Interview by Avital Dines, 2005
What is your full name?
Michelle Jane Magorian.
Where were you born?
In Southsea which is in Portsmouth. It’s on the south coast opposite the Isle of Wight.
When were you born?
What sort of things do you like?
Rain, Jazz, the sound of the sea, laughing with my sons, reading books, swimming (when I can) and listening to plays on the radio. I used to love going to dance classes and singing but I don’t have much time for that now but next year, who knows? I like watching old films and European films. I like Stephen Sondheim musicals and going to see plays when I can.
I like stir fried vegetables with brown rice and freshly toasted peanuts sprinkled on top with tamari (which is like a Soya sauce). I like Salads that are made up of avocados and olives and feta cheese and beetroot and grated carrot and spinach etc with a dressing and I like all kinds of fish. I like firelight….and occasionally I will treat myself to a glass of wine or even champagne!
My favourite breakfast is scrambled eggs with salmon and wholemeal toast. I had that for my birthday. I like all kinds of fruit. Bananas are my favourite but then I’ll sometimes go mad and want to eat raspberries or strawberries or grapes and add a creamy greek style yoghurt to them. I also like dark damp fruitcake but I only eat it at Christmas and mince pies of course. I like French chocolates and listening to french cafe songs. I would like to be able to hear more music from other countries.
I like watching detective films with my sixteen-year-old son and the two of us spotting all the clues the writer has presented and working out the ending. I like going on trains with my twelve year old son. This year the three of us went on the Flying Scotsman from York to Scarborough and back. It was wonderful.I like playing the different characters when I read stories to my younger son and making him laugh. And of course I like writing and acting!
What do you dislike?
Housework and gardening and conversations about cooking and shopping. I only have to hear a few sentences and I glaze over.
I dislike people using chunks of a story I have written for comprehension exercises. The worst one I came across asked pupils to count how many dialects there were in my first book, all 304 pages of it. I managed to stop that one. The thought that a young person might be made to feel small because they have been given a low mark from a ghastly comprehension exercise taken from a story I have written makes me feel sick and angry!
I dislike bigotry and bullying. I dislike it when certain people try and make you feel guilty for being happy and the behaviour of people who are jealous of others who work hard and succeed and set out to punish them.
I dislike the Literacy Strategy in schools. I dislike the fact that wonderful teachers can’t get on with real teaching but have to do endless paperwork and prepare children for tests. I feel for children who are not particularly good at English and Maths or who are nervous about tests, doing badly and then believing (wrongly) that they are a failure if they don’t do well when they may have a flair for music, history, languages, sport, dance etc.
I dislike Junk Mail.
Your favourite children’s author?
Impossible to answer. I read a lot of new writers and classics in my twenties and later, people like Joan Aiken, Leon Garfield, Frances Hodgson Burnett, Louisa May Alcott, Jill Paton Walsh, John Rowe Townsend, Robert Westall, Philippa Pearce, Jan Mark, Joan Lingard, Paul Zindel, Elizabeth Laird, Michael Morpurgo, Jamila Gavin, L.M.Montgomery, Mildred D. Taylor, Elizabeth Enright, E. Nesbitt, Clive King, Ian Serrailer, Astrid Lindgren, Nina Bawden, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Cynthia Voigt, Philip Pullman and loads loads more. These writers are only a few of a host of remarkable writers I have enjoyed. I have left out so many more that I like but if I continue, this will be a page of names. I hate leaving so many out. In addition to children’s novels I’ve discovered even more books for younger children through my sons.
Favourite book of all time?
Sorry, I can’t answer this one either. There are so many different kinds of books. Where would I begin?
Favourite children’s book of all time?
1. What was the first book you remember reading?
The Tale of Samuel Whiskers and the Roly Poly pudding by Beatrix Potter. It was a reading prize. I was given it when I was five years old. I read at an early age, so much so, that people thought I must know the books off by heart and tried to catch me out.
I was absolutely terrified by the story and years later when I came to read it to my elder son nearly forty years later I broke out into a sweat as I read it to him, worried it might also traumatise him.
Later, when I was nine years old, I was on a ship returning from Australia feeling so lonely that I ran away from the children’s enclosure to look for my parents. There were no children near my own age on board. One of the women who was in charge of the children took me to a locked glass cabinet behind which were rows of books and handed me a Famous Five book by Enid Blyton. I read it in one night brought it back the next day and asked if I could read another one. I then read all the Famous Five books, the Adventure series (The Castle of Adventure etc), The Mystery Series (The Mystery of the Pantomime Cat etc.) I borrowed these from my local library when I returned to England and would scour the shelves for another Enid Blyton book. One day a librarian persuaded me to try another author and presented me with a book by Arthur Ransome. I found it harder to read but for some reason I persevered. I desperately wanted to go sailing and camping but I couldn’t swim. One of my favourite books was Swallows and Amazons. I think I lived off it for a year, re reading bits and making lists of provisions and drawing pictures of the inside of a boat showing where the galley and the bunk beds were. I also learnt the Semaphore code and would write notes in secret during the lessons using lines of dancing figures with their arms using the semaphore code as the children had done in the books. I never managed to go sailing then but I went camping every year right up to the time when I was eighteen with some students up in the Scottish mountains and four years later on a French island and seven years later in a grapefruit orchard in Israel.
My father would occasionally buy me new comics at half price from a newsagent’s shop, which was wonderful, but it meant I could never follow a serial. Being a tomboy I liked reading boy’s comics although I was hoping to be able to have the Girl comic after the Swift comic. It was about then that my mother thought I should have The Children’s Newspaper instead which I found as dry as dust. However when I went to visit my relatives in Ireland I would visit my cousin‚Äôs house where they not only had loads of comics but they were all stacked in order. I used to sit by the fire and read one after the other and my Auntie Josie would cook me eggs and chips. It was bliss.
In my teens, homework made reading books almost impossible. My parents didn’t like to see me reading. My mother felt that reading, meant I was doing nothing so would give me jobs to do or send me to the shops. I began to read plays (Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, and Neil Simon, Eugene O’Neill, Terence Rattigan and poetry (mostly First World War poets) and psychology books. I do remember when I was fifteen being given Jane Eyre when I was staying with an Aunt and Uncle and being unable to stop reading it. I read it at one sitting until three o’clock in the morning.
My father didn’t like to see me reading books either unless they were ones for my exams. I covered them in brown paper so that they would look like textbooks and would read Neil Simon’s plays in the Guildhall library in Portsmouth in one of the sections where students sat at little enclosed desks. Occasionally I had to leave very hurriedly because they made me laugh so much.
It took me ages to get rid of the feeling of guilt when reading. Even now it sometimes feel as though I am doing something naughty or being lazy if I read a book!
In my twenties I began to read as many of the children’s books I had missed out reading when I was a child and that led eventually to contemporary children‚Äôs writers. I even gradually collected all the Beatrix Potter books while I was on the dole between acting jobs, going hungry, in addition to books on Psychology.
2. Many of your books are set during or just after wartime ‚ why does this time hold so much interest for you?
I am a very nosy person. As soon as I started researching that period at the beginning of the war, I found myself wanting to know the answers to so many questions, so much so, that I lost all my shyness and would ask complete strangers in queues about their memories. One story tended to lead into another. It was almost as if that period chose me rather than the other way round. A scene in my first book led me to a book for older readers called A Little Love Song. A photograph I came across while researching Goodnight Mister Tom led me to Back Home
Sometime later I was in a theatre company rehearsing three hilarious Feydeau Farces when the Director, knowing about my first book began to tell me about his experiences after he returned home after having lived in Devon and the difficulties he experienced when he returned and the beginning of his love affair with the theatre. That led me to Cuckoo In the Nest, which led me to a sequel, A Spoonful Of Jam.
3. Do you think today’s young people can relate to child evacuees in your books?
Certainly. I’m sure they can imagine what it must be like to be uprooted from their home and having to go somewhere strange. They might even have someone in their class who has had to flee from a dangerous situation in their own country. Sadly we still have evacuees looking for safety. That’s what many of the asylum seekers are trying to do.
4. Goodnight Mister Tom is your first and probably your most famous novel, but which of your books are you most proud of and why?
I nearly always wriggle out of this one by saying, the one I’ll write next.
The reason is that when you write something you always want to make it better. I’m inclined to see bits I’d like to rewrite. However there are characters I grow to love like real people and I have favourite scenes, but I’m not proud of what I’ve written but I am proud of myself when I have actually managed to finish a new book.
5. As well as writing novels, you’ve been involved in writing poetry, short stories, and TV Scripts. What is your favourite type of writing and why?
I like to swing from one extreme to another. When I write a novel it’s a long slow haul, taking up to two years of my life and sometimes I need a break. If I work on a song, which is another form of writing I like to do, I’m working with a composer and I have to be very economical. Stephen Sondheim said that writing a song lyric was rather like writing a one-act play on a single page. There are also the confines of writing the lines to certain beats and making them rhyme while all the time using the character’s voice and putting their feelings into it. It’s a delicious puzzle. And to hear it being sung by someone is wonderful.
I like writing short stories but when I’ve finished them I always want to know more about the people in them.
6. You trained and worked as an actor. Do you miss being on the stage?
Yes and No. I miss the actual work, the lovely feeling of knowing you’re going to work at getting under the skin of another human being and making them real. I love the interaction between me and fellow actors, standing in the wings during a performance, the chats with the box office people when you come in to do a performance and popping into the wardrobe and the playing live in front of an audience. I also used to be very fit and much lighter. Home schooling my younger son doesn’t give me much freedom to go to dance and singing lessons now.
What I don’t miss is living in bed-sits in strange towns and just as you’ve made friends having to separate and go off to theatres in other parts of the country. I love acting but there were three things I wanted to do in my life, act, write, and bring up children. I am so lucky to have been able to do all three. I’m afraid I couldn’t have gone away to act and left them at home.
What’s fun is when I can play the characters as I read extracts from my books. The piece of floor I’m standing on or sitting on then becomes a mini theatre.
7. Your books are often used as classroom texts ‚ do you think this enhances or spoils the read for school pupils? Are you flattered or disappointed that schools choose your books as study texts?
The very words study texts makes my heart nosedive. I’m naturally delighted when I hear that teachers and pupils have enjoyed my books but teachers should not use them for spelling tests or counting adjectives and adverbs or forbid pupils to read the next chapter. I have spent a long time writing my books in such a way that the reader, hopefully, will be lost in the story. That’s one of the reasons I’m pleased my younger son is home schooled. He can read stories without analysing them.
However I don’t mind if teachers use the stories to explore the characters and their relationships with one another.
8. How heavily were you involved in the making of the TV adaptation of Goodnight Mister Tom? Which of your other books would you like to see on the screen (or on the stage)?
Goodnight Mister Tom was adapted into a screenplay by a very experienced scriptwriter called Brian Finch. I was pleased that someone like him was writing it as I had written the Book and Lyrics for a musical version of it and I wanted to get on with a new book. However there wasn’t much about William’s mother in the book as it was mostly William’s story but I had written lyrics for two songs for her in the musical which showed her state of mind. When I mentioned this to Brian he asked me to send them to him. I hope it helped!
The TV Company were also extremely nice to me and invited me to see some of the filming. The second time I went I couldn’t watch the scenes as I felt they belonged to the actors and I was looking in on something private.
Goodnight Mister Tom will be on stage as a play in two years time at the New Unicorn Theatre and then it will tour. It’s being adapted by David Wood.
I would love to see my other books in another form. I thought it might be a nice idea if someone made a film out of both Cuckoo In the Nest and Spoonful of Jam since they follow one another but from the point of view of the parents of my main characters. They have been separated for five years and have to get to know each other all over again. I thought it might be interesting to follow their story.
Another film company showed interest in A Little Love Song but nothing came of it.
I have been extremely lucky though. Back Home has been made into a TV Drama twice.
Actually, come to think of it, I’d love my latest book to be made into a film, with a slightly forties film noir feel about it at times. (Film Noir ‚ dark streets/rain/pools of light from street lights/echoing footsteps/shafts of light casting shadows through shutters into dark rooms/figures emerging through mist/the sound of a match being struck in a dark alley etc.)
When I write I see the story in my head like a film. And I love writing dialogue. That’s why I think my new book is so long because dialogue takes up more space.
9. When you are not writing, what do you do for fun or to relax?
I go to a little bookshop in the town where I live where I have a cup of tea or coffee and read and chat to people while my sixteen year old son baby-sits or I read a book or I take my sons to the theatre.
I sometimes like to listen to Jazz on Radio 3 on a Saturday afternoon while I stir fry some vegetables and have a glass of wine.
I like the company of my sons. My older son sometimes reads me out funny articles he has discovered and makes me laugh. My younger son is cheeky and plays, ‚ ‘What if?’ games. For example he’ll say something like, ‘What if you had a bunch of bananas on your head?’ and I’d say something like, I’d find it difficult to put my hat on.’ And he’d say ‘But what if you had three heads?’, and I might say, ‘ I’d find it difficult to get through doorways.’
By this time my older son will have slammed his hands to the sides of his face, his mouth twisted and open doing his impression of the Munch painting called The Scream.
10. Tell us about your current projects.
I have just finished a new book about a fourteen-year-old boy’s last year at a secondary modern school. It’s set in 1949- 50. He loves going to the cinema and goes every week. (The cinema was one of the few forms of entertainment at that time along with Variety, Bands and the theatre. Few people had a television set.)
His name is Henry and he’s a bigot but he doesn’t know it because his opinions have been formed from listening to a relative he loves. However, a new teacher arrives at his school and forces Henry to confront his prejudices.
Outside school, Henry has to find an adult in the long cinema queues willing to take him in to see A films just as all children had to do then. Because of this Henry makes friends with a middle-aged woman who later lends him a camera. It is while developing the negatives that Henry notices the appearance of a man in the background of several of them.
Who is the man? And why is he following her? The answer comes as a great shock.
And that’s all I’m telling you.
That book should be coming out in 2008. At the moment it’s called And Twice on Sundays but I might change the title.
I also have ideas for two other books but I’m afraid I shall have to keep them to myself. If I talk about a book too much before I’ve started it, I never write it!