Morris Gleitzman on writing big stories for little people

Speaker Key:

AL              Andrew Leigh

MG             Morris Gleitzman   


MG             When I write about some of the biggest examples of the worst behaviour that our species is capable of, I do it always in a context where there are examples of the best.

AL               My name’s Andrew Leigh, and welcome to The Good Life, a politics-free podcast about living a happy, healthy and ethical life. In this podcast, we seek out wise men and women who have lessons to teach us about living life to the full, with humour, pleasure, meaning and love. We’ll chat with musicians and athletes, CEOs and carers, about making the most of this one precious life. If you like this podcast, please take a moment to tell your friends, or rate us on Apple Podcasts. Now, sit back and enjoy the conversation.

                   If you have children, you’ll know Morris Gleitzman, one of Australia’s leading authors of books for kids. He’s written more than 40 tomes, including Bumface, Misery Guts, Toad Rage and Wicked. Earlier this year, he was appointed Children’s Laureate for 2018 and 2019, which, as he puts it, gives him a licence to ruin the land, engaging young readers in a celebration of stories and all the precious things they get from them.

                   Born in 1953, Morris grew up in South London, and moved to Australia at the age of 16. He started writing for the screen, and then produced his first novel in 1987. He’s energetic, engaging and life-loving. And I’ve come to his home in Brisbane to learn more about what makes him tick, and what we can learn from a great writer about living a better life. Morris, thanks for joining me on The Good Life podcast today.

MG             It’s my great pleasure.

AL               Did you always love writing?

MG             I think I did, yes. I was fortunate enough to have a book-filled childhood. We didn’t actually have that many books at home, but I was signed up at the local public library by my mum, pretty early on. And I think I realised quite young that there was as much pleasure in writing as there was in reading. And I also realised that I’d been sort of rehearsing from even before I was capable of actually forming letters on a page.

                   From a very young age, I had, as do many kids, secret friends. And I had imaginary adventures with those secret friends. I enjoyed sort of running alternatives through my mind as certain things were happening to me that perhaps I wasn’t 100% happy with, as every kid isn’t when they discover the limits to their power. And when it came time, in, I guess, what in Australia would be about Year 4, when we were starting to be asked to write stories at school, and characters, of course, we all knew from our reading, were vital, I realised that I already had some characters that I was very close to, very familiar with.

                   I’d been on adventures with them already in my imagination, so I was sort of a step and a half towards that process. But, to discover the pleasure and satisfaction of actually getting those secret friends out onto paper, so that my outside friends could share them and enjoy them, that started to happen for me around the age of seven or eight. And I haven’t really looked back.

AL               You also had a sports master, Mr Williams, who you’ve credited as part of your aspiring to becoming a writer. Tell us about him.

MG             Well, he and I had quite different world views, and we also had different approaches to encouraging people to expand their boundaries. And my boundary did not involve going over the touchline of any sporting field whatsoever. But he spotted that as an ectomorph, I had fairly long legs. And when he caught me having a kick-around at lunch time with some of the other boys, and he realised I could kick a ball a long way, I suddenly was a full-back in one of the several rugby teams that he used to force to compete with each other.

                   And I didn’t even know what a full-back was until the first time I stood on a windy, muddy pitch, and the ball came towards me and I caught it with such pride, which lasted about three seconds, because then I realised that my job was not to be trampled into the mud by the opposing forwards. And this dawned on me, unforgettably, just as I was being trampled in the mud by the opposing forwards. And he didn’t have, Mr Williams, he didn’t have great powers of encouragement. He tended to go through life as probably the full-forward that he’d once been, and he tried to bludgeon you into doing what he wanted.

                   And I was already sensing that, in my future, I was going to become the advocate and the friend of a lot of characters who were, on whom attempts were being made to bludgeon them to do things that they didn’t want to do. So, I did what I think a lot of writers do, and I started to sort of step back and look at my own predicament, and apply some of the problem-solving or problem… Occasionally evading strategies that characters do.

                   And this did not, in Mr Williams’ mind, translate to a charmingly nascent literary activity. It translated into disrespect and lack of obedience. And so, but he was only one of a group of masters, as we called them, at this rather pretentious, selective grammar school that sort of aped the traditions of the public school. Which it most definitely wasn’t. And it was a large part, he and his colleagues all had that sort of approach. And that was, to a large part, where I decided at age 16 that I’d pretty much had it with school, and left.

                   And I don’t feel too disgruntled though, because I think stories are always about problems and I write stories about young people with problems. And those problems, not always, but do quite often come from the adults in the young peoples’ lives. So, I was blessed with a pretty happy childhood at home, so I would’ve been a bit bereft as a developing writer if I hadn’t had some areas of conflict in my life.

