David Wood, national children’s dramatist and adapter of the new production, talks to Michelle Magorian, author of Goodnight Mister Tom, at the Wimbledon Bookfest 2010.
Q – How did you come about writing Goodnight Mister Tom?
Q – How would you describe the relationship between Tom and William
Questions from the kids
Q – Were you talented when you were younger at writing books?
Q – How long did it take you to write Goodnight Mr Tom?
Q – What made history so special that you wanted to write about it?
Q – Why did you call the book Goodnight Mister Tom?
As the world premiere of her best-selling book takes to the stage, Goodnight Mister Tom author Michelle Magorian talks about fate, spending her holidays rummaging in the attic and why questionnaires make her so very cross.
2011 will be remembered as a year of happy coincidences by Hampshire-born author Michelle Magorian. Although entirely unconnected, as the curtain rises on the first play adaptation of her award-winning book Goodnight Mister Tom, publisher Puffin will be releasing a special 30th anniversary edition. And once you’ve seen the play and read the book, you can visit the Imperial War Museum’s major new exhibition, Once Upon a Wartime. Here Goodnight Mister Tom, accompanied by Nina Bawden’s Carrie’s War and The Lion and the Unicorn by Shirley Hughes, will feature as the key works of children’s war-inspired literature.
The coincidences don’t stop there. Like something straight out of a storybook, it seems that fate also took a hand in the fortunes of the play’s creative team. Michelle explains: “I don’t know whether you call it karma or what, but many years ago a fourteen-year-old boy approached David Wood [who has adapted the book for the stage and who also wrote the screenplay for Back Home, another of Michelle’s novels] and told him he wanted to be a director. David took him seriously and gave him some advice. That boy was Angus Jackson, who is directing our play. Imagine if David had told him not to bother with trying to be a director!”
Talking of David Wood, Michelle couldn’t be better pleased that the man dubbed ‘the children’s dramatist’ is reworking her story as a play, a project that together they have been trying to realise for more than ten years. Michelle first met David as a young actress. “He auditioned me for something years ago, I forget what now, but he didn’t give me the part,” she chuckles, “but he has an incredible track record and we are in very good hands with him.”
Was letting David loose on her book like handing over her baby? Not a bit of it. “I am fascinated by how people inject their own creative input into my books; it’s like throwing a pebble into a pool and watching the ripples.”
A profoundly moving story that has enjoyed huge success in book, film and even musical form, Goodnight Mister Tom was an instant bestseller. Published all over the world and dramatised by ITV, the book is today recognised as a modern classic. Set at the outbreak of war and encompassing big subjects including mental illness and loss, Michelle always thought of it as a book for older readers. But because William is just turning nine years old at the start of the story, some people assume that it is suitable for younger children. “In the original draft I had Zach [William’s best friend] come back. I didn’t want him to die. But it didn’t feel truthful. That was the horror of war. People died. Children died.”
Going back to the origins of the story, it was the wartime experiences of Michelle’s mum that were, in no small way, the inspiration for Goodnight Mister Tom. “Mum saw a lot of the war. She was a nurse in London on a children’s ward and also on a burns unit during the Blitz. She joined the QAs [Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service] and met dad on a troop ship going to India. She told me lots of stories about the children she nursed. One boy, like William is in the book, had been sewn into his winter underwear – some children even had their underwear lined with newspaper to keep the warmth in. Another boy was shown a hospital bed and immediately curled up underneath it; he had no idea you were meant to get in it because in many poor families children did sleep under the bed. Only their parents slept on the mattress. Evacuation brought the slums into people’s homes. Some had only one pump or tap and one loo for twenty families. Some had never eaten from plates, and many were lice-ridden. In my book, William is comparatively better off than many children were.”
Asked if readers want to know what happened to Tom and William after the end of the book, Michelle confirms that it is a recurring question. “Years ago I did actually write a short story about William as a man. He grew up to become a thatcher and an artist. I found it earlier this year when I was asked by the Imperial War Museum to dig out some original manuscripts for the exhibition. I had to go into the loft and find stuff I’d written thirty years ago, which took three weeks – my summer holiday this year! I also found other stories, including one about Tom as a young man with Rachel, his wife. I’m starting to type these up, just out of curiosity, but they are rather florid and flowery,” she says self-deprecatingly. She’s a stern critic of her own work then? “Oh yes,” she agrees cheerfully, “I’m the Queen of the re-writes.”
Guaranteed to cause Michelle’s good cheer to vanish at speed, however, is the subject of how schoolchildren learn from live performance. With feeling, she declares: “I would like to forbid all questionnaires! I want people to be swept away by the experience, but questionnaires refuse to let the storyteller tell her story.”
Infuriated that a trip to the theatre should become a comprehension exercise, she cites a recent conversation with an eleven-year-old girl, whose opinion was that, if she had to watch a play in order to complete a questionnaire, then ‘you just watch for the answers’. “That’s crazy,” asserts Michelle. “For many it may be their first experience of live theatre and it should be wonderful. Questionnaires will kill it. With some of my books I know that children have been asked to do things like counting how many accents and dialects feature. There are 304 pages in Goodnight Mister Tom – why would you do that? If you asked an adult to count the adjectives in one of Joanna Trollope’s novels, they would ask you if you had taken your medication!”
Besides, she argues, her story is rooted in history; there is already a definite educational slant. And if that slant needs to be developed then she has alternative suggestions to the dreaded tick-box. “The character William draws and also sings in the choir. Maybe children could paint or draw, or even sing about the play? And his friend Zach loves poetry and acting, so you could use the arts to explore the production. I just want audiences to be drawn into 1939,” she says emphatically. “Children will probably be sitting in the auditorium with people who were evacuees themselves; let them come up with their own questions. And I want teachers to sit back and enjoy it too,” she adds.
When it comes to her own creative process Michelle dispels any suggestion of glamour. Not for her a private sanctum in which she waits for the muse to call. “Our computer room is a cupboard under the stairs,” she says briskly. “I write longhand in the first instance and scrawl around the sides. When I’ve typed it up, I print it and put it in a ring binder, because I want to read from side-to-side and get the proper experience.”
Having started out as an actress (it took her almost five years to write Goodnight Mister Tom because she was also acting) and with two sons of her own, Michelle knows just how exciting theatre can be for young audiences. When her youngest son, George, one day reeled off his four greatest aspirations, Michelle realised that she could only facilitate one element of his wish list.
“He said he wanted to make an engine for a steam train, fly a Spitfire, learn to tap dance and see a play,” she recalls. “I told him that I couldn’t do much about the steam train or the Spitfire, but I booked tickets and took him to see his first play; Molière’s Scapino. He loved it and howled with laughter. If children are happy they absorb much more than they do if they are stressed, we all do.” And the tap dancing? “He’s at level 3 now,” she laughs.
And while she might not be tap dancing herself, with the play, the exhibition and launching the anniversary issue of the book, it looks like Michelle is certainly going to be kept on her toes. “Oh yes, I’m going to need to be pretty fit,” she smiles.
Although she shudders at the thought of returning to the life of a touring actor, she freely admits that the theatre is still a place she feels a great pull towards. “I don’t miss staying in different digs every week, but I do miss the rehearsals and working on a script. I love walking into a theatre, or anywhere that becomes a performance space. I love that buzz you get. It’s a mixture of excitement and feeling at home.”