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Talking Heads -

View in ParlView

Billy Elliot meets billy tea. That's one of our features next week. I hope you will join us again
then. Bye for now. Closed Captions by CSI

.

THEME MUSIC

I grew up in about the normal time, and you probably did too. But at age 55, author Morris
Gleitzman is still in no hurry to grow up. He's very happy living in the world of 10- and
11-year-olds. So happy that he's written 29 best-selling books about his imaginary characters. He's
written about toads, outside dunnies, warts and bottoms. No wonder he's a hero to his legion of
fans. Morris, it's lovely to meet you.

And you, Peter.

Thanks for coming on Talking Heads.

My pleasure.

At a ridiculously young age, you became the writer for Norman Gunston. Why did we laugh so much at
Norman?

Perhaps I've sort of been a bit overly retrospective here, but it occurred to me some years after I
finished writing Norman that he's in many ways the quintessential 11-year-old.

Hey, kids, listen to this.

He was kind-hearted but he wasn't quite worldly enough to understand when he was really treading on
people's toes. He had something about him that he was unaware of but the audience quickly was aware
of which is that he was also a force for anarchy.

Well, on with the compulsive viewing that makes this the show that goes into more homes than the
war veterans' art union brochure.

You keep inhabiting lots of different characters of about the same age. You inhabit that universe.

And I've tried to work out why. You know, I started thinking well, maybe I'm trying to work out
some huge, huge trauma from my own 10th and 11th years and I questioned my parents closely about
that and -

Found nothing?

You know, "Was I locked in a cupboard for years?" I said to them, and they said absolutely not.

They denied it?

They said the cupboard was unlocked at all times - "You could have come out," you know.

(LAUGHS)

But I think it's because... Look, the closest I can come to sort of understanding it is that for my
young characters, by and large, the hormones haven't started to flow. Whatever it is in their life
that they're grappling with, that they're trying to make better, either for themselves or for
people they love, there's always a moral dimension to that, a personal - a dimension of personal
morality. And they are free to give that their all without worrying if it's going to make them look
uncool to girls or boys or whatever and that might be part of it, I think. "He stopped with his
face so close to mine I could see the veins in his eyeballs and the coleslaw in his ears." LAUGHTER

Well, it's interesting, you write things, which we'll touch on later, but you've written about the
Holocaust, you've written about child detention. You're confronting young readers with some very
heavy stuff.

Our news media tend to bombard us all, young people too, with, every day, thousands of
decontextualised images of the very worst of human behaviour, 'cause that's pretty much what makes
the news, and we understand the reasons for that, but it's concerned me for a long time that it's a
very unbalanced view of the world. So what I try and do in my stories is certainly acknowledge and
explore some of the tough aspects of life, but my stories are also always about love and friendship
between characters, about the very best that we're capable of doing as a species too. And for me,
not only do we have a responsibility in portraying what it is to be human, as storytellers to focus
on both sides, but it makes a better story, it makes a much better story because grief and anger
and sort of our dark side is always more interesting and more illuminated when the good stuff, the
joy, the spontaneity, the anarchy, the funny stuff, is right next door and vice versa.

Rolling.

"'Come on,' I say to Zelda. 'Keep going. We mustn't stop.' 'I'm not stopping,' says Zelda
indignantly. 'Don't you know anything?' I know why Zelda's cross. She thinks I'm lucky. I am, I'm
10." There is a part of me that is still 10 and 11 and it has been so important in my life that
that part of me continue to have a voice, that I've shaped my life so that it can continue to have
a voice. I am aware that it's made me a happier and better-balanced person. Do any of you write
your own stories?

Well, I'm thinking of writing new stories about my imaginary friend called Cheese and I'm thinking
of writing a book called The Chub-Chubs.

