Morris Gleitzman

Morris was born in England and emigrated to Australia in 1969. He started his career as writer for the TV comedy The Norman Gunston Show.

He then wrote his first children’s novel, The Other Facts of Life, in 1985. Morris adapted The Other Facts of Life into a screenplay, which won an AWGIE Award for the Best Original Children’s Film Script.

Morris became well known through his semi-autobiographical columns in The Age and Sydney Morning Herald, which he wrote for nine years. However, he is best known for his children’s books, which have been published in about twenty countries.

All Morris’ children's books have been shortlisted for or have won numerous children’s book prizes here and overseas. The Felix series (Once, Then, Now, After, Soon and his 2017 book Maybe), follows 10 year old Polish Jewish Felix as he escapes from the Nazis in World War 2.

His other titles include Second ChildhoodMisery Guts, Worry Warts, Puppy Fat, Blabber Mouth, Sticky Beak, Belly Flop, Water Wings, Bumface, Gift Of the Gab, Toad Rage, two six-part novels written in collaboration with Paul Jennings (Wicked and Deadly), Adults Only, Toad Heaven, Boy Overboard, Teacher’s Pet, Toad Away, Girl Underground, Worm Story, Aristotle’s Nostril, Doubting Thomas, Give Peas A Chance, Toad Surprise, Grace, Too Small To Fail, Pizza Cake, Extra Time, Loyal Creatures, Toad Delight and Snot Chocolate.

Show notes

  • Morris discovered the Just William series of Richmal Crompton when he was 8, and she inspired the Felix series (Once, Then, Now, After, Soon and Maybe).
  • He attended the College of Advanced Education in Canberra and completed, the first vocationally-based, undergraduate professional writing course in Australia – the same course Garth Nix (another writer interviewed on The Garret) enrolled in two years later.
  • Morris credits his experience on as a scriptwriter for The Norman Gunston Show for training him for the rest of his literary career.
  • And finally, Morris refers to Elie Wiesel, the Holocaust survivor who fought for the memory of those who perished in the Holocaust. Elie was influential in Morris decision to write the Felix series.

Transcript

Nic Brasch: Morris Gleitzman is one of Australia’s leading children’s writers, beloved by children and adults alike. More than perhaps any other Australian children’s author he has pushed the boundaries with his content and our children are the richer for it. From the humour of some of his early books and his collaborations with Paul Jennings to his harrowing series of Once, Then, Now, After, Soon and Maybe, Morris Gleitzman is a writer of courage and enormous talent. Morris, welcome to The Garret.

Morris Gleitzman: Thank you.

Nic: I was just wondering, did you grow up in a house full of books and stories?

Morris: Certainly, a house full of stories. Some told by me to evade the just punishment that was otherwise coming my way but not a huge number of books. But a great culture of reading, and we had a few select volumes of the parental shelves. Most importantly, my parents encouraged me and facilitated me to join our local public library at a young age, and the librarians there were perhaps slightly more liberal than was the norm in that era because although I was 8 or 9 or 10 in those early years, I quickly devoured a lot of the children’s books and was found browsing sometimes in areas that were way beyond my life experience. But I wasn’t too limited there, they didn’t limit me, which was important.

Nic: Ok. I thought you were going to say one of the librarians slipped you a copy of Lady Chatterley’s Lover or something like that. But it wasn’t quite like… 

Morris: It wasn’t quite, no, no, that was one I discovered for myself. I would have been well over 13 by the time I discovered that.

Nic: Who and what were you reading? So, by the time you were ten, in your formative years, who did you like? What sort of genres?

Morris: Well I grew up in England, and so I was steered toward the librarians towards the sort of canon of English children’s literature, early twentieth century a lot of it, politically incorrect much of it.

