Interview: Michael Morpurgo
Acclaimed children’s writer, Michael Morpurgo, talks to Shine about how he became an author, his animal inspirations and living stories together.
When and how did you start writing?
Many years ago, I was a teacher in a primary school in Kent. At the end of the day, I used to read to the children in class. I could see the stories I was reading were really boring them. I went home that night and my wife suggested that I tell them one of the stories I used to make up for my own children at bedtime. I went in the next day, took a deep breath and started to tell them my story. Slowly, they started to listen, and then intently on the edge of their seats, and by the time the bell went for the end of school, I had them in the palm of my hand. It was a great feeling and I have never looked back.
How do you approach planning and writing a book?
I spend a lot of time dreaming up a story in my head and working out who my characters are and how they relate to each other before I ever put pen to paper. I don’t plan out the plot, rather let it emerge as I write. I write by hand and try as far as possible to forget I’m writing it all. I give myself a few clear months every year to write – usually at home in Devon where we have a special Japanese tea-house in the garden. I write there where it’s quiet, sitting on my bed upstairs and looking out over the fields.
How has your relationship with animals influenced your stories?
I am really interested in the relationship between animals and humans. I think they often bring out the best in us because they listen without passing judgement and accept us for who we are without prejudice. For some people, this can be the most important relationship – a loving and uncomplicated one. I think my fascination with animals also comes partly from my life too. Running Farms for City Children, the charity that my wife Clare and I founded over 40 years ago, we would have groups of children from inner cities coming to live and work on the farm for a week. Watching how children interacted with the animals has inspired many of my stories.
War Horse was inspired by a boy called Billy from Birmingham who came with his school to Nethercott Farm. I was told by his teachers that he had never spoken, not a word, and if I tried to speak to him, he might run away. But one evening when I came down to read to the children, I saw Billy standing by the stable door, talking freely to our horse Hebe. He was just talking and talking without stopping. Incredible. It made me convinced that I had found the right way to tell my story.
What was your favourite book as a child?
My mother used to read The Elephant’s Child by Rudyard Kipling to me when I was little. I loved it because she read it to me, and read it beautifully, with all the voices of all the animals. I wanted to hear it again and again, and join in the parts I knew by heart. And now I know I loved it also because it is beautifully written, supremely funny and not a little subversive.
Can you give any advice to parents whose children are reluctant readers?
It’s hard, but I think the main thing as a parent is to try and pass on a passion for stories to our children. When you read a story you love to a child, you hold hands through an adventure. You live the story together and imagine it together.
What three items would you take to a desert island?
If I could take a person, it would be my wife Clare. I would also take a book of poetry, The Rattlebag, and a waterslide.