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?
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.
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?
she's not been my editor, but I've wished she had been. She asked
me to write many short stories and edited those.
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?
published my first 'successful' book, which was Friend Or Foe.
He was the first editor to say positive things about my work.
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?
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.
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?
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
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?
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,
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?
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.
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?
most important learning, I believe, is life-taught. For education
to be complete and fulfilling, it should be both school-taught
You believe that it's important for writers to "read massively".
What have you bee reading this year?
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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?
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.
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?
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'.
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?
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
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?
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.
Copyright 2000 ACHUKA