Interview by Magdalena Ball
Magdalena: I enjoyed your session. Do you find that they provide insight into the ways kids think? In other words, do they inform your writing?
Morris: Up to a point, yes. It’s always been very important to me to have a lot of contact with young people and I do do a lot of talks each year, but I don’t regard them primarily as a sort of research exercise or even a kind of connecting with the universal spirit of childhood exercise. Because I’ve always felt the reason I want to write books for young people and the reason I can is because there is some part of me, that has never left me, that is to do with young people and what they are about and who I was as a kid and still am.
I must say that only rarely have I done the sort of workshop I set up this morning. Normally I do a talk and ask questions and I’ve always shied away from actually getting them to do writing, but I had a wonderful time this morning and it has made me want to do more of it. In a way that sometimes doesn’t happen when kids are asking me questions and I’m giving them answers, seeing them actually do their own writing, in the short amount of time that one has to spend with young kids, gave me a keener sense of who they were as individuals which I really enjoyed.
Magdalena: You have children of your own.
Morris: Yeah, mine are 20 and 24 now.
Magdalena: Did you, at one point, test your work out on them?
Morris: Not really. My daughter used to read my manuscripts but my son was less of an enthusiastic reader so he said he’d wait until my stories became, I think in those days, SuperNintendo games. With my own kids I was always hesitant to let them know that they were being used for market research–that seemed a bit of an alien thing to me. That said, I couldn’t help but notice if my daughter wanted to read all of one book in a sitting and I always listened to anything she said to me. As she got older she was aware that she had a big weight of responsibility on her shoulders. Because my primary reader is the main character in the story–the ten or eleven year old who is the centre of the story–I just rely on my intuitive assessment that the story is as it should be for that readership.
Magdalena: You’ve been visiting schools (and writing for children) for over 15 years. Have you noticed any broad scale changes in your audience over that time?
Morris: Not really. There are some superficial, cultural changes. I’ve been giving talks for years and the nature of kids culture as in the barest cultural forms has changed. Certainly children today are exposed to much more computer, television and video than they used to be, but I’ve been surprised and gratified to see how the universal and timeless needs for a story haven’t changed over the years. Young readers like older readers of fiction want characters who are grappling with things that are important to them in ways. Not withstanding those post structural experiments coming out of Europe in the second half of the 20th century with fiction I think that most readers want to share feelings with characters and that’s true of young readers just as much as older ones. And I don’t think that’s changed much for centuries.
Magdalena: There seems to have been a lot of talk lately about the novel being in danger of being subsumed by television or film. Does that worry you?
Morris: That may be true to a certain extent, but there is such variation between individual children that these generalisations may not be helpful. It may be true that much of the fast paced instant gratifications forms of entertainment have lessened the average child’s attention span. I certainly don’t see that it’s turning kids off reading in large numbers or killing the novel, certainly not for younger readers. That said, I’ve always been very conscious of young reader’s time. Time is a precious resource and I’ve always been very careful not to waste the time of my readers and I try to write my stories as concisely as possible. I don’t put in great slabs of description, and probably that means that my writing satisfies a shorter attention span or a more impatient reader, but I didn’t start off doing that because I was fearful or that I had to do everything in soundbites for cultural reasons. It’s just that it seems unfair to draw kids into a world that I hope will hold them and then take up more of their time than I need to.
Magdalena: Tell me about Wilton. He’s an unlikely hero.
Morris: He is, yeah. I’d written three books about cane toads and Australian residents at least will recognise that its not the most popular of creatures. They‘ve been reviled and rejected because of their appearance rather than who they are. They were brought to Australia by humans and didn’t ask to be here. They should not have been brought here. The problem is that they have no natural predators apart from humans. So we are in the situation that we so often are, of blaming another species for something that our species is responsible for. Spending long happy periods writing these three books about cane toads, I was enjoying being able to look at the human world as a sometimes alien and unfathomable species and decided that I’d love to take that further. So I decided to write about something that lives inside a human but doesn’t know that his home is a living and breathing being. Part of Wilton’s journey is a quest for information and it takes him out of his world and then he realises that his world is a living breathing organism that has a life and can die.
Magdalena: Is there an allegory in it?
Morris: I’m sure there is, but I don’t start with that notion.
Magdalena: At one point a caterpillar says to Wilton, we’re all parasites. Is that true do you think?
Morris: Oh yes. Another of the reasons I wrote the book is that I’ve been aware for a long time that, as a species we are very self-satisfied with our pre-eminence as a species. We’re top of the heap and many people believe that God made it all for us. There is actually a BBC TV series called Bodysnatchers which is an oversimplification about parasites. I saw one episode and didn’t really want to see more because it makes, for me, that basic mistake of it’s them and us. There’s us the humans and there are these horrible scheming things, the parasites, out to get us, and of course the truth of it is that we’re all engaged in some parasitical behaviour as part of this vast web of life. Parasitism is absolutely essential to the survival of life on earth as we know it. We humans use the word parasite in an absolute pejorative sense–to call someone a parasite is not a compliment, but perhaps it should be because, to give one little example, one very common parasite, the bacteria, are absolutely essential to survival as we know it, and in fact if there was any species who would be justified in saying, “God made us in his image,” it would be the parasites. You could take humans out of the equation and the planet Earth would continue quite happily. You take parasites out of the equation and the Earth would be in big trouble. Without parasites there is nothing to reduce things back to the sheer pool.
Magdalena: The appeal of books like Worm Story to an eleven year boy is obvious but have you had any negative responses from squeamish adults?
Morris: Always, yeah. And what the adults are forgetting is that not only do young people have a much more relaxed approach to bodily functions and products but there’s another important reason why the slime for example appeals to kids. Kids don’t have much power, and kids are often treated as, if not by their loving parents then by the institutions into which they are cast, as peripheral kind of also-rans. Kids don’t have the power to change their environments. Kids are underdogs. Most of us are loving parents so we forget that the average kids is passing through the hands of a whole lot of other powerful adults and they are not the centre of the universe.
Magdalena: Tell me about Once (the new book you’re working on).
Morris: Well, it’s set in war-torn Poland, and features a child who was left in a Catholic orphanage in 1942. At first he thinks that it is only Jewish books which are being burned but part of his discovery is to find out that he is among the persecuted while he is searching for his parents. It’s ultimately a story the power of the imagination.
Magdalena: I can see some parallels between the setting of this book and Worm–a small, would be parasite saves his sick country.
Morris: Yes. That’s something I hadn’t through about but of course you’re right.
Magdalena: I’m looking for a pre-website exclusive. What is your recipe for curried Mars bars?
Morris: How did you know about the Mars bars? I don’t have that recipe with me, but I can give your readers a warning. Don’t ever try to cook a Mars bar inside an apple. This is a true story. There’s something about the combination of the pectin or acids in the apple that reacts with the Mars bar and causes them to go rock hard when baked. The apple of course gets really soft, so you’ve got this soft apple and rock hard Mars bar which you just cannot bite into. It’s a dangerous combination.