'The best books, reviewed with insight and charm, but without compromise.'
- author Jackie French

Tuesday 17 May 2011

Author Interview: Morris Gleitzman

We're thrilled to have bestselling author Morris Gleitzman join us today, as part of our special Behind the Books feature. Here, Morris tells us about his life as a writer, and shares some wonderful advice about writing for kids.

How long have you been writing? I started my professional writing career at 17 when I sold a short story to Dolly magazine – a moving story of love, loss and redemption. I was particularly moved when I saw my name in print for the first time. That was 41 years ago.

What inspired you to write for children? For the first ten years of my career I was a freelance screenwriter, writing movies and TV comedy, mostly for adults but sometimes for children. Towards the end of that time I started meeting young characters in my imagination who brought with them slightly more challenging stories, and at first I wasn’t quite sure what to do with them.

How did you make your start in writing for children? I wrote a TV film called The Other Facts Of Life for the Australian Children’s Television Foundation. A publisher asked me to turn it into a book. I was supporting a young family at the time, and I knew that most authors barely made enough money to feed their budgies let alone themselves, so I couldn’t see myself being able to leave screenwriting. But I couldn’t resist the chance to discover what it would feel like to write a book. It felt great.

I loved being able to go deep into the thoughts and feelings of the characters. I loved being my own producer, director, actors, cinematographer, set designer, make-up artist, location manager and caterer. I loved how my story could continue to unfold even when it was pouring with rain and film crews all over the country were huddled in bus shelters with their lens caps on. I guess what I’m saying is I loved the true feeling of authorship.

I adapted two of my screenplays into kids books, then was commissioned by a UK publisher who’d seen them to write an original novel for young people. I wrote Two Weeks With The Queen, which was also published by Pan Macmillan in Australia, and they did such a brilliant job of getting people to read it that I was off and running.

What other genres have you written in? I’ve written a lot of newspaper and magazine columns over the years – they give me the chance to have fun and be silly. People assume I do this with my books, but under the funny surfaces my books are actually very serious.

Why do you write? It’s my job. It’s also a process that has kept me sane, reasonably balanced and given me a constructive focus for my obsessive tendencies. It’s one of the few jobs where one can drink fine Chinese tea all day and spend as much time as one needs to keeping one’s office kitchen scrupulously tidy with all the tea cannisters lined up neatly and grouped in Chinese provinces with sub-groupings based on the time of year each tea was picked and… sorry, what was the question?

Oh yes, I also write because I want to show by example that our imaginations are capable of creating happiness and hope, even when a peek out the window confirms that not a lot of it is going on outside.

Have you experienced any blocks or obstacles in your path to writing books? One of my tea pots got blocked last week, but I unblocked it. Tea pots are lucky. They only get blocked by big tea-leaves. We humans get blocked by fear, and that can take more than a toothpick to overcome.

The other big obstacle for an author is the need to earn an income. I feel lucky every day that I can do the job full-time. That when new characters comes into my life, I can give myself to them fully.

Tell us about your latest book, Too Small to Fail. Oliver is a ten year old boy who needs to earn $11,000 to save the life of a dog. He has a slight head start with this because his parents own an investment bank, so he’s familiar with certain concepts which he’s able to use in the school playground. But then the Global Financial Crisis wipes out his parents’ bank, which leaves Oliver with a liquidity problem and a huge moral dilemma. Fortunately he has a couple of good friends, one of them a camel, who are able to help him with these problems.

What’s a typical writing day? There are two parts to an author’s job – roaming the world talking about what you do, and sitting at a desk doing it. Desk time for me also has two parts – writing, and running the small business that an author is.

In my office I spend half the day being an author and half the day being a secretary. The first big decision of each morning is which will come first. I’m not consistent in this.

What advice do you have for others on writing for children? You know if you have young voices inside you needing to be heard. If you do, practise your craft skills until you can be the best ambassador for those voices that you’re capable of being. If you don’t, have another look, they might be hiding. If they’re not there, don’t try to write for children, not even when people tell you it’s the way to go because JK makes billions.

What else do you love to do, other than write books? Read. Travel. Drink tea. Walk. Tidy things up.

What is the best thing about writing books for children? See above. Not directly above. Further above.

What is the hardest thing about writing books for children? The Children’s Book Blog Dilemma. If authors were fair and did email interviews for all the blogs, no more children’s books would ever be written because they wouldn’t have time. Then of course a new generation of authors would come along, determined to do things differently, determined not to succumb to the blogs, and a new era of kids books would flourish. Until those authors, worn down by the nagging of their publicists, agreed to do just one email interview, and then another, and a new dark age would then be upon us… oh bugger, am I writing this, I thought I was just thinking it. [Ed - we're very honoured you succumbed to our nagging and joined us on KBR!]

What would be your perfect day? A gentle train ride up to an alpine meadow. A few hours of reading in gentle sunlight and picnicking and gazing up at peaks and chatting with a loved one (preferrably not on the phone). Tripe sausage, Van Morrison and pinot noir would probably feature.

If I ever need to place a lonely hearts ad, can I have permission to reprint this?

If you couldn’t be a writer, what would you be? A synthetic collateralized-debt-obligation arbitrage trader at Goldman Sachs in New York. Or a librarian.

What books did you read as a child? Can you reveal your top 5 favourites? I can reveal the top 38. All the William books by Richmal Crompton.

What’s next for Morris Gleitzman? I’m writing a collection of short stories at the moment which I think will be called Pizza Cake and will be published in November. After that I’m planning to write a fourth novel about Felix and Zelda to follow on from Once, Then and Now.

~ Visit Morris Gleitzman's website

~ Join Morris Gleitzman on his Facebook page (which, he says, "Penguin bullied me into having, but now I’m starting to quite enjoy it".)