- Audio: Morris Gleitzman on research at the State Library
Hamish Curry: My name is Hamish Curry and I’m the Education Manager here and welcome to Collection Reflection. Collection Reflections is a series that is designed to engage you, the public, with some of the more, I suppose, rare and obscure areas of the State Library’s collections: things that you can freely see here but, more than not, people don’t take the opportunity to see and so far in the series we’ve had a number of talks from creative fellows.
And our guest tonight, Morris Gleitzman, of course was one of those creative fellows in 2008 and through that fellowship and through different research projects that those fellows do, they either uncover interesting secrets or interesting stories by using the Library’s collections. We have brought along tonight some related items from our collection, but probably don’t directly relate to specific books that Morris has used, but I’ll let him share with you some of the reasons for that. But probably Morris Gleitzman needs no introduction as someone that has been writing and publishing novels since the early 1980s, and I believe now you’ve published almost 30 novels, I think you’ve reached, Morris?
Morris Gleitzman: My 31st actually is coming out in September.
Hamish: There we go. So I suppose the first place to start, Morris, would be to ask what you remember about being here at the Library in 2008?
Morris: Well I remember the day somebody whispered in my ear that if you filled out a very long application form and were very lucky you could get for six, or even 12 months if you were extremely lucky, an office here in the State Library, which I had no idea such a fellowship scheme existed and as a long time visitor to the Library for research and self-improvement purposes I thought this sounded like the best idea I’d heard for a long time. So I filled out that long form and kept my fingers crossed and indeed I did get the use of one of the little research fellowship offices here for a whole 12 months, and it was a fantastic experience because although I’m something of a newcomer to research, I’ve tended only really in the books I’ve written over the past few years to need to do a lot of research.
Most of my earlier books were set in contemporary Australia in the sort of, either the suburban or country town environments that I was quite familiar with. But I guess about seven or eight years ago I started writing stories that needed research and that’s when I became a frequent visitor to here. So to have the luxury of a desk and a space, and most importantly access to the fantastic collections here, I was allowed to actually just go and take stuff off shelves and have them piled up in my little cubicle. If you’d poked your head in about day three of my residency here, you would have noticed that I seemed to have more books piled up in my room than any person could possibly open, let alone read in a year.
And this is because, as I explained when I was asked to be a part of these talks, my research approach is far less disciplined than most of the other fellows that I met when I was here, most of the other people probably speaking in this program. Although I do know how to go looking for specific information once I’m engaged, once I’ve embarked on a story and I know I need to either check or discover certain pieces of information, research for me is often a case of being in close proximity to a whole lot of information and ideas I knew nothing about until I stumbled on the books on the shelves.
And the three books that I researched during that year I didn’t write them all, I only wrote one of them, but I researched three. There are things in all three of those books are only there because of that many happy hours that I spent wondering among the stacks and bumping accidentally into books and the ideas and information in them, some of them with no direct relevance one might think to the subject matters that I was researching, but in all sorts of unexpected and delightful ways – and I’ll elaborate on that a bit later in our time together – but in all sorts of ways my creative process was expanded by the wonderful opportunity to have these accidental sort of meetings with books and other materials whose existence I didn’t know about. And I know probably that would be frowned on because it’s not the most efficient way to use this Library. They’ve got a most wonderful catalogue system and some superbly helpful department heads who can save you most of the hours I spent sort of ricocheting round the stacks, but as I say for me that ricochet method was very, very fruitful.
Hamish: So I guess that idea of having this pile of books and having these chance discoveries wandering around the library, do you find that that has been a process that you think you’re going to adopt from now on, for writing future books?
