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Michael Morpurgo celebrates the magic of storytelling with birthday tour to Bury St Edmunds

PUBLISHED: 11:12 07 September 2019

Michael Morpurgo and Joey, the sophisticated, life-sized puppet created for the National Theatre production of his best-selling novel War Horse Photo: National Theatre

Michael Morpurgo and Joey, the sophisticated, life-sized puppet created for the National Theatre production of his best-selling novel War Horse Photo: National Theatre

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Classic children's author Michael Morpurgo has a knack of writing books that not only tell thrilling stories have have the ability to trigger an emotional connection with the reader. We caught up with him prior to his visit to The Apex on September 26

Michael Morpurgo sitting astride Joey, the sophisticated, life-sized puppet created for the National Theatre production of his best-selling novel War Horse Photo: National TheatreMichael Morpurgo sitting astride Joey, the sophisticated, life-sized puppet created for the National Theatre production of his best-selling novel War Horse Photo: National Theatre

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?

I understand that your 75th Anniversary tour will see you telling your own story ... are you comfortable with talking about your own life? (I only ask because I notice there's an approved biography ... but not an autobiography!)

Michael Morpurgo, who is touring venues to mark his 75th birthday Photo: Phil CrowMichael Morpurgo, who is touring venues to mark his 75th birthday Photo: Phil Crow

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.

Do elements of your own life spin into your books? And if so, can you give us a couple of examples?

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. 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. But I discovered him later on on the television because he turned out to have been an actor. I first saw him playing Magwitch in Great Expectations one Christmas on the television.

This is billed as a 75th Anniversary Tour - your birthday was back in October I understand - 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 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.

And you've described yourself more as a storyteller than a writer ... what's the difference? / why differentiate the roles?

I suppose I always think of the best writing as great literature - Dickens, Shakespeare, Pullman, Ted Hughes and Seamus Heaney. They are amongst the great writers who write literature with a capital 'L' and some of them are also wonderful storytellers. My art and craft is to tell stories much more directly than great writers usually do. I look a child in the eye whilst I'm writing and tell the story out loud, down on to the page. I think I do this because the first stories I ever told were oral to my class of year sixes at the primary school where I taught, and I practiced my craft by telling stories orally because I found I engaged deeply with my audience doing this. I still do. I rather deliberately try not to think of myself as a writer but as a teller of tales; the sound of the words being hugely important.

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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? (If so, which and why? - If not, are there any which you'd like to see maybe just enjoy a newfound surge in popularity?)

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 on border of France and Spain and during the time of Nazi occupation of France. 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, and they made it in the actual village where it was set, which I visited called Lescun. It has a wonderful international star cast including Angelica Huston, Thomas Kretschmann and Jean Reno as well as Noah Schnapp from Strangers Things. 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 was a huge stage (2007) and cinematic (2011) success, but the book came out back in 1982 ... how was it received at the time?

It was well received at the time and sold reasonably but nothing spectacular, selling a few thousand copies a year. But my publishers Egmont kept it in print and it sold well in France and overseas. It was even shortlisted for the Whitbread Award and I went all the way to London with my wife and they even sent a limo to meet our train. When I didn't win, the disappointment was huge as I really believed in the book, and it has always been my wife's favourite and that means a lot. Everything that has happened to War Horse has been unbelievable, a huge piece of luck.

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 now 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 - both a piece of ground-breaking theatre and a wonderful anthem for peace.

Many of your books have been turned into plays, TV, films ... do you like to get involved in the process of adapting your work for other media?

I have been really lucky to have my books turned into some wonderful plays and films. My writing has given me the opportunity to work with some of the greatest directors including Tom Morris and Marianne Elliott, but also Emma Rice of wonderful Kneehigh and the Globe, and Simon Reade who adapted Private Peaceful for the stage. It really depends on the director and the production as to how involved I am. For example, with Emma Rice, I was involved in the writing, work-shopping the play of 946 from my book Adolphus Tips with her and the actors in Cornwall for a week which was glorious and an incredibly inspiring process. Plays and films certainly have given my writing another dimension. I feel more and more that my writing is bound up in performance in some way.

You've written stories featuring Raymond Briggs' Snowman and characters from L. Frank Baum's Wizard Of Oz - what attracted you to both of these classic books?

With both of these the initial suggestion came from somewhere else as it often does with my books - someone will mention something or I'll read an article or hear something on the radio. 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. The idea of retelling the Wizard of Oz was the suggestion of Emma Chichester Clark, with whom I have often collaborated before, and my publisher Ann-Janine Murtagh. I resisted for a long time as it was never one of my favourite films - and like most of the millions who know and adore the film, I had never read the book. But I read the book again and watched the play and was intrigued by the part that Toto plays in the original story. He is always there either at Dorothy's side, or being carried by her. So, I thought, why not let Toto tell tell his own story, in his own voice. I had written often enough in the first person in my stories. I have been a horse writer in War Horse, a polar bear writer in The Rainbow Bear, I could be a dog writer in Toto become a dog, see the world Toto's way.

Again for The Snowman I was asked by Puffin books to retell the Snowman as a novel for the 40th anniversary. My first reaction was, 'don't touch it.' But then I thought that, actually, it's rather a wonderful idea, as this is a book that began just with pictures, and I was asked to write it as a novel of fifteen to twenty thousand words. It was most important that Raymond Briggs liked the idea, which I believe he does.

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 storymaker and I loved the challenge. In fact, I enjoy reworking the old stories more and more and have attempted many - Joan of Ark, Robin Hood, Gawain, Arthur, Hansel and Gretel, Aespos 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 reenergise 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.

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.

Michael Morpurgo will be at The Apex on Thursday September 26, 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.

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