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Michael Morpurgo is, in his own words, “oldish, married with three children, and a grandfather six times over.” Born in 1943, he attended schools in London, Sussex and Canterbury (one at least of which was horrible enough to inspire him to describe it obliquely in The Butterfly Lion). He went on to London University to study English and French, followed by a step into the teaching profession and a job in a primary school in Kent. It was there that he discovered what he wanted to do.
“We had to read the children a story every day and my lot were bored by the book I was reading. I decided I had to do something and told them the kind of story I used to tell my kids – it was like a soap opera, and they focused on it. I could see there was magic in it for them, and realised there was magic in it for me.”
In 1976 Michael and his wife, Clare, started the charity Farms For City Children (FFCC), which aims to relieve the poverty of experience of young children from inner city and urban areas by providing them with a week in which they work actively and purposefully on farms in the heart of the countryside. They now have three farms – Nethercott in Devon, Treginnis in Wales and Wick in Gloucestershire. “As a teacher I realised many children had little real contact with the world around them – to them the television was real. I wanted them to experience life at first hand.” In the last 30 years over, 50,000 children from cities and towns throughout the UK have spent a week of their lives living and working on one of the three farms.
Living in Devon, listening to Mozart, and working with children have provided most of the stimulae Michael needs to discover and write his stories. He spends about half his life mucking out sheds with the children, feeding sheep or milking cows; the other half he spends dreaming up and writing stories. “For me, the greater part of writing is daydreaming, dreaming the dream of my story until it hatches out – the writing down of it I always find hard. But I love finishing it, then holding the book in my hand and sharing my dream with my readers.”
Where do you get your ideas for books from?
From all around me. Places, people, stories I hear, little happenings, big happenings, history. I keep my eyes and ears open, my heart fresh.
How many books have you written?
Over one hundred. Private Peaceful was the hundredth. Sound a lot but that’s fat ones, thin ones. All sorts.
Where do you write?
On my bed where I’m most comfortable. I pile the pillows up behind me, settle back and write by hand with my exercise book on my knees.
Are the stories true?
With each one there is an element of truth. I weave different truths into the same story to make another kind of truth. So with Kensuke’s Kingdom, (link) there was a Japanese soldier who decided to stay behind on an island after WW2, and people do hunt orangutans, kill the parents and kidnap their young, and people do sail around the world on yachts, and sometimes they fall overboard...
What was your first book?
Shan’t tell you, because it wasn’t much good.
What is your favourite book that you have written?
The Butterfly Lion or Kensuke’s Kingdom or War Horse or Private Peaceful.
How long does it take to write a book?
It depends on how well I’m writing, how well it’s flowing. But I usually spend several months dreaming it up in my head – I call it my ‘dreamtime’, the most important part of my story inventing when I try to weave the story together, do my research and find the right voice for the story. Once I begin writing, I write very fast and will finish a book in two or three months. Then revising it might take another month. So, on average, a novel takes upwards of 6 months to write.
Who’s your favourite author?
Robert Louis Stevenson (Treasure Island), Rudyard Kipling (The Just So Stories) and Ted Hughes (The Iron Man).
How do you choose your illustrators?
By getting to know them. I’ve worked for many years now with Michael Foreman. Indeed, he’s suggested many stories to me: Farm Boy, Billy the Kid, Arthur, High King of Britain. We really do spark off each other. I’ve worked very well too with Quentin Blake, Christian Birmingham, Tony Ross, Shoo Rayner and many others. The publishers sometimes help in choosing who should illustrate what. They know many more illustrators than I do, and can visualise a book better than me. But I know what I like.
How old are you? Have you got any children? Do you have any pets?
I’m very young. I have a wife called Clare and three children and six grandchildren. Sadly our old dog Bercelet died last year so all we have are four bantams, three hens and a cockerel called George who loves to scratch up the flowers in the garden.