Morris Gleitzman is one of Australia's, and now the world's, best-known and loved children's authors, He tackles tough subjects in a funny and offbeat way. He has never set out to write "issues books" and says that his writing is as much for himself as for his readers. This is especially true of his new novel 'Once', which is set in the Warsaw Ghetto in the 1940s.
'Once' marks a departure for you. The characteristic Gleitzman humour is still there but the subject matter demands a more muted approach. When you were writing this book, did it feel as though you were charting new waters?
Looking back now, I can see that I think I needed to write a few more specific books first. 'Boy Overboard' and 'Girl Underground' were important steps towards 'Once'. These books were a departure in a sense, because they were largely contemporary stories set in another place. I had some reservations about writing about two young characters who were from different cultural backgrounds. But I also had a very strong urge to write those stories because of what was happening in the world, in particular the refugee situation in Australia. So, although I had some misgivings, I took the plunge. I trusted that, with a lot of research and some essential help, I could make the right sort of contact with the inner world of young people. So, having written those books I had a little more confidence to tackle this even more difficult proposition.
Were you very familiar with the events of this period, or did you have to embark on research before you could write the book?
Through years of research I have read many first person accounts and testimonies. There are some quite unforget- table anthologies that have been published of writing by young people who were there at the time. It might be diaries, in some cases just records scrolled on bits of paper thrown out of the train and found months later in the dirt beside the railway track, or bits of cardboard screwed up and wedged between bricks in bombed out cellars. One of the things I hope my story will do is to lead a new generation of readers to those testimonies and memoirs. Ten years ago, I picked up, purely by chance in a second- hand bookshop, a biography of a man, Janusz Korczak, who I mention in my story. At that time, I’d never heard of him. I picked up the book initially because it had the word children in the title.
I discovered that Korczak had an interesting life as a children’s author and a doctor and he was quite a character. He spent the last years of his life working at an orphanage, teaching children in Warsaw. But what really gripped me and changed my life were the last few chapters in the book. I’ve read very few things that have had such an impact. When the Nazis created the Warsaw ghetto all the children in the orphanage had to move in as well. The day arrived when the Nazis were clearing out the ghetto. They came to the orphanage to take the chil- dren away. All Janusz Korczak wanted was to make the children’s last hours as untraumatic as possible. The children didn’t know what lay ahead of them. I found I couldn’t stop thinking about that relationship between that man and those children. How often, amidst the worst forms of human behaviour, we see people who are capable of demonstrating the very best forms of human behaviour. Korczak kept a ghetto diary in the last couple of years of his life where he writes about the children in the orphanage and his concerns about their health. I have seen small publication, which is an anthology of excerpts from the diary. I do have a distant connection myself because my father’s father was a Jew and I’ve been to Krakow a couple of times in recent years, partly because of my Grandfather. In Krakow, the Jewish area is largely unchanged.
The narrator's voice is interesting because he is to some extent naive, certainly optimistic - although he does become more knowing as events unfold. Was it a challenge to write the story from this perspective?
I decided quite early on to write in the first person because I knew that it was a voyage of discovery. Even when I write a third person book I have noticed that the author’s voice sounds quite similar to the main character’s voice. Felix is a boy who has managed to hold on to his hopes. In that way he’s similar to all my young characters in his optimistic out- look. He’s not sitting around feeling abandoned or dumped. Stylistically, the choices are interesting too.
The chapters start in the past tense but quickly move into the present. What were you trying to achieve by writing in this way?
I was very conscious that I was writing something set in the past for the first time and I didn’t want to make the mistake of treating it as a distant event, because for Felix it wasn’t the past. I wanted today’s readers to connect with the idea that every moment of our lives leads to the present. For a boy in 1942, that period was the cutting edge of the modern world. He is impressed by the technology of the 20th century and looks ahead with some relish to some fantastic future of 1968 or 1974, or the year 2000 where robots will paint you bathroom. That was why I used the device of starting each chapter with the word ‘Once’because ‘Once’ is also about a story very much in the past. That’s why I wrote the first sentence of the first paragraph in the past tense, then switched to the present tense, because there is nothing historical about this story.
Yes, 'Once' connects us immediately to the language of story. But it's a very clever device because there are ironic undertones as well.... could this happen just once.....?
In Australia, in the first nine months the book has found its way into lower secondary classrooms. I’m very pleased about that because I think it’s a story that will be enhanced by the discussion that fourteen or fifteen year olds are capable of, which is quite a different discussion to the one that eight to ten years will have. I’m very keen that those slightly more worldly readers will be encouraged to look at the general irony, because between 1942 and now, there have been many similar genocides. It’s about trying to be honest, to give shape and substance to those ideas. If adults don’t want to talk to young people about the bad things that are happening then their imaginations are quite capable of conjuring up horrors and fears without merit, so we need to trust that our kids can deal with the tough stuff. I think stories are the best way of doing this. They can remind them that humans are capable of as much, if not more, good than evil. Even though the bad stuff sometimes seems insurmountable, the capacity to match evil with good is available to all of us.
One of the things that strikes me is the restraint exercised in writing about the terrible atrocities that Felix witnesses...
You don’t have to read too many of the real documents on the holocaust to feel incapable and utterly presumptuous to try and represent them. But that is what any writers has to come to terms with. I always say to myself, ‘I’m going to put in the minimum that I need’, because I have learned the truth in the ‘cliché’, that less is more. The impact is greater if you stick to the minimum.
I started my writing career as a screenwriter, so I am very aware of the wonderful opportunity that text gives readers to participate imaginatively. Screen actors have plenty of gaps to fill in other dimensions, where- as text does this in every dimension. I don’t put a great deal of description in my books because the readers mind will do that. I just had a sense that there were moments when neither Felix nor I could think of any words that would really be enough. I’ve just used ‘Oh ’which I know can be a very minor, superficial sort of response, but I trust that the context makes it one where I’m inviting the reader to know what’s going on in a way that can almost bypass language.
In spite of the most awful of circumstances, Felix has resources that enable him to be a survivor......
Felix’s parents were prepared to make a great sacrifice on the basis of what was really a speculation. If it was mid 1937 when they put Felix into the orphanage, the anti-Jewish behaviour hadn’t really started. Alot of Jewish families at that stage were still telling them- selves it would be alright. So Felix’s parents did a brave thing. Had it gone wrong it would have cost themselves and their son those crucial years together. What they also had passed on to him in the six and a half years before they put him in the orphanage was probably an even more important gift – story. You can’t beat a sustained connection between reader and writer, and the sharing by the reader of the individual’s perception of the world, even though in the case of Felix it’s a very limited per- ception. In the book he makes some big and important discoveries that change him in different ways.
Most of your protagonists are pre-teens. Is there a particular reason for choosing to write about this age group?
Yes, though I have stopped putting an age on the characters in the books. However, I’m very conscious that they are basically pre-pubescent. I never planned it that way. I realised after I’d written a dozen or so books that this is what I seemed to be doing. I checked to see if anything really traumatic had happened in my own life at around nine or ten years old, but I don’t think it had. So I think it’s more a wealth of great stories that come out of that pre-adolescence
.It seems to me that when you take a young person, they have gained a sense of the world around them, they’ve often started to get a bit of a moral landscape and perhaps they’re more free from personal doubt and anxiety than they’re going to be for the next ten years or so. In Australia the last year of Primary is around age eleven. Certainly a year or two below that, there is so much life in their eyes and they are so prepared to engage and to be undefended in their emotional and intellectual engagement in every level from personal friendships through to things that are happening on a global scale. I really enjoy their company.