Tuesday, 10 April 2012

A Conversation with Michael Morpurgo

by Gillian Hamer

Not ever having read a great deal of children’s fiction, Michael Morpurgo was not a writer I was familiar with until the recent explosive success of his novel, War Horse, both on stage and big screen. But upon researching his background, I’ve found myself drawn to his passion for his work and his staggering literary credentials.

It was during his first job as a primary school teacher, in his late twenties, that Michael discovered his talent for storytelling. Since then, he has gone on to become famous not only as an author, predominantly in children’s fiction, but also a poet, playwright and librettist. He was the third Children’s Laureate and has written in excess of 120 novels so far.

But it is his novel, War Horse – runner-up for the Whitbread Book Award in 1982, which finally catapulted Michael’s name into the spotlight.

War Horse has been adapted as a radio broadcast and as a successful stage play, premiering in South Bank, London, in October 2007, with the horses played by life-sized puppet horses. The show transferred to the West End in March 2009 and continues a successful run at the New London Theatre. And last year, the stage version premiered on Broadway at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre. And finally, to cap the extraordinary success of Joey and his owner, Albert, the story has been welcomed into the arms of Hollywood with a British-American film directed by Stephen Spielberg.

The synopsis of the book seems a relatively simple approach to the wartime-based story that Michael enjoys tackling:

At the outbreak of World War I, Joey, young Albert’s beloved horse, is sold to the cavalry and shipped to France. His rider, Captain Nicholls is killed while riding Joey. The horse is soon caught up in the war; death, disease and fate take him on an extraordinary odyssey, serving on both sides before finding himself along in No man’s land. But Albert cannot forget Joey and, still not old enough to enlist in the British Army, he embarks on a dangerous mission to find the horse and bring him home to Devon.

So, what is it about this story of love and faith that has so captured the hearts and minds of people across the globe?

One person may well know the answer more than most. So, with that question, and more, this month we’re pleased to have the opportunity to speak to the author himself – Mr Michael Morpurgo.

How were you first approached about the theatre and cinema adaptations of War Horse? Which idea came first and what were your initial thoughts/fears?

I was first approached via my agent by the National Theatre. It was the director Tom Morris’ mother who originally discovered my book and urged him to read War Horse. I was sceptical at first. I wondered how on earth a convincing drama of the First World War could be made using life-size puppets of horses? For the film, it was Kathleen Kennedy, producer of films such as ET and Schindler’s List who came to see the National Theatre production of War Horse with her daughter on a visit to London. She was so entranced by the play that she immediately called Spielberg and suggested that War Horse might be worth a read for his next film and that he should come over and see the play too.

Did you ever have any concerns about how Joey’s story could effectively be told via confines of the theatre stage?

I did have fears initially, but I trusted Tom Morris and Marianne Elliott implicitly. They work-shopped the story with Basil Jones and Adrian Kohler from Handspring and the rest of the team – designers, musicians, writers, to explore how it could be done. They came down to Devon where I live to see the landscape of the story, to watch horses working the land. 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 they got it together somehow. Press night was a triumph.

The settings in both Devon and France are important features in the novel. Obviously there are limitations in theatre, but how do you think the sense of place comes across in the film compared to your books?
I think the scenes in Devon and France are magnificent. The cinematography is breathtaking. Spielberg filmed much of the Devon story on Dartmoor, very close to the village of Iddesleigh which was the original setting for the Devon story in the book.

What do you feel are the main differences between the stage adaptation and the film? And what are particular advantages of both?

The film keeps closer to the story in the book, I would say, but both the stage adaptation and the film are true to the spirit of the story.  Both have great emotional intensity.

An obvious question about POV. In the book, the story is told in the ‘voice’ of Joey the horse. Clearly, this is not possible in the film, which chooses a naturalistic viewpoint. How do you feel this changes the nature of the story? And did you ever consider writing the story from an external point of view?

I did consider writing the story from an external point of view but I think that would have meant making a judgment about war and I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to tell the story of suffering on all sides, universal suffering, through the eyes of a creature who is wholly innocent and yet caught up in the events. I also wanted to explore the bond between animals and humans as I have in my books many times. There is a particular connection that people feel to horses that I have witnessed through the relationship of my own daughter to her horse.

Many of your children’s stories are set in or on the fringes of War. Why are you drawn to that as a theme? And why do you consider it important to write on those themes for children?

I was a war baby, born in 1943. As I grew up, I soon learned how war had torn my world apart. I lived next to a bombsite, played in it because we weren’t supposed to, and because it was the best adventure playground imaginable. But I soon learned that much more than buildings were destroyed by war. My parents had split up because of it. I knew my handsome young uncle Pieter, killed in 1940, in the RAF, through a photograph, through the stories I heard of him and through the grief my mother lived every day of her life.  I missed him and I’d never known him. War continues to divide people, to change them forever, and I write about it both because I want people to understand the absolute futility of war, the ‘pity of war’ as Wilfred Owen called it. Wars are still happening today and children see the effects of war and suffering all around them, on the tv, in newspapers and through the people they know. Knowing the sensitivities of children, we have to be careful not to traumatise them when writing about or telling them about such dreadful events as war and the consequences of war. But nonetheless, I think we have to talk straight about these issues and not talk down to children.

You’re such a prolific writer, what motivates you nowadays, and is there an additional spark when you write now, knowing your work could develop into so much more than just the original novel?

