From IN BRIEF magazine – Winter 1994

Searching Under the Cushions with Michelle Magorian

Despite initially wanting to be an actress Michelle Magorian turned to writing to stop herself from starvation. Not actually having any idea how to write a book was just a minor detail to her, and, so it seemed to The Guardian Award panel of judges, who gave her the award for her first novel Goodnight Mister Tom.

Since then she has seven books for young readers including Orange Paw Marks and has continued writing for young adults. Her most recent novel is another Second World War drama called Cuckoo in the Nest about a young man’s attempts to break into the theatre, struggling against a working class background and a domineering father. Ralph eventually manages to change his father’s attitude and, at the same time, his attitude towards his father. So if you were wondering what Michelle’s continuing fascination with World War Two is, read on and be amazed!

Many of your books are set around the Second World War. What attracts you to this period?

Well, I didn’t mean it to happen that way. It started with my first book which originated from a short story. I was doing research into that when I came across other bits and pieces and a photograph of some children coming back from America in 1945, and I couldn’t get the photograph out of my head. I tried to because I thought, ” I have no idea what life was like in America in the 40’s, and it was bad enough trying to research for England, but it just kept coming back and back and back! It was as if the children were saying in the photograph, ” You’re going to have to write about us, otherwise we’re not going to leave you alone.” In the end I started interviewing people and that became Back Home. I read about people coping after the war and families living together again. The children had gone one way, the husbands had gone overseas and that left the wives free, so they’d be sent off to a factory or be called up. Whole families would be split apart and then come back together having changed as people. The whole group dynamics had changed so much. And there was a terrible winter after the war in 1946/7. It was horrendous; twenty foot snow drifts, and there was hardly any fuel, so a lot of people just took to their beds – and nine months later there was a population boom and I was part of that boom. I was caused by that terrible winter. It’s like going back into that time. There are still a lot of questions I want answered, and the people are still alive that can answer those questions. I didn’t mean to start writing about the Second World War. It just happened.

What does setting your novels in this time allow you to explore that perhaps a modern setting wouldn’t?

The Second World War threw people into situations they would not have been thrown into today. Women were working in factories making aeroplanes for instance. They were learning jobs that they previously had been told they as women couldn’t do and I’m sure the same was happening with men. Men were going into the services with no education and different classes were being thrown together. My parents wouldn’t have met if it hadn’t been for the war.

You are clearly interested in exploring family life, which is often dysfunctional, and viable alternatives. Is it the drama of family life that attracts you or do you have other reasons for exploring it?

It’s probably connected to my own life really, because up until the age of ten my father was in the Navy. Because of this, the first three years of my life were spent in Singapore, and I was looked after a lot by a man who was Chinese and a Buddhist, so I don’t know what effect that had on me. Then, when I was seven I went to Australia and fell in love with the Australians. Coming back to England, I thought it was terrible having to be thrust into a load of Pomms. I spoke Australian. My history was Australian, and I had a very difficult time adjusting. So when I came across that photograph of the children coming back in 1945 and saw how Americanised they looked I thought, I had problems, and I’d only been away for two and a half years, and had gone with my parents. These children had gone without their parents and had been away for five years and I asked myself how did they cope? So I suppose, I empathised with them.

Is there a relationship between your acting and your writing?

I used to like writing stories when I was at school (it was very much discouraged) and I used to act as well. I didn’t think of the two coming together, but obviously having played characters in a play it helped.

Class divisions come into your novels a lot. Does this just reflect the times or is it something you feel strongly about?

There are things you write that you’re not conscious of. What I did discover is that I have different classes coming together. I suspect I wanted to redress the balance. My own parents argued such a lot and they came from different classes. I couldn’t understand why there had to be all this friction. My mother used to say, ” Oh, when I grew up we had maids and a gardener,” and my father would say, ” We had no shoes and it was bread and tea for every meal.” I used to sit there at the table and mime it almost, and we had rows which came up again and again like carpets were nicer than linoleum and vice versa. They even voted differently; one voted Conservative, the other Labour. They didn’t vote because they would cancel each other out but sometimes they’d threaten to sneak out behind the other’s back in order to vote. As I said I think I’ve been unconsciously trying to redress the balance in my books. I’ve got Dot and Rose in A Little Love Song, then Zach and Willie in Goodnight Mister Tom. It’s not so much in Back Home, although there is the American who’s different. In Cuckoo in the Nest, I’ve explored that even further because you’ve got a working class boy who sounds to all intents and purposes middle class.

Your central characters are all caught in times of transition yet whatever traumas they have undergone, they heal and grow. Is there something special about the teen years that interests you?

I don’t think about people’s ages really. I think about the kind of people they are, because everyone constantly goes through transitions. Not just through your teenage years but even when you are very young, going to school for the first time. All the time you’re going through transitions and changes. Some of them you plan and work towards, some just land on your lap and you have to cope with them.

There have been several years between your novels. You’re obviously not a novel a year writer. Why is this?

I like to research and I like to have a gestation period. I like time to think and think and think.

When you are writing a book, are you thinking about other books or do you just concentrate on that one?

I usually focus on one book at a time. This is the only time, with Cuckoo in the Nest, that I’ve thought I might write a sequel and carry on with the characters I’ve enjoyed spending so much time with, and perhaps explore one of the other characters in more depth

So how long does a book usually take, if you include gestation time?

