'You need to live a rich life before you can write'
A floating piano is author's latest inspiration, writes Edel Coffey
There was a time, not too long ago, when the name Michael Morpurgo, distinctive as it sounds, meant nothing to most people over the age of 10. Ever since his book, War Horse, was made into a play by the National Theatre in 2007 and, subsequently, a film by Steven Spielberg, Morpurgo has become almost as well known as his books.
Over four million people have seen the play, and now the award-winning production, with its masterful puppetry by South Africa's Handspring Puppet Company, is coming to Ireland.
The play tells the story of Albert, a young boy from Devon, and his beloved horse Joey and their time fighting in World War I. Morpurgo, an avuncular figure with rosy cheeks and dressed in a faded red suit, says the story is a metaphor for all war.
"Of all the wars ever fought, the first world war was one of the most horrifically destructive and it spread to nations all over the world. If ever there was a story about why you shouldn't fight war, it's the first world war."
Ten million people died in that war, including 30,000 Irish soldiers, many of them little more than boys. "We all know that the vast majority just wanted to go home. Imagine a soldier, a little boy of 17, getting into his uniform. They had never met a German in their lives. It was the uniform he was fighting, not the person.
"At a time when we're coming up to 100 years after this appalling holocaust began, we now have a period of peace and I love the confirmation of that in this story. It's about peace and reconciliation and it's found its time."
Despite its global fame, War Horse is just one book among a staggering back catalogue of 130. Does it bother Morpurgo that War Horse has become the defining book of his career? "I don't know if I ever wanted any one story to become that and it makes me quite irritated now when I publish a book and it says 'Author of War Horse' but I am so pleased that a book that had been ignored and remained unread for many years is now being read and that has happened because of the play and because a film producer saw it and phoned up her chum Steven Spielberg. It doesn't make the book any better."
Morpurgo had a career as a teacher before he came to writing. In fact, it was in the course of his teaching that he discovered his gift for storytelling as he used to make up stories for the schoolchildren.
Morpurgo is now nearly 70 and his own three children are fully grown. But children are still at the centre of his life. He has six grandchildren and also runs a charity with wife Clare, which enables children from inner-city areas to come and stay for a week on one of their three farms in England.
While War Horse has taken on a life of its own as a play and a film, Morpurgo is still busy writing books, and his next one had its origins in Kinsale, Co Cork. "I'm finishing a novel called Listen To The Moon and it's about an extraordinary image that I discovered researching the Lusitania. When the ship went down, for hours afterwards, people were trying to rescue people and they found the ship's piano from the dining room floating on the ocean and lying on top of the piano was this kid that they rescued.
"No one knows who that child was, but I wanted to write the story of who that child might have been and who that child might have become."
Morpurgo's writing process has remained the same throughout the years. He writes by hand and he always starts with an idea that he is passionate about.
He also had some good advice from a friend who just happened to be one of the best poets of the 20th Century -- Ted Hughes. "He lived down the lane from us at Devon. He became a very close friend and a great mentor in terms of writing."
When it came to writing, Hughes's advice was to live a rich life. "He said, never, never sit down in front of an empty piece of paper unless you have first had weeks and months, maybe years of dream time and that you have worked the story, not in detail, but you have the landscape and the dramatis personae of your story in your head. That will give you an ease in which the writing can flow. But in order for that to happen, what you need to do is have a very rich life."
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