Morris: Well I think so. I’m burdened slightly by no longer having access to an office here, hint, hint, but …
Hamish: They were just up there actually, the little …
Morris: Yes but only very slightly burdened because of course the access actually is wonderfully democratic and it’s available to us all. One has just to – as a member now back in sort of civilian clothing, I have to sort of do what everyone else has to do and, you know, I actually have to show my card and have stuff brought and, you know, leave it here when I go home. That’s the saddest thing of all but yes, I think I now realise it’s to a certain extent how I’ve always worked but because the books I was researching while I was here, in one case it was – it involved a period of history which I couldn’t be physically present so the research was necessary. In another case it involved some contemporary experiences that I didn’t have first-hand, involving the terrible bushfire of February last year, so again I was dependent on the words and the thoughts and feelings of people who were actually there and in some cases I connected first hand with the people but in many cases I found their words and their experiences through materials here in the Library.
But the great things about libraries is that leaning up against the books and the documents that you know exist because the catalogues tell you so, and you know they are going to be of interest to you – always leaning up against them is material that you don’t know about because the catalogue doesn’t tell you what it’s leaning up against. But when you go and wander along the shelf and it’s one step removed from what you were looking for … but that’s what creativity is all about, is making that one step sideways to something that’s connected but not obviously so, and I think I will now continue to ... See, some people would call it drifting off the point and sort of indulging yourself by sort of just saying, ‘well that looks interesting I’ll have a look at that just in case it might be relevant’, and some might see it as kind of time-wasting, but I guess I’m lucky the work I do is full time so I have the time. I can risk a bit of that time exploring research materials that may not be absolutely, obviously relevant first up, but in all sorts of imaginary ways or in all sorts of ways can conjure for me imaginative processes that become a very useful and important part of the finished book.
Hamish: You’ve described it as print gluttony, you know, certainly having this idea of sort of collecting all these books where you’re not quite sure where the ideas are going to come from and what’s interesting in contrast, or in some sense subject to contrast the other discussions we’ve had in these series, your creative process is quite different because of what you’re aiming to achieve at the end – whereas many other researchers are researching a very specific point in history and trying to then write something about all the associated facts and stories about that moment in time. And I guess, sort of indicative of what we’ve brought about tonight is that in many ways Morris wasn’t actually able to actually tell me some of the names of the books because he had so many. And so in many ways what we’ve brought along are related things around some of these themes.
What I wanted to start with in some sense is coming back then to some of these books you both finished and continued to write. The first one was Grace so I was just wondering if you could tell us just a little bit about that process because, how I understand it, you would have already had a clear picture of that story before you came here and I’m interested to see, how did that book get pulled together while you were here?
Morris: Well the book that I actually wrote during my year here, is a story called Grace. It’s about a girl, an 11-year-old girl growing up in the suburbs of Australia in a very, very strict fundamentalist Christian community. Not an experience I’ve had personally and one that I’ve only been able to learn about by talking to people who’ve had such an experience. But because I didn’t want to write about any one existing fundamentalist Christian group, I wanted to write about that experience, but my interest was that we all go through, every single one of us, a point in our young lives when we start to think for ourselves. When the opinions and attitudes and information that we’ve previously accepted from the authority figures in our lives as being absolutely true or the way we should think, we start to question some of these governing sort of attitudes. And it’s a necessary and wonderful process when we do and you know it can be a little bit, for parents it can be a very interesting time because it’s great.
I’m a parent myself and it’s wonderful to have those first few years with your sons and daughters where you know you’re pretty much the expert in everything and that, you kind of slip into assuming that you’re always going to be the expert and then they start to kind of question things and then in most families it’s an exciting time. But I was particularly interested to think about young people who, because of the cultural or religious climate that they’re growing up in, that sort of independent thought is really frowned on and in fact can cause huge conflicts and problems within families and communities. And I took a very extreme example of that. I took a very rigid, fundamentalist Christian community and explored what it would be like to grow up there.
Now I knew before I came to the Library and started my year here that I wanted to explore … I was going to make up my own fundamentalist Christian community based on a number, I didn’t want it to be identified as any one existing one because my point wasn’t to do that, it was to create one that was legitimate and convincing as possible. So I needed to have a look at a whole range of such communities as they exist in contemporary Australia. And I did that.