Nic: Boys own adventure type stuff an…

Morris: Yeah, I preferred… anything with humour attracted me more than the sort of daring do adventure stuff. So, by the time I was about 8 I had discovered the wonderful Richmal Crompton, the ex-principal of a girls’ school in South London. In the early years she used to go home at night and on weekends and give vent to her alter ego, the most spectacularly, anarchic 10 or 11 year old character, William Brown. Always well intentioned, a character who wanted to right the wrongs of the world but managed to create so many more wrongs while he was doing it...     

Nic: Of course.

Morris: And I loved that combination. She became my favourite author. I’ve actually given her to the character Felix in my series of – I must say, only partly harrowing novels – because the friendship at the centre of those books to me is the absolute heart of them, surrounded as they are by the most unfriendly of behaviours.

Nic; That doesn’t immediately come to me, that comparison, I’m just trying to ponder that now.

Morrris: No, I would say that there is many years of development, many leaps between the 1920s English stockbroker-belt world of William’s long-suffering parents and what Felix goes through, but there is an incorrigibility about William in those Richmal Crompton stories that, although Felix is existing in a very different context, the adults that he is at risk from are not long-suffering as our William’s parents, they are murderous, as are the Nazi proponents of the Final Solution. But there is an incorrigibility, an indefatigable and an ability to use creative thinking to confront problems that would normally be beyond the ability of a ten or eleven-year-old to really grapple with, and that’s true of William in his much safer world, and it’s true of Felix as well.

Nic: They keep going, they keep going and you know they are never going to stop. So, as you are growing older, through your teens, who did you discover, who do you remember really discovering and thinking. ‘Wow, this is…’ you know?

Morris: By the time I was 16, 17 I was starting to discover the canon, I guess, of mostly English literature. Dickens et al, and it was around that time that I started to contemplate the possibility that I might make writing my life’s work, so, that wasn’t a great time in my life to be exposing myself to the very best on offer…

Nic: Quite depressing, isn’t it?

Morris: …Very sobering actually, at times. But I knew that I could use humour. I’d learned that through many a tense moment in various school yards. I was not a physically brave or particularly accomplished individual, but I found I could both protect myself and even achieve some degree of power through the use of humour. Sometimes cruelly and sometimes to curry favour and entertain. And some of those techniques and structures I found came quite easily to me once I started writing.

Nic: So, what were you writing then? What sort of stories? When did you start writing?

Morris: Well, I started writing stories for my own amusement, my own often subversive amusement at about 9 or 10. Certainly, by the time I’d moved into high school, I went to a grammar school in London who chose discipline rather than education as their core business, so I wasn’t particularly happy there and I was quite rebellious.

But as I said, as any of my contemporaries would attest, I wasn’t physically brave so I tended to work underground using literature in one of its traditional purposes, and so I wrote various stories about the imagined home lives of various teachers. And I wasn’t always kindly motivated I can now see. But again, humour was a part of that.

I guess, once at 17 when I’d decided I was going to try to make a career of this, two very fortunate things happened. First, I had belatedly, after leaving school and working for a year or so, I had belatedly decided that if I wanted the literary life I probably should get more education, and I did a crash Year 11 and 12 course, and then as I was idly looking around the arts degrees available, I stumbled upon, and this was really my good fortune, I stumbled upon a brand new college of advanced education in Canberra, that in its first year was offering a course that had not previously been seen in Australia, a vocationally-based, undergraduate professional writing course. The sort of course that these days – and I know because my daughter did a media degree – you pretty much have to have a better university entrance than medicine to get into. Back in those days somebody with a lot of ambition and not a lot of studious ability like me was able to get in on the strength of a 300-word letter.

Nic: I’ve just recently spoken to Garth Nix and I think he did the same course.

Morris: He did. A couple of years after me I think.

Nic: That’s a couple of good names to come out of there. Any other great names that came out of there?

Morris: No, Garth and I prefer to sort of own that territory.

Nic: Own that territory! That’s not bad at all. Did you know him there?

Morris: No, I didn’t. Two years is a huge gulf when you’re a pretentious 17 year old.

Nic: It is indeed. So, you did this course. What sort of writing were you exploring there? Were you trying a bit of everything?