                   So for that, I think, Chislehurst and Sidcup Grammar School, and I’m talking generically here, I’m not talking about a specific Chislehurst and Sidcup Grammar School in Sidcup, Kent, south of London… But I am grateful, because in all sorts of ways, I’ve been able to write things that I wouldn’t have been able to write if I hadn’t had some of those experiences.      

AL               So it’s not exactly Angela’s Ashes, but there’s a little bit of a grit and grit in the oyster that helped to make the pearls?

MG             Everyone has a bit of grit in the oyster, and we writers are allowed to talk about it a bit more than others, because it’s become part of the respectable literary process, rather than just having a whinge.

AL               So, when you moved to Australia, did you go to school here at all? Or, you’d left school at 16 and you stayed left?

MG             I did resume education. I had an incredible experience. I had done a few of the sorts of jobs that one is pretty much condemned to do if one leaves school at 16, and I was working as a gopher in a clothing factory in East Sydney. And one day, a bloke I’d barely ever spoken to, we didn’t really know each other at all… He was a cutter, and he came to work one day holding a book. He came up to me and held this book out to me, and he said, I’ve just finished reading this on the train, and I think you’d like it. And I was a bit stunned, and I took it.

                   And he didn’t know my name, I didn’t know his name, but I hope I thanked him. And I started reading it on the bus home from work, and by the time I got home, I’d decided I’d made a seriously wrong turning in my life. Because not only had I left school at 16, but I’d pretty much stopped reading books at about the age of 14. And I’ve never been 100% certain why that happened. I suspect it was to do with a very foolish sense I had that one couldn’t focus on both books and girls simultaneously. Now, that is about as diametrically wrong as you could possibly get, as I discovered years later.

                   This book, The Horse’s Mouth, by Joyce Cary, a novel written in the first half of the 20th century, English writer… I was halfway through the book, because there was no Google in these days, so as I knew this book was a wonderful book and represented everything I’d somehow let slip through my fingers about reading, by about page 3… But halfway through it, it’s the story of a painter, of an artist. And we all know how difficult it is to truly capture one creative medium through another. And this utterly… I’ve never been able to paint or draw, so it didn’t lead me in that direction, but wow, in terms of having a sense, an absolutely visceral and first-hand sense of how a good painter sees the world, that.

                   Anyway, halfway through, I was in love enough with this book to, I guess, go to a library and look up Joyce Cary and, pretty surprised it turned to be a bloke. And then of course, I realised later that he was just one of many blokes in certain creative and literary communities in the 20th century who ended up with what had previously been girls’ names. And that was a small, but very useful little sort of reminder that there are all sorts of things that one shouldn’t take at face value in the world of literature.

                   I said to my parents, I want to go back to where books are read and valued, I want to be among those people. I assume this means university. First, then, I had to matriculate, and I left work a week later and went to East Sydney Tech and did one of those courses, mostly for people who’d flunked Years 11 and 12. And then I had another great stroke of luck. After I’d matriculated, I’d assumed, as my generation did in the early 70s, that an Arts degree was the most interesting thing to do. Who cared what it might lead to?

                   But I chanced on an ad in the National Times, it might’ve been, for a new College of Advanced Education, which in itself was a slightly new experimental approach to vocational tertiary education. And here was the Canberra College of Arts Education about to have its first intake of full-time students, and one of their courses was called Professional Writing. And these days, one would need to have 99.99 recurring in your entrance score to even have a hope with a course like that. Then, my very sort of middle-of-the-ladder entrance score, all we had to do was write a 300-word letter as to why we’d like to do the course, which I did, and I got in.

                   And that was hugely beneficial, because I think one of the toughest things for the beginning writer is to… There’s a sense that no-one’s going to take me seriously doing this, but you have to take yourself seriously. And there was enough of a taking-us-all-seriously culture in that course, even though we were trying our hand at everything, from advertising copywriting to song lyrics to short stories to a bit of screenwriting. All of that, all of those craft things we were learning were secondary. It was that sense that… And we were mostly young people, and we were in a place where this endeavour was being taken seriously.

AL               And Canberra in the early 1970s is not exactly abuzz with distractions, and so…

MG             It is the perfect place to focus on your life’s ambition. Yes, absolutely. But look, there was a little bit of excitement. I can remember standing outside the South African Embassy, holding placards saying, Honk if you hate apartheid. And that sort of approach has stood me in very good stead in later years, publicising my books. You need a short, catchy phrase, ideally inviting some sort of participation by…

AL               Honk if you love Bumface, yes.

MG             Yes, yes.

AL               And then you found your way onto a writer for the Norman Gunston Show, which must’ve been one of the most prestigious writing gigs going in the nation at that stage. How did that happen?

MG             Well, it was one of those classic Hollywood, right place, right time. When I graduated, those of us who graduated from that course, journalism was one of the strains, and we assumed that’s how we’d earn our living. But in fact, I was applying to the ABC for some journalistic positions, and somebody whispered to me that the promotions department was actually looking for somebody to help make their little ads for the shows. And I jumped at this, because I knew I wanted to write for television, and I knew that even the experiences I had had in the course, I’d not had a chance to really see how professional television worked, was produced.