There are a couple, their names may come to mind as I say this, who’d been in the media here in this country for a couple of years because of some of the family law issues that arise when errant adult members of those communities, people who start themselves questioning, they sometimes get booted out by the community but their spouse and their children stay members of the community and this was something that particularly interested me from the child’s point of view: these children never get to see that parent again and that parent never gets to see those children again. And so I started tracking some examples of this through newspapers and other media accounts here in the Library but I quickly discovered that often people who’ve been booted out of such communities want to write at length about their experiences, and there are a whole range of books also available that I found here. And I was also, through some of the printed research I did, I was able to eventually make first-hand contact with some people who’d also had experiences themselves, because that’s always a very useful, sometimes quite daunting, but a useful part of research.
Hamish: I suppose, then, going on to probably the real kind of main event, which is the completion of the trilogy with Once,Then and Now, how many of you have read books from the trilogy, so I think what’s really interesting is that the story of Felix and Zelda is just so you can’t help but want to find out what happens next and clearly in looking at that kind of generational change, through those stories and given the kinds of stories that you can find here at the Library, what were some of the biggest challenge? Because when you look at things like, if you go to write a book that has links to the Holocaust, links to the bushfires, I mean in terms of print gluttony you could quickly find yourself almost drowning. So how did you cope with that?
Morris: Well I think the biggest challenge was I had decided to build the final part of the trilogy around the bushfires before I started my time here at the Library and that had been a huge stage of development because before I knew what the story would be in the third book I knew I wanted Felix, the ten-year-old boy from the first two books. In Once and Then we follow Felix’s journey’s through Poland in 1942 as a ten-year-old Jewish boy looking for his parents, coming finally, painfully to accept that they’re almost certainly dead. Sharing with him the development of the all-important friendship between him and the six year old Polish girl Zelda, who becomes the most important person in his life in that crucial year of his life, and I knew as I finished the second book that the third book would take a huge jump ahead in time to the current day and that that ten-year-old boy would then be an 80-year-old man, and that his story would be told through the eyes and through the voice of a child of around that age that he was in the first two books. And the reason I was doing this was because I wanted this elderly man to have an experience that would allow him to reconnect with some of the painful and unresolved feelings from that very difficult and traumatic period of his childhood 70 years earlier. And I knew that Felix would. At the end of the second book we leave him still in hiding, making a vow that if he survives those terrible times he will try and lead a life that will be a kind of testament as well as an act of gratitude to some people who’ve shown him – amidst the very worst of human behaviour – the very best that we humans are capable of. And I knew that we would meet Felix at the beginning of the third book as somebody who had come very close to embodying the very best that we’re capable of in his life, that he had would have led a long life of great achievement and service. As a paediatric surgeon he would have helped countless children, saved many, many lives.
But what, I asked myself at the beginning or in February last year, what experience could this man and his granddaughter have in contemporary Australia that would be so huge, so traumatic, that would present such a huge physical jeopardy as well as an emotional one, that it would be big enough to kind of break through the surface of achievement and contribution in this man’s life and take him back 70 years to a particularly painful or a hugely painful time? I was pondering this and scratching my head when the terrible bushfires started, and although like every Australian I was initially just horrified and deeply concerned and sympathetic for the communities who were being decimated by these fires, a little corner of my mind stayed a novelist and I had to admit to myself that I’d found the thing I was looking for.
So that’s where I was when I came to the Library but I was very, very conscious that I was doing one of the trickiest and most presumptuous things that a writer can do. Which is to take a very recent, very real, very painful, l life-shattering, life-changing series of events for a large number of real people and I was going to take that into my world of fiction and I was going to use it for a story. Now I think one is allowed to do that but there are big responsibilities that go with it and this is where I needed the help of this Library and all who sail in her, because I wasn’t physically present in Marysville or any of those other small communities that were changed forever and so I was dependant, as all researchers are, on second-hand material. And fortunately there was material of all types here, and as you say there was lots and lots of it, so I had to be a bit disciplined about how much time I spent and how much material I tried to digest.