Morris: The course literally, because in its first year they just didn’t have the resources to do any specialisation, so across the three years it was everything from poetry, advertising copywriting, radio drama, screenwriting, short stories – the lot. During the first couple of years screenwriting attracted me more and more, and I elected to do a full-length TV/film script as my graduation piece. That showed me that I really didn’t understand how TV production worked that well, and therefore really able to… I could write stores but I couldn’t apply them to the strictures of screen production.

So, I decided I needed to learn that from the inside so I was also very lucky, I went for some jobs and I thought I would probably have to work as a journalist because those were the jobs on offer, but I was at the ABC being interviewed for a job as the Rockhampton stringer for the ABC – oh how different my life could have been – when on the interviewing panel was the guy who was the producer for the promotions department making little thirty second trailers. I told him about a couple of student films I’d made and he asked me a couple of questions that were clearly designed to work out if I could make these little thirty seconders and within a couple of weeks I was in a director’s chair in a studio, albeit in such a junior way, but I was seeing TV production from the inside, and that helped my screenwriting a lot. But also, I discovered over the three years that I did that job that humour, that served me for other purposes, was more and more what I really wanted to write. I made the trailers for the first series of an ABC comedy show called The Norman Gunston Show.     

Nic: One of my all-time favourites.

Morris: I knew instantly that I could write that character. I plucked up the courage to simply write some scripts, and because I had access to the producer’s office could leave them on his desk. It was the classic Hollywood right-time, right-place thing. And literally, the weeks I was writing those scripts, unbeknownst to me, Bill Harding, the wonderful originating writer of that series, after the first two ABC series he decided to go and do other things and left them without a writer. And I envisaged a moment when John Eastway, the producer/director, tearing his hair, because Bill had really created that character out of some very simplistic, earlier elements of the Aunty Jack Show, I imagine John turning, possibly for a large bottle of scotch, and saying, ‘But what is this before me on the desk? Scripts. Not bad scripts really. By a bloke I’ve never heard of. Bring him in and give him the job.’ Which is what happened.

Nic: I can now ask you the question that has been… I’ve also wondered, those infamous interviews that Garry McDonald did as Norman Gunston, were they all scripted?

Morris: They were. They were scripted and they involved a huge amount of material. It was a pyramid. So, the first question, I always tried to give him, Norman, at least three responses to the likely things that would be the response to the first question, and then, of course, the whole script had to…

Nic: Wow.

Morris: But, and this is the absolute crux of it, Garry learnt those whole scripts, only about six and a half percent of which were ever used in any given interview. He learnt the lot. I could never cover every possible response by the interview subject, and almost without fail, when the subject became unpredictable and responded in a way that was not covered, Garry could – without drawing breath – could pull a line from a totally different script that hadn’t been used for somebody else, and make it sound as if was the perfect response for that.

Nic: Goodness me.

Morris: That probably was the single element that made those interviews work as well as they did. I’ve worked with a lot of other actors, a lot of other comedians, but I’ve never worked with anyone who could have done that as Garry did.

Nic: He is an extraordinary performer, courageous in so many ways.

Morris: We had him do some pretty risky things physically and he never went out of character. We had him in a ring with a sumo wrestler and we thought they knew we were a TV comedy show and this was all going to be… Ten seconds in we realised ‘No, there is honour at stake here’, and this four hundred pounds of mean fighter is probably not going to play along in the jocular way that we hoped.

We had him on Hollywood Boulevard when Burt Reynolds was having his star. And the protocol is photo op, nobody speaks to the star in the sacred moment, except Norman. We always had two cameras, one on him and one on whatever else was happening, so the second camera shows we jump out of a car, we go over, and the producer/director pushes Garry through this deep ring of photographers, and suddenly he pops out next to Burt Reynolds, and there is total stunned silence, because he is holding the microphone, and you could see, ‘What the …’ is forming on people’s lips, and we knew they’d only be time for one question, and so Norman says, ‘Mr Reynolds, what a special day this must be for you. What a very special day. You must be so sad that your sister, Debbie, couldn’t make it here today.’ There is dead silence for fifteen seconds as people are still digesting that someone has spoken to the star, and then these security guards jumped on Garry and dragged him out, and he didn’t… I mean, he was being dragged out by handfuls of flesh and he didn’t go out of character once.