                   And this was perfect, because I was in the studio, making little 30-second spots, but using all the same equipment and… So as a writer, it was invaluable. But what was doubly invaluable was that I was meeting with most of the producers each week to help promote their shows, including a fascinating new series called The Norman Gunston Show. And I did the promos for the first couple of seasons. As soon as I saw Garry McDonald and that character in action, I knew I could write that character and I knew I wanted to. But a wonderful writer called Bill Harding was the initiating writer, it had grown out of The Aunty Jack Show.

                   And after a couple of years, he decided that he wanted to go on and do some other things. And of course, I knew this, because I was in the producer’s office every week. So that weekend, I was at home, writing, and there were my scripts on the producer’s desk on the Monday morning. And I like to think he came in, shoulders slumping, oh, Bill’s going, we’ve got a series starting in six weeks, who can write… What’s this on my desk? Some scripts by a bloke with a funny name, but who cares? They seem quite good, I’ll invite him in.

                   And that was a life-changer for me, because I wrote Norman at the ABC, and then at the Seven Network, and then we spent a couple of years doing stage shows. So it was five years of my life. But it was not only a lot of fun, a great opportunity for a young man… I was 23, I think, when I started. A great opportunity for a young man to muck up and do all the things that young people like to do with authority and all of that pomposity. And also work with some incredible professionals.

                   So, after those five years, not only had I had the best possible screenwriting education, but I’d had the opportunity, as it later turned out, to be a part of quite a significant part of Australian television history. And a time, one of those wonderful moments where the psyche of the nation had found a character that was just the right mix of youthful optimism, and a little over-confidence, but with that very endearing insecurity underneath. But also, of course, I think Garry McDonald was about 28, 29 during that time, but the character was your classic 11-year-old boy, with bravado, with anxiety…

AL               Yes.  

MG             Always, never quite knowing what he doesn’t know. And it took me some years to realise, once I was well-established writing characters of that age for real, that in many ways, Norman had been my introduction to that.

AL               I always cringe at that moment of him on the steps in the dismissal, but Norman Gunston seems a perfect fit for the Fraser era, and an ideal foil for that sort of period of backsliding from the excitement of the early 1970s.

MG             Yes, I know. I saw, actually, one of our clips from that famous day on the steps, and it reminded me, and it’s still a bit mindboggling… It was the Light Entertainment Department at the ABC, where, as the news was coming through that morning from Canberra, that was able to commandeer the ABC’s news helicopter to take a Light Entertainment crew and performer down there.

AL               Norman Gunston went by helicopter to the dismissal?

MG             He did, he did.

AL               So you were in your mid-30s when you wrote your first novel, which, as I understand it, started life as a screenplay?

MG             It did. Thanks to the grounding in those Gunston years, I enjoyed another five or six years as a freelance screenwriter. And I was asked by the Children’s Television Foundation to write a couple of family telemovies, and the only stricture was that they should have a main character of around 10, 11, 12 years. And that was my first experience of actually writing fiction with that sort of age protagonist. And while the first of those films was being shot, The Other Facts of Life, a publisher had got hold of the screenplay and thought it would make a good book. I guess partly because the film was going to be screened on Australian TV.

                   And literally while they were finishing shooting the film, I was at home rewriting the screenplay as a novel. Then each afternoon I’d go and look at the rushes, and I would, of course, see the inevitable compromises that had to be made on each day’s filming. And I’d note that no such compromises had been required at my writing desk, because when it’s only words, you’re much more in control than a poor beleaguered producer trying to fit things in to the budget. But also, I discovered that I could go into the thoughts and feelings of characters, in the knowledge that readers could too, in an unmediated way.

                   Actors are wonderful, and I’ve worked with some great ones. Garry McDonald, of course. But when you’re actually telling a story and dealing with the inner life, as I aways like to do, of young characters, it’s particularly tricky if you’re writing a story for the screen where your main characters are 10, 11, 12 years of age. And I must say that I was very lucky with those two Australian Children’s Television Foundation films, because they did find some remarkable young actors, but that’s the exception rather than the rule.

                   For all sorts of reasons, but perhaps most important, I’ve come to realise over the years, inevitably on the screen, you’re kind of given everything you need, at least at that first level of story-telling. You very rarely are, on the page, even people who write 700-page novels and like a lot of description and a lot of literal exposition, they can’t tell you everything. I don’t actually tell readers very much at all. I see my books almost as a series of clues and indicators, because I want them as much as possible to enter all the spaces that I’m not filling. Because that’s how the engagement, I think, in stories, really works.