It's pretty useful having an imaginary friend if you want to write stories. I've got hundreds of
imaginary friends. I'm very lucky. The type of stories I write are about young people grappling
with the biggest problems in their lives, often problems that are bigger than they're actually
capable of solving. So an important part of it is that it's a journey that we all must go through
of coming to terms with, living with, and not being crushed and depressed by aspects of life that
we can't totally control and problems we can't totally solve. I was born on January 9, 1953, in a
small nursing home in Sleaford, Lincolnshire. I grew up in the south-eastern suburbs of London.
Halfway through primary school, I realised that I was not as physically strong or fearless as many
kids. So, in situations of conflict, I quickly learned that it worked better for me to get out of
situations or maybe kind of, you know, prevail in a conflict situation by using humour than by
trying to punch somebody out. When I was 16, my parents announced that we were moving to Australia
to live which, to me, was an appalling idea because at 16, of course, I had fleeting time with my
first two or three girlfriends, and I had decided to become a hippy. So I was pretty grumpy about
the whole thing. When the customs guys at Darwin saw my homemade hippy clothing and shoulder-length
hair what they asked my parents was, "Would he have put any guns in your luggage?" Which - they
were a good 40 years ahead of their time, really. When I was 14 I stopped one day for no reason I
have ever really understood, completely reading books. I didn't read one for three years. During
that time I left school. I was working at age 17 in a clothing factory. And one day one of the
blokes there gave me this book. He'd finished reading it on the train to work and he thought it
might appeal to me - I've no idea why - but by the time I'd read the first paragraph, I knew I
wanted my life to be surrounded by books. Within two days of getting that book, I went home to my
parents and said, "Look, I want to rejoin the world of books and I figure the way to do that is to
resume my education."

How different were those school days, back in the UK, compared to, say, your kids' in Australia?

Well, very different because I went to a selective grammar school that thought that if it could
evoke some of the traditions of the British public school, brutal discipline, in particular, that
this would be to the benefit of its students. It was a view I didn't share from about the first day
and -

So you were regularly thrashed were you?

So many teachers in the early 1960s in the British school system seem to - they come from a kind of
teacher casting agency because they're all walking stereotypes. So there was the German master with
the Hitler moustache, who picked boys up by his ears... by their ears, rather. Et cetera et cetera,
you know, it... But one wonderful teacher who changed my life, an English teacher called Mr Walsh,
who, for the whole of the first year of secondary school, threw the curriculum out the window and
told us a story. It was the story of three jewel thieves and their adventures and misadventures and
he just... and he did that thing that they tell you in Hollywood to do as a screenwriter which is
to show, not tell. So instead of giving us a year of, sort of, theory, making us read literature
and then theorise about how stories and literature worked, he demonstrated it to us.

So you've got this dry, detached sort of humour to you which is obvious in your conversation. Would
teachers have spotted that?

Um... I'm being much gentler with you, Peter, than... ..than I was with my teachers, because I like
you and I didn't like any of them. And also, I feel we're sitting here largely as equals, and it
was made very clear to us boys, particularly in Secondary School, that there was no equality in the
classroom, that we were kind of scum and vermin. And on behalf of the scum and vermin, I felt that,
you know, I should speak up, but I wasn't brave enough to kind of do a...do a kind of, you know -
Do you remember that movie, If?

I do, with the very heavy scenes about what the students did to the teachers.

I wasn't brave enough to stand up and sort of confront them like that or even get a machine-gun and
kill them.

Yes, which was what happened in If.

Exactly. I was, um...I was more the kid up the back who... ..would be sort of just muttering
things.

Sotto voce.

Yeah, but just - I mean, I wanted to be heard. My ears didn't want me to be heard. If you've
noticed my ears seem in any way larger than normal, it's because I was lifted out of my desk by
them about 4,000 times during my Secondary School years.

Were you a trouble maker?

I was... I was a resistance fighter.

(LAUGHS) There were a lot of guerilla wars going on at the time.

Yeah, and there were times when I would say something up the back of the classroom and the minute I
- I would think to myself, "Why did you let that out? Why didn't you just think that? Now you'll be
hurt."

Consequences.

Yeah. But I've talked to other authors about this, this sense of having a voice that must out. We
do it through our characters and it's much more sort of socially acceptable and in some cases, you
know, we get money and admiration for it. But it's a similar process of - there's a voice inside us
that must out.

Early working experiences are often good grist for the mill when it comes to later writing, and
you've - you did some chicken plucking in your time?

My job was to take frozen chickens, plunge them into a sink of hot water till they were semi-thawed
and I could get the stake through them for the rotisserie. Now, every...every culinary hygienist
knows you don't partially thaw something in that way, leave it sitting around for a while and then
cook it. I cut my hand on a partially thawed chicken, on a piece of ice, got blood poisoning, my
arm swelled up to twice its size, um -

Imagine what would've happened if you'd eaten it.