Nic: Wow. Amazing. So how did you get from that to writing children’s books?

Morris: It was a great career started for me, being the Norman Gunston writer for the last three years – we went to Seven and did three years there. And so, people would approach me to write funny stuff and I did a whole range of that, but I was approached by the Children’s Television Foundation. Dr Patricia Edgar had twisted some arms in Canberra, and they decided to do, as their first project, a series of one-off TV films that were brilliant opportunities for writers, because they could be about anything as long as they could be shot within a certain budget and had a young character as the main character.

Sandra Levy, who I’d done some work with, she was a producer in the education department, I’d done some scripts for her, she was asked to produce one of these and she asked me to write it, and the brief was, come up with a story that will make a good hour’s telly for family viewing. So, I wrote a script called, The Other Facts of Life. While it was being shot, there was a book publisher, Fi Gribble, who had decided to do novel versions of this whole series, I think there were eight one-offs, so they asked me to do that, I’d never thought of writing a book but this seemed like a great opportunity to get a book published, so I gave it a go and I found that re-writing my screenplay into my… Suddenly I was like the producer, the director, the location manager, so rewriting a permanent version of it, exactly as I had always seen it, I knew that out on the set it was being well-directed, beautifully performed but it was going to become, as all screen things do, a collaboration between that team. I thought, ‘I love this.’

How can I put this in a way that’s not going to make me seem like an awful control freak? I’m thinking aloud now.

Nic: Go for it, Morris.

Morris: I loved the total control of being able to put my story down and know that there was nothing between me and its eventual readers. Much as I appreciated over the years the wonderful things that actors, of course, did with my words, when I realised that I could go straight into my emotions… I didn’t think for a moment that I could make a living writing books, but I thought I’d like to write some more. And I did another film for the Australian Children’s Television Foundation the next year, turned into a book also, Second Childhood.

But then I had a young family and I had lots of bills to pay and screenwriting was the only practical way to do it. So, I continued that for a few more years. But one of those first books, The Other Facts of Life, ended up in the hands of an editor at Blackie Publishers in London, and she contacted me and said, ‘We’d like to commission you to write a book’. The advance was enough to keep my kids in lollies for about four days, so I was able to actually write a movie that I didn’t particularly want to write, but it was well paid, and I bought myself about four months. And also… I put in an application – the only time I have ever had a writer’s grant – I had a small grant from the Literature Board and that gave me six months in total, and I wrote a book called Two Weeks with The Queen.

Nic: And that’s the one that set you on the track. For a writer that early in your career and who has used humour and written many books that are humorous subsequently, it was a brave and courageous book to start with. I mean, if you look at the time, and particularly for children’s books, dealing with the subject matter, AIDS epidemic, that’s not the type of thing you would expect a writer to shoot out.

Morris: No.

Nic: So why?

Morris: There’s a mystery there for me, because I had decided I would make this book, I knew that this was going to be important, I’d earned these months and I was going to give it my crack, and I’d already discovered that if I could crack it, books was the way I wanted to go. But I knew that I wanted to give it my best shot.

At the time I lived in a house in suburban Sydney up on the North Shore, and at the bottom of a bush valley at the bottom of my garden was a nursery of all the fruit bats, or most of them, from Sydney, about ten thousand of them, and I was writing a story about a girl who had formed a relationship with a bat, and the neighbours wanted to get rid of them because they were lowering property prices etcetera, and it wasn’t bad and I was feeling, ‘Look there’s some stuff here that I want to write about’. I had been developing the story, planning it – planning before you start writing the chapters is a screenwriter’s habit because it’s pointless putting anything in that isn’t absolutely essential to the story because of the cost of getting it on-screen.