                   And for young readers, although they would never be thinking of this in these terms as they’re reading, what is being reinforced to them time and again is that sort of engagement, that sharing of the responsibility of telling the story, the sort of intimate, empathetic connection that we make more readily with young characters when we have those spaces to step into, rather than just looking at the surface of something. I think these experiences help equip young people in all sorts of ways for the real relationships that they’re going to have, and that’s just the beginning of it, in fact.

                   When I had to come up with a kind of statement of intent, as Children’s Laureate, what aspect of the whole landscape of kids’ reading did I want to focus on, I decided that I’d been thinking for years about how the world looks today to young people, particularly the 10, 11, 12-year-olds that I primarily write for. Maybe 8, 9-year-olds as well. Just as young people are starting to think for themselves, they’re starting to just step a little way away from the, if they’re lucky, the warm and caring supply of information and attitudes and world views that have come from the adults that have filled their childhood, suddenly they’re seeing the world through their own eyes, laying the foundation of the own moral landscape.

                   And inevitably, looking at the world and the way the world seems to be heading in terms of where it’ll be in, say, another ten or so years when they step into their adult roles. Will there be a place for me, what sort of place will it be? Will I be able to make the sort of contribution and receive the sort of things from the world that I hope I’m able to? And I think, although I don’t expect every 10, 11-year-old to be thinking specifically in these terms, I think the challenges that this generation will be facing on a global scale are probably some of the toughest challenges that any global community of young people have had to face.

                   There’ve always been smaller groups, depending on the geopolitical circumstances, who’ve had a tough road. But this is pretty much universal now, that as they take over our human endeavour, and as it’s their turn after all those tens of thousands of generations, suddenly it’s on their shoulders.

                   They are really going to be helped if they, in their childhood, have developed a familiarity with the sort of creative thinking that makes good problem-solving strategies, first-hand experience of how problem-solving strategies almost never work…

AL               Right. This obstacle thing seems to be quite characteristic of a lot of your writing.

MG             Well, it is what makes stories. If we look at what stories have been for millennia, and there are cultural differences, and there are certainly, over the last 100, 150 years, there have been literary fashions. But if we really look at what stories have been, at least the more traditional types of stories, and young people’s stories are in many ways very traditional, they are always about characters grappling with problems.   

AL               Yes.

MG             And when young readers go on that problem-solving journey with a young character, and they do it dozens or hundreds or even thousands of times if they’re voracious readers, what they are experiencing is the same inevitable developmental stages that a young character has to. Because if a young character is facing a problem bigger than they’ve ever faced before, way beyond their previous sphere of experience, they’re going to need to do some growing and some developing.

                   And they’re going to need to get better at research, to find out the true nature of the problem, develop a bit of brave thinking to acknowledge yes, I really do have this problem and here’s my place in it. Some interpersonal skills, because often you need to make allegiances with people that you might not normally want to be friends with, to help you with this particular problem. Certainly, understand how your enemies are thinking. So, different, quite sophisticated aspects of empathy.

                   And something that I used to feel guilty about in the early days as a novelist, is that when a young character has marshalled all these new skills and attributes, and has a brand-new problem-solving strategy to put into play, it’s probably only page 30 or 40. And there’s no way that the author can allow them to be successful at that stage. So it doesn’t work, they’ve got to not fall into a pit of shame and self-hatred, they’ve got to soldier on and give it another go, with some more creative thinking. And they’re going to fail again, on page 70, page 110 or page 150, because the author’s contracted to write at least 200 pages.

                   So, some resilience has been developed by this young character, by the end. And of course, if, as I do, you want to write stories about some of the really big problems that don’t have easy and complete solutions, certainly not in perhaps one lifetime or even one shorter period of time, then, as we read these stories, we’re also invited to think about is there a purpose to this journey if the problem can’t be totally solved at the end? And that perhaps invites us to look at how the character is at the end of the story, compared to how they were at the beginning.

                   And even if the problem is one that’s perhaps going to take two or three generations of endeavour to really get on top of, if the character is in a better place personally, developmentally, than they were at the beginning of the story… And my characters always are, because if I didn’t think I could do that credibly, I wouldn’t even bother to write stories about some of the problems that I like to write stories about. Because in life, individuals old and young are sometimes crushed and destroyed by problems.

                   And we know this from a relatively early age, because we’ve all got, even at age eight and nine, we have a small oblong in our hand which brings us some of the harsh realities of the world. But stories have a luxury, I think, and therefore a duty. They have the capacity to show both sides, both possible sides.   

AL               So, you bite off some big topics, AIDS, cancer, the Holocaust. How do you deal with topics that big without ending up being a little preachy?

MG             Well, being a little preachy is an ever-present pitfall. After 40 books, I have to stay as aware of that as I’ve ever been. I was very lucky, very early in my career as a screenwriter, a hardened and experienced old screenwriter offered me one piece of advice, show, don’t tell. And that is the essence of what stories are. We’ve got plenty of other people who are very good at telling us stuff, but stories show us. And the spaces I was talking about earlier, one of the big spaces I think that every good story has, honeycombing it all the way through, are lots of opportunities for the reader, at whatever level is appropriate or attractive to them, to do their own converting of showing to telling.