So I was fired and I was tempted to actually stand outside his shop for a few days with my very big
arm, just sort of showing, not telling, but...

(LAUGHS)

But I didn't, 'cause I was actually in a lot of pain. I was lucky enough to get a job at ABC TV in
the promotions department and I took that job specifically because I realised that almost from the
first week I'd be in TV studios, I'd be working with film crews. I'd be cutting up programs to make
the little 30-second promotional bits and I'd be there at the coalface, learning the nuts and bolts
of TV production. ETHEREAL MUSIC At the time I joined the ABC, the Aunty Jack series was being
produced and soon after I joined, a series called the Norman Gunston Show spun off from it. And I
made the promos for the first series of the Norman Gunston Show and even as I was watching those
episodes, I was secretly thinking to myself, "I love this character, I know this character and I
can write this character." So on weekends I did write a few scripts and because I had the access to
the producer I was able to sort of slip the scripts onto his desk.

Hi, I'm back.

DRUM ROLL

Live across Australia it's time to get another big bang from the Norman Gunston Show.

It was round that time the original writer of the series went on to do other things and the
producer was looking for other people to write the show, and it was the proverbial right place at
the right time for me.

(SINGS DOLEFULLY) # Look at me now Will I ever learn # I don't know how but I suddenly lose
control... #

By the time we'd finished Norman, I was still only around, I think, 24 at the time, but I'd been
writing, you know, one of the best-known Australian TV series so it became a very good calling card
for me and I was able to go on as a freelance TV comedy writer and do a range of other things. The
Other Facts of Life was an original screenplay. This was a rare opportunity for a TV writer, so I
wrote a story about an 11-year-old boy called Ben, who has reached that stage in life where he's
started to get a sense of what's happening in the larger world beyond the confines of his
Australian suburb.

In the time that it took that mouthful of steak to reach your stomach, 90 people will die of
starvation.

While it was being filmed, the publisher asked me to turn my screenplay into a novel. In a novel,
you really become the characters in a much more profound way and that, to me, was something I was
looking for, I think, in the writing process. And I knew by the time I'd finished that first book
that writing stories as novels was what I was made for. I didn't think I could make a living doing
it, so I assumed that it would always have to be something that I would finance by continuing to
write screenplays. And I did that for my next two or three books but then, in the early '90s, when
I had maybe four books published, I looked at my six-monthly royalty statement one time and
realised that the sales had reached a level where I could support the family just on book sales.
And that was a wonderful day for me.

So did you find with those early books that you were sort of leap-frogging about your own
recognition of what was possible?

Yeah, absolutely, because up until then I'd always - in the back of my mind when I was having story
ideas, I was having to think, "Well, what sort of budget is this going to be? Is it - if it's
fitting into a TV series, I'm gonna have to tell this story using existing characters. If it's
gonna be an Australian movie, up to a certain - beyond a certain budget it's gonna need an American
star, so can I put an American character in this story?" Suddenly, writing books, there was none of
that, because on the page no one idea costs any more to write or read than any other idea. So, my
first few books included a story, Two Weeks with the Queen - a boy whose younger brother is
discovered to be very seriously ill and Colin, the main character, is sent off to London so he
won't have to witness his younger brother's death and he decides to borrow the Queen's family
doctor to try and cure his brother and he tries to climb over the back wall of Buckingham Palace -

Obviously unaffordable from a film point of view.

Well, difficult, difficult, yeah. I think the third or fourth book I wrote, Blabbermouth, is about
a girl unable to physically speak. The whole book is a kind of thought monologue by the character,
and it would be a difficult thing to do on the screen. They had to use voiceover and various other
techniques when they did adapt it for the screen.

Was there a great sense of joy about this too? Did you feel like you'd arrived?

Absolutely, well -

I don't... I don't mean in a career sense but in a personal sense?

