Video transcript
2017 NSW PRC author interview - Morris Gleitzman

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- Hi, I'm Charlotte, and I'll be interviewing Morris Gleitzman.

- Hi, Charlotte.

- Hi. I know one of your well known books is 'Boy Overboard'. What was your purpose or aim in writing that book?

- Well, it was an unusual one for me because it-- most of my stories and characters come from some mysterious place inside me and I discover the story by getting to know the character and finding out what's going on in their life, in particular, the big problems. But 'Boy Overboard' was one of the few books I've written where looking at the outside world, seeing something that either interested me or got me worked up or excited or angry or something, was where the story idea started.

And with 'Boy Overboard', I was watching the TV news quite a few years ago now, when we started for the first time-- we started to see boats packed with people. And for the first time, they were from a particular part of the world, Afghanistan and other countries around there and Central Asia. And I was struck by the sorts of things that were being said about the people on the boats.

I knew very little about the people on the boats, but they were receiving some comments from some of our politicians and some media commentators that to me, started to feel as though we were being told a particular type of story about the people on the boats, that they were a threat, that they were dangerous, that we should be scared and worried. And that seemed to be a strange story to be telling when we didn't really know. We weren't being told much about who was on the boats and why.

So I started to do some research and I realised that there was another story, that there were some very significant reasons why these families and these individuals were leaving their countries and trying to come to other countries. And it was a story that wasn't really being told in what I thought was a true or sympathetic way. So I started to research the whole area. And I wasn't actually able to go to Afghanistan because both my family and my publishers pointed out to me that if I went on a research trip and got killed, I would be in breach of both my family and publishing contracts, and that they would both sue me separately and together. So had to do all the other types of research that one can do.

- 'Boy Overboard', it kind of does address more mature issues. Did you have a reason for making it more of a children's book?

- All of these big aspects of our world, these big problems that families and societies, and even whole countries face, children are always caught up. They're always a part of it. They don't-- I think, they almost never, do they actually cause the situation that has existed, but they're always very much involved.

And as young people start to look around the world for themselves and start to have their own thoughts and feelings about the world they find themselves in-- and that tends to happen around the age that I'm mostly writing for, eight, nine, and up-- they-- we all at that age, see that the world has many different aspects, that there are plenty of things that we're pleased to see and that we hope will become part of our lives, and plenty of other things going on that shock or dismay or sometimes horrify us, and we wonder how they can be. And that's a very normal and necessary part of looking at the world.

So it's impossible to be a young person in today's world and not realise that there are a large number of people on our planet who don't get to live where they'd prefer to live, which is where they come from because of war, and persecution, and mass murder, and all sorts of other things. And I think therefore, it's a very important area to be writing stories about because stories are one of the ways we come to understand our world.

I think a story has a responsibility not to try and win an argument. I think it has a responsibility to give readers the opportunity, whether those readers a young or old, to do some thinking and feeling of their own and to have some ideas, and maybe to develop some of their own arguments or views about the justice or injustice, the rightness or wrongness of certain things, and that's certainly what I've tried to do with 'Boy Overboard'.

MORRIS GLEITZMAN: I started out not planning to write a story about war time at all. I wanted to write a story about friendship. It seems to me that no matter who we are and what other opportunities or disadvantages life throws at us, we all have the chance to make friendships a very important part of our life.

And I wanted to write a story about the very best friendship I could. A friendship that would have readers either saying, yes I've got a friendship like that and it's one of the most precious things I've got in my life or one day I hope perhaps I can have a friendship that good. That's where I started. But I didn't want to write a safe and cosy story about friendship. I wanted to put friendship to the test and see if friendship could be as tough and as sustaining when times get tough, if it could still give us the things we need.

So I decided to place a friendship between two young people, slap bang in the middle of some of the most unfriendly human behaviour I could come across on a really big scale, and that of course meant war time. And I didn't have to think too long which of the many, many wars I was going to choose as the background for the story because I have a distant family connection to the terrible years in World War II that we call the Holocaust.

But I wanted to make it a little easier by not just writing about some of the worst things that we humans are capable of, but also some of the best. In fact, I wouldn't have even started the whole project if I could only write about the worst things. I don't really see much point in that. We've got history books and news reports that do that superbly. Stories can show both sides of any situation, even something as huge and as touching the lives of millions, like the Holocaust.

