Michael Morpurgo: Contradiction? That's the story of my life

The children's author and his biographer, Maggie Fergusson, talk to Daniel Hahn about Wilde, 'War Horse' and telling tales

At 68, and with more than 100 books to his name, Michael Morpurgo is one of our best-known children's writers. But in her new biography, Michael Morpurgo: War Child to War Horse, Maggie Fergusson describes two quite distinct Morpurgos. There is the one who appears on stage at festivals in front of thousands of kids: high-voltage, confrontational, fearlessly confident. (The children's author Emma Chichester Clark calls it his "angry headmaster mode".) And then there is the other, off-stage Morpurgo: genial but also a little sad, regretful, doubting. It is the thoughtful, measured, gentler one who's arrived to be interviewed today.

He and Fergusson are discussing their book, a hybrid thing in which her biography is intercalated with seven stories he's written inspired by moments in her narrative. "I was slightly worried," says Fergusson, "that a book about Michael ought to have something in it for the age group who love his work so much." She'd seen the film Wilde, which weaves the story of "The Selfish Giant" through Oscar Wilde's biography, "and I remember thinking at the time: that's a really beautiful way to tell the story of a storyteller's life. You take a bit of the fiction and make it part of the tapestry." Fergusson doesn't propose biographical analysis story by story, but teases out recurring themes: a "thread of grief", "loneliness", "reconciliation".

Originally Morpurgo was approached to write his own life, but declined. "I've plundered memory and autobiography quite a lot in my stories," he says. Besides, such a book could never be sufficiently detached or unprejudiced. He wanted the story told, but thought there was a better chance of "an honest appraisal" if he were not the one assembling it.

So, while Fