Michael Morpurgo at The Apex...
One of the UK’s best-loved authors shares his gift for storytelling…
Michael Morpurgo began writing stories in the early 1970s, inspired by the children he taught in his primary school class in Kent. He has written over 130 books, including The Butterfly Lion, Kensuke’s Kingdom, Private Peaceful and War Horse, which was adapted for a hugely successful stage production and film.
But what about the real-life story of Michael Morpurgo? How did a boy uninterested in books, who dreamed of becoming an army officer, become a bestselling author and Children's Laureate? We caught up with him prior to his visit to The Apex on 26 September…
Your 75th Anniversary tour sees you telling your own story ... are you comfortable talking about yourself?
I’m very comfortable talking about my own life and I’ve used that hugely in my stories. At the beginning of the Butterfly Lion, the boy runs away from school because he is unhappy. I did that. And I was picked up by a nice old lady who looked after me and I’ve never forgotten that. 'My Father is a Polar Bear' is the story of the father that I had, but never had, in the sense that he left the house when I was one and half, so I never knew him.
You've spoken about writing in terms of magic - could you say a bit more about that idea?
It’s the story that is magic rather than the writing. A good magician can convince the audience that what is happening is real. The way I do it is to believe it myself as I’m telling it, writing it.
And you've described yourself as more storyteller than writer ... what's the difference?
I suppose I always think of the best writing as great literature - Dickens, Shakespeare, Seamus Heaney, etc. They are amongst the great writers who write literature with a capital ‘L’ and some of them are also wonderful storytellers. I tell stories much more directly than great writers usually do. I tell the story out loud, down on to the page. I think I do this because the first stories I ever told were to the primary school class that I taught, and I practiced my craft by telling stories orally because I found I engaged deeply with my audience doing this. I try not to think of myself as a writer but as a teller of tales; with the sound of the words being hugely important.
You've written 130 books - are they all in print at present? And if not, are there any in particular you'd like to see back in circulation again?
Of the 130 I think about 110 are in print currently. Some are not often read and it’s wonderful when one seems to bob up to the surface and become more loved that it has been. For instance Waiting for Anya. This was a book I wrote several years ago set in the Pyrenees during the time of Nazi occupation. It’s the story of a whole village who through the example of one boy conspire to save Jewish children from capture by German patrols. Quite out of the blue someone decided to make a film of it. It has a wonderful international star cast including Angelica Huston. I’ve seen the film and it’s wonderful and I hope and believe many people will read the book for the first time because of this film.
War Horse is now a huge theatre and film success, but how well was the book received, when it came out back in 1982?
It sold reasonably well, but nothing spectacular - a few thousand copies a year. Everything that has happened to War Horse since has been unbelievable, a huge piece of luck.
How did you feel when National Theatre wanted to turn War Horse into a play, 25 years after it had been published?
I was sceptical at first. I wondered how convincing a First World War drama could be using life-size puppets of horses. But this was the National Theatre after all. They came to Devon to see the landscape and watch working horses; they spent time with the Royal Horse Artillery and learnt about cavalry horses and soldiers. Press night was a triumph, with five star reviews, and it has been running for nearly 10 years now. I have seen the play countless times and it always amazes me what the National Theatre have created from my book - ground-breaking theatre and a wonderful anthem for peace.
What's coming up next? Are you working on any other books or projects that you can discuss at the moment?
I’ve got a new novel out in the autumn from Harper Collins called Boy Giant. It’s a retelling of Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift but with a modern spin. You’ll have to wait till early October to read it but I loved writing it.
Now celebrating his 75th birthday, Michael Morpurgo will be at The Apex on Thursday 26 September, in conversation with comedian Katy Brand, sharing his gift for magical storytelling and revealing the secrets that nearly 50 years of writing has taught him. Visit www.theapex.co.uk or ring 01284 758000 for information and tickets.