In a personal sense, yes, I did. I did. I'd had a pattern through my career up to that point, I'd
been a freelance screenwriter for about 11 years at the point where I wrote the first book, and I
had a pattern that whenever I finished a piece of work, which inevitably was a piece of
commissioned work not something I'd originated, I would finish it and there'd be a nice feeling of,
"Hm. Job finished." I'd then get sick. I'd get flu or something for a couple of weeks and then I'd
go on to the next bit. And time and time again, three or four times a year, I'd get sick. That
didn't happen when I finished the first book. And it's never happened since.

Well, remind us, what makes kids of 10 or 11 or 12 laugh?

My favourite type of humour comes - it's that sort of knowing smile that connects us to a
character, it's where we can see that perhaps they're being a little bit too optimistic, even a
little bit naive at times, but we absolutely sympathise with why they're doing it, and we perhaps
recognise part of them in ourselves. They are more open to the joys of our bodily functions, we -

In particular, farting.

Well, farting's one...

(LAUGHS)

..but, you know, see, farting is part of a larger process of elimination that kids recognise is as
inevitable as the beginning of that process, which is eating.

There's a lot of blame-shifting about farting, isn't there?

There is, yeah. I think probably because... ..you can blame your fart on somebody else but probably
not - you know, if a poo appears in your day, its ownership is pretty hard to avoid.

"I picked up the bowl of avocado dip and a basket of Jatz and offered them around..."

I think to be a successful author you've got to be part recluse and part show-off. Those authors
who might be brilliant writers but just hate and turn to stone if ever they have to talk about
themselves or their work in public, these days, it makes it very difficult, I think, for them. So
I'm kind of lucky that I've got that slightly show-off side to me. It's been a joyful discovery to
me that a job that is a very solitary and shut-away-from-the-world type job, the writing part of
it, carries with it this absolutely contrasting opportunity. And I probably spend three or four
months of each year travelling and talking and being a show-off. GUITAR MUSIC I've had a bit of an
involvement over the years with the Children's Hospital in Melbourne and it's something I like to
do because one of my, kind of, philosophies is that stories have got something to offer us at every
time in our life no matter what else is happening in our life and I can see that when young people
that are facing some pretty tough times often, in that place, that all the things that stories
offer us can be a good thing for them to experience too. If we were gonna make up a story now, have
you ever thought of writing a story or doing a picture story about a kid in hospital? 'Cause you
would've had some interesting experiences that a lot of kids probably wouldn't have had.

Yeah, that's a good idea.

I think probably you can either write for kids or you can't. That ability to imaginatively be a
child and see the world as a child and feel and think like a child - you either have that ability
or you don't.

You tackle some pretty edgy stuff. You've written about the Holocaust, about child detention. How
do you conceptualise that from a child's point of view, a 10- 11- 12-year-old?

At the beginning of the story - the first book is called Once and there's a continuation of it, a
sequel called Then. At the beginning of Once, Felix has been hidden four years earlier in a
Catholic orphanage in a remote mountain area of Poland by his parents, his Jewish parents, who saw
what was on the horizon and aged 10 he decides it's time for him - he's worried some problem might
have befallen them so he runs away from the orphanage to find them and the story is a journey of
discovery because I knew that for young readers most of them wouldn't know too much about the
Holocaust or even World War II so I wanted young readers to discover along with Felix what was
happening.

In the sequence of writing there's a scene where children are shot - the observer children don't
actually see it directly happen but know that it's happened...

It's towards the beginning of the second book they come across an open grave on a hillside where a
number of orphans have just been shot by the Nazis. The Nazis needed the orphanage building to
billet some troops in so they take the children out and have shot them.

How do you find children react to this?

Pretty much in the way that any human would, with shock and surprise and if they've never heard of
this sort of thing before it's pretty shocking. I should say that I worked long and hard to do
everything I could not to betray the reality of that time and that place but at the same time my
primary motive was to write a story about love and friendship. I wanted to write about the
strongest, most sustaining friendship I'd ever written between two characters. And I wanted to test
that friendship by putting it in the most threatening and difficult environment I could.

And you brought with it still that same dedication to humour.

I smiled as I was writing and I've heard since that people smile, and even occasionally chuckle
as...

Well, give us an instance of that.