But I had a great good fortune, which is I discovered by chance that another research fellow a few offices down from mine was writing a history of Australian bushfires, this was her research project, this was what she’d got her fellowship to do. And so in the first conversation I had with her I also discovered that her husband was a volunteer bushfire captain, that they lived out right in the path of the fire, and so in an unexpected way … but I guess it’s perfectly legitimate to regard research fellows as one of the resources of the library, I think that’s one of the great things about having a research fellow program.
I must say perhaps the Library could do a little more to connect everyday users of the library with the research fellows, although I guess that could get difficult if there’d been a long queue of people outside my office sort of, you know, asking for help with their homework that kind of, may have, sort of bogged me down a bit in my writing. But certainly that was hugely helpful and I – as you will see in my author’s note in the back of Now, the third book in the trilogy – I thank Danielle and her husband specifically because they very kindly read the first draft of the book.
In a way that sometimes happens in a way no amount of research can save you from, I had made a technical bushfire error in the first draft of the story. I had the elderly Felix and young Zelda, his granddaughter, I had them taking shelter in a particular physical circumstance which I thought from my research would allow them to survive that particular time, that particular moment, But I was informed by the experts that they would almost certainly have died at that point, and the fact that they didn’t in my story of course would have been an appalling misjudgement by me, so I was able to rewrite quite dramatically that little section of the story and that’s probably, I would say, the most important piece of assistance I got from the Library, the most important single piece. Although much of my understanding and much of my ability to imagine what it would be like to be in the middle of such a fire storm came directly from the words that I was able to find here in the Library.
Hamish: And I guess it’s one of those things too – in terms of talking about being able to interact with people that have actually experienced it – in regards to stories about the Holocaust you also went down to the Jewish Museum, is that right?
Morris: Well I did yeah, over the five or so previous years when I was researching and writing Once and Then, the first two books in the trilogy, I set both of them in Poland in 1942. In fact it was probably longer than a five year period because I started writing the first book about five years ago but I’d been researching and thinking about that story probably for another five years prior to that in both the Jewish Museum here in Melbourne, but in particular the Holocaust Museum because here, unlike Sydney, those two Jewish museums are in two separate locations. And I live in Carnegie which is fortunately only a short tram ride from the Holocaust Centre in Elsternwick, but I also discovered through my time in that Holocaust Centre that there’s another wonderful library, and I think all libraries in the world are really just kind of cells in one fantastic global library organism so I don’t in any way feel that it’s inappropriate for me to mention the Makor library, also in Elsternwick, or South Caulfield I think technically, which is a Jewish community library and has a fantastic collection of books and documents covering all aspects of Jewish history, but in particular of course the Holocaust and that was a very, very useful library for me.
Hamish: And did you find then … obviously in many ways there are a lot of similarities in terms of the sense of loss, the pain, that sense of scarring that you get when you hear about stories that happened during the Holocaust. And then having … there is indeed those very same strong links with regards to the bushfires. And I think one of the things that strikes me too is that, while fresh in our memory are the bushfires from last year, but when you go back through the collections here at the Library you also realise that in the other great fires that have happened here in Victoria, the stories and that sense of pain and loss doesn’t change, and I think probably … I suppose my reading of the trilogy is that a sense of contrast but also a sense of connection with these stories is something that binds them all together. Is that something … I mean I guess what I’m trying to get towards is: before you realised that you wanted to use bushfires as, kind of, that pivotal moment, what other things were you hoping to achieve through now?
Morris: Well, I know we’ve only got about half an hour left and I could take about four hours to answer that question but one particular area of interest for me – not just in these books; across all the books I’ve written really, but in particular I guess this trilogy – is the first time I’d gone back in history. I’d written other books in which I asked my young readers to maybe go geographically to places they may not have been or even whose existence they may not have known nothing about, such as Boy overboard with the family, the two kids and their parents coming from Afghanistan, trying to come to Australia as refugees.
