Sunday 18 February 2018

Michael Morpugo: The edgy children's novelist beloved of Steven Spielberg

Michael Morpurgo may not be a familiar name to most adult readers but, among children, he is a legend. He has written more than 100 books, one of which, Warhorse, has been made into a film by Steven Spielberg and is due for release early next year.

The Englishman is particularly looking forward to his trip to Bantry next month for the West Cork Literary Festival, saying we Irish have somehow managed to hold on to our storytelling heritage.

"You're properly connected to stories, there's still something in Ireland about singing and about stories which is very much connected to the people. Maybe it's down to something the British have done. I wonder if you've occupied a country and done your best to humiliate it, do people find the resource to remain who they are from their music and their stories and their language?"

Morpurgo is quick to differentiate the concept of storyteller and writer (he puts himself in the former category and reads all of his stories into a dictaphone, editing as he listens back).

"If I were to put my hand on my heart, I know perfectly well I don't write great literature but I hope I wrote a great story or two."

Spielberg certainly agrees about his storytelling ability.

According to Morpurgo, "The [British] National Theatre picked up this book [Warhorse] that has been ignored for 25 years. They decided to make a family play and now it's gone to Broadway.

"The lucky thing was Kathleen Kennedy, Spielberg's producer, came in to the theatre one night with her daughter and was blown away. She came out of the theatre and rang Speilberg with whom she's made ET, Schindler's List, Saving Private Ryan and all these iconic films. She said I've found a terrific story for a movie and within 10 days he was over so his decision was pretty instantaneous. I met him and talked it through and discovered I was in the presence of a storytelling genius."

Clearly the two are kindred spirits.

Morpurgo first came to storytelling through his work as a primary-school teacher. "I discovered the only way you could hold children's attention was to tell them a really good story, person to person, not adult to child."

Unlike some authors who write for children, Morpurgo feels no limitations on the issues he can address (Warhorse is about World war I, while he's also written about foot and mouth, boarding-school trauma and the loss of a limb).

"It doesn't limit you in subject matter. Maybe it used to 40 years ago, when you had to be careful what you said to children because you didn't want to frighten them and introduce them to the complexities of adult behaviour . . . very often these things were danced round and ignored.

"I think what's happened is, in a strange way, because children can access our world these days whenever they want at the touch of a button, they know our world. They may have a different take on it but they know it so you can't disguise it any more.

"It seems to be incumbent on anyone who is writing with a young audience in mind that you deal with these things intelligently and sensitively so that it enables young people to empathise with people they haven't met but situations they have. They have to come to a comprehension of this world and discover their place in it and literature is a wonderful way of getting us to think. That is what all education should be about."

Working with children for so many years now (he is 67) has certainly influenced his work and life.

"It gives me a clarity of a child's vision of the world and that's very illuminating for someone who knows perfectly well that the world is full of cloud. Suddenly the light shines through because you see the way that children can. You can't recapture your innocence but you can comprehend wonder again by being in the company of children.

"To me, when you grow up, if you don't retain the child that's in you, you lose the soul that is in you."

An Afternoon with Michael Morpurgo, a children's reading, will take place in the Maritime Hotel, Bantry at 2.30 on Thursday, July 7; and in From Page to Screen -- The Making of Warhorse, Michael will talk with Padraig Cusack about Warhorse's journey from stage to screen at 6.30pm in The Maritime Hotel on Friday, July 8. Tickets on 027 55987 or

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