                   And so, when I write about some of the biggest examples of the worst behaviour that our species is capable of, I do it always in a context where there are examples of the best. And the Holocaust is an example of this. It’s easy to look at the history, and often, as I was preparing to write the first in what’s become a series of six books, with one more that I’m about to start writing… When I was first researching and thinking about this, I often thought…

AL               And we should say this is drawing on your grandparents’ experiences as Polish Jews, to move to Britain before the Holocaust.

MG             That’s right, yes. Well, one grandfather did. He left his parents and extended family behind in Krakow, because at the time, he was a young man who just wanted to explore the world, and there was no glimmer of any understanding of what was going to happen two or three decades down the track. But it meant that in the 30s and 40s, he was established with a family in London and had not been back to Poland since the very beginning of the 20th century when he left. And it meant that he survived those years, as did my father, born in London in 1931.

                   But the extended family left behind in Krakow, didn’t survive. And certainly, these books, usually referred to as the Once series, because the first book is called Once, I think the personal journey that the researching of them and the writing of them has been for me, because the main character, Felix, a Polish Jewish boy who is ten years old in 1942 in the first book… And the series really [overtalking].

AL               Your dad’s age.

MG             Well, yes. And I’m a little embarrassed, but it has to be said, to say that that didn’t actually consciously dawn on me until after I’d written the first book. But of course, it is one version of what my father’s life might’ve been, had he been born in Poland. Statistically, it almost certainly wouldn’t have been his life, because, I’m not giving too much away to say that Felix is still alive as a 13-year-old at the end of the war. And in fact, the last three or four books in the series take him through the months and even years after the war. And that makes him one of the sort of lucky, I don’t know what the exact figure is, but let’s say 1% of Jewish children.

                   But I set out to write these stories… It was not, in fact, even wartime that I was first thinking about, it was friendship. But the more I thought about writing the sort of story I wanted to write about friendship, I thought that it would be most interesting to place a wonderful friendship between two young people in the midst of some of the most unfriendly human behaviour on the largest possible scale. And yes, my distant family connection to that particular terrible time made it the obvious choice.

AL               So, how do you write? Are you a first-thing-in-the-morning writer?

MG             Not exactly first thing in the morning. Well, it depends what you think of as first thing. I mean, I know some writers for whom that is 4:30. And if I had my way, that would be last thing at night, but I have to lead a more ordered and respectable life these days. It varies a lot, because with each book, even if, as I’m doing at the moment, I’m re-joining a character that I’ve been working with for years, and bringing some of the new elements of a new story to familiar characters and other familiar elements, still there’s a period of what is really very undisciplined.

                   Because it's me trying to find a balance between my conscious work ethic and the knowledge that this book is going to be published in August or September next year, so I’ve got delivery deadlines. And also the knowledge that this process is partly unconscious and should not be intruded upon too roughly. A phrase that I’ve noticed has caused a cynical expression on some editor’s faces.

                   But it’s actually a lovely time, because I’m confident enough now, after 40 books, that I know it works for me, and that even though there are some days when I might think, ooh, I officially started this book three weeks ago and I haven’t actually written anything down yet and I’m not quite sure still where I’m going, I know that the process does work. Once I know the landscape physically and emotionally of the story, then… I’m lucky enough to be a planner, not every person or writer is, of course…

                   So I do something that I guess I learnt to do as a screenwriter, where you need to establish from day one that nothing you will ask to go on the screen will be anything but absolutely central to the story. Because it’s just too expensive to be filming even the odd minute or two that you don’t really need. So I do a short outline, two or three pages, and I do sometimes six or eight or ten drafts of that little document, so that I have a structural blueprint that feels absolutely right to me. But I’ve learned then, when I start writing chapters, to just use it as a map, with all the possibilities that any good journey has, of a bit of a diversion up a side road and etc.

                   But I’ve got the destination, and I know how to get there. And if another, even better destination comes along, well, I’m open to that possibility. That first draft, the writing of it, I’m pretty disciplined. And I like to, I guess, do a certain number of words a day, a thousand or something like that. But more importantly, because I’ve already got my map, there are certain places along the way that are the obvious comfort stops, the obvious place for a cup of tea. And that’s where I like to get to each night. Although sometimes, I’ve also learned that sometimes it’s actually good to end your day’s writing at a moment of, at a place of uncertainty.

AL              I was going to ask, some people stop in the middle of a sentence, so they can easily get back up.

MG             Well, I also though sometimes, because even with all the planning in the world, inevitably every day in your writing you reach a point where you’re not quite sure exactly where to go next. Even if it’s just in your main character’s response to something. And I find miraculous things happen while we sleep, and many’s [?] the morning, as soon as my eyes open, I know something about that story, at that moment of the story, that I didn’t know the night before. So I’ve sort of learned to sometimes stop, to allow sleep to make its contribution.

