Tom Bond and Emily Lunn discuss inspiration, libraries and human nature with children’s author Michael Morpurgo…
Devon is lucky to have one of the UK’s most prolific and successful children’s writers, the author of Private Peaceful and Kensuke’s Kingdom, in its midst. Michael Morpurgo’s work appeals to readers of all ages and has been adapted to film and theatre, including the hugely successful adaptations of War Horse.
Despite having written so much, Michael doesn’t suffer from writer’s block, thanks to some past advice from Ted Hughes, who recommended building up inspiration through “story dreaming”. If you allow enough time for your ideas to grow, then “your mind is simply full of the story” and you will be ready to write. What is important for Michael is to allow time for research, to “fill up the well of my story-making equipment all the time.” He gave us some advice that every writer could use: to avoid entertaining the idea of writer’s block, “because if you think there is such thing as writer’s block, sure as hell you’ll get it.”
As his fans will know, Michael often writes about war, such as in his latest book, A Medal for Leroy, because “you write about what you care about.” Michael grew up in post-war Britain and the memories of “bombed out London, the pity and the futility of war,” as well as his own family’s losses, made him aware of how “the grieving goes on long after the bloodshed is over”. He reflected on the nature of war, saying “you go to war because you think it’s politically, nationally the best thing to do. You want to win, and everything is about the winning. But a humiliated enemy is a dangerous enemy; all you do is create fuel for the fire of the next vengeance war.”
Even though his work is popular with children, it is important that his readers are exposed to a bit of “darkness”. Children now grow up “in very much the same world as adults,” and they need literature that will help them to understand a world that is sometimes more adult than their maturity and perception can cope with. “You have to write a literature which engages with them as they are, not as you would like them to be in a sort of rose-tinted world.” Writers need to reflect the complexity of the real world, “to talk about those serious things of life because I think most of us are aware that you can’t simply avoid the difficult subjects.” Most of all, it is crucial for Michael that he doesn’t patronise his younger readers, “I mean, what am I? I’m a grown-up child. So it’s one grown-up child writing a story for less grown-up children.”
Nature is another inspiration for Michael, which is partly fuelled by his charity Farms for City Children, which lets city children experience a working farm, one of which is in Devon. “I’ve been in this wonderfully privileged position to be able to watch and work with young people, completely unused to animals, working alongside them and witnessing their response to the wildness of nature.”
Michael used to be a primary school teacher, and he clearly has a passion for helping others so it’s unsurprising to hear that the greatest lesson he ever learnt was kindness. He realised this when listening to his friend John Lloyd on Desert Island Discs and told us, “nothing is more important than kindness and consideration towards other people. I think in all of the lessons I’ve taught as a teacher in a way I was grasping towards that all the time.” His books and his teaching both focus on empathy, as Michael says that literature is “how men learn about women, it’s how children learn about old people, and with that understanding of each other comes kindness. That’s the most important lesson but I don’t know that you can teach it, it just has to be encouraged and discovered”.
Michael is also involved with countless other charities including Exeter’s very own Royal Albert Memorial Museum, and public appearances – he appeared at the recent Exeter Food Festival and soon he will be speaking at the Hay Festival on the 29th May. On top of all that, and the small matter of the 120-odd books he’s written, he somehow still finds time to read. He has just finished writing his exciting new take on Pinocchio, changing the Italian original into an autobiography, since while the original was “written primarily to teach little boys how to behave”, nowadays, “people don’t really want to be told how to behave anymore. It’s such a fun story but don’t tell it that way again because it clearly doesn’t resonate with children today”. Michael seems to know what he’s talking about when it comes to the way the book industry works so it was reassuring to hear that he was dismissive of claims that ebooks would kill physical books, remembering that “every time there’s an innovation of some sort or another everyone thinks people are going to stop reading books”. Even so, he worries about the “stranglehold” Amazon has on book sales and said the biggest question for retailers was: “How you get the book to the customer in a way which is human. I don’t think we’ve found a solution”.
The precarious future of our libraries was also concerning for Michael as he talked about the first public libraries in the Victorian era, remembering how they “spread across the world, with this understanding that everyone has a right to books. It became for this country, as important at one time, as the National Health Service”. He talked about their importance for those with little money to buy books – children, students, the elderly. “It’s one of the most important social services that we have. I fear for it because at the present time it seems there is an inclination to cut what, to a lot of people, is unnecessary. But that’s simply not the case – if we don’t have access to literature we are the poorer for it”.