Today I am really busy with computer programming related things so don't have much time for thinking and posting. So I'm going to cheat and reprint an interview I did with Michael Morpurgo when he came to Australia in 2007. Almost two years later, he remains one of my favourite children's authors.
Half an Hour (is never enough!) with Michael Morpurgo
Michael Morpurgo has a wonderful voice – rich and full of expression – as he narrates the plot for one of his novels or speaks passionately about his great love of children’s literature. A true a storyteller on paper and in person.
If he wasn’t an author, he would like to have been an actor. The son of actor parents, and with a voice like that, his readers are lucky literature called him first.
It is hard to know where to start with Michael. He not only held the position of UK Children’s Laureate (2003-2005) but with his friend Ted Hughes, created the role. He has written over 100 books winning many prestigious awards including the Children’s Book Award, the Whitbred (now Costa) Children’s Book Award and the Smarties Prize. In 2006 he was awarded an OBE for Services to Children’s Literature.
He is the patron of numerous charities. In 1976, with his wife Claire, he founded Farms For City Children, which provides children from inner city and urban areas with a week working in the countryside. The Morpurgos now have three farms and in the last 30 years over 50,000 children have participated in the program.
I decided to start with my favourite book, one which also has a strong Australian connection. Alone on a Wide, Wide Sea, released by HarperCollins in 2006 is the story of Arthur, a British orphan forcibly separated from his sister and sent to a new life in Australia. Arthur’s new beginning is not a good start - he is sent to a bush farm where a harsh and cruel overseer overworks the children and fills their lives with pain and misery.
It’s obvious from the descriptions, that Michael has been physically touched by the Australian bush. Surely not even he could describe the look and feel so accurately unless he’d been there. I asked Michael about the experiences behind Alone on the Wide, Wide Sea.
‘Alone on the Wide, Wide Sea is actually three separate ‘Australia’ experiences’, he told me. The idea began when he met a man who as a child had been shipped overseas to Australia. The boy had left with dreams of a wonderful new life, only to end up in a ‘work camp’. It angered Michael that vulnerable young children were uprooted and relocated, supposedly to a brighter future, but with no commitment to determine what really happened to them. In the end, no one cared.
It’s a common thread that runs through Michael’s conversation. He does care, passionately. Especially for those less able to fight their own battles - children, animals and the underprivileged. And he does something about it through his charity work and in his books.
On a prior visit to Australia Michael had a weekend ‘free’ and his publisher arranged for him to visit a pioneer farm for city children outside Melbourne, a project similar to his own farms. It was there he met two characters who later appeared in the second part of Alone on the Wide, Wide Sea – Aunty Meg the wildlife carer and Henry the wombat. It was there he also connected to the Australian bush.
Arthur eventually escapes into a better life. The third part of Alone on the Wide, Wide was inspired by two English friends now living in Australia who set sail from Hobart and did indeed make contact with the International Space Station. ‘A story like that just has to go in a book,’ Michael said. “Every story I write has some truth in it somewhere.” And that was another common thread. Michael blends experience and true life incidents with imagination.
These ‘ancient Australia mariners’ bring the book full circle. It’s a sad story, but in the end there is joy and hope. Michael spoke of the importance of not patronising young readers with a false view of the world, but still leaving them with a strong positive message.
We spoke about Michael’s newly released Born to Run (Best Mate). While it was inspired by the cruel way in which obsolete greyhounds are disposed of and buried into mass graves, it also has a strong theme of hope. A young boy rescues a drowning puppy from a bag in the canal and names him Best Mate. A greyhound trainer steals the talented animal and names him Brighteyes. After the trainer’s stepdaughter rescues him, he becomes Paddywhack, the friend of a recently widowed man fighting to save an old people’s home. While it is sad to see each relationship end, each new person derives great joy from the dog’s friendship and Best Mate loves them all.
I told Michael how after reading Born to Run (Best Mate), I did some quick on-line research to discover, to my surprise, the situation is similar here. This is another reason Michael likes to write. To bring issues to the attention of his readers. To speak out against exploitation of any kind. Michael has a great admiration for dogs. They symbolise companionship, trust and friendship – qualities he values highly.
I asked Michael about his role as Children’s Laureate, a position which has no equivalent in Australia. He described how a title provides an immediate spokesman focal point for the media and how it enabled him to reach a wider audience. He stressed the importance of encouraging parents to read to young children and of reaching out to young teachers to ensure they carried a love of children’s literature into their classrooms.
We talked about the child inside the man. “The child is the heart and soul. Lose that and we become crusty and old,” Michael said. He spoke of how he didn’t think of the audience when he told a story but rather he let the story tell itself. It didn’t need to be constrained by adult perceptions of what children could understand. “Talk directly,” he said. “Let them reach for what they don’t understand. Every time they reach, they grow. Their knowledge expands.”
When I asked Michael what he regarded as his career highlights, I could hear the warmth in his smile – even over the phone. The previous evening at Gleebooks in Sydney, a father had thanked him for changing the life of their family. Such gestures are Michael’s treasured moments. “It is a great privilege to reach into their souls. We discover we’re not alone,” he said.
Michael talked about the time he spends dreaming. Often up to 80% of the total time writing a manuscript is reading, researching, travelling and chasing down ideas. “By the time I face the paper I know the characters, the landscape, the time in history. I see and smell before I write.” Michael has a Japanese style tea-room where he writes by hand, sitting on the bed. “Robert Louis Stevenson style,” he called it. He writes for 3 to 4 hours in the morning and then will walk in the afternoon, when he is too tired to write any more.
He writes and edits fast – letting the story flow. His last book took 3 weeks to write and edit but it was 9 months in the dreaming and researching. He shared the advice his friend Ted Hughes gave him. Never start until you can finish. And if you have difficulty finishing, do it anyway. Keep confident. Believe.
Finally, I asked Michael what his personal favourites were among his own books. He didn’t hesitate. Private Peaceful with its powerful message about war and relationships, and all the battles, public and private, in between. I shivered as he described the execution scene. Kensuke’s Kingdom, where a boy is marooned on an island with an old Japanese soldier. It’s a tale across cultures and generations. A wonderful adventure and story of friendship. For those who haven’t read these two books, add them to your reading list now!
And if you ever get the chance to hear Michael Morpurgo speak, don’t miss it. I reluctantly ended my phone conversation, inspired to write and convicned of the need for a Children’s Laureate here in Australia.