AL               And do you stop at a particular time of the day? Is there a stage where you just feel as though the writing process has exhausted you? I know from reading various Paris Review interviews, there’s some people who think lunch time is a time to stop, a morning’s writing is a day’s writing.

MG             Look, I’m going to be absolutely truthful here, Andrew, because I know that anybody in your line of work, you look across the house and you can tell from 20m if a person’s telling the absolute truth or not, and we’re sitting closer together than that. So I’m going to say that what I should do each morning is get up and do the words, do the hours, before I think about anything else. But, like all writers, I’m a small-business person, with all of the other bits and pieces that are coming in across the desk and through the phone and email…

AL               Oh, that’s such a relief to hear, that’s great.

MG             And inevitably, despite a resolution I’ve made thousands of times, I sit at the desk and there’s something that I just need to take care of before I can actually start writing. And usually, what happens is it’s early afternoon and the one thing that will finally get me to switch the emails off is thinking, I’m going to be in big trouble from a partner who prefers to have dinner before nine o’clock at night, if I haven’t got the words done, if I haven’t got what I want to do. So I will always, at about one or two, I’ll say, right, I don’t care now if the world explodes, I’m just going to get these words done.

AL               So Pam is your incentive to get writing in that way?

MG             She is, she is, yes.

AL               And one of the things that I’ve taken a pleasure in lately, is reading out loud to my kids. I’m reading Great Expectations to my 9-year-old just before bed, and David Hunt’s Girt is a terrific history of Australia to my 11-year-old. Do you find reading your work out loud plays a big part in the editing process?

MG             Well, it does in the sense that probably because I started out as a screenwriter and I knew that quite a lot of the words I was writing would actually be spoken, I literally hear those words in my head. I hear the rhythms and the… So yes, I’m doing that even as I’m writing. And that’s really the thing that allows me to read my own books as audio books, because I’m not a performer, but I know exactly how they should be read, once the book’s finished. But I very much enjoy reading each book long before it’s published, to my partner. I think people reading out loud to each other, whatever they’re reading… I don’t only read my own stuff out loud.

                   I often say to parents who are perhaps a little uncertain, they say, well, he or she can read very well by themselves, and somehow they ask me to read to them. And I say, there are few more precious gifts that we give. Because I think these days, even younger people, it’s dawning on them that if they’re lucky, time is a far more precious currency than money. And of course, it takes longer to read something out loud, so it’s a gift of time, it’s a gift of attention.

                   But one of the things that I feel very strongly about is that, if young people are reading the sort of things that I hope they are, the sort of things that are broadening horizons, that are causing them to ask all sorts of questions of themselves about the world, there are conversations they need to have. And even though my product is books, I’ve reached the stage now where I say the conversations are as important as the books. And I don’t really regard my book as being fully read until that young reader has been able to have the conversation.

AL               Yes.

MG             Ideally, with other kids, yes, but ideally with somebody who can bring some new perspectives, a bit more worldly experience, etc. And for it to happen as part of a loving relationship within a family, that’s a wonderful thing. But also, I think grownups reading to each other, it’s something we do in this home, and I’ve made a point of doing it. And I think it’s not only a great gift for two adults to give to each other, but it does bring with it, as a necessity, a slowing down. Being read to, I don’t want to step outside of my sort of field of expertise, but I will risk using the word mindful, because we actually have to be, I think, more mindful listening to a story than we do reading it.

                   Because reading it, we control the process, the time, the emphasis. We stop, we think about other things. But if somebody else is setting the time context, we just have to stay connected. And if I’m reading to somebody, there is no pause button, there’s no rewind, you stay with me.

AL               Yes, yes. Well, on the topic of conversations, I have to thank you for sparking conversations with my children about the virtues of cane toads, a topic that I’m sure we wouldn’t have gotten into otherwise.


                   So, I have to ask you about your other side-line, which I don’t think many people would naturally associate with a best-selling children’s author, your wine column.

MG             That’s right. I’ve actually written about wine for about 30 years. Not, I hasten to add, with any great expertise or depth of knowledge. I’m the sort of court jester for the Gourmet Traveller WINE magazine. I’m in there on the back page, and I’m using wine as a sort of jumping-off point for a lot of musing and speculating about some of our funnier sort of human traits. Or mine, anyway. But I love it, because I love wine, it allows me to sort of tread around the fringes of the real wine world. There’s a collection of truly knowledgeable and experienced people write for that magazine, so it’s lots of fun.

                   And it has led me, my love of wine, to what I would have to say is an even greater love now, which is my love of tea. And people look at me slightly askance when I say that, because, for most people, obviously, tea comes in a little bag and you have a jiggle, and it can be very refreshing and delightful. But when I say I’m a little bit more into it than that, and Pam and I do occasionally go to China to buy some tea, people kind of take a couple of steps back, but they think, oh yes, okay, he’s obviously invested far more time and money and passion into this thing than we think it’s probably worth, but anyway.

