Q & A with Michael Morpurgo

Michael Morpurgo OBE is one of the UK's best loved writers.
A former teacher who, inspired by telling stories to his class, has gone on to pen some 130 books. Among them are such modern day classics as The Wreck of the Zanzibar, The Butterfly Lion, Kensuke’s Kingdom, and Private Peaceful. Many of his tales have also been adapted into films, including Why the Whales Came (with Helen Mirren), War Horse (directed by Stephen Spielberg), and soon Waiting For Anya (with Strangers Things' Noah Schnapp).
Having recently celebrated his 75th birthday, Michael discusses his life and career with comedian/ actress Katy Brand at Coventry's Warwick Arts Centre on Wednesday 15 May 2019.
Are you comfortable with talking about your own life? I only ask because I notice there's an approved biography ... but not an autobiography ...
 I’m very comfortable talking about my own life, and I’ve used my own life hugely in my stories, and find that you can tell the truth about your own life better that way than by simple memory alone, because memory can deceive as much as fiction can.
Can you give us an example?
 It would be hard to think of a book in which my own life is not used somewhere. 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.
Your 75th birthday was in October - how did you spend the big day?
 I had my 75th birthday in Paris with all our grandchildren in a restaurant, two of whom are twins and share the same birthday as me, so I can never forget my birthday!
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. I hope that I make magic when I’m writing because I make myself and others believe in a story which may be part reality, and partly magic. 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.
How did you feel when you discovered someone wanted to turn War Horse into a play, 25 years after it had been published?
I was sceptical when the National Theatre first approached me. I wondered how a convincing drama of the First World War could be made using life-size puppets of horses. But this was the National Theatre after all, and they had done a great play of Coram Boy, adapted from another children’s novel.  For a year or more the directors, Tom Morris and Marianne Elliot, work-shopped the story with Basil Jones and Adrian Kohler from Handspring and the rest of the brilliant team – designers, musicians, writers. They came to Devon to see the landscape of the story and watch working horses; they spent time with the Royal Horse Artillery in London, and learnt about cavalry horses and soldiers working with horses. There were some tense moments during the previews, when it was obvious that the play was too long, even clumsy in places, but in the end it all came together. Press night was a triumph with five star reviews almost across the board. It has been running for 10 years now, and is touring again, in New Zealand and will be going to Paris later in the year.  I have seen the play countless times and it always amazes me what the National Theatre have created from my book first published years ago (1982) - both a piece of ground-breaking theatre and a wonderful anthem for peace.
You’ve also written stories featuring classic characters like King Arthur – how did that come about?
 My friend, the artist and writer Michael Foreman, who I have worked with so much, was the one who suggested a retelling of Arthur High King of Britain, and Gawain and the Green Night.
And you’ve also penned a book based around Raymond Briggs’ The Snowman – what attracted you to that particular project?
 It is a story which feels so happy, and so Christmassy, but is in fact of course about a child who feels very alone in the world, and who invents a friend and has this extraordinary adventure with this friend, imaginary or not. It was a challenge, but I’m a story-maker and I loved the challenge. In fact, I enjoy reworking the old stories more and more and have attempted many - Joan of Arc, Robin Hood, Gawain, Arthur, Hansel and Gretel, Aesop’s Fables, to name a few. I find that retellings have the effect of grounding me as a storyteller in between my own novels, giving me new understanding of how classic, lasting tales work, and how each generation has to refresh their traditional tales and re-energise them. I feel like I am passing them on to a new generation of readers, always trying to maintain the spirit of the original, to get to the heart of the story.