'I thought a lot about how dogs sort people’s lives out.'
Published on: 02 July 2019 Author: Anna McKerrow
Author Meg Rosoff talks to us about her Good Dog McTavish books and introduces us to their inspiration, her own dogs.
Hi Meg, can you introduce us to who you've brought with you today?
So, this is Blue – he doesn't want to be on camera, he's very shy, because being famous is tricky for a dog. Well, he's not famous yet, but you never know! He's a lurcher, he's half Bedlington and half whippet, and he is the sweetest dog in the entire world unless you're a cat – in which case he'll chase you and maybe do worse. Or possibly a fox or a rabbit – he likes chasing things, but aside from that he's a very good dog.
This is Blue's sister Juno. I always love it when kids say to me 'Are they brother and sister?' and I say 'Yes, they were in the same litter, they had five other brothers and sisters. She was the smallest one in the litter and he was the biggest.' She's also a Bedlington whippet, she's a little bit of a neurotic thing. She thinks she should be running the world, so when you're driving the car with her, she looks out of the windscreen and never relaxes, even on a five hour journey, because she feels like she's the one who's really driving. So she doesn't have a relaxing life, though he's very chill.
Can you tell us a bit about the McTavish books, in particular McTavish Takes the Biscuit?
I wrote a book for adults called Jonathan Unleashed, and it was kind of about having dogs sort your life out for you. I thought a lot about how dogs sort people's lives out.
For one thing, they get you up in the morning. I mean, I'm a writer, so I would certainly still be in my pyjamas at one in the afternoon if I didn't have a reason to get up. But I have to get up at eight o'clock every morning because they want to go out for a walk. So, dogs kind of regulate your life, and I thought that was a really important part of having a pet.
The question is: do you have the pet or does the pet have you? And there's always talk about rescue dogs, you know, 'My rescue dog rescued me,' and so I thought, wouldn't it be interesting if you had a dog who reluctantly adopts a family? What he really wants is a nice, sensible, well-trained family, and what he gets is this chaotic, bad-tempered family that needs tons of training, and it just made a really good premise for a book. And of course there's one child who is well trained and does understand him – and that's where the stories came from.
Everybody thinks that writing short books is easier than writing long books, but in fact it's really no different at all. You still need a really good story arc, and I was thinking about my father. My father, when I was a child, decided he was going to start cooking. So he started making his own spaghetti – we got him his own spaghetti maker; he started making his own sourdough bread, years and years before anybody decided they had to have sourdough bread for breakfast every morning.
My poor father – we really made fun of him terribly. His sourdough bread was unbelievably heavy and no-one could ever eat it. And so I started thinking about Pa Peachey being the one who starts to cook, and all his cooking goes horribly, horribly wrong.
And of course, once you start talking about baking and cooking you think of Bake Off type scenarios. So I thought, wouldn't it be funny if he entered a local Bake Off competition? And of course, because he's a little bit grandiose, he decides he's not going to make a barn or a ship or something fairly simple, he decides he's going to make the Palace of Versailles in gingerbread. The thought of that made me laugh, and of course McTavish has to save him from humiliation and despair, which he does.
Have your dogs done any naughty food thefts?
My dogs are lurchers, and apparently the name 'Lurch' – it's controversial – but apparently it comes from Hungarian and means 'thief'. I've had my dogs since they were puppies, but very often you get rescued. I went to get a rescue lurcher from a farm up in Nottingham and she was appalled and didn't want to take it home because it looked really awful. Her daughter and my daughter were in the back of the car going 'Noooo, mummy, we can't leave her here!'.
Her name was Millie; the first thing she did was leapt into the car and ate all the sandwiches I'd made for all four of us.
Apparently she was what was called a counter surfer: she'd get up on the work surfaces and just wander around, looking for nice things to eat. After a while she stopped. But they are amazing jumpers, and they can jump from a standing start up onto a kitchen counter, it's one of their really good skills. But mine aren't thieves, they're quite well-behaved.
If you left a sandwich on a low table for half an hour, it would be okay, but if you left it overnight, it would be gone in the morning. As usual, it's not the dogs who are badly behaved, it's the humans. So if you're sensible and you don't ever give your dogs treats at the table, then your dogs won't beg for treats at the table. My husband always shouts at me because this one (Blue) comes and stares at me like he hasn't eaten in months, and sometimes I think maybe we've forgotten to feed him for months... so maybe I should give him a little taste of this pork chop! Unfortunately I've turned him into a beggar, but it's my fault, not his.
So would you say that your dogs have rescued you?
