reshaped it into just the three sections. In his own time, Mal would have got round to doing a lot of what I did but I think my writing is sparser than his. The plotting was beautiful but I pared it way down. It’s a much shorter book than it would have been had he written it, I think. I had to trim the sex scenes, too.
Did you know anything about the subject matter before you started – the sexual abuse within the Christian Brotherhood, bootlegging in Canada during American prohibition? One wonders how Mal, who grew up in Norfolk, England, came up with this topic but I remember him saying that he wrote Keeper (about a legendary South American soccer goalie) without ever having been to Brazil.
Mal had read a book about poor kids sent to Australia and Canada in the early 1900s – the Home Boys – who were mostly horribly abused. It’s been a big story here. I knew something of the bootlegger history myself from Mordecai Richler’s Solomon Gursky Was Here. I had a big jag in my 20s of reading modern Canadian literature so I knew quite a lot about that period, the 1920s in Canada. But the book that was really in my bones when I was thinking about Beck was Ironweed by William Kennedy, which won the Pulitzer Prize. That feeling of what it’s like to be on the road. It made me realize how much a writer’s knowledge of the world comes from reading and made me think of [President] Trump. I’ve been thinking a lot about Trump lately–who hasn’t? –and wondering what kind of knowledge of the world someone has if they never read a book.
How did you feel when you heard that Beck has been shortlisted for the Carnegie?
It’s very exciting but, personally, I don’t think it’s going to win. The scene in the bath (where the sexual abuse by the priests begins) is scaring people. If you look at the Carnegie website, there’s already a lot of backlash, comments from teachers about how this is “absolutely inappropriate for 12-year-olds.” If there’s sexual abuse, or even sex, there’s going to be outrage. It’s the usual rubbish. I get so bored with that. I can’t get involved in the politics. I just try to write the best book I can and hopefully someone will read it. I only hoped to do a job that Mal would have been pleased with.
Would you agree that you and Mal are both YA writers who are difficult to pigeon-hole?
Most proper writers don’t write the same book twice. Look at Annie Proulx’s latest, Barkskins. Who would have predicted that? It’s just that when you write YA, a lot of people are writing the same kind of book every time because that’s what their readers want to read. Nothing wrong with that. But you’re right. He and I are members of a very small club, writing about adolescents but not writing for your average 14-year-olds. There’s so much pressure in publishing to figure out where does this fit. I have no complaints myself because the first book I wrote was a bestseller and won prizes, so I was lucky to get lots of attention for whatever I did next. But that’s why I do hope Mal wins the Carnegie for this. He deserves to be more widely read than I think he has been.
Beck by Mal Peet and Meg Rosoff. Candlewick, $17.99 Apr. ISBN 9780763678425