While waiting for four o’clock, the acting photographer and I settle ourselves near the entrance in the café at the Imperial War Museum North, to make sure that we don’t miss Michelle Magorian when she arrives. She’s sufficiently small, so I nearly don’t see her anyway, but her son’s magnificent hat is quite visible. I jump up and catch Michelle as they walk past, and the first thing she does is stop at a table to open her large case, saying she has a present for me.
Not having expected anything like this, I wonder what on earth it can be, and I’m quite taken aback when it turns out to be a copy of Tystnad, Tagning (Just Henry in Swedish), which Michelle has carried all the way here, just for me. I think I can safely assume she has remembered me from last year, which is when we were discussing translations.
We go to find a table large enough for us all, while Cathy from the Manchester Literature Festival finds us some tea. Michelle’s son George is meant to have a look round the museum while we talk, but to begin with he sits down at the table. I wonder how much travelling of this kind Michelle has time for.
‘Not so much, and it takes time away from writing … and because I also home educate. George has got exams and I just say “sorry I’m not doing anything in school time.” Otherwise he misses out. It was all right when he was very little, but not now. And I’m trying to work on another book.’
‘Yes, I was wanting to know about combining the home education and your writing.’
‘I’ve got more help now, because now he’s older there’s stuff that I can’t teach him.’
I turn to George with the adult’s boring age question, but he’s not listening to me. That’s something I recognise.
‘George!’ says Michelle.
‘OK, so you’re doing GCSEs?’
‘I think so…’ he says.
‘What I’m doing is, instead of doing lots of GCSEs, George is just doing three and instead of more GCSEs he’s been doing music exams. He plays clarinet, saxophone and piano, and he’s got theory as well. He isn’t doing more because I couldn’t afford it. The other thing is, he needs the time to practise. So that’s what we do.’
‘How do you arrange it?’
‘Now I’ve got people coming in to teach him music, I taught him French and someone is helping with the French GCSE. My maths is a bit archaic, so I’ve got someone to do the maths with him. English I don’t like how they do it, so I’ve just read him loads and loads of books.’
‘That’s a good idea.’
‘George writes scripts. Which is better than to carve up somebody else’s writing, really. My other son found English GCSE really difficult, having finished his first novel at fifteen, he knew that a lot of the stuff they are teaching is nonsense. They talk about the writer’s intentions and it’s all fiction, really. Not how writers work at all. Sometimes it’s funny, because I looked at some work books and there was this thing about how writers write; that writers write different length sentences. I thought “yes, we sit there with a tape measure. That’s a small one, and I’ll do a long one now, and a two inch one.” And you think…’
I giggle. ‘I know. I suppose they’ve got to say something, but it’s so silly.’
The tea tray arrives, and ever the perfect host, Michelle asks ‘would you like a cup of tea? And is it David?’ to the photographer.
‘Yes it is.’
‘I’m not losing my marbles yet.’
I’ve been admiring Michelle’s red and black jacket while we’ve talked.
‘It’s the best investment I’ve ever made. It’s my “talk jacket”. Who wants milk? Shall I be mother?’ Peering at the tea ‘it looks a bit strong, doesn’t it?’ We add more milk.
We establish that Michelle’s elder son is the same age as mine. ‘He’s had to start commuting again, partly because the rents in London are astronomical.’
‘Where is it you live now?’
‘Petersfield. We’ve got a railway station literally at the end of our road, and and he can commute to college from our house. He’s done a foundation year, and he’s done a first year, and now he’s doing Costume and Set Design. But he writes as well. He’s working on a novel.’
‘Are you actually managing to write at the same time as you home educate?’
‘When he has music practice. Our house is.., my bedroom sometimes looks a bit like Hiroshima, but I just put blinkers to that. As soon as his bum hits the piano stool, I start to write. The more music practice he does, the more I can write.’
‘I was wondering, did Just Henry take ten years to write, or did you do something else in between?’
‘No, I was busy with other things. I didn’t plan to do it (home educating), and I was quite gobsmacked because it really made me wake up and think “what kind of country am I living in?” I took George round with me on school visits. I used to ask if they’d mind if I took my small son with me. A librarian would take him off to a computer. So he learnt all his computer skills while I was doing my talks, and when I got a computer he taught me. When I went round the schools I discovered that there was no art, there was no dance, there was no drama, there was no music. And he was musical. Fifty percent of state schools have no music.’ Michelle sounds incredulous. ‘We’ve lost a generation of musicians; it’s mad.