Felix is a storyteller. Felix sustains himself and young Zelda by using his imagination to create
hopeful possibilities of what might lie ahead. And so, he says to Zelda, "Look, I reckon there's
gonna be some houses over this hill in this next valley. I reckon there's gonna be a farmer who's
cooked dinner and who has actually cooked more than he can handle or she, and is hoping some guests
will come along to help." And then he starts describing the food, and Zelda immediately gets picky
because she likes certain things so she starts negotiating the menu, and it's funny, even though
you only have to take half a step back to realise here's two kids running for their lives in the
most terrible and dire of circumstances but they're using that quality that every young person has
and most use it every day, which is their imagination.

You've produced these 29 books which is both a reflection of great industry but also great
privilege that you've been able to do that. What do you want your readers to take away?

I hope they'll take away a sense of friendship with the main character or characters, which is
certainly what I take away from the writing process. I mean, all of those main characters from
those 29 books stay with me as friends. And I have to be a little bit careful how I say this
because some of the flesh-and-blood people in my life sort of look a little bit askance when I say
that these imaginary friends are as important to me often as my flesh-and-blood ones, but in a
sense it's true. When a couple serve simultaneously do you think that's revealing about our
relationship... My partner is Mary-Anne Fahey, ex-TV star and very fine writer in her own right and
occasional performer. I also spend a fair bit of time in Sydney 'cause I've got adult kids living
there and I enjoy a very good and important friendship with my ex-wife and I stay in her house when
I go to Sydney.

You know the short story?

Yeah.

For that Penguin, what is it, The Kids Night In?

Kids Night In.

You know how I've been working on mine for a month?

Yep.

I'm not sending it in.

Why not?

(LAUGHS) 'Cause it's crap.

I love the fact that Mary-Anne does work that's similar to me, but a bit different. We writers, you
know, have certain obsessions and certain areas of self-pity, that it's kinda helpful if the person
you're whingeing to can identify with.

Would you take a look at it?

I would.

And you won't put your name to it? Like all your other books?

Not unless it's really good. It is a fun household. It's a creative household. I've had the
privilege of witnessing some of, many, in fact, of the great moments of Australian comedy
performance which only I will ever see, because they were done spontaneously as part of our daily
life, by Mary-Anne, whose capacity to do characters, to occupy other people within moments of
meeting them, to bring them alive, without make-up or wigs, just by becoming them, is, even after
15 years, it, it never ceases to amaze me.

Woo-hoo. Morris is the opposite to me. Everything in his life is ordered, everything is neat,
everything comes out of his mouth in final draft. If he says it, it's 'cause he means it. Whereas
if I say it, I'm just workshopping it, I have no idea whether I think it or not.

I've learnt to let go of some of my, sort of, controlling instincts. But in my work environment, I
have a lot of stuff on my desk, but I like it to be neatly arranged and everything has its place.
And that makes me feel, sort of, more relaxed and that all is well with my world, which is rubbish,
of course.

What do you say to kids who say, "Why should I read at all?"

Do you know, I've never actually been asked that. I've often had kids write to me and say, "I've
never liked reading, but I've just finished your book and it's the first time I've finished a book.
And I just wanted to tell you that, 'cause you should be proud, 'cause I've never finished a book
before." And boy, I am proud. I think if they want to lead full, rich and satisfying lives and
achieve everything that they want to achieve, that they should read a couple of my books to start
the process off.

Morris, it's been great talking to you.

Thanks.

Thanks for coming on Talking Heads.

Closed Captions by CSI PETER THOMPSON: 'Next week on Talking Heads, you might fancy being one of
the English aristocracy or perhaps a Hollywood celebrity. Rachel Ward has been both, and now she's
an Aussie film director. Monday, 6:30.'

'Wednesday on The Cook And The Chef - Neil Perry.'

We have to make sure that we're giving people a dining experience that's great.

'Contemporary Australian food. That's The Cook And The Chef, Wednesday, 6:30.'

This program is not subtitled This Program Is Captioned Live.

Tonight - lots of talk, but still no action on health care.

Mr Rudd has broken one promise after another.

The ACT Government reveals its plans for public transport. Where now for the Raiders after a
disappointing season? And - name dropping at Taronga Zoo. Good evening. Welcome to ABC News. I'm
Haumono. The Federal Government has accepted the need for a massive reform of Australia's health
system. But it's put off doing it until after the next election. The Health and Hospital Reform
Commission says the system is fragmented and straining to cope with the ageing population. It calls
the