I’ve long been interested in the notion that although we, although our world sometimes feels like more of a global village than ever before, because electronically we’ve got so many media choices and we have access, young people have access through the internet in particular to actually seeing and hearing and getting a sense of so many aspects, distant aspects of the world, but it’s still a difficult thing for us. We distance the people who are distant from us, whether it’s over the other side of the globe or you know 70 years back in history, which I can tell you for the upper primary readers that I primarily write for seems like a very, very long time ago.
When I started talking to young people about their kind of thoughts and concepts of history years ago, as I was first thinking about this trilogy, I quickly discovered that when you say to a lot of young people, and some not so young people too, you know, ‘how do you think it was 70 years ago, and I’ll give you a few little hints.’ I used to say ‘no mobile phones, no computers, pretty much no TV, etc etc’ then suddenly some young people are visualising caves and dinosaurs and gnawing on bison bones for dinner because things very quickly seem so far away that we maybe aren’t even sure if the people then were really much like us at all.
So I wanted one of the things I think stories do fantastically well, is no matter how far away from home they take us as we go on those journeys with the characters – we might be way over the other side of the world, somewhere we never knew existed, or we may be so far back in time we can barely imagine what it was like – but what we are quickly reminded of is that no matter how different from us on the surface, because of geographical or historical difference the people in the story are, we quickly discover that inside them there’s some very familiar things going on. There’s a whole range of emotions that seem to be in no way different from the emotions that we have every day, that even when humans were sort of, you know, living in caves and grappling with large animals in an attempt to eat them, they were feeling amazingly almost exactly what we feel as we grapple in the supermarket for the last bit of fruit loaf that some other Neanderthal individual is trying to get to before us.
So I can remember day after day sitting in my little office here, reading what I knew were the real words of real people, people who’d survived or in some cases hadn’t survived the Holocaust, people who’d survived the bushfires, and I was struck every day over those, well over all those years of the researching, including the year I was here, that these people had had experiences very far from anything I had physically experienced in my life. But I was able to connect and identify and empathise, and not know exactly what it’s like to be in the European Holocaust, or the bushfires of February 2009, but come close to it or closer to it than I would have done if I hadn’t … if those words hadn’t been available to me.
So it means that that global library organism I was talking about, which we can now access in all sorts of different ways, and in some ways because we can access them electronically as well as physically it means that we can actually experience them as a global sort of library organism, because we don’t have to have, you know, an around-the-world air ticket to have access to all the great libraries of the world now, and these libraries collectively are a repository of many things, but they are perhaps very importantly I think repositories of human feelings. The feelings of people who aren’t physically with us in terms of geography and often in terms of history but their words and their feelings are available to us, and it’s an incredible storehouse, it’s a human treasure beyond measure. Not just for people doing research for professional or personal … but just as people who want to connect with other people, people that we don’t have physical access to but through libraries we can have intimate connection with strangers, and their words will very quickly make us not feel estranged from them at all. And I think that’s a fantastic thing we have in our culture.
Hamish: Well said, Morris. Actually I just want to read to you a paragraph here and at the end I’ll then tell you where it’s from. So it’s just following up this story around the bushfires. ‘In Melbourne more than a million inhabitants were subjected to restrictions upon the use of water throughout the countryside, the farmers were carting water if such was available for their stock and themselves. The rich plains denied the beneficent rains lay bare and baking and the forests from the foothills to the alpine heights were tinder. The soft carpet of the forest floor was gone, the bone-dry litter crackled underfoot, dry heat and hot, dry winds worked upon a land already dry to suck from it the last least drop of moisture. Men who had lived their lives in the bush went their ways in the shadow of dread expectancy. But though they felt the imminence of danger they could not tell that it was going to be far greater than they could imagine. They did not live long enough. The experience of the past could not guide them to an understanding of what might and did happen. And so it was that when millions of acres of forests were invaded by bushfires which were almost state-wide, there happened because of loss of life and property the most disastrous forest calamity the state of Victoria has known. These fires were lit by the hand of man. Seventy-one lives were lost, sixty-nine mills were burned, millions of acres of fine forest of almost incalculable value were destroyed or badly damaged, and townships were obliterated in a few minutes.’