Nic: Sure.

Morris: So, I was at the planning stage, maybe three weeks in, and one afternoon I suddenly got this feeling, ‘This is not what I really want to write’. I wasn’t sure at that moment what I really wanted to write, but it was ‘If I’m writing a book with the total freedom that comes with that, I don’t feel that I’m sort of engaged enough. I don’t feel that this is important enough for me’. And I just sat there stewing for about an hour, and suddenly the details of a story came into my mind, not with the sort of speculative early possibilities that stories usually do, it came in as if I was remembering a movie I’d seen. Fully formed. Characters. Problems. Everything. And it was Two Weeks with The Queen. And I frantically scribbled down the outline and the next day I started writing that book and I finished it in two weeks. And the version that’s published is not that far off the first draft.

Nic: That’s amazing.

Morris: There’s a bit of tweaking, but there certainly wasn’t any serious rewriting happening.

Nic: It shows it was a story you had to tell.

Morris: It was growing inside me somewhere. I couldn’t… It took me a long time to work out what areas of my life it related to, because none of the specifics, none of the actual plot components were directly from my life. As you can imagine, I sat there thinking, after I had finished the first draft, thinking, ‘This is brilliant. I can write a book in two weeks. Give myself a bit of time off. That’s twenty odd a year. I’m going to be so prolific.’ Little did I know. Never got close to it.

Nic: [Laughter] There are a lot of gatekeepers when it comes to writing for children and young adults. There are parents, teachers, librarians, other adults. Do you try to bypass these gatekeepers or win them over?

Morris: I try not to even think about them. Yeah. What I’ve developed over all these years is the habit of making my main character, who’s usually 10, 11, 12 years of age, my audience. This is who I’m writing the story for. It’s a collaboration between the character and me, but I visualise the point – when I’ve finished the first draft, or whichever draft – the character sits down and reads it. I want their response to be, ‘Yes, this is my story. This is the truth of my story and, wow, it’s pretty entertaining too. I didn’t realise it was so entertaining when I was living it’. So that sort of thing.

I obviously have an awareness of gatekeepers because they are a very important part of how books get into kids’ hands.

Nic: Sure.

Morris: And at best they are fantastically, indispensably helpful to writers and readers. But they’re adults and they can’t be blamed for having certain anxieties and sometimes quite set views about what is or isn’t suitable for young readers, and that’s their business but I try very hard not to make it mine.

Nic: It seems wrong to single out any of your works but the Felix series, for want of a better title, I don’t know whether you call it that or the Once series or whatever, obviously hit a chord with readers. I believe when you started it was a one-off in your mind, it was a one-off book. How did it then become such an ongoing … the latest one, Maybe, which is absolutely wonderful, another continuation…

Morris: It’s been the great writing adventure of my life. I have never set out to write a series. I start off thinking, if I do my job properly I can tell this character’s story in one book, and that was my intention with Felix, with the first book, Once. But it was quite a different approach to writing that book for me. It was the first time I’d written a book set in the past, the first time that a lot of research was needed, or that much. And I had some anxieties about whether I should even be writing a fiction set against the Holocaust. Not because I doubted that it wasn’t an appropriate thing for young people to be encountering, more there was a famous edict written by Elie Wiesel, a Holocaust survivor of course who became a significant, a very major literary figure, and he famously wrote, I think in the early 1950s, really as an instruction, or let’s say a very strong suggestion to the writers of the world, ‘If you weren’t there,’ he wrote, ‘don’t write about it’.

Nic: Right.

Morris: And I thought about that for some years, because even though there’s an irony, which is even if we weren’t there we can’t fully understand why he’s even said that, it deserves respect. And I knew that I was going to have to disobey it, and I thought long and hard about that.