I definitely think my dogs have rescued me. I've always been a dog person – when I was a kid I desperately wanted a dog. Because there were four of us in a very short period of time, my parents thought life was complicated enough and we didn't need a dog. So I came up with a plan which was that I would act insane, then my parents would take me to a psychiatrist and the psychiatrist would say 'What's wrong with you, little girl?' and I would say 'I need a dog!'
This was a really well-thought-out plan, but my parents weren't idiots and unfortunately didn't take me to a psychiatrist. But the irony is that years later, my daughter had terrible trouble sleeping so we took her to a child psychologist who said 'What you need to do is get her a dog,' – I thought, finally, a sensible person! So we went out and got two puppies in a box and she was absolutely thrilled for about two weeks, and then they became my dogs, as always happens, I think.
And they've crawled their way into most of my books! One of my editors has said she's just waiting for someone to do a PhD thesis on dogs in Meg Rosoff books. But I kind of see them as alter egos. Anyone who has a dog knows that you project things on them all the time. My mother, when she was in her 80s, got her first dog. You'd go into her apartment and her dog would be lying flat out on her white couch – a black, dorty dog on a white couch – and my mother would say 'He knows he's not supposed to do that,' and you'd go, well, actually he doesn't know that, he knows he's allowed to do it!
They pick up on their humans. If you have a nice, calm and happy family, then the dogs are calm and happy. If you have a chaotic and crazy family, then unless you're McTavish, you tend to have a crazy, chaotic dog.
Four o'clock in the afternoon is the walk I usually hate doing because I start writing in the afternoon – I'm just getting into my pace and there are these two furry faces looking over the side, at my desk, looking at me, staring at their watches and I don't really want to go out. But then when I am out, it's a really good way to think, walking a dog. I often solve problems with my plots. So they get me out of bed, they get ,e exercised, and you can always get on a dog if you can't get on with your friends and family. Your dog will love you when no-one else does, and sometimes writers are really unloveable. When things are going badly, I'm in a terrible mood for weeks on end, but the dogs don't mind.
Do you have any favourite fictional dogs?
When I was a kid I was more into horse books and pony books; as well as wanting a dog, I also wanted a pony. The first dog book I think I ever read was a book my father had called Bob, Son of Battle, but I loved all those books – Greyfriars Bobby, Lassie. In fact I recently went to a swamp with a friend of mine; I was retrieving a big silver balloon which had got stuck and I ended up almost up to my waist in mud. My friend, who wanted to get a dog, she said, well, I expected the dogs to come up to you and you could grab onto their collars and they could pull you out of the mud! And I said yeah, it happens in Lassie, it doesn't happen in real life.
I always liked animal books. When my daughter was young one of her favourite books was Anne Fine's Diary of a Killer Cat and Jeremy Strong did The 100 Mile an Hour Dog – all those books, you name it. In a pinch I'll read a book about a fish.
Tell us about the real McTavish!
There is a real McTavish; he's a golden Scottish terrier which is a very rare thing – I hadn't seen one before. We'd just moved to a new neighbourhood, and anyone who's just moved to a new neighbourhood will know that the best way to make new friends is to go out walking with your dog, because dog owners all talk to other dog owners. It's a great way to find a boyfriend too, I think, though I've never put that to the test...
So I met this dog, and the woman said 'McTavish! McTavish!' and for some reason I thought McTavish was the funniest name for a dog. And I thought I need to write a book about McTavish. So, I wrote a book and it was published and I showed it to McTavish's owner. The first one was called Good Dog McTavish, and she said 'Well, it's a very funny book, but it really should be called Bad Dog McTavish!'
McTavish had a bit of a reputation for being a big man in the dog park even though he was a little dog. And then she used to tell me that all the other dog owners were jealous that their dogs didn't have books about them!
What do you think about the reading dogs that go into schools?
I absolutely love the idea of reading dogs! A lot of them are greyhounds, I think, aren't they? Because they're very dozy dogs. Y dogs are half whippet and you can see they love more than anything just to sleep. I read somewhere that the librarians tell the children that if the dog closes his eyes, and maybe even snores a little bit, then that means he's thinking very deeply about the reading that the child is doing. I nearly burst into tears! I think it's the most wonderful idea in the world because dogs are so un-judgemental. There's nothing nicer than reading a book to a dog! They'll stay and listen to you. I don't think they'll give you help if you're trying to figure out how to end it, if you're writing it.
I think dogs should be everywhere! But I'm kind of prejudiced - I think dogs should be in hospitals, old people's homes, schools - look how calming they are!
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