Ipswich: War Horse author Michael Morpurgo interviewed

Michael Morpurgo, one of the speakers at this year's Literary Ipswich

Michael Morpurgo, one of the speakers at this year's Literary Ipswich - Credit: Archant

He’s one of the country’s best loved writers, penning such stories as War Horse and The Butterfly Lion. Michael Morpurgo talks to Wayne Savage ahead of his visit to Ipswich as part of Literary Ipswich.

Michael Morpurgo's latest book, A Medal For Leroy

Michael Morpurgo's latest book, A Medal For Leroy - Credit: Archant

“It’s just as important to have lived an interesting life as to write about it. In fact, for me, you can’t do one without the other. The more places I go, the more people I meet, the more fascinating the world becomes. There is always a well of experience the writer draws inspiration from. I couldn’t do it if I sat in a room and simply made it up,” says the profilic author.

Michael Morpurgo's The Butterfly Lion which launched the Colchester Mercury's autumn season. Picture

Michael Morpurgo's The Butterfly Lion which launched the Colchester Mercury's autumn season. Picture: Robert Day - Credit: Archant

Having penned more than 120 books including The Butterfly Lion, Why the Whales Came, The Mozart Question, Shadow, War Horse and Private Peaceful - the latter turned into a film shot in Ipswich - Morpurgo fans are being spoilt this autumn.

War Horse author Michael Morpurgo (right) with Joey, the large stage puppet from the National Theatr

War Horse author Michael Morpurgo (right) with Joey, the large stage puppet from the National Theatre's production of War Horse. - Credit: PA

His most recent book, A Medal for Leroy, is out in paperback along with his retelling of Pinocchio and a new short story collection A Life in Stories; published for his 70th birthday which comes two days after his highly anticipated appearance at next month’s inaugural Literary Ipswich festival.

Private Peaceful, shot in and around Ipswich

Private Peaceful, shot in and around Ipswich - Credit: Archant

“The first was inspired by the story of the first black officer Walter Tull who, despite extraordinary bravery in the First World War, never received a medal. Pinocchio is the story of the famous boy puppet told in his own words, definitely not Disney, and beautifully illustrated by Emma Chichester-Clark. I hope my readers will like them.”


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He’ll be talking about these and his work in general at The Great School, Ipswich School, at 6.30pm, on October 3.

“Great good fortune, the benefits of longevity and, I suppose, how grand it is to have spent most of one’s life doing something I love to do,” says the former children’s laureate of his long career, which began in the classroom.

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Going into teaching in his 20s not out of any great sense of mission, but simply because it was a job he thought he could do quite well as well as being a way of earning a living, it turned out he liked it immensely.

“I discovered I could, in fact, really communicate with the children in my class in a meaningful way. I discovered, after a while and after much experimentation, there was only one way I could be sure of having their total attention and that was by reading to them.

“It was from reading one day to my class that I realised the book I was reading them was boring them. My wife suggested the next day I should tell them one of my own stories. I did this and they seemed to love it, so I decided to write them down.”

Morpurgo has said he could see there was magic in it for the children and realised there was magic in it for him.

“It certainly gave me the confidence to think I could have a go (at being a writer),” he says. “The greater part of my work is dreaming my stories up in my head. Turning them into books means you share your dreams with other people and wonderfully they can make of your dreams what they will, bringing their own meaning and imagination to what you have tried to create.”

Much of him is in his work; his own memories of childhood are the basis for many of his stories and if not his memories then other people’s.

Case in point, The Butterfly Lion which played in the region recently; inspired by Morpurgo’s unhappy experiences at boarding school.

“It’s true I ran away from boarding school when I was seven. That episode is true in The Butterfly Lion, but I was no unhappier than anyone else at my boarding school. We all would rather have been at home than at school; that was the problem I suppose.”

Being an outsider, struggling to survive, are recurring themes in his work.

“Maybe to a greater or lesser extent we all feel alone and sometimes an outsider and it’s a struggle to hang in and keep going. When we do it’s a triumph.”

Talking of triumph, he confesses watching his work adapted for the stage and screen can be wonderful and exciting, but sometimes it can equally be disappointing.

“Every production on stage or on screen is a way of shining a new light on a story, having someone else tell it in their own way. I know with The Butterfly Lion that it’s a wonderful production, sensitively adapted and beautifully played; as were War Horse and Private Peaceful.”

Much was made of Morpurgo’s unhappiness that the makers of Peaceful decided to shoot the film - the tale of two brothers who fall for the same girl while dealing with the pressures of their feudal family life in the fields of Devon and the battlefields of Flanders during the First World War - in Ipswich.

“Private Peaceful is set in Devon and it is the Devon landscape and architecture I imagined, so it would have been lovely if it could have been filmed there,” he says. “But it is the nature of filming and always the nature of plays that landscapes change. That’s not to say Suffolk isn’t every bit as beautiful as Devon.”

I can’t say goodbye without asking about War Horse, which has evolved into a West End show and Steven Spielberg film. It’s been an incredible journey; Morpurgo says he has still has to pinch himself to see if it is real.

“Recently, the National Theatre brought Joey, the puppet, home to Iddesleigh, my village in Devon where it all started, where I was originally inspired to write the story. It was an incredible experience to have Joey there – more than a thousand people turned out to welcome him on a lovely sunny day, with the local band playing and children from nearby schools. Joey has come a very long way since the National Theatre first approached me about the book.”

He admits to being sceptical in the beginning; how on Earth could a convincing drama of the First World War be made using life-size puppets of horses? It took a year or more for directors Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris to workshop the story, to explore how it could be done.

“The result has been one of the greatest anthems for peace I have ever seen,” says Morpurgo.

“For me, there has to be a certain amount of trust and I’ve been lucky my book has been taken up by such talented individuals. I knew I could trust them to create something wonderful. The company does ask me for advice and I speak to the new cast and talk to them about the book and about Devon whenever I can. Again, with the film I was lucky. This was Spielberg, one of the greatest directors of all time and a truly great storyteller. I trusted him with my story.”

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