My second interviewee in the Tardis is Morris Gleitzman. Seeing as I had already worried about his safety, I have to begin by asking Morris how he came up with the idea to insult the church the way he does in Grace.
‘Well, you’ve cleverly and unerringly picked my greatest fear with this book. It’s such a sensitive area, and people are quite defensive about it. I’ve been at considerable pains to let people know that it’s not Christianity per se, or even most of the Christian established churches at all…’ Morris speaks softly, taking care to get things right.
‘The first thing I knew about the story was that my young character would not in any way lose or diminish her faith.’
‘Not leave the church, you mean?’
‘Yes, and of course as you will know one of the tribulations’ – he sounds amused at his use of the term – ‘to borrow a word from Grace, that every book faces is that before people have read it, they’re all too ready to form an opinion about what they think it might be about.’
‘I knew from the outset that because people are understandably touchy and defensive about religion, that this could be a problem. But I hope that most people who feel strongly will at least read it, and then make their own informed response. For me it actually started, the whole idea started with, I wanted to write a story about that time in life that we all go through, where we start thinking independently.’
‘It’s such an interesting time in a family, it’s a time when even the most loving parents can sometimes find their complacency is slightly shaken because with young kids it’s lovely to be seen as the walking Google of the house, you know.’
‘Yeah.’ I laugh.
‘And I started thinking how much I and my contemporaries, in a fairly liberal sort of enlightened society took for granted that when our hormones and our social awareness all click together, we started to ask certain questions and formulate our first notions like “this doesn’t seem right or this seems unfair, or why should this be so?”. We were pretty much given a fairly easy path into that, and encouraged, but a lot of young people for a whole range of reasons don’t enjoy that. And in our society some families find it very hard to have any kind of parental authority, Christian for example.’
‘So I guess I did that fairly standard fiction writer’s thing saying “well, if I’m really going to explore this, I’ll take it to an extreme predicament.” That suited another area of my interest because I had noticed in Australian media a series of reports of some terrible things that had befallen some families in a couple of specific fundamentalist Christian groups in Australian suburbia. If one or other of the parents either wavered in their adherence to the strictures of the sect or where seen to be wavering and were booted out, these organisations would go to extreme lengths to prevent those errant parents ever to see their children again.’
‘I met a couple of fathers who were in this predicament. I saw a letter written by a nine-year-old girl, which said something like ‘Dear Daddy, This is the last you’ll ever hear from me now that you are with the devil. Your ex-daughter Lucy.” I’m not a Christian. I’m not actually an adherent of any organised religious tradition, but I did grow up in a very kind of liberal Christian family. My parents are still devout Christians. I could see how appalled and pained they were by the notion that in the name of their God someone would be so ruthless. You know, some of these organisations are quite wealthy and can afford the best lawyers available.’
‘And they will keep fighting until the poor parent is bankrupt, in an attempt to get access to his or her children. It seemed to be a context in which my interest in exploring a young person’s first flowering, something that was meant to be precious, would make a good story.’
‘Absolutely. Have you felt threatened after the book was published? Did the wrong people ever read it and get upset?’
‘I’m sure they do. I was very careful. I didn’t want it to be an attack on any specific group. I’ve blended characters into three or four, so I’ve tried to make it quite generic. But I know there is one group in particular, there’s a kind of, this might sound a bit harsh, but there’s a kind of narcissism. There are certain groups whose leaders are all too human men, whose power derives from the belief of the group that these men have a very special relationship with their God. And so these men are able to behave almost like proxy deities.’
‘And it is a rare human being who doesn’t find this narcissism blossoming in such a situation, or maybe it’s their narcissism that drives them to that role to begin with. That narcissism tends to become a bit of a a prevailing culture in the way that these groups present themselves. I’ve had a wry smile because I’m pretty sure that in Australia at least every group that falls into the broad sort of area that I’m writing about, will believe that I’m writing about them.’
‘And I’m sure their resulting prayers about me have not been for my literary success…’
‘Most likely not.’ We laugh.
‘But I feel quite strongly about how utterly crucial it is that every young person be allowed to develop this capacity of independent thought. To try and stifle it for me equates the most grievous physical abuse of a young person.’
‘Well, almost. So it was something that I very much wanted to write.’
‘You always take the serious, the very, very serious, and blend it with that wonderful humour of yours, whether it’s WWII and a field in Poland or this…’
‘Well, when I’ve got young characters who are up against such huge problems. In Grace’s case her personal and her family’s involvement with the particular problem facing them, can be largely solved, although it involves some compromise, and pain along the way, particularly for her parents. But you could say that the larger problem in that book is not solved because there are many other families and many other children still locked inside that situation.
And certainly with my Holocaust books those children are facing problems that are far, far beyond their capacity to solve. To merely survive is pretty much what they can hope for, so when I’ve got young characters facing such big jeopardies and problems, I’ve always felt a responsibility to equip them as much as I credibly can. Whatever personal resources I can, and optimism and an ability to think creatively. I think in Grace yes, and perhaps even more so in Once and Then, when we smile it’s as we get a sense of how irrepressible is the optimism of the young character.’
On that optimistic note Morris has to stop, because Hannah is back and ready for the last author swap of the afternoon. But Morris could have gone on, and so could I.
Maybe next time?