They’re all so different. Back Home was the shortest – that was two years. With Goodnight Mister Tom, I had to learn how to write a book as I went along. It wasn’t until I’d written about thirteen chapters that I suddenly thought, ” Oh, I think I know how to write a chapter now.” Even when I reached the end, I went back to the beginning and did a lot of rewriting. I just had Sundays to write between acting, which was six days and six nights a week. That’s why it took so much time. It took four years altogether. With A Little Love Song I put it in the loft for a couple of years after I wrote it and rewrote it. That took seven years. Then I had my first baby, so I was writing short stories, lyrics and a couple of poetry books. I picked up my Cuckoo in the Nest , which I had been thinking about and carrying out research for, and wrote it while he was at playgroup. I managed to read out the last chapter on a Dictaphone for a friend to type, about a week before I had my second baby and was having practice contractions, so every now and then, I’d stop and say, ” Hold on a minute, I’m having another contraction!”

Do you find some stories can’t develop and become short stories while others can’t be held in and turn into novels?

That’s how Goodnight Mister Tom started. It began as a short story and I thought, ” I have to know what happens next,” It was like I had a weight on my back. I had to write it off. I don’t think I’ve ever started to write a novel and it’s ended up a short story, although sometimes I write a short story and when I’ve finished I think,” Oh,that’s a shame. I wish I could write some more about them.”

So do you actually enjoy the act of writing or researching?

Both, obviously when it’s going well and I’m writing dialogue I enjoy it very much. Sometimes it’s like walking through porridge and it’s hard to get yourself going. I have to do some kind of writing every day otherwise I’ve this feeling like when you’ve forgotten to clean your teeth.

How would you describe yourself as a writer?

I would describe my self as a writer rather than an author. I like to write different types of things, I get different kinds of enjoyment. When you’re with a small child everything is in such a mess and nothing is finished but if you can actually concentrate and focus on a short story and complete it, it makes you feel really good. But then I get to a point where I think, ” Now, I want something I can live with for a long, long time and have room to expand.” That’s what writing a novel gives you.

What made you decide to write about Ralph’s desire to become an actor in Cuckoo in the Nest and the conflicts with his family this causes?

I was interviewing people who were actors at the time, and I found that it was incredibly difficult to get into the theatre if they didn’t have money behind them. There was the odd scholarship at drama school but there were no grants. Unless you had some money behind you, or your father put down £100 and you were paid £2 a week out of that to be an ASM (Assistant Stage Manager) and did the odd walk on part and gradually learned, there was no other way. I kept thinking, “How on earth could someone like Ralph get into the theatre? That gave me a challenge and I do like a challenge.

Do you read other authors and have you a favourite?

I used to read a lot before I had children! I tend to have crazes on authors rather than have one favourite. I pick up a book written by somebody and I suddenly want to read lots of books by them and then I pick up another author and I read lots of theirs. For example, there’s Cynthia Voigt who wrote Homecoming about this girl who’s twelve or thirteen, and her younger brothers and sisters who try to get across the States to see their grandmother. Then she wrote Dicey’s Song and explored the girl a bit further. So, for a while I just wanted to read Cynthia Voigt because I was curious to see what she did next. And then I read a novel by Rosa Guy who’s a black writer, and then I wanted to read another Rosa Guy and another. Way, way back I read Leon Garfield and Joan Aiken. When I find somebody, I just want to read more of their books.

When you were younger, was your ambition always to be an actress or writer?

An actress. I didn’t think of myself as a writer because I wasn’t the star pupil of the class. I spent a lot of time day-dreaming and was probably a teacher’s nightmare, except for the drama teacher. I assumed that writers were people who went to university. I wrote because I needed to write. Mostly I wrote either comedy stuff or angst-ridden poetry – I swung from one extreme to another. Then I got bored with me. I wanted to invent people and situations. I wrote a short story which turned into a novella and at the same time I was reading children’s books, ones that I hadn’t read when I was a child – the classics – and then the contemporary ones and I thought, “These are wonderful. Maybe one day, when I’m eighty, I could write a book and I could get into Puffin.” It all happened earlier than I expected. A tutor pushed me to send my manuscript to a literary agent. Otherwise I wouldn’t have done anything with it because the people I looked up to were people like Tolstoy and D.H. Lawrence, and I wasn’t in that league at all. I was in his novel writing class and every week, two people would have to stand up and read something they had written, and the interesting thing was that everyone had a different voice. They didn’t write like Tolstoy or Dickens but they all had a worthwhile voice, so I thought, ” Well, maybe my voice is worth listening to as well.”

How did winning the Guardian Award for your first novel affect you?

I was very hungry and in debt. I used to search under the cushions for money to go out and buy vegetables. I had no pride. I’d say. ” I’ve got 43p this week. What can I get?” and they’d say,” Oh, half a cauliflower and three carrots.” I was just so hungry the only thing I could think of was, ” Will I get any money from it?” So it didn’t really hit me at first. In fact the book was out of print when I won it. It had nice reviews but the bookshops wouldn’t stock it because it was a hardback and they didn’t know me, it was my first book. When it won the Guardian Award they had to reprint it and then it took off. So, yes, it did make a difference because eventually I was able to eat again! I remember going into the vegetable shop one day and saying, “I’ll have some apples and bananas and some oranges…” and they said, “Don’t go mad. Don’t go mad,” because they’d never seen me buy so much before!

How did it affect you as a writer?

It was a bit scary because it was like having a public apprenticeship. If it had been my fifth book, it might have been easier because then I would have had all these other books behind me. Because it was my first novel I still wanted to experiment, and in a sense that is what my second book A Little Love Song was, which is why I put it away until after I had written my third book Back Home.

How would you like to be remembered?

I’m not particularly worried about being remembered. I’d like people to enjoy what I write now, and forget about me after I’ve gone but then I suppose it would be nice if they enjoyed what I’d written after I’d gone too.

Sara Wingate-Gray – Durham High 1994