Anyway, there was George, and then I worked with two composers and I worked on two entirely different musicals. Both of them got selected to be showcased, at Greenwich Theatre, and because I was a single mother by then, I said “you couldn’t showcase them both on the same night, could you, because that’s one babysitting night instead of two?” I worked with a jazz composer on a one-woman jazz musical, and with a Canadian on The Office Party Musical. That took up my time. The jazz musical was done at Buxton, and I took it to Brighton where it won an award.
So I was writing, but I wasn’t writing a book. Eventually I got to a point where I just thought if I don’t write soon I’ll… I know this will sound absolutely daft, but I was exhausted. I was exhausted because I was having to screw down this lid on myself. I was so tired, so I said I can’t stop myself writing anymore. I started working on this new book, and then it was a different kind of tiredness; I was working all out. I nearly made myself ill, because I was working while the boys slept. Now I’ve got ideas for the one I’m working on, and I’ve got an idea for two others as well.’
‘So have you started writing the next one?’
‘Oh yes. I was doing it in secret, but my editor found out. She’s talking about July. I said perhaps August, when the exams are over. But yes, I’ve written about 700 A4 pages. It’s supposed to be shorter than the last one. I’ll prune it later. I still do a bit of research. I call it my Airtex version, because it’s got shape, with holes and gaps and things like that. For certain areas I’ve had to interview people and then go back. Something happens in a building that still exists, and somebody worked in that building in 1959, and it was completely different logistics, so I had to go back and say “look, have I got this right?” I’ve literally had to get the logistics right, to have people hiding in this building. I don’t want people coming back and saying I got everything wrong.’
I’ve always felt Michelle is far too young for her books. When I first read about her I thought ‘she can’t be that young, she must have lived through the war.’
‘My parents did. They talked about it.’
‘So you must have sensed it through them.’
‘The thing is, if you act, you have to get under your character’s skin, you have to try and see the world through their eyes. Sometimes you have to do research. When I did Lorna Doone, we had a week off, a week’s paid holiday, when the director went to audition more people. I took Lorna Doone with me and I remember camping in this field, full of garlic, and I walked all round Doone Valley, to get the feel of it, so I could just switch into this other world. I used to like doing research.’
‘It shows, because it really does feel as if you had been there. You ought to be the same age as Nina Bawden, or somebody.’
‘It was very funny, because with the first book I went to the Puffin offices, and people kept peering round the corner at me, expecting to see a little old lady.’ Michelle laughs.
‘Would you consider writing sequels to any of the other books, like you did with Cuckoo in the Nest and A Spoonful of Jam?’
‘Well, it’s very interesting, in Just Henry, in the background, there are a few people…’
‘Oh, you noticed that did you?’
‘I did, yes.’
‘Well, this book is about the sister of Elsie and Ralph. At the end of A Spoonful of Jam a baby was born.’
‘Yes, and this is her book.’
I get out my copy of A Little Love Song, ‘I brought this along, because I think it’s my favourite.’
‘I wish you’d tell my publisher, because they’re going to take it off. They’re not going to sell it anymore. I’ve asked my agent if there is any way it could go in the adult section, because it’s so… So many people have enjoyed that book, and written to me.’
‘Do you ever get criticised, because it’s quite grown up, and for the sex?’
‘You see, I wanted it to happen. Because they decide where it goes. Did you know that the original had three sisters?’
‘No, I didn’t.’
‘And in America it still has the three sisters, but here, before Rowling, you couldn’t have long books. I just needed to cut and cut and cut, but the American publishers said “oh, no no, we’ll keep the other sister”.’
‘It’s called Not a Swan.’
I was surprised to find the copy of A Spoonful of Jam in the older section at my children’s school library, and learning it ‘had to’ be there, because of its topic of child abuse.
‘You know, I was very careful about that, because it’s written in such a way, that if a child has not been abused, they will not know what she’s talking about. But if the child has been abused, it will make them think “it’s not my fault”, so it will help them. So yes, I’ve been very careful. Even the main character doesn’t understand it, and all she says is “you must tell her, it’s not her fault”, and that’s why I thought, if somebody is reading it and it’s been done to them, they will understand it. But with someone else it will go straight over their head.
The lovely thing with Just Henry is I’ve had grandparents coming up to me and almost confessing “I bought this book for my grandchild, but I read it first.” Because it’s their childhood, and that’s been really, really nice. That’s why I wanted a family audience. Sometimes I say certain things and I see heads nodding, and it’s so nice if they can communicate, and the grandchildren can say “was it really like that?” and there is some actual talking going on. And old films are something that all generations can share.’
‘Have you based your characters on real people, or are you just picking up traits?’