                   And the great advantage for the aging person is that, while I still enjoy alcohol, served responsibly, it’s wonderful to have all of the huge spectrum of complex flavours with all of the cultural and biological and geographic sort of interest behind it that is the same with wine. But I can drink it all day while I’m working, without any fear of ending up as a sort of Dylan Thomas lookalike.

AL               Yes. Not all of us have the constitution of Ernest Hemingway. Morris, to wrap up, what advice would you give to your teenage self?

MG             Well, I think I’d say, what other people think of you doesn’t actually matter quite as much as you might feel at the moment. Don’t stress over anything to do with your hair, because one day it just won’t matter, because you will have not a skerrick left. And trust your heart as much as you do your brain.

AL               What’s something you used to believe but no longer do?

MG             I used to believe that life would be a little more comfortable, that it would be a bit more sensible if we took a long hard look at who we were and where we came from, and the way that people generally… The lives they chose, and didn’t spend too much time wishing things could be different. I now realise that that was, I can see it was very much the product of coming from a particular place in a very class-structured society, mid-century England. And coming from not very far up that social ladder and coming from a background, not my parents specifically, because they sort of threw off the traces and brought us kids, whinging and complaining, leaving all our friends behind, to Australia.

                   But which I now realise was a wonderful turning their back on exactly the sort of limited set of expectations of life that… But many of the people that I grew up with, it was, mustn’t grumble, know your place, make the best of it. Well, I think young people today have such huge access to everything that is possible about the world, through telecommunications and through just an assumption that it is a global village in many ways. And I hope that every young person can have somebody who is saying, anything’s possible.

                   And that’s not going to be the product of entitlement, that’s going to be the product of all those traditional things, but yes, the work and the stamina and the resilience. But also, some risk-taking and some optimism, which every young person has, unless it’s sadly taken away from them. But mostly they hang onto it at least until I’m finished with them. And [overtalking]…

AL               So you’re more of an agitator and a troublemaker now than in your youth, do you think?

MG             Yes. I was an agitator and a troublemaker in my youth, but it was very reactive. As opposed to, what’s possible here, and which bars do I have to rattle to get a bit closer?

AL               When are you most happy?

MG             I think I’m most happy when I’m witnessing the people I love, blossom. Young and old. And that’s not entirely altruistic, because I think when we see that happen, it’s also a reminder to us that, despite everything I’ve been saying about breaking out of a self-limited mindset, that routine and adult responsibility can pull us back in a bit. So I feel very fortunate that I get to work with young people, because I work in an optimism-drenched place. And as I get older, that’s a wonderful thing to have in my life.            

AL               Do you have a particular affinity for 10, 11, 12-year-olds when you meet them? Given that that’s your sort of archetypal character?

MG             I think I do, and I’ve thought about this a lot. And I just think it’s a very, very special time in all of our lives, because these sort of times in our life in terms of age, vary. And what’s happening for one kid at ten, might have happened to another kid at 12. But, generally speaking, the kids I write for, and the characters that I’m writing, are at that wonderful time when, as I said earlier, they’ve started to think for themselves, they’re really starting to occupy their lives in a primary way, rather than sort of second-hand.

                   And for most of them, it’s a time of wonderful intellectual and moral and creative freedom. Because something has not yet started to happen, a wonderful thing when it does, the hormones haven’t started to flow. We get this window of independent thinking, and I think it’s the most truly independent we’ll ever be. Because once the hormones flow, once we take on the responsibility and the desire to propagate the species, and for many of us to then live forevermore with the consequences of having done so… There are so many joyful and wonderful aspects to that, and many more doors and avenues open.

                   But still, I think, before it happens, to be looking at the world with a keen sense of our own perceptions of right and wrong, and our own perceptions of possibility, it’s such an exciting time. And I love meeting individually, or standing in front of a few hundred at a talk. And the energy, the optimism, it is something that I think is one of our great human resources. And because adult culture conspires to help many of us very often make the mistake of assuming that, just because kids are physically smaller, that everything that goes on inside them is commensurably smaller. But of course, it isn’t.

                   And just because they have less worldly experience than us, there’s a sense that somehow, they are, other than all the ways that we love our own kids, they are somehow less important and less valuable. But in fact, if we look at humanity as humanity’s greatest asset, there are some significant assets in that time of life. And without getting too romantic and saying, we’ll all got something to learn from kids, well, I learn from kids every day. And it’s not necessarily that they teach me things, although they often do, about Science or Mathematics, that I didn’t previously know.

