During a conversation, Michael Rosen’s daughter referred to him as an “optimistic nihilist.”
At 77 years old, Michael Rosen is a remarkable individual. He has contributed to over 200 books, with a focus on creating enduringly humorous and meaningful content. During our meeting, he shares a selection of his recently published works, such as his latest memoir titled “Getting Better”, a comforting picture book called “The Big Dreaming”, and “The Incredible Adventures of Gaston le Dog” for older readers. He also takes pride in his volume of poems about migration, titled “On the Move”, which has been translated into French. This year has been exceptional for Rosen, as he was honored with the Pen Pinter prize for his bold and impactful body of work.
Has your life been altered by surviving Covid (his left eye has impaired vision, as does his left ear)? Has it affected your writing approach?
I constantly come up with new ideas and make sure to write them down. However, I struggle with memory issues. The time leading up to my induced coma is hazy. People remind me of events, such as the anniversary celebration for my book “We’re Going on a Bear Hunt,” but I have no recollection. They describe a big cake with marzipan characters in a large room at Southbank, but I have no memory of it. This has deepened my existential beliefs. We are all born into a historical context, but we also exist in the present moment. My memory loss intensifies my sense of living in the present.
The idea of The Big Dreaming evokes a desire to hibernate, similar to the bears in the story, and experience a winter filled with dreams. Do you recall your dreams?
I make note of them, these thoughts are usually harmless but occasionally filled with peculiar worries. Recently, I had a dream where I was perched on the window ledge of a school gym. I felt trapped and afraid, refusing to climb down despite the reassurances of others. The ledge was narrow and I felt like I could fall at any moment, until someone suggested using a ladder. But I couldn’t reach one since I was already high up.
Can you quickly interpret a dream for me?
I have been feeling anxious about the uncertainty of my physical health since the onset of Covid.
Why did you choose the three catchphrases “happiness right now”, “safe path home”, and “have hope” for The Big Dreaming?
The pursuit of happiness is valuable, but the issue is that the harder you pursue it, the less likely you are to attain it. Instead, it must be stumbled upon in a casual manner. As for finding your way back home safely… a lesson I learned in rehabilitation is that ultimately, you must be the one to help yourself.
Without hope, you cannot move forward to the next moment. My daughter once described me as an optimistic nihilist. Curious, I asked for an explanation and she replied that I do not believe in a higher power but still remain hopeful about life. I agreed, as being pessimistic about life is not enjoyable. Therefore, it is important to always hold onto hope, even when it may seem difficult to find.
What caused Gaston le Dog to appear and why did he become your son Emile’s favorite?
My children have all asked me to tell them a story at some point, and as a parent, I would often feel flustered and struggle to come up with something. This was even more stressful for me because I felt like my reputation as a storyteller was at stake. To solve this problem with my daughter, I started asking her to think of three things, and then I would create a story around them. For example, she might say “leaf, doughnut, rabbit” and I would weave a tale using those elements. My son Emile didn’t provide any prompts, but I got the idea to use “le dog” from a French family I had vacationed with in the Pyrenees, where the father referred to their dog as “le dog.” I found this amusing, so I incorporated it into my stories. The name Gaston came from a parody of the French Resistance that my friend Nigel Williams and I created back in university.
In We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, Gaston encounters seemingly impossible challenges that end up being possible to overcome. How significant is the concept of life as a course full of obstacles in literature?
This concept is fundamental. It was first introduced by the renowned structuralist Vladimir Propp in his work, “Morphology of the Folktale”. It serves as the basis for the entire novel. For example, in works such as “Great Expectations”, “David Copperfield”, and “Madame Bovary”, there are both challenges and allies that the characters encounter. As a modern writer, you may even find yourself being your own obstacle at times.
The vocabulary in your book contains French words and there is also a dragonfly named Libellule… It appears that you have a special interest in France?
I have. I have been traveling to France since I was five and recently attended a memorial service for my father’s uncle who was sent to Auschwitz on convoy 62 from Paris-Bobigny.
Did you receive the Pen Pinter prize for your bold body of work? Would you describe yourself as “fearless”?
Initially, there were those who objected to my poetry for its use of free verse and slang. It was seen as a departure from the traditional style of Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses, like a garden overrun with weeds. However, I never considered this to be a negative thing; perhaps it showed my fearlessness. I often advise children that the beauty of writing is in experimenting without being afraid to fail. Fear will only hold you back.
Are there any things to avoid when writing for children?
One important tip is to avoid getting too caught up in describing irrelevant details. While adults may enjoy setting the scene, children can become easily annoyed. It’s also crucial to remember that in a children’s book, the child should be the main character and driving force of the story. Don’t take away the core elements of the story from the child’s perspective. Keep the child at the forefront.
What do you typically read for a mood boost?
Memoirs – most recently, I’m Black So You Don’t Have to Be by Colin Grant, which explores the Caribbean diaspora in Britain through the eyes of his family. It is wonderful.
What was your preferred book during your childhood?
Emil and the Detectivesby Erich Kästner.
Which timeless book do you regret not having read?
I become uninterested when I have watched numerous versions of Bleak House on television or in movies.
Who is your preferred protagonist in literature?
Which book on your bookshelf could potentially surprise others?
Emily Dickinson. People might think I wouldn’t read an American proto-feminist in her own private world but her experiments with verse are incredibly exciting.
What type of reader were you when you were younger?
Which book do you want to receive as a Christmas gift?
A well-done rendition of Dante’s Inferno – with a larger font size.
Gaston le Dog’s Incredible Adventures can be purchased from Walker Books for £12.99. To show your support for the Guardian and Observer, you can order a copy from guardianbookshop.com. Additional fees may apply for delivery.