‘Sometimes real people come in, but mostly not. It’s very funny, when I was trying to do research for Just Henry, this boy starts appearing in the corner of my eye, and he’s jumping. I knew everything about him, and I thought, “I don’t know why you’re looking optimistic, (that was the character of Pip) go away, I’m trying to take notes.” In the end I just said “OK, I give in. You’re in, you’re in the story.” And as soon as he was in I thought “oh, that’s why he’s here, that’s why he needs to be there.” Sometimes I spend ages trying to get into one character, but other characters just go bang, as if they’ve been cooking somewhere.’
‘Is there a Mister Tom somewhere?’
‘Some of the Mister Tom is based on my Irish grandfather. We used to sit in the same room together; I’d be reading and he’d be sitting by the range with his pipe and he’d pour the tea into the saucer, and call it a “dish of tay.” He would happily sit there, just watching me reading, perfectly content. Quite a firm man.’
‘I think I’ve seen that your parents weren’t too keen on you reading?’
‘No, no, no. The only thing about my parents was, my father didn’t mind me reading if he thought it had to do with studying, so I just covered books in brown paper, to make it look like text books. I think it was my mother who thought that reading wasn’t “doing anything,” and that I should be helping more around the house. The funny thing was that although I was a very early reader, I didn’t have much in the way of books around. Once I was coming back on a liner, and I was on my own, and there was no one of my age. In fact I ran away, because you can run away on a liner. There was this woman who had a big locked cabinet filled with books. Enid Blyton books. She unlocked it and she said “all right, you can have books from this cabinet” and I was getting through one a night. When I got back to England I went to the library and I read more, and the librarian got me onto the Arthur Ransome books, so it was generally people outside who got me reading. And there were plays. I loved reading plays, and poetry, and I read more novels when I was a student; DH Lawrence, Virginia Woolf, Dickens, Tolstoy.’
‘I was surprised when I looked at a list of your books, to find some I didn’t know, other than your six major novels. Like Waiting For My Shorts To Dry.’
‘That is a collection of poetry, and Waiting For My Shorts To Dry is one of the poems in it, and it’s based on somebody I gave a pair of shorts to, and her mother told me about her, so I wrote this poem for her, which is “I can’t do anything at the moment, because I’m waiting for these shorts, I’ll put them on when I can get them on.” I wrote another collection called Orange Paw Marks.’
‘You also seem to have one or two short story collections.’
‘Yes, one in America, about going to playschool for the first time. Then I did one that was about a little boy who wants to have ballet classes, and his mother’s not terribly keen, you know, and in the end he does actually slip into the dance class. The weird thing is, that the illustrator had him with red hair, and George does dance, and he wasn’t even born at the time.’
‘How do you relax?’
‘I do things with my children. For instance, if Tom is upstairs working, we’ll meet to watch a film or a programme together. I do the same with George. Mind you, George is a very relaxing person to be with anyway. I don’t have much of a social life, but then I don’t think many parents have, do they?’
‘So basically you write and you live.’
‘I’m bringing the kids up on my own. All the grandparents are dead, so I don’t have that support. I had my children when I was much older. I was told I couldn’t have them, and then I hit forty, and bingo! I had Tom when I was 41 and I had George just before my 46th. It’s been brilliant, and so nice. If it happens when you’re young and all these professionals give you advice, when you’re young you go “oh yes!” but when you’re forty you go “oh yeah?”’ And Michelle laughs heartily.
‘Would you like to act again?’
‘I would, but not enough to be away from my sons. I like coming home. Maybe in the future I’ll do a one woman show or something.’
‘You write songs as well?’
‘Yes, I wrote the lyrics for those musicals, and I’ve written the musical version of Goodnight Mister Tom. That’s been done here actually, at Manchester Library Theatre. And of course the musicals that were showcased at Greenwich.’
‘What was it like to win the Costa?’
‘The best thing was – it was absolutely wonderful – that the week before I went into overdraft and the next week I picked up the cheque. Talk about tight. I still haven’t paid off my advance for Just Henry. It’s so much tougher now. I was told by my publisher it’s not enough to get good reviews, it’s not enough to win a book award, it has to be televised. And that’s just a bit of a tall order, isn’t it? For any writer, really.’
‘Not every book can end up on television, can it? Did I see something about some interest in Henry?’
‘It’s what we call optioned. I won’t know until the end of November, whether it’s going to be commissioned or not.’
‘Would that be a television series, or more like a film?’
‘If they were going to do it, it would be a one and a half hour drama, so it would really just be a taste of the book. But the person they are asking to adapt it is a very, very experienced scriptwriter. But you know what ITV are going through at the moment, they’ve lost so much revenue through the recession that they’ve had to cut and cut, and they’ve closed down television stations, so it’s really hard.’