That was actually taken from the report on the bushfires on January 1939. What I find most incredible and indeed what I think measures with what you’re saying, Morris, is that that could have been written last year.
Morris: That’s right, yes. This is … as our state government grapples with the responsibility of implementing the recommendations of the Royal Commission, we have to be careful not to be too political here. But yes, it would seem that big aspects of these terrible fires do seem to recur, and it would seem practical to have an opportunity to lessen the likelihood of quite such a bad way in the future, if we can get it right. But of course something that struck me and when I hear that I’m reminded of this, and this might help us perhaps be a little kind and gentle to our poor beleaguered state government.
The more I read and the more I talk to people about those fires, the more the sheer scale and the fact that our ability to contain and even prevent such things is suddenly … you think these are forces that are unimaginable in their volume and ferocity and I guess this was one of the qualities that made me think that this was an appropriate thing to include in a story that started off against the Holocaust. The sense of … much as we like to feel that we are civilised, humane individuals and capable of controlling every aspect of life, there’s a lot outside us and inside us that can be quite hard to control sometimes. I just quickly want to say that as well as a library like this being a fantastic resource of human feeling, it’s also a priceless treasure trove of small, seemingly insignificant bits and pieces. When you stumble upon them in context it can be useful and interesting.
There’s a particular document – and because I’m disorganised and I didn’t ever take a record of what the actual document was, I wasn’t able to find it for this evening – but it was actually the… it was some procedural documents from a small, local bushfire brigade who were a part of the Ash Wednesday fire-fighting units and it was really useful to me because included in it was somebody who’d obviously, at the end of that terrible and huge effort by that particular small bushfire brigade, somebody had put together a whole lot of the paperwork and somebody had written some little linking paragraphs and it had become like a kind of working history of the experience of that little group of, I don’t know, four or five fire trucks and a couple of dozen men and women over the days back in the Ash Wednesday fire. And included in it was a transcript of some of the radio communications, because each of the fire units is keeping constant radio communication with their base and it must have been taped, I think it must have been taped because I ... every single radio broadcast had had a time, and a lot of them were only seconds apart but you were able to read through across a couple of hours what these trucks, these units that were right out at the fire front, what they were saying to base and what base was saying to them and it was, I guess raw data really and fantastically useful because without knowing anything specific about the individuals involved, you’ve got to think of the drama of this moment.
I’d also just like to, if we’ve got time, mention the third book that I …
Hamish: I was going, you were going …
Morris: Authors have to do so many solo talks in their career that when they have the luxury of a well-informed and insightful conversation companion, we’re often rude and we kind of go blabbering ahead anyway.
Hamish: The floor is yours Morris.
Morris: Ok, the reason I want to quickly mention the third book that I researched while I was here, which was a book that I’m just starting to write at the moment, is because when I started researching it, it was – as I had told my publishers – the story of a relationship that develops in contemporary outback Australia between a boy and camel. And my publishers thought, oh yes this sounds like a nice, sort of gentle, fun story without too much sort of grief and human stress and anxiety, and they were very pleased about that. And I felt that that was the story that I wanted to write. Of course I quickly discovered, well I decided I wanted to write about camels because I’d previously discovered in some chance reading that camels had played a hugely important role in allowing Europeans to make their lives in many of the interior regions of Australia, probably 30 or 40 years earlier than they’d be able to because there were plenty of parts of the interior that horses just couldn’t cut it when it came to transporting the tools and the food and the medicine and the clothing that these men needed. Camels could do it.
By about 1915 or so, once trucks were widely available, of course the camels all retired and they’ve been happily been having big happy families out in the desert ever since. So that’s what I started researching and there are, I think, a couple of books there about that fine and proud cameleer tradition. But I stumbled across another area that interested me but I can’t pretend that this area of information was leaning up against the camel books. I think I was just sort, I must have taken a wrong turning one day and I found myself in an area of you know, over in the, what I think of as the reading room at the back, not the round one, the other one ….
Hamish: Redmond Barry Reading Room.
Morris: Yes, Redmond Barry, a wonderful room if you haven’t spent much time there, there are so many books in there that often I didn’t even have to go and order books from the even more vast areas of book storage downstairs or out at various secret locations. I’m sure as taxpayers and book-lovers you’ll be very pleased to know that if ever the world does blow up and only cockroaches survive, hundreds and thousands of books will also survive because they are so securely buried in underground bunkers. It’s a wonderful thing … anyway, the Redmond Barry Reading Room has got kilometres of wonderful bookshelves, and I took a wrong turning one day on my way to the ‘camel section’ and I found myself in the ‘global financial crisis section’. And once I realised where I was I hung around there because, like many of the older folk here, I used to have superannuation and I was kind of interested to see, to try and get my head around where it had actually gone. And I became very interested very quickly, and I read a couple of books and then it went beyond just my own self-interest and I started to think how, I started to get a sense that the people in Wall Street and the big financial centres of the world who were kind of responsible for this, were pretty much well-educated and smart. In fact often they were the best and brightest from their business schools in the universities of the Western world, and you know, how did so many people get it so wrong all at once? I started to think and then I started to realise, as is so often the case, beneath all of the complexity and incredible kind of detailed, specialised knowledge, was some very simple ideas. Ideas so simple I came to think that an 11-year-old child could probably have told many of these MBAs and highly experienced investment bankers where they were going wrong in some of their really basic ideas.
I’ll give you one example. I think that a whole generation of very, very smart people in very big banks and financial institutions forgot a very simple thing that kids learn very young, which is, you can’t get something for nothing. You look around at nature and there’s wonderful things being created every day but they don’t come from nothing, and you look around the physical world and amazing things happen out there in the far reaches of spaces, and things turn into other things but generally speaking, not from nothing. And so I suddenly became very interested in the notion of writing a story about a child who is very affected by the Global Financial Crisis, but is also in a position to help steer his investment banking parents back onto the right track. But – and this was where having a small room with a couple of hundred books piled up to the ceiling, some about camels and some about collateralised debt obligations – you get a kind of cross-fertilisation that … I think the books were talking to each other at night, because I’d come in the next day and there were vibes in the room – because I found myself looking at a book about camels and there was a photograph of a camel out in the Australian desert, actually a camel that belonged to a camel expert that I was able to go to Alice Springs and meet. There was a photograph of a camel in one of his pens out in Alice Springs and as I looked at this photograph it was a big dromedary, a single-humped camel which is what all the Australian camels are, silhouetted against the blue desert sky.
And I was thinking at first, I wonder if you could ride this thing bareback? Wonder if you could do it without the very beautiful and complex saddles that are used? And I ran my eye up the tail and I noticed that there was a bit of a, I’ll do it so you can see up the tail, I noticed there was a bit of a ridge behind the hump and I thought yes you can probably sit on that, but you’d have to hang onto the hump and be very careful you didn’t slide all the way down that long graceful neck as the camel’s chewing its desert grass.
And then I run my eye up that profile again and I thought, good grief that is the perfect ‘boom and bust’ financial graph. And it was at that moment that I knew that camels would play an important part in my story of how some very sophisticated adults were reminded of some of the important, traditional, simple wisdoms by a child and a camel. Camels of course are also … I think over in Wall Street and Zurich they could take some lessons from camels, how frugal camels are with their resources, because of course they do drink a lot of water sometimes but they don’t kind of splash it around on Ferraris and weekends in the Maldives, they make it last a very long time. And I think we can all, well I’m hoping we can all learn something from that.
Hamish: I think you could actually, perhaps look at a different career Morris and be the, you know, one of the guru speakers that uses the camel as the metaphor.
Morris: Yeah, there is a need for such speakers, but given a choice between spending the rest of my career with merchant bankers or primary readers, I think primary readers I prefer.
Hamish: I think we’re very glad that you did so too. Actually, do we have a title for that book?
Morris: We don’t, no, I’m sort of tossing a few titles around but I learnt a long time ago not to agonise over titles too much. Once I’ve embarked on that imaginary journey with my character, if I focus on the journey and the best way to recount that in a story, I generally find that the title kind of finds me sooner or later and it makes my publishers a bit nervous. Because they plan months and years ahead, and they like to have titles on their schedules rather than ‘Morris Gleitzman’s next book’. But they’ve learnt to trust the process and yes, there will be a title at some stage.
Hamish: Wonderful, well I want to leave time for people to come and have a look at some of the things we’ve brought along as well as a bit of a further chat with you Morris, so at this point I want to thank you for sharing with us your journey of your time here at the Library and your creative process for writing the books that you’ve begun and finished, and continue to write. So would you please join with me in thanking Morris for coming along today?
Morris: Thank you, thank you.
Hamish: And just look to add to your print gluttony, we have a small book as a thank you. This is a collection, World of the book, which highlights all the sorts of things that you could find here in the State Library of Victoria. So this actually is quite compact by comparison, it’s a good coffee table book
Morris: It’s beautiful. Look, as we’ve been talking I’ve been eyeing it and thinking ‘I must borrow that’ but I had no idea … that’s very kind, thank you.
Hamish: No, thank you Morris.
Morris: I’d like to add my thanks to all these thanks. Once again, I’d like to thank the Library. I think the research fellowship program is a wonderful one, and if any of you with some research time ahead of you in your lives aren’t already prompted to have a go at getting one of those offices for yourselves for a while, this should cap it. Because in what I think was one of the, well probably the single proudest moment of my entire life, when I arrived here on day one of my fellowship and I was taken down into the bowels of the Library to the security office to be given my pass card so that I could … I can’t remember what time the Library officially opens each morning but when you work here you can come in an hour earlier than that if you want to. As it happened, it was something I never availed myself of because I’m not much good early in the morning. But when they gave me my pass card – just the standard little card with the photo which you get to wear round your neck – on it said, ‘Morris Gleitzman, scholar’. Oh, how I wanted to flashback in time, 50 years to my high school in London to a group of well-meaning and benighted teachers who, I fear, most of them aren’t with us anymore. I can guarantee I would have been the pupil in that year that they would have least expected ever to have the work ‘scholar’ connected to his name. So I’ve still got it hanging up in my office, that card. I’m sure I should have returned it but I didn’t , it’s because I’m going to keep it for ever and ever. If ever somebody, some future journalist, is trawling through my belongings trying to get an insight into who I really was, I hope they ignore all the other stuff and just … scholar.
Hamish: Just lovely Morris, I love it.
Morris: Thank you.
Hamish: Well, thank you again Morris, and now please come and have a chat with Morris.
Hamish: And have a look at some of the things he brought along tonight. Thank you very much for coming on a very cold, wet evening. Cheers. Goodnight.
'In all sorts of ways, my creative process was expanded by the wonderful opportunity to have accidental meetings with books and materials whose existence I didn't know about.'
– Morris Gleitzman
About this recording
In 2008, acclaimed children's author Morris Gleitzman received an honorary State Library of Victoria creative fellowship to conduct research for three new books including Grace, which was published in 2009.
Hear Morris talk about his research, which involved exploring a range of books, pictures and other items related to historical and more recent Victorian bushfires.
Morris Gleitzman is the prolific and award-winning Australian author of books for children and young adults, most notably the Toad trilogy and Once series.