I know that I have been very very lucky to have a book turned into a play and not just any play, and then a film by one of the greatest film directors and storytellers of all time. My work has given me the opportunity to work with some of the greatest theatre directors including Tom Morris and Marianne Elliott, but also Simon Reade, who adapted Private Peaceful and the Mozart Question for stage and radio, and is now producing a movie for Private Peaceful directed by Pat O’Connor. It certainly has given my writing another dimension. I feel more and more that my writing is bound up in performance in some way. I always speak my story down onto the page to hear how it sounds. When I am writing well I’m deep inside a story, living it as I write it and also feeling it deeply. This is when the story really begins to work. I hope that readers will become completely involved in my story as they are reading – in much the same way that people in the theatre suspend disbelief so that a puppet horse can become a living, breathing creature capable of cantering across fields and pulling a cannon.

You have done a great deal of work with illustrators, librettists, directors, puppeteers, not to mention directors – in your opinion what makes for the best kind of creative collaboration?

The best kind of creative collaboration is based on trust. I think in adaptation you have to trust and allow the experts to do what they do best, even if it isn’t always how you would want it to be done.
Have you ever written yourself into a character? And if so, is it therefore odd watching or hearing the role on stage or film or radio play?

I suppose I use myself a great deal in all my characters, the good, the bad and the ugly.  But while I am creating them I do detach myself as far as possible, so I can look upon them as if they are entirely not me, even though I know they are connected, if that makes sense.

You’re obviously famous for pushing the boundaries of lead characters, using animals for example. What do you think are the key points needed to create a successful main protagonist, be it horse, dog or human, in children’s literature?

To become the character, animal or human, is the key.  I have to do what the puppeteers do in the play of War Horse. They become horse. I become every character I create, try to see the world as they do, live inside their skin.

Looking now to the phenomenal success of War Horse, how much involvement did you have in the theatre production?

I have tried to keep involved as much as I can and offer advice when they want it. I read the script and commented on the bits that I thought didn’t work so well originally. I always try and go and talk to the new cast – even went to New York. I tell them about the origin of the book and about Devon. The team from the National came down to Devon to see the landscape of the story, to watch horses working the land. I also suggested that they visit the Royal Horse Artillery Regiment, where soldiers still work with horses every day at their barracks in London St John’s Wood.

And same question with the film version. Did you get to work alongside Steven Spielberg and the amazing cast? Did you meet Joey?

I did meet him a few times and talked about the book and about the First World War. I visited the set with my wife Clare several times and we both got to have roles as extras in the film. You can spot us near the beginning of the film in one of the village scenes. I’ve got not very attractive side-burns but my wife looks gorgeous!

Aside from POV, how close did you hope the film adaptation would be to your novel – a mirror image or do you prefer some originality?

I prefer originality. A film or play that simply reproduces the novel rarely works.    There must be scope for the originality of a director, he or she cannot be constrained.

Do you feel your writing has changed at all now your novels are regularly made into films?

Not at all

Are there any other books to big screen adaptations you particularly rate in your chosen genre? And if so, why?

Lots.  King of the Cloud Forest, Elephant in the Garden, Running Wild, Alone on a Wide Wide Sea – others too.

As an author, how does it feel to pick up a newspaper and read that something you have created is now a huge Hollywood success, which as we write, is in contention for six Academy Awards and five BAFTAS? Does it ever feel a little unreal?

Yes, it feels a bit unreal at times, and there are moments that I know I have got lucky, very lucky indeed.  I just come home and sit down in front of my exercise book and become a writer again, or go for a muddy walk down by the river. I soon come down to earth again,

The story of the conception of the idea of War Horse is quite wonderful – a young boy who visited one of your city farms in Birmingham bonded with a horse. Do you think it’s possible that children could take some similar strength away from the book or the film?

I hope that both the book and the film convey the universal suffering of war that touches everyone. I wanted to tell a story from the point of view of an innocent animal who sees the war from both sides. This was my greatest anxiety too about the book that, the reader, child or adult, would have to suspend disbelief instantly.  Get it wrong and it simply wouldn’t work. I had to believe not in the notion of course that horses could talk or write, but there could be real empathy between horse and man.

I had heard from accounts of veterans that I talked to in my village how attached the soldiers had become to their horses, how they confided in them talk to them as best friends when they went to see them in the horse lines. But never having witnessed this myself I could never quite believe it. I still thought it might be perhaps just an old soldier’s sentimental notion.  It was seeing the boy from Birmingham – Billy – who I had been told never uttered a word - talking so freely to our horse in his stable at night, that made me convinced that I had found the right way to tell my story.

What is the truth behind the story of the painting of ‘Joey’ that also inspired you?

The truth is that there was never a painting of ‘Joey’ in the village hall in Iddesleigh as is says in the opening of War Horse. I was inspired by a painting but it was of horses on the wire in the First World War. The painting of Joey hanging above the clock in the village hall was never true. But since the book and the film people have been coming to the village especially to see the painting of Joey so we have had one commissioned by the artist Ali Bannister and now it hangs in pride of place in the hall.

As a literary magazine, we recognise YA is a hugely popular genre at the moment, what words of wisdom or encouragement would you offer to new upcoming writers hoping to follow in your footsteps?

All I can tell you are some of the guide lines that I have worked out for myself:

Live an interesting life.  Go places.  Meet people.   Keep your eyes and your ears and your heart open so that you drink in the world about you and fill up the well you will be drawing from when you write.  Read a lot and widely, learn from the masters. If you can, write just a little every day, telling down the most important thing that has happened to you that day, just a couple of lines, so that it’s there.   If you do it on a regular basis this helps you find your natural voice.

Finally, as an aside, you are on record as criticising library closures both in Devon where you now live and in your native Hertfordshire. But what kind of library service do you think can best serve communities these days? And do you have a view of the role of volunteers in providing library services?

I believe that good libraries and good school libraries in particular are vital, but more importantly the librarians who work in them and enthuse about books and stories, are essential. We all know that reading can transform people and change lives, and libraries play a vital role, especially for those children who don’t have books at home.

Images Copyright Richard Canon.

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