But because I’d set out – not to write about war or the Holocaust, but to write about friendship – and because I’d wanted to sort of honour this hugely important part of the life – not only of myself but of every young reader I’d ever met, anywhere in the world –  I really wanted to try to take a story of friendship as far as that really important part of our lives deserved to be taken. Not sort of pussyfoot abound and just coast on the fact that if we’re lucky our friendships are fun and good times. I just wanted to see how tough friendship could be in a world often full of opposites. So, I thought if I take the very best friendship I can write between two young people and I’ll place that friendship in the middle of the worst human behaviour on the largest possible scale. War is where we find that, and I wanted it be a real war. Why make up a pretend war when there are so many real ones? And my own distant family connection with the terrible years of the Holocaust made that my obvious choice.

Once I’d rationalised, I’d said to myself that Elie Wiesel wrote those words seventy something years before the point at which I was contemplating to right this story, and I knew from years of meeting thousands of young readers that, unless they happened to be from Jewish communities or had studied that very specific part of our history in school, that they really were quite unaware of it all.

And I’d also become very aware, and it was central to my thinking, as a writer for young people, that I think a difficulty that young people have is that there are two contrasting things perhaps that we give kids that make their slow realisation of the true nature of the world a difficult one.

Because on the one hand, we’ve created for them a media-drenched world. What every parent would like to do is keep their kids a little bit cocooned and cotton-balled, but you can’t because the media tells it like it is. But I think there’s, understandably, there’s an often subconscious shame by adults, by parents in particular but teachers and others who care about kids, that this is the nature of the world we are giving over to you. So, there is a lot of denial involved in that. And I think that the loving and caring desires to protect kids from the grimmer aspects of the world is often that denial projected by adults who would rather it didn’t exist because it’s kind of shameful. How did we and all the generations before us get it so wrong?

 What I think stories can do is not blink and not shy away from that but at the same time stories can do something that the news media don’t do because it’s not their job. So, the news media concentrate on countless, decontextualized instances of our bad behaviour, and professional journalists tend to feel as if they are copping out if they try to do feel good stories. But fiction writers can say ‘the world is full of the worst we are capable of and the best’. And that’s what I wanted to capture in these books.

Nic: And what you just said about the difference between the media today and fiction in particular, and particularly your works at the moment, there is that essence of humanity in your books that you just don’t get from reading a news story. It almost doesn’t matter how good that writer is.

Morris: Fiction takes us into the inner world of characters and we quickly realise that the externals of characters that are out in the real world, in our lives, we give perhaps too much significance to, but fiction just – whoosh – straight between the surface, straight into where it matters, and where we discover the true symmetries and differences between us and other people.

But we only keep turning pages or we only keep looking at the movie screen if we have found enough of ourselves inside the characters that we start to care about them and their predicaments and problems and whether they’ll solve and survive them. And that’s a really useful thing, because I wouldn’t dream – much as I think kids deserve to have the truths of the world reflected in their stories – I wouldn’t dream of only writing about one side because it is only one side and it’s therefore not truthful. Because even though, of course, and certainly in a terrible time like the Holocaust, there are millions of people for whom one side prevailed. They lost their lives as a result of genocide and human darkness. But there were also, not enough, but there were also plenty of people for whom there was at least something close to a balance and there are some survivors – although luck was the first quality that every Holocaust survivor I’ve ever spoken to nominates as where their debt lies – but there were acts of love and friendship too, and even if they didn’t allow enough people to survive, they remained there all the way through, and they remained as a sort of testament to all that who look back at that time, that our capacity for love and friendship is as strong as our capacity for the worst.

And I think that’s such a useful thing for young readers to take into their lives because it’s their world soon and boy, are they going to have to be good at problem solving and they are going to have to have nerves of steel to keep looking bravely and squarely at the worst possibilities, because that’s the only way you can hope to achieve the best.

Nic: I’d like to thank you for the courage you show as a writer and for getting that all across through your work. You’ve had an enormous impact on a lot of young readers who grow up and hopefully will change the world. So, I’d like to thank you for that, and also thank you very much for giving us the time on The Garret and talking to us today.

Morris: Thank you. My garret is one of my favourite places to be.

Nic: Thanks Morris.