“Technology breaks down. There’s nothing like opening the pages of a book and the story being revealed”: Michelle Magorian
Michelle Magorian was born 6th November 1947 in Southsea, Portsmouth. Always aspiring to be an actress, Michelle studied for three years at the Rose Bruford College of Speech and Drama. Following this, she then spent a year at Marcel Marceau’s L’école Internationale de Mime in Paris. Her career as an actress saw her working in repertory theatre companies across the UK performing in plays from Goethe and Shakespeare to Noel Coward and Ayckbourn and in musicals from Cole Porter to Julian Slade. Between jobs, and on Sundays when she was working, Michelle wrote stories, poetry and lyrics, and after four years of working on Goodnight Mister Tom she attended a novel writing class where she was told to send it to a literary agent. It was accepted and published in 1981. This debut book won the Guardian Award and the International Reading Association Award, and is still considered to be a national success (if you haven’t already, watch the film and be prepared for tears!). Other novels followed, and in 2007, Michelle received an honorary doctorate from Portsmouth University. Her novel Just Henry also won the Children’s Book category in the 2008 Costa Book Awards.
We appreciate how busy you are at the moment, so thank you for agreeing to this interview. Your books never fail to move us and our readers, so we feel very privileged!
Q: Firstly, can you describe the average day in the life of Michelle Magorian?
– I’m sorry I can’t. I don’t have an average day. Before I had children I would get up early, write all morning and then in the evening I would read through what I had done earlier and write a bit more for a couple of hours. When I was carrying out research I would travel to libraries and or go off to places to interview people. When I was working on a finished draft I would sometimes spend twelve to fifteen hours a day working on it.
I am now a single parent and I home educate my younger son, although most of his lessons are now musical but I need to be around to help carry instruments and there is of course, shopping, cooking, washing etc. Since my first book has become so popular this also means that I need to answer letters which is why I have a website so that people can read interviews and hopefully have many of their questions answered to cut down on letter writing. I also don’t do talks in term times now as my son has important exams.
In other words I write when I can which is usually when he is having lessons or rehearsals and I carry a bag with me. I wrote Just Henry very late at night while my sons slept and very early in the morning. I did that for two years but it made me ill so I don’t work like that any more. In fact I have hardly any time at all. I have to really fight for it otherwise I would never write again and I would be very unhappy! If I’m very lucky I have two hours a day.
Q: A lot of your books are set during wartime. What is it about these years that grips your imagination?
– 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 lead me to 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, 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.
Q: How important do you believe it is for young people to comprehend the two world wars? Is this what you set out to aid when writing?
– Not really. I become absorbed in my main character and with the people in his or her lives and I go on a journey with them. I try and see the world through their eyes. When a story is set in a different time, their priorities are different from a person living today. Looking back though I think unconciously I have been trying to understand what my parents went through because that influenced the way they brought me up. I’m also interested in people and their experiences. Even when I was acting I would do research or create my character’s background story so that I could respond to other people and situations as that person.
Q: What novel have you been proudest 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 notice 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.
Q: Michelle, you’ve been writing for years now, and have seen the literary world evolve and grow. Looking back, what has been the most valuable lesson in your career?
– This question has me stumped I’m afraid. Seeing your story through to the end, I suppose. Not giving up.
Q: As well as books, you have also written poetry, short stories and lyrics. 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, I’m working with a composer and 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.
Q: What is your opinion on your books being used as classroom texts? Do you find this flattering?
– 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.
Q: Goodnight Mr Tom is celebrating it’s 30th year this year. Not only was it made into a film (starring the legendary John Thaw as Mr Tom) in 1998, it was also staged by the Chichester Festival Theatre (stage play written by David Wood) this year, and went on tour across the UK. What did you think of the film adaptation? And what were your feelings about it being adapted for the stage?
– I was very pleased with the TV adaptation. Because I had adapted it earlier for the stage (as a musical) I knew that one could only express the essence of the story. I hoped that the script would show that. In a nutshell, the story is about two people who have been hurt in different ways who are thrown together and help one another through living together and I thought the TV Drama showed that. I was also very lucky having Brian Finch adapt it. He asked me to send him the lyrics of two songs the mother sings in the musical so that he could see into her head and from those he wrote extra scenes for her.
My feelings about having someone else adapt it for the stage were mixed. I had seen audiences love the musical version. And to be honest I would have preferred to have seen that being performed but audiences enjoyed the play version which I noticed used some of my material from the musical.
Q: How attached do you find yourself becoming to your characters? How difficult is it to leave them behind?
– When I was writing the last page of Goodnight Mister Tom I noticed I was writing more slowly, almost procrastinating. And then I realised why. I had been living with my characters for so long that I didn’t want to leave them. But then I thought, ‘I’ll be going right back to the beginning and working on it all over again.’ I then picked up my pen and finished the chapter. Sometimes the characters from one book appear briefly in another book.
Q: Lastly, here’s our usual question: here at World of Books we are dedicated to providing good-quality second-hand books to the public. By sourcing a large amount of our books from charities, we are also able to support their cause. Any book we can’t sell, we recycle; last year alone we saved 12,500 metric tonnes of waste from going to landfill sites. In a world with an ever-growing digital media base, and increasing environmental concerns, do you believe in the importance of giving each physical book the chance of a new home?
– Absolutely. Technology breaks down. My computer is on the blink as is my oven, and my fridge and washing machine have started to make strange noises. There’s nothing like opening the pages of a book and the story being revealed. It’s like the curtain going up. All you need are your eyes. Although having said that there are some very good audio books for those who can’t see, are dyslexic or love being read to.
Fancy a catch-up on Michelle’s books? Visit our Site and check out her work.