                   It’s more, it’s what I was saying just now about… My work, if I was going to sum it up in one phrase, I’d say that my writing is always about exploring the best and the worst that we’re capable of. And while kids sometimes are capable of perhaps not the very worst, but… I’m not saying that kids don’t tread the dark side sometimes, but they are equipped from the outset, if it hasn’t been taken away from them, with some of the very best that we’re capable of. In terms of optimism, in terms of creative thinking, in terms of the unfettered capacity to look at a situation and say, how else might this be?

                   And if that’s childish, then I think we need to redefine our use of the word childish in adult life. When I watch broadcasts of parliament, it’s tempting to look at certain types of behaviour, and say, now that is just childish. But then I stop myself and I say, no, actually, that other member who, in a speech, has just come up with a very original and even slightly outlandish set of problem-solving possibilities, that’s childish. And that’s good, we should see more of that sort of childish in parliament.

AL               I’ve always loved Alison Gopnik’s analogy that if humanity were a firm, then kids would be the research and development arm, and adults would be the production and marketing division.

MG             That’s good, I hadn’t heard that.

AL               What’s the most important thing you do in life, to stay mentally and physically healthy?

MG             Well, I think I spend a lot of my life inside the thoughts and feelings of young characters. And I know how happier and, in fact, healthier I’ve been, I’ve been doing this now for nearly 30 years. But I had, just in my work, at least ten years before that, where I was writing a whole range of things as a screenwriter for hire, but they were often adult characters and I was often supplying an adult audience with the sorts of stories that adults are often supplied with, which can often deal with regret and ennui and…

                   And even if they were happy sorts of adult characters, I was not as happy and healthy a person. So, spending my working life with those young characters. I also fortunately learned a long time ago that one of the sort of thinking, daydreaming, semi-subconscious parts of my work often works better if I’m walking while I do it. So wherever I’ve lived, many different places, I need to find a walk that, I don’t care if there’s no scenery, I don’t want to cross any roads. So wherever I live, I find a block where I can do a series of right or left turns, and it might only be in total, 400 or 500m, and I’ll just go round and round that walk.

                   I particularly like doing it at night, which, in Brisbane, in summer, you’ve got to your daily walk at either 4:30 in the morning or after eight at night. But, yes, walking late at night, where I can just lose myself, no fear of being skittled by a car. That, of course, for somebody who, like so many of us, is somewhat alarmed to discover that it turns out that sitting down doing honourable work is actually not good for our internal organs, well, I’m glad I’ve spent 40 or 60 minutes a day doing my walking, daydreaming.

AL               And finally, Morris, what personal experience has most shaped your view of living an ethical life?

MG             Well, I think I’ve been very lucky. I think the people I’ve loved in my life have all demonstrated those qualities, even the ones I didn’t really get to choose, like parents. And there have been a couple of individuals. The whole journey of writing about the Holocaust, writing this series of books about love and friendship in the most unfriendly of times, started for me nearly 20 years ago. I was in a second-hand bookshop in Crow’s Nest, Sydney, browsing, and a book caught my eye because it had the word children in the title.

                   And I picked it up, it was called The King of Children, by Betty Jean Lifton. The biography of a man I’d never heard of, Janusz Korczak, who I learned from the blurb on the back, was a Polish Jewish children’s writer, paediatrician, broadcaster, who gave the last years of his life to helping care for a couple of hundred Jewish orphans. And at the end of his life, was offered freedom by a Nazi officer whose own kids in Germany who reading his very popular kids’ books in German translation. And he chose not to leave those kids.

                   He knew exactly where they were all going, they were about to be put on a train. But he knew he couldn’t save the kids, but he knew that he was their surrogate father. And if he walked away as the German officer was inviting him to do, those kids would panic, they would try to follow him, the German soldiers would respond brutally. And the rest would be put on a train and eventually they would be in a state of terror. And he decided to be with them, to do what he could in those last days and last hours.

                   And that to me, at the time, was the most moving and potent example of something I’d been looking out for in my research, in my reading. A person who’s capable of doing the best that we are capable of in the midst of the very worst.

                   And that was the seed, I think, for this series of books. I quickly connected it to, as we were saying, some of my family history. But it was that single idea and all the feelings attached to it, of somebody who is just prepared and capable of not letting the darkness define us. And he has become one of the few real heroes of my life. And I later discovered, in Jewish communities he is widely known and widely thought of, for just that reason.

AL               Morris Gleitzman, Children’s Laureate, wine connoisseur and storyteller extraordinaire, thanks so much for sharing your wisdom on The Good Life podcast today.

MG             Thanks, Andrew, I’ve really enjoyed it.

AL               Thanks for listening to this week’s episode of The Good Life. We love getting feedback, so please leave us a rating or a comment on Apple Podcasts, formally known as iTunes. Next week, I’ll be back with another inspiring guest, to discuss living a happier, healthier and more ethical life.


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Cnr Gungahlin Pl and Efkarpidis Street, Gungahlin ACT 2912 | 02 6247 4396 | [email protected] | Authorised by A. Leigh MP, Australian Labor Party (ACT Branch), Canberra.