And through the years of reading I did researching Holocaust, going over to Poland, going to museums, meeting people who were children during those years, Jewish survivors-- through all that research, time and again, I came across so many instances of people sharing the very best that we're capable of, even when all around, others are displaying the very worst, and I wanted that to be the essence of these stories.

A child who's not with his own parents and spends quite a bit of time in those early books worrying about them and trying to find out what's happened to them, at the same time he's having to provide some parental services to another child who's in a similar situation. I thought that would be particularly tough for Felix in one sense. It would make him even more aware that his own parents weren't there.

But I had a sense about Felix that even when he's feeling sad and worried about his own parents, he's got the ability to give some love and some friendship to another person who really needs it. And to me, that was an example of Felix being able to do some of the very best things that we are capable of as humans, even though-- even when all around him there were others doing the very worst.

As much as possible, I try to find the human-- the good side of every character. Occasionally, I have a character who does things that are so terrible and who has lost contact so completely with the goodness inside them that that's tricky. If that character is an adult-- and the character I know you're talking about in 'Soon' is an adult-- I think of them as a child because I don't think anybody is born doing evil things. It's something that some people learn along the way.

So that helps a lot because even though that particular character in 'Soon', I can't say that I felt particularly warm or supportive of almost anything he did, but although it wasn't-- there wasn't room in that story for me to explore his background and to explain why he might have done the things he did, I did spend some time thinking of him as a child and thinking that he would have been a very different person back then.

- So I know a lot of people wonder-- I honestly do-- who are your favourite authors or what's your favourite book?

- When I was about 14, after a childhood packed with reading where I was one of the best clients of my local public library-- at age 14, I start reading books, totally. And at the time, it just felt like something I didn't want to do anymore, but thinking about it years later I realised that I'd made a really silly mistake. I very foolishly thought that you couldn't be interested in girls and books at the same time. How wrong was that? Your presence here Charlotte, demonstrates that in fact, some of the most insightful and passionate readers in the world are indeed girls. So that was dopey. And that dopiness lasted for about three years.

And when I was 17, I had immigrated to Australia with my parents and brother and sister. I left school because I had a very unhappy time at secondary school in England, and I was working in a clothing factory. I was a bit of a sort of gopher. I was the run-around who was sent off to buy the big bags of zips of buttons and things.

One day, one of the bloats working in this factory, who I didn't really know very well-- it was quite a large factory. I didn't know everybody personally. He came up to me and said-- and he held out a book and he said, I've just finished reading this book on the train to work. I think you'd like it. Give it a go. And it was a book I'd never heard of. It was called 'The Horse's Mouth' by Joyce Cary. On the bus home that night from work, I read the first few pages and I knew about three pages in that I'd made a terrible mistake jettisoning books from my life.

And I went to my parents that night and I said, look, I've made a mistake. Here I am, I left school at 16, I'm working in a clothing factory. I suddenly realised that I want a life surrounded by books. I want to share my life with people who love books. So I said, I think this means I have to continue my education because I think university is probably where I'm going to find people who love books. And I left the job that week. They very kindly funded me to go to a college where I was able to do a crash year 11 and 12, and then I went to university. And well, I wouldn't be sitting here today if it hadn't been for that book.

So I can't promise that if you read 'The Horse's Mouth' by Joyce Cary-- it's a brilliant book. It's about an artist, about a painter, and it's from his point of view. And it may well turn you into an artist if you can draw. I can't promise it will turn you into a writer, but it's a really, really good book.

Anybody watching who has read any of the Felix books, particularly the first two, 'Once' and 'Then', might have noticed that Felix has a favourite author, an English author called, Richmal Crompton. You may have wondered, why would a Polish boy have an English author as his favourite author? Well, the answer, of course, is that the author of Felix's stories grew up in England and had that very same author as his favourite author when he-- I was 9, 10, 11.

Richmal Crompton was a great writer. She was the head teacher. She was the principal of a posh girls' school in South London. That was a 9:00 to 5:00 job, but evenings and weekends she would go home and she would become somebody totally different. She would become a naughty, outrageous, rebellious, anarchic, messy, noisy, 10-year-old boy called, William Brown, who also had one of the most wonderful, loving, friendly hearts of any character I've ever read.

And his story, as they call the Jess William stories were the ones that delighted me most as a 9 and 10-year-old, and they were the ones that first got me thinking about writing my own stories, and that's why I gave Felix Richmal Crompton as his favourite author. I wanted Felix to have at least one adult in his life that he felt the Nazis couldn't kill even if she was only available to him in his imagination.

Immediately after the end of the book, 'Soon', it's-- I'm not giving too much away to say, that it's when he and his friend Gabriet come to Australia to start new lives here. And that process of travelling from one place in the world to a very different place to start a new life is something I've written about with other characters in other stories a bit. But I'm really interested to see how it goes for Felix. And of course, we already know about his life in Australia a bit from reading the book, 'Now', which is set when Felix is an 8-year-old.

- Did you find it hard moving to Australia after you'd grown up and made [inaudible] England?

- I did. It wasn't until my own kids, my own son and daughter was 16, that I realised a traumatic experience it was for me being torn from my small, but important social circle in the suburbs of London at 16.

- Are you happy that you moved?

- Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. Once I'd got back on track and I was in university, I actually did a course called, professional writing. And as far as I know, there was no undergraduate course called professional writing in England, and this was the first one in Australia, and it was a chance to try your hand and learn some craft skills of a whole range of writing. And I quickly realised that I wanted to write television comedy. And at that time in England, there was some brilliant television comedy being produced. It was the year of Monty Python and all sorts of wonderful shows that are available for you to see on YouTube, probably.

But British TV comedy was written by a small group of people who'd come out of the footlights reviews at Oxford and Cambridge universities, and it was very hard for anyone else to break in. Whereas in Australia, it was a wonderful time when, if you could do it, the opportunity was there. And so I started working at the ABC straight out of university learning some-- working in a production area. But it gave me access to producers desks and I was able very quickly to start writing a TV comedy series called, 'The Norman Gunston Show', which was quite a big thing at the time.

- Have you ever faced writer's block, and if yes, how do you overcome it?

- I worked out pretty early on that writer's block comes from one of two things, I believe. Either you are blocked because you don't know what to write and because my whole approach to writing stories is actually a very simple one, I want to meet a character with a big problem in their life. And I want to get close enough to that character, good enough friends with them, that they will trust me to go on a journey with them where the goal-- the aim of the journey is for them to either solve or survive that problem or at least diminish it to some degree. And that's essentially what I believe a story is.

Once you've got a character with a problem, you've got something to write about in the first sentence, you've got something to write about on the first page, and you know the purpose and shape of your story because the problem will either be solved or it won't. That's your ending and that's what you're heading towards. If you don't know that, you can write a few pages of brilliant pros about the weather and the local real estate in your character's part of the world and maybe a bit of stuff about some social interaction. But without that big problem, it's all going to sort of peter out into pointlessness, and you get an actual point where you don't really know what to write next.

The other reason we get blocked, I think, is fear. If you write something successfully, and it's published and it's available for people to read all around the world, that's going to be read by a lot of people that you don't know and whose existence you don't know of as individuals, so you're going to be exposed in this big and semi sort of mysterious way to who knows who, and that can be a scary thing. You know, what if they think I'm an idiot? What if they think you know, why did he bother writing that?

And even a bit of success doesn't make the fear go away because in a couple of weeks I'm going to sit down and start planning and eventually writing my 39th book. And I know during the months that will take, I will be-- I'll feel that fear sometimes. But years ago, I worked out how to deal with that and it's very simple.

You remember that this whole process of writing a story or writing a book is not about you, the author, it's about the main character. That's why it's happening. There's a character who's got a huge problem in their life, much bigger than a few people having a snigger or being snarky about something you've written. And so I simply refocus on the character. I stop thinking about myself and I think about the character, and it works every time.

- What is your best tip for aspiring writers?

- It's easy to go back and sit down and think, write. So I've got to write something that is going to resonate with great literary qualities, and that's the wrong way around because as readers, what we consume is not just the end product of a writing process, it's the context of a culture with all of the ideas and thoughts and feelings and significances that come out of that. It's, I think, always best to try and focus on that relationship with your characters, not in fact, if possible, not to think about readers at all or critics or publishers or reviewers or fans or-- it's between you and the characters.

So I would say, try and form a relationship in your imagination with another individual who interests you and about whom you have strong enough feelings that you're going to want to make them one of the really important people in your life for quite a long time, and then work out what would be the biggest, the most interesting problem that individual could have, and then start thinking how together, you and that character can try and solve that problem or at least help them survive it. And that's really you-- before you know it, you've got a blueprint for a story.

And a lot of the great works of literature have words in them that seem extremely impressive and are often quite long. And that's partly because they might have been written in another era where everyone used those sort of words. We don't need to use those sort of words today, and so I really, particularly with people who are starting out, doing some writing for the first time, I say, just use the words that use every day in talking to friends and family.

They are in fact, I think the best words to use because they're the ones we're most familiar with and they are the ones that their for that don't draw attention to themselves as words. What you want to draw attention to is your character and what's happening for the character, the thoughts and feelings that your character has inside them. The actions that they are propelling themselves through the story with. The words you use, in one sense, should be invisible. It's not the individual words you use, it's how you put them together.

I have one small sad part of my life, which is that while I'm working on one of my own stories, I can't actually read anybody else's stories. And this means because I'm working, I'm thinking, planning, writing or rewriting a book of my own, for much of each year, I only get to read stories for maybe a couple of months each year. So mostly I read non-fiction.

And about half of the reading I do is for research, either for the book I'm writing at the moment or one that I'm planning to write soon or it's to fill in the gaps that I missed in my school education, because my best subject by a long way was daydreaming, which unfortunately, they didn't make special lessons for when I was at school. So I've spent a lot of time reading and catching up on those areas, which has also been useful to me, because there's a sort of research you do, you're not actually sure that you're doing it. You're reading for fun and then you-- suddenly, something leaps out of the page and you think ah, yes, I can write about that.

I do plan my stories. That's because I'm that sort of person. I'm not saying-- English teachers please put your fingers in your ears. I'm not saying that planning is essential. I know I've got some close friends who are authors who couldn't plan a shopping trip. So they just let their imaginations run wild and they start typing away and see what happens.

I have noticed that I finish my books much more quickly than they do because I do a little plan, maybe two or three pages, a few sentences about each chapter. I'm just sort of charting the physical and the emotional journey of each-- of the main character, in particular. And I do maybe 8 or 10 draughts of that plan. It's a habit I developed when I was a screenwriter because you've-- when you're writing for the screen it costs a large amount of money for each second of story that is on the screen so you can't have any seconds of story that aren't essential, and I've carried that habit over to my books.

So when I start writing, I know where all the bits are and where they're meant to go. And although, characters take me off on side trips sometimes, it means that I can get a first draft, and a second draft, and a third draft done quite efficiently.

- Lastly, what advice would you give to people doing the Premier's Reading Challenge?

- One of the great things for me about reading is that we've got the books we love, the types of books we love, the authors we love, and sometimes it's great just to go back and to have a reading experience where you know sort of what you're going to get because you know the sort of books that author writes or you know those characters. It's part of a series. That's one type of reading. That's great.

But there are always literally millions of books that you not only haven't read, but they're different from the sorts of books that you've read in the past, and this is where it gets really exciting because there is no limit to where these new books can take you in terms of new experiences, new ways of looking at the world, new ways of understanding yourself, new friends, types of individuals that you might not have access to in your daily physical life, but they'll be there in books, and perhaps a little different from ones you've read before.

And the great thing about the Premier's Reading Challenge is that sometimes we need a little nudge. We need a little kind of-- a little hint that-- it might seem cosy and a bit more relaxing to stay with what we're familiar with, but if we prepare to take a step, explore some new authors who are on the list, a Premier's Reading Challenge list, for example. We may never have heard of those authors, but-- and some of them we may not particularly like if we read them, but others will become our new best friends, our new favourite authors.

So I think that's a really, a really great aspect of a Premier's Reading Challenge. And I've said this before, but I believe it to be true, I don't think there's ever been a state premier in Australia's history who did not have a childhood with lots of books in it. So I know some of you students and teachers are pretty certain that you one day will become a state premier, and I hope you do, but it's going to take some serious reading. And I think it's a wonderfully appropriate thing that it should be a Premier's Reading Challenge that gives you some of the groundwork you're going to need to take this state to new heights of glory and sensible economic policy.

- Thank you so much for your time, Morris.

- You're very welcome, Charlotte. You are a natural. If Hollywood doesn't grab you, then the channel 9 news department will.

- Oh, [inaudible].

- Well done.

- Thanks so much, Morris.

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