Dark down under;Interview;Morris Gleitzman;Children's Books

13th March 1998 at 00:00
His books are rude, risky - and hilarious. But that's not the reason Morris Gleitzman writes behind closed curtains. Michael Thorn meets the author

From the portraits on the covers of his books and the poses he assumes in the headings to his Young Telegraph column, you expect to meet a man of slight physique, given to zany mannerisms - a sort of spruced-up Aussie Woody Allen.

In fact Morris Gleitzman is tall, relaxed and composed, with only a mild Australian accent. When his parents told the 16-year-old Morris in 1969 that the family was emigrating, he protested bitterly. "I saw my future at that time as being with the counter-culture in London, at Chalk Farm and the Round House. Taking me away to Australia was the biggest right-wing conspiracy known to man."

Now living happily in Melbourne and Sydney, he sustains the protest in his writing habits. He writes by day, working from 100-word chapter outlines noted on faintly squared paper, but he keeps the curtains drawn to simulate the hours of darkness in the old country.

When he arrived in Australia he took a succession of dead-end jobs, including one in a clothing factory where a cutter gave him a copy of The Horse's Mouth by Joyce Cary. This encouraged him to think of "going back to school". He enrolled on a course in professional writing in Canberra where the best elements were the inputs from professional screenwriters. "I learnt more from them about structuring plot than I did from the more literary elements of the course," he says.

He went on to ABC, making 30-second TV trailers and this led to a flourishing career as a script and screenplay writer, supplying comedy routines for leading names. His first children's books, published in Australia, were The Other Facts of Life and Second Childhood, but it was a British editor at Blackie, Philippa Milnes-Smith, who commissioned what was to become Gleitzman's breakthrough children's title, Two Weeks With the Queen.

So it is fitting that Milnes-Smith should now be at the helm at Puffin as it prepares to launch Gleitzman's latest venture, a six-part serial called Wicked!, co-written with Paul Jennings.

The series adds up to an adventure of outlandish and surreally scatty proportions to equal Gleitzman's most recent novel for Macmillan, Water Wings. This has some hilarious scenes in which the leading character, Pearl, tries to preserve a dead guinea pig called Winston. Are such episodes based on real experience? "Not really. The situations I make up. The emotions are real. Though in that case I was relating to memories of hamster-owning in England. Winston was originally a hamster. It was only after I was told hamsters are a prohibited species in Australia that I changed him to a guinea pig."

Gleitzman and Jennings write alternate chapters of the Wicked! books, each from the point of view of a step-brother and step-sister. "Paul and I are both step-parents, and we were keen to write about a step-family." The fictional step-siblings, Rory and Dawn, loathe one another but work together to save their parents from blood-bone-and-marrow-sucking slugs called Slobberers.

The storyline, especially in Jennings's chapters, is occasionally redolent of Barf-o-Rama, the US mass-market paperback for pre-teens that features large amounts of vomit and farting. Here the bad smells and other abominations are spread more thinly and Gleitzmanin particular manages to couple Pythonesque plot develop-ments with witty wordplay.

In the second title, Battering Rams, the metal ball hanging from a demolition crane turns into a ball of sheep. Dawn sees their evil grins. Then she notices something worse. Their wool, in the chapter's punchline, is hard and metallic: "Steel wool".

In Australia the six titles were released at monthly intervals, but in Britain Puffin has published them all this month at pound;1 each. And now Morris Gleitzman is back behind his Australian curtains, working on his first solo effort for Puffin - tentatively titled Bum Face.

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