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Michael
Morpurgo

1. Your collection of shorts stories, From Hereabout Hill, is named after a poem by a friend of yours, Sean Rafferty. It's a lovely short lyric about the coming of spring. Can you tell us more about the friend who wrote it?

  Sean was a great friend, great poet, playwright and gardener. He lived with us on the farm until his death in 1993. Along with Ted Hughes, he was very much my mentor. His work was published posthumously by Carcanet Press.

2. This same collection of stories is dedicated to Miriam Hodgson, editor at Egmont. Has she been your editor throughout your long association with this publisher (previously Heinemann), which goes back to your early books?


  No, she's not been my editor, but I've wished she had been. She asked me to write many short stories and edited those.

3. You have mentioned in another interview the encouragement you received early on in your career from Aidan Chambers, this year's Carnegie winner. What form did the encouragement take?

  Aidan published my first 'successful' book, which was Friend Or Foe. He was the first editor to say positive things about my work. Bless him!

4. Going back to the short story collection for a moment - in the foreword you describe yourself as an 'impatient' story-miner, forever moving on to a new seam. And yet there is an identifiable 'Morpurgo' quality about your work, the most obvious one being what I have called the 'benign moral authority' with which you invariably write. Is this something you're conscious of? Where do you think it comes from?

  No, I'm not conscious of it. When I write, it is very much with my voice, but using many voices so an to distance the fiction and separate if from fact. What I don't do is pretend. So when I'm feeling serious, I will write on serious topics, and when I feel silly, I do silly stuff.

5. I suppose the other identifying features I'm thinking of are thematic. Despite your avowed impatience, you are constantly writing about relationships between older and younger characters, and between nature and humans. I suppose a psychologist might look at your family background and say, A-hah, Morpurgo never knew his real father, no wonder he's always writing about adult-child relationships. Would there be anything in this?

  Adult-child relationships, and child-adult relationships, have always been part of my life. Certainly, I had a peculiar childhood, but not that peculiar. Since being a child I have become a teacher, a father, and now a grandfather, so have lived through many adult-child relationships.

6. Does the way you write about animals and nature owe anything to your friendship with Ted Hughes? Whilst you are never quite as raw as Hughes could at times be, you are certainly not at all sentimental. Your new picture book, The Silver Swan, illustrated by Christian Birmingham, is heart-wrenchingly honest about the predatory precariousness of animal existence. By the way, have you personally heard a swan's death-song?

 

No, I haven't, but I believe there is a seed of truth in all such legends. As for animals, I live with them. I'm a farmer. There is little room for sentiment, but plenty of room to empathise, and respect, and to remember that all animals, like ourselves, are sentient.


7. We shouldn't pass mention of Hughes without referring to the post of Children's Laureate. The whole thing was, I understand, your idea, and Hughes supported you during the process of getting the post accepted and established. Now that it is established, with Quentin Blake in his second and final year in the role, what are your feelings? Would you like to take your own turn as Children's Laureate one day?

  Quentin Blake has done a great job as the Children's Laureate; quire wonderful. Without him, the whole idea might have well foundered. He'll be a very difficult act to follow. As for me, if one day people really think I'm worthy of it, then yes, Id love to do it. But there are an awful lot of great writers and illustrators who should come before me and would make great Children's Laureates.

8. You worked for a short while as a schoolteacher. But in nearly all your books the really important learning takes place within character relationships. Picking almost at random - in King Of The Cloud Forests Ashley says, "I learned more with Lin than I ever did at school" and clearly the learning that goes on in Kensuke's Kingdom, between the boy and the Japanese man, is immense. What's your view of the formal learning that does take place in school?

  The most important learning, I believe, is life-taught. For education to be complete and fulfilling, it should be both school-taught and life-taught.

9. You believe that it's important for writers to "read massively". What have you bee reading this year?

  Several children's books, because I'm judging the Whitbread Prize this year. In fact, it's been a year of reading for me. I've read lots of poems, the most memorable ones I could find, because I'm putting together an anthology for Faber for next year. As well as this, I've been reading boys' stories all over again -- Huck Finn, Oliver Twist, Pinnochio and many others -- for an anthology of Classic Boys Stories, published by Kingfisher in October.

10. There is a trend towards shorter chapters, shorter paragraphs, shorter sentences in children's fiction. I'm interested in the fact that you write your first draft into exercise books without any paragraphing at all. Are you not conscious of paragraphing while you write; do you make some kind of a mark to indicate paragraph breaks; does the paragraphing develop at some future drafting stage?

  When I first write my story down, I tend to tell it, rather than write it, simply to let it flow from me. So all thought of paragraphing comes at a later stage. I do have, though, a strong sense of structure before I start. For instance, in my new book, Dear Olly, I have written it in three movements rather than chapters because I thought the story needed it. And in Billy The Kid, another new book, I have written a monologue with no chapters at all. So the story comes first, with its structure attached, and I tell it down my arm, thorough my fingers, and onto the page.

11. Although you are only in your late fifties, you are already a grandparent (you married and had your own children very young). In what ways has this influenced/is this influencing you as a writer?

  I've been lucky enough always either to be young, or to have young children about me. I had my first child, Sebastian, when I was 20, and my first grand-daughter Lea when I was 43. So really I've never been without children around me. Bearing in mind the fact that I've been a teacher, for all my adult life children have really been at the centre of my existence. I'm very lucky in that.

12. We've referred to your new picture book, and your development as a writer of picture books has been a major aspect of your development as an author over the past few years. What do you most like about working on picture books?

  Firstly, I love working with artists. Writing is a lonely affair, and I love the company of people. So l like working on films and on picture books because I'm working alongside wonderfully creative people. As for the writing of picture books, I've had to be more succinct and intense in my writing, without losing the poetry.

13. You were a sporty chap as a schoolboy (in Telling Tales there are two rugby team photos), yet as far as I can recall you haven't written much about sport. Why's that? Or am I wrong?

 

Yes, I was a sporty chap. I used my rugby experience at school in The War Of Jenkin's Ear, but not much. Recently, in Billy The Kid, I've written an entire book with football at its heart. In order to do that, because I'm not really a football fan, I fed off Michael Foreman's love of football - what he calls the 'beautiful game'.

 




 

 

 

14. I'm interested in another picture in that book - the one of you as a teacher in 1970, in sheepskin jacket, with hair over your ears. Quite a contrast to the one two pages back, the fresh-faced captain of King's School Canterbury, carrying the Queen Mother's umbrella. The contrast invites the question - what were the 1960s like for you?

  Fast! I grew up rapidly in this decade, and changed hugely. I was schoolboy, officer/cadet, husband, student, father and teacher. In many ways, it was the decade which made me grow up - not that I'm grown-up completely now, or ever want to be. And then in all that were The Beatles, and all that life and belief that everything was possible and everything was for the best in the best of all possible worlds.

 

 

 

 

 

 

15. You have explained how the name in Kensuke's Kingdom was given to you by a chance snatch of conversation with a boy at a book-signing. Have other character names, or ideas for plot development, had their origins in chance encounters?

  Yes, in Kensuke's Kingdom the name of the dog was suggested to me by a girl who came down to our farm. She asked the name of our dog. Bercelet I told her. And she said, 'I've got a dog called Stella Artois'. Then in Dear Olly, the whole idea for the book was suggested to me by a terrible accident that happened to one of my friends. He's a young man of 23 now, but two years ago was involved in a car accident in Australia. He lost his leg. I was able to witness his courage and his humour and his struggle, as he came to terms with it. In fact, I would say that without exception all my plots are suggested to me by the people I talk to, by everything I have myself lived through, and by stories I am told - real-life stories.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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