As seen in Somerset County Gazette’s The Guide
What was your favourite book as a child?
Treasure Island was the first book I read for myself where I felt utterly swept along in the story. There were enough illustrations to keep me happy too, but that wasn’t what held my attention. It was the writing.
How much of an impact did this have on how you view books and what they should give children?
It was a life-changing book for me, coming at a significant time of my life when I started to choose and read books for myself. Stevenson’s words could evoke time and place and people so well, that I felt myself living the story. I was Jim Hawkins on the deck of The Hispaniola, hiding in the apple barrel, overhearing the dastardly Long John Silver’s plans for mayhem and mutiny and murder.
Were you read to as a child and if so by whom?
My mother always read to my brother Pieter and me, at bedtime. She would read us poetry more often than stories – De La Mare, Lear and Kipling. My favourite was Kipling’s The Elephant’s Child, which I asked for over and over again. She was an actress so she could read wonderfully and do all the voices. Sitting there on the bed, she took us on a journey across the seas, to Africa, to the Great Grey Greasy Limpopo
Do you think parents/guardians should continue to read to their children as long as they can?
It’s really important but it can’t be forced. I think the main thing as parents and guardians is to try and pass on a passion for stories. When you read a story you love to a child or that the child loves, you hold hands through an adventure, discover a Gruffalo in the woods together or have tea with a Tiger. You live the story together and imagine it together – it’s a shared adventure.
Is reading aloud the best way to fall in love with stories?
It’s not the only way. There are plays, films, opera and paintings too, but there is something very special in being a read a story. I know it was what made me love stories when I was a child.
How do you go about planning your novels?
I spend a lot of time dreaming up my 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. Sometimes this process can take months. Once I’ve settled on an idea that I care about and am really passionate about, then I research around it and dream it out my mind, until I am familiar with the characters and their back stories and the back ground to the story. I don’t plan out the plot, rather let it emerge as I write. When I write I write by hand and try as far as possible to forget I’m writing it all and tell it down, through my fingers, speaking it onto the page, as if I’m telling it to my best friend.
What was the spark which got you on the path to becoming an author?
Many years ago, I was a teacher in a primary school in Kent. At the end of the day we used to read to the children in class. I could see that the story I was reading my Year 6’s was boring them – they were sitting staring out the window and falling asleep. I went home that night and my wife suggested that I tell them one of my own stories that I used to make up for our children at bedtime. So, rather nervous, I went in the next day 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 see writing now? Does success add more pressure as readers expect more from you with each book you write?
I do feel the pressure of deadlines but the writing process is still the same. There is still the blank page. The same blank page I faced when my teacher said write a side of A4 paper about a giraffe all those years ago at primary school. I don’t feel that readers expect more of me, it’s just that with some of the luck I have had with the books, then are more demands on your time and less time for dreaming and writing.
Do you try and give children and adults the same thrill from getting enthralled in your novels?
I am by nature an instinctive writer. When I write I do not think about any thing else other than the story itself. I simply lose myself in the world I have created, and the people I have invented. I am each of them as I write. To think of my readers would be a distraction, and an inhibition. I also know that if I were to consider the likely age of my readers I would be bound to end up by patronising them. No reader is the same as another. The experience of life each reader brings to the book is different, as is their understanding of the world, of themselves, and even of vocabulary.
What inner satisfaction do you feel when having finished a book?
It’s a mixture of feelings. I’m elated but also nervous about what people will think of the book. A very good feeling is when the finished book arrives from the printer, all pristine in it’s book-jacket, with my name on the cover. It’s like holding a new baby, a baby that I made all on my own!
How would you describe that moment when your ideas start clicking into place and the plot takes shape and gives you the chance to go in any direction you want?
I don’t start writing until I have lived with the story for a long time in my head, dreaming it up, weaving it, imagining the place, the people, the characters. Then when I’m ready to start writing it down, I am excited to get started. I try to tell it down onto the page, allowing it to flow, to get it down as if I was telling it to friend.
Does writing define you as a person or has it helped define who you are?
It’s a good question. I’m a storyteller first and foremost, but I’m also a husband and father, grandfather and great-grandfather. And I’ve been a farmer and a teacher and I help to run the charity Clare and I founded, Farms for City Children.
When you have finished a new novel do you need a break from all things bookish to re-charge the batteries?
I like to travel and see places and meet people and go for long walks in the Devon lanes around our home with my wife Clare, and I might do a bit of cooking which I enjoy and helps me unwind.
Tell me about your new book Flamingo Boy and how it came about?
I have a grandson Lorens who is autistic. I had never realised until he became part of our family what this really meant, or what it was. I have had many years now to witness his growing, to witness the devotion and love of his parents, and to get to know him more closely. I had not thought of writing a book about him because my understanding of autism was too shallow. I simply didn’t have the confidence to get started on a story.
Then my wife and I travelled to the Camargue in the south of France, a wild and wonderful national park with white horses, black bulls and pink flamingos. Whilst I was there, I thought then of an autistic boy growing up in a farmhouse in amongst these creatures, and how he might relate to them an d they might relate to him. I decided to set the story during the Second World War when France was an occupied country. Where children and people who were different were under threat whether they were gypsies or Jews or people who did not seem to be like other people, autistic children amongst them. It’s the story of how people from different culture and backgrounds can come together, especially when they are under threat.
Do each of your books leave a lasting impact on you?
It’s not so much a lasting impact but the stories seems to have a life of their own. I’ve been very lucky that my books have been picked up by theatre, film and dance so it’s wonderful to see them take another form and become wonderful productions.
In your opinion where is the best place to read a book?
For me it’s a bit like writing. I like to read where I write – sitting on my bed in comfort, with lots of pillows supporting my back and with a book on my knees.
How do you feel about The Museum of Somerset hosting the Michael Morpurgo: A Lifetime in Stories exhibition and seeing your life as a writer represented in this way?
I am so pleased that this wonderful exhibition that started at Seven Stories in Newcastle is now coming to The Museum of Somerset. Somerset is a place I love to visit when I can and where I have many friends.
Discover the Exhibition
Michael Morpurgo: A lifetime in Stories opens 17 March to 7 July
Cost £2.50 (age 8+)
Discover the life and works of one of Britain’s best-loved storytellers and the author of the inspirational hit of stage and screen War Horse at this new family exhibition.
The exhibition comes to the museum from Seven Stories, The National Centre for Children’s Books.