‘Goodnight Mister Tom was quite successful as a film, though. Just Henry would be worth doing.’
‘I hope so, but at the moment I don’t think about it. I just keep carrying on with this book, and try to keep it out of my mind.’
‘I feel all your books would make wonderful films.’
‘Oh, in my head I write filmically. I see them in my head. My early background before I got into books was Saturday morning cinema, and listening to the radio. You see pictures when you listen to the radio. Although I’m not acting at the moment, the idea of actually writing something and then other actors getting work, gives me quite a kick.’
‘Yes, I’d not thought of it that way.’
‘Older women are getting completely ignored. So much talent which is not being used.’
‘You’ve got some good older women. In fact, you’ve got some good horrible old women as well.’
‘There is even more of them in the new one. This one’s more light. If Just Henry was a Rossellini, then this one is more the Ealing comedy thriller.’
Our talk time is running out, so I clutch my copy of A Little Love Song and ask Michelle if she’ll sign it for me.
‘Yes, of course, I’d love to!’ Michelle starts searching through her bag.
‘It’s out in Swedish as well, that one. En liten..?’ (it’s En liten kärlekssång.) I’m afraid my Swedish is minimal. Tack, hej and hej då.’ Michelle’s accent is really very good, but then she’s a professional actress.
‘That’s better than most people can manage.’
‘With the recession, sometimes mothers can’t buy a book for each child, and they buy one book between them, so I have bookmarks; these ones…’ She finally drags a bunch of bookmarks out of her bag. ‘These ones which are the Swedish ones, I put three in there for you. I need my glasses, so I can see what I’m doing.’ Michelle says that when she appeared at the Edinburgh Book Festival last year, she knew even before the recession that her own bills had doubled ‘and I thought that’s going on everywhere.’
‘True, and on your website you say that you’d rather people buy your books from independents.’
‘Or you will lose them. And because Waterstones also took over Ottakars, it basically means that only a small group of people are selecting books. It is alarming when so few people are choosing what people in the UK are reading.
I have been watching this series; is it Wallander? I haven’t read the books yet.’
‘We are really enjoying it. There is something about it I find quite refreshing, the acting, and also the older women. I hope it comes back at Christmas. I wish to see more European (television). Tom is recording a French series. And we saw the Italian writer who writes detective fiction. Is it Camilleri?’
‘That’s right, I saw it in Sweden in the summer, but I haven’t seen it here.’
‘The Italian actors are so funny. It’s different, but that’s what I like. I want more stuff coming over from Europe. Some of the American stuff is good, but I want more European.’
I tell Michelle that we’ve been watching Emil and the Detectives on film, but it’s in German, with no subtitles.
‘We’ve got two of those at home. I read Emil and the Detectives to George. Then through a friend we managed to get two of those films. One before the bombing, in old Berlin in the 1930s. It’s the same director, Billy Wilder, for both films, and then one in the 1950s. Obviously no subtitles, but it didn’t matter, because we knew the story, and you sort of guess it, you know. I hope they would reissue it with subtitles for children over here…’
‘There’s a modern one, only a few years old, as well. A little changed and modernised, but quite fun. I think people have opened up to foreign things now. I find wherever I am, that people mention Wallander, so it’s a good sign.’
‘It’s funny because originally they did the English version, didn’t they? It’s OK, but…’
‘I like the landscape. The BBC version had very nice scenery.’
‘People say “oh Sweden is so dour,” but I don’t know where they are. They have a children’s books museum. Here it took forever, but they’ve had one in Stockholm for a long time. I went there years ago. Some of the illustrators of picture books are just wonderful. We’ve got some on our wall, we’ve got Pettson and Findus, by Sven …?’
‘He’s a good artist. They were part of George’s childhood. But George didn’t take to Astrid Lindgren. I find it quite interesting. I have two sons and they are totally different. One wants words, words, words … and the other one wants pictures. George I read all the Arthur Ransome books to. My older son, when he was small, he liked all those old-fashioned Grey Rabbit books.
We have the odd Swedish thing at Christmas, because of Meta Ottosson (Michelle’s Swedish translator). I’ve tried to keep the same translator. So we’ve got the odd Swedish thing she’s sent. We have hearts. Hearts on the tree, and then I have candles. We’ve got German in our family background.’
I say that coming from a town which has three hearts in its town crest, I feel hearts are absolutely essential. And Michelle clearly has hers in exactly the right place, putting her time with her sons before other things. I like that. And she writes some very enjoyable books for us to read. The only thing I’d like more than reading her books, would be to have Michelle read them to me. She does accents beautifully.
(Photos D Giles)