An interview with author Michael Morpurgo How did you become a writer? Did you enjoy writing as a child? No. I didnt enjoy writing as a child. I wasnt a good student for all sorts of reasons. I was taught in a flat, uninspiring way, and I failed consistently and was made to feel a failure. It was all rather sad as I had all sorts of advantages (a mother who read to me) but the teachers were all rather frightening and austere. How did you become a writer? Did you enjoy writing as a child? (continued) Later, there was a
teacher at secondary school and one at university who were inspiring and I left education converted again - but I hated reading and writing at the time. I know exactly what its like to be a reluctant reader. The only way to tell stories to children is to tell stories that you love yourself. When I became an English teacher after university I discovered that one of the best ways of getting through to children was to read them a story at the end
of the day. One day I realized that a story I was reading wasnt very good and decided to write my own story to tell the class. What writers inspired you when you were a teenager? Robert Louis Stevenson (Treasure Island), Rudyard Kipling (The Just So Stories) and Ted Hughes (The Iron Man). Hergs Tintin: the three double-instalment episodes from Hergs middle period: the pirate/submarine yarn The Secret of the Unicorn and its sequel, Red Rackhams Treasure (1943-44); the Inca diptych The Seven Crystal Balls and Prisoners of the Sun (1948-49); and the post-war Destination Moon/Explorers on the
Moon (1953-54), in which the pesky Walloon hack reaches the lunar surface two decades ahead of Neil Armstrong, albeit in what looks alarmingly like a V-2 rocket. What writers inspired you when you were a teenager? (continued) Aged about 12, I discovered Tintin and was hooked. Snowy barked like no other dog: Whooah! Whooah! But he could talk too. And there were two bungling detectives in bowler hats, and the irascible Captain Haddock what a cast of crazies. Heroic Tintin looked like a boy (like me, sort of), but did all his derring-do in a mans world. And he always triumphed. He travelled the world, implausibly, impossibly
(but who cares?) to Tibet (my favourite Yeti story, and the reason I wrote my own 40 years later, King of the Cloud Forest); to Egypt , in Cigars of the Pharaoh; to the moon, to America, Africa, Soviet Russia; to islands. There was almost always treasure , bodies, mad professors, pirates. Whenever I discovered a new Tintin book, nobody ever had to tell me to read it. I read it from cover to cover, utterly fascinated, totally involved , loving every moment of it, lost as much in the pictures as in the dialogue.
What sort of research do you do? Do you enjoy it? [My book], Alone on the Wide, Wide Sea was inspired by the stories of the young children sent to Australia who found themselves working in the back of beyond, enduring terrible conditions. This was the last forced migration of unwanted children from the UK, and often it seems it was organizations like Barnardos behind it. What is a typical writing day for you? Do you have a routine or not? I dont get up very early. I write in bed, piling the pillows up behind me, by hand in an exercise book. I write by hand and usually write quite quickly having had months of dream
time, thinking about the story. When the voice is going well I write between 9.30 and 1.00. In the afternoons I revise what I have done. Sometimes I scratch everything that I have written that morning. Every afternoon I take a long walk in the Devon countryside. How do you organize your ideas? Do you plan ahead, working out a plotline, for example? If so, do you change it as you go? I dont work out a plot line as I go. I have a strong sense of where a story is going because I have dreamed about it and pictured it in my mind. If you have planned a story too tightly it can become predictable, so if possible, I try to let my characters find their way to the denouement. I never want to impose a glowing finale to make it all fine - if I can I prefer to leave the reader with a sense of wonder and doubt, which reflects real life. I dislike solutions. Children are often taught that
adults have the solutions to life, whereas they ought to know that adults are still searching for them themselves. How do you develop your characters? Do you have to like them or not? When War Horse was being performed as a play at the National Theatre, I discovered that the actors had work-shopped the characters- they had invented a background for each of the characters from the script to male them more real and believable. I do a very similar thing when writing. I have a back story for each character (where they come from, etc). This is information that may not be in the final novel but helps me to understand why characters behave as they do. You dont have to like characters, you just need to understand them. Im not judgmental of my characters and I try not to be judgmental of people either.
How do you know when a story is going to work? You dont. A moment just comes when you think you can write it, and I always go through a period of despair first. I have always been wrong about which of my books will resonate with people. They are two completely different things- the books you like, and books you think will work. How long does it take you to write a book? It depends on how well Im writing, how well its flowing.
But I usually I spend several months dreaming it up in my head - I call it my dream time, the most important part of my story inventing when I try to weave the story together, do my research and find the right voice for the story. Once I begin writing, I write very fast and will finish a book in two or three months. Then revising it might take another month. So, on average, a novel takes upwards of 6 months to write- though sometimes its shorter and sometimes much longer. How many re-drafts do you do? I write on paper, very, very fast and then write it up again neatly. The first version is to tell it, just write it down. On average Ill do
about three drafts, and then lots of tweaks. I then send it off to a friend of mine in the Isles of Scilly who puts it on the machine. Then when it comes back to me it looks like a proper publishable story and then I work on it, send it back again, she sends it back and then I work on it again, and I keep doing this until Im satisfied with it. How does your editor help you? Good editors are very helpful. Bad editors are a pain as they divert you! My first editor is my wife. You have to trust what people say as they are trying to make the book as good as it can be, though sometimes this is difficult. What other writers do you admire/read now?though I
not a great reader of fiction, Im have just read and enjoyed Ian McEwans On Chesil Beach. I read a good deal of poetry (Ted Hughes, Seamus Heaney, W.B. Yeats, Alice Oswald and Moora Dooley are some of my favourites) and I also enjoy biographies- especially of other writers as Im often fascinated to find how they found their voice.
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