Interview: Rosie Rushton, novelist and lay reader

18 August 2009

I write novels for teenagers of all ages — 40 so far. They cover a wide range of topics.

Young people don’t change. The world around them changes, and the problems may change, but the essence of what fires them doesn’t change.

Teen fiction is a comparatively new genre, but it’s also a very good com­mercial proposition, so my publish­ers tell me. It’s holding up well, appar­ently, even in a depressed eco­nomy.

Though we read an awful lot in the press about boys not reading, there is a lot of enthusiasm among teen­agers for reading. I go into dozens and dozens of schools and meet young people who enjoy particular authors, read all their books, and are interested in finding others — which is wonderful.

I don’t really like the expression “teen­ager”. It somehow sets them apart. They are human beings — people. I know it has to be used to delineate a market, but they are as varied and different as anyone else. They are created by God, each unique and lovely. Bundling them together does them a disservice.

When I was a child, there was no such thing. At 11, 12, and 13 I was reading Little Women, Jane Eyre, and Jane Austen. We went straight from childhood to adulthood. What chil­dren face now is vastly different. A lot of them live in fractured families, and, sadly, faith, religion, church aren’t the norm any more. They are a much more bewildered generation, and need handles for their lives. Lots write to me.

I had three children of my own, and led a youth group at church for years. That’s a very good way of get­ting inside teenage minds. The world we live in is the world they live in.

Image is everything, and it’s really helpful if we can help teenagers to see that those images are false. Everyone has the same aches and hopes and fears inside of them. Fifty years ago, we weren’t so image-conscious — class conscious, maybe, but not image-conscious. Some drive you mad, of course, but they are such vibrant people.


I was a journalist for several years, but when my youngest daughter left her pre-prep school, she didn’t settle well in the next one, and I wrote a funny book for her about changing school. It was published, and I was very, very lucky — all the books I’ve written since were commissioned, and most of them by the same publisher. I was at the right place at the right time.

The last four novels have been taken from Jane Austen’s novels, and I’ve imagined the characters in the present day, taking as much of the plot as I can. Sadly, to­day’s teen­­agers don’t have the spir­it­ual and moral para­meters of Jane Aus­ten’s heroines, but it’s been fas­cinating to write about how young people will deal with rejection, ambi­tion, persuasion. . .

I’ve done Sense and Sen­sibility, Northanger Ab­bey, Emma, and Pride and Prejudice so far, and I’m working on Persua­sion at the moment. They’re quite popular in schools be­cause people are en­couraged to read the orig­inal and it’s a lovely way in to Jane Austen.

Teenagers are grow­ing up in a society where there are not those moral guide­lines. Deep down they are searching for them. So many young people are grow­ing up with­out those stakes in the ground to help them keep on the straight and narrow.

My novels are character-driven, not plot-driven. Take Emma — a well-motivated girl who always gets it wrong: she’s no different today. We are the creatures of our decisions, and our lives evolve from the deci­sions we make. Persuasion is hard (I’ve brought the heroine’s age down to 19, and a lot of it is in flashbacks to when she was 17. Cap­tain Went­worth is serving in the Marines in Afghanistan.) But it’s something to get my teeth into.

I used to write quite light-hearted stuff, but now I like something much meatier.

I’m a lay reader. I love that — it’s such a privilege to be allowed into people’s lives. I still do writing work­shops in schools, though at nearly 64 I do less of that. I was licensed five years ago, and wish I had done it much earlier.

I read voraciously — every genre — recommended by friends, from re­views. . . Obviously Jane Austen — she has such a wonderful wry per­cep­tion of human nature. And I love Amitav Ghosh. I’ve just finished The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry. I love to lose myself in a book. It’s the best therapy there is.


I’ve been helped a great deal by various teenage-authors I’ve met and discussed things with, espe­cially Celia Rees and Linda Newbery. I belong to SAS (Scattered Authors Society), and find that mutual ex­change of thoughts very helpful.

The Church is much more aware than it was of the need to mentor and walk with young people in their faith journey. And as church people are human beings, we often struggle. But if you put down nothing else, put this down — and I don’t mind if you use bold type and capital letters — THE CHURCH HAS GOT TO FORMULATE A EUCHARISTIC LITURGY THAT IS APPROPRIATE FOR CHILDREN AND TEEN­AGERS.

I’d love to see Synod working much harder. I’d like to see the liturgy added to (not changed) so that it speaks to the generation we com­plain that we’re losing. So many of them have not had the cradle Chris­tian­ity that so many of us have been privileged to enjoy. They can feel that these are words for those who have passed the test, got the T-shirt. We know that’s wrong, but that’s what they can feel.

When you start driving lessons, you’re taken on a quiet road to start with — but we are expecting them in church to drive on the motorway at the standard of an advanced motorist.

In Kenya, I visited a girls’ school where they have a spontaneous moment in their services, to offer their struggles — usually related to HIV and AIDS — dur­ing the offertory with a very colloquially-spoken prayer. We did some really powerful youth services (we couldn’t do a eucharist, obvious­ly) and the young people said: “Hey, can we really just talk in normal words?” There’s a huge chasm for some of them to step over.

I have three daugh­ters, all married, and five grandchildren. I love them all dearly.

I really wanted to be a foreign corres­pondent for the BBC, but as I got older I thought — per­haps not. I wrote stories for friends as a very young child, and I would tell stories to friends who came for sleepovers.

If something’s troub­ling me, I’ll write about it and then pray it through.

Writing books is fine, but the most im­portant and exciting things I’ve done are to do with my faith. That led on to be­ing a Reader and being in­volved in lots of things I other­wise wouldn’t have done.


There was one lady called Mary Potter, my RE teacher at school, who organised a Scrip­ture Union camp in the Lake District for two weeks when I was 11, with some other schools. That was a turning point in my faith, when I encoun­tered a personal Christ. I was a very overweight child, not desper­ately popular at school because I wasn’t good at sport, but I became there the Rosie that God loved — and he wasn’t distant.

Having been to Kenya and seen the terrible way people work in the sugar trade, and are paid a despic­able amount and often have to wait for weeks to get their pay, I don’t think you could ever not be in favour of fair trade. I love the pineapples, when I can get my hands on them. But I wish their clothing was a bit more trendy.

I like travelling where you can meet the people — in Zambia, South Af­rica, Sri Lanka. . . People more than the monuments. I went on a dio­cesan visit to our link diocese in

Ken­ya which was incredible. That makes you realise how lucky we are here in some ways, but their worshipwas just amazing. And I love India: the people have such faith — it may not be our faith — and joy in small things.

What we are to each other is more important that what we achieve. I’d like to be remembered for making people smile, making them feel better, making them feel a tiny bit closer to Christ.

I’m not very happy with my own company for too long. The happiest thing is a big sandy beach in Norfolk — or it could be Cornwall — with all my children and grandchildren and sons-in-law present.

I to try to hold before God people I know and love who need prayer. I used to bombard God with “This is what I want, and this is what I need, and this is what I want to do. . .” But now I just ask: “What’s on the agenda for today?”

I’d like to be locked in a church with St Peter — because I find him the most heartening and encouraging of all the disciples and characters in the Bible. He made so many mistakes, always engaged his mouth before his brain, yet Christ chose him as the leader for his Church.

Rosie Rushton was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

Rosie Rushton was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

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