From his ‘G’day’ onwards Morris Gleitzman is every inch an Australian, which is surprising given that he spent what is usually thought of as ‘the formative years’ growing up in Welling in the south east of London. Sadly for us, he comes to England rarely. This most recent visit was to cement a new relationship with Puffin over the new Paul Jennings/Morris Gleitzman mini-series, ‘Wicked’.
I had met Morris on a previous visit to London when Two Weeks With the Queen was at the height of its success in its play version at the National Theatre and through its reading on Jackanory. Then, only recently successful as a children’s writer, but with a string of TV writing successes in Australia behind him, Morris was quite reserved about his writing.
Now, surely established as a master of the tragicomic novel, Morris is far more forthcoming about exactly what it is that he does in his books.
Like many others who entertain through humour, Morris is not obviously or ostentatiously funny. Rather the reverse. He is excellent company because he is thoughtful and introspective with a serious view of life. As he talked more about what he is doing in his books he became increasingly intense and passionate about the role of both humour and adversity for children and particularly about the effect on him as the storyteller. Put simply he says: ‘My stories are about relationships between kids and adults marked by love, conflict and anxiety. The characters reflect different parts of my own self. I was an anxious younger person, given to panic attacks. Writing comic scripts helped, but it was when I allowed myself to speak through my 11- and 12-year-old characters that I felt as though I had discovered a process that made me feel good about life.’
His move into writing for children was a very deliberate one though he finds it hard to know exactly why he felt the need to do so. His child was only a baby at the time and his own childhood in England has become only dimly remembered. ‘I haven’t thought about this stuff for years,’ he admits as he pieces together the story of growing up. He went to a grammar school which he hated. ‘I was very good at soccer, they played rugby. I used humour in the classroom as a device to win friends and influence people and the teachers hated it. I was a sit-down, behind-the-raised-desk-lid comic. I did O-levels and got out and went to work in a sandwich shop in St Martin’s Lane. My parents were very liberal and relaxed about me leaving school. I now think that my father was already developing his major emigration plans, otherwise I think he would have made an issue about it.’
As it was, Morris emigrated to Australia with his family on 29 September 1969. ‘I didn’t want to go. I thought that I should be left to get myself a stylish bedsit in Notting Hill Gate. But for my parents, the notion that I should leave home at sixteen would not even have been comprehensible. They would have regarded that as utter dereliction on their part. I think they also wanted to get me away from The Roundhouse and long haired friends.’
Once in Australia, Morris worked at some dull jobs until he rediscovered reading after being lent Joyce Carey’s The Horse’s Mouth by an older work colleague. ‘I had read a lot when I was a kid – Richmal Crompton was my favourite by a long chalk – but had given it all up at about fourteen for sex, drugs and rock and roll (they were conceptual rather than real). Reading The Horse’s Mouth made me realise that I wanted to go back to reading and to be with other people who wanted to talk about English literature.’ To achieve this, Morris crammed his A-level equivalents into a year and then studied on a Creative Writing course at Canberra University.
After this late start and having put what he calls ‘his rebellious years’ behind him, Morris came quickly to success. ‘I knew that what I really wanted to do was to write television comedy and I got a job at ABC. Within three years of graduating I was writing the Norman Gunson show and that ran for four years. It had a very high profile so when it finished I was one of the best known TV writers, so other work followed.’
Morris worked for a further five years as a freelance writer but by 1983 he was beginning to feel dissatisfied with the kind of writing he was doing. ‘Comedy tends to deal with stereotypes so I wasn’t able to explore characters in the kind of way that I wanted.’
The chance to write for children came from a film writing project for the Children’s Television Foundation which wanted original material with child protagonists. Morris leapt at the opportunity feeling that it would give him the chance to write about things more deeply. He wrote the scripts as they went into production and then wrote what became his first children’s book – The Other Facts of Life.
Through the mediation of Anne Wood, whom Morris met at a screen conference, Philippa Milnes-Smith (then an editor at Blackie Children’s Books) wrote suggesting that he should write another children’s book. Funding himself by writing another film script, Morris set to and wrote Two Weeks With the Queen.
‘That was when I began to see myself as an author. I wrote three more books – Misery Guts, Worry Warts and another film tie in. They were well received but didn’t make enough to live off. In 1992 my marriage was coming to an end after eighteen years and we decided to change as many things as possible in the hope that we could find a way of reinventing the relationship. We went to live in France where I wrote Blabber Mouth. I had planned it as a movie with the central character as a middle aged farmer but the more I thought about the story, it was the daughter of one of the farmers who became the most important person. She became Rowena Batts. I sent it back to Australia and when we got back to Australia I discovered that my books had gone through the roof. It had suddenly happened and I was a children’s writer.’
The particular hallmark of Morris’s writing in which he deals with tough subjects in a funny and offbeat way is, he claims ‘just a product of the process. It isn’t, and I don’t ever want it to be, a conscious sort of formula that I apply.’
Not formulaic, certainly, but Morris’s involvement with his characters is intense and, as he has admitted, there is a great deal of himself and his feelings within them.
‘I write the books from deep inside the central character and it’s the sensibility of the central character that matters to me. The one conscious check I do is to make sure that the reader stays connected to how the character is feeling. Perhaps that combination of serious subject and sadness and humour may come from the fact that I’m looking for the moment that is the biggest problem in that character’s life. I’m more interested than anything else about how they feel about that problem and about their chances of overcoming it. Usually those problems can’t be overcome in a complete way and I’m very interested in how the character responds to that.’
There is a strong underlying philosophy as to why Morris feels that his books should confront life in this particular way.
‘I think that kids’ popular culture bombards them with the notion that heroism is synonymous with success. It makes them think that problems can be solved in their entirety as they often are on screen. Life’s not like that. I’m simply interested in how kids deal with that discovery. Without being overt, I champion a heroism that’s about overcoming, not escaping or denial or bitterness or bigotry. It’s the heroism of staying optimistic and continuing to struggle. Heroism is the striving to overcome problems in the knowledge that they will never be overcome.’
Passionate stuff and Morris becomes increasingly eloquent and revealing as he expands on how he tempers this rather gloomy outlook on life with humour.
‘The reason I say this is that I feel an intense fondness for my young characters’ ability to do this and I think that the humour comes from my fondness for them. It lies in the interaction between the author’s voice – my voice – as well as from within the characters. My characters really delight me partly because they are a part of me that has never had an opportunity to really be heard before or to be valued – at least not in the way I value them.
‘I’ve always used humour in my life for all sorts of reasons – as armour, and as a way of self advertisement and as a way of offering love and friendship in a more digestible way. At the centre of all that, and always accepting that humour can trivialise and stereotype and set up barriers, I don’t know any more potent way to affirm the good things that can happen between people. Certainly between me and people I’m never going to meet. The laughter of fond recognition for our shared human predicament is a very useful thing.’
Morris does not laugh a lot and he says this with a kind of fervour, as if he wants to believe it rather than as if it comes naturally to him. He knows that he needs to write the kind of books he does for himself as much as for his readers. He does not like to think of them as books designed to help children face difficult situations. The mainspring of the writing comes from deep inside himself, not as a response to an intended audience. ‘Writing the books is therapeutic for me. Apart from the privilege of doing work that I love, on a more basic level I’m a much happier and more well-balanced person now than I was before I started writing for kids. Writing Two Weeks With the Queen was the beginning of me saving the life of the part of me that was a child.’ Luckily that child was saved and the parts of the grown-up Morris Gleitzman that go into all of his characters can continue to touch his readers.
Julia Eccleshare is the children’s books editor of The Guardian.
From Macmillan Children’s Books (£3.99 each unless stated otherwise):
Misery Guts, 0 330 32440 3
Worry Warts, 0 330 32845 X
Puppy Fat, 0 330 34211 8
Blabber Mouth, 0 330 33283 X
Sticky Beak, 0 330 33681 9
Two Weeks With the Queen, 0 330 31376 2
Two Weeks With the Queen, play adapted by Mary Morris, 0 330 33693 2, £4.99
Belly Flop, 0 330 34522 2, £3.99
Water Wings, 0 330 35014 5, £3.99
The Other Facts of Life, 0 14 036877 9, £3.99
Second Childhood, 0 14 036878 7, £3.50
Wicked! Series with Paul Jennings, £1.00 each
1. The Slobberers, 0 14 038990 3
2. Battering Rams, 0 14 038991 1
3. Croaked, 0 14 038992 X
4. Dead Ringer, 0 14 038993 8
5. The Creeper, 0 14 038994 6
6. Till Death Us Do Part, 0 14 038995 4
Morris Gleitzman’s latest book, Bumface, is published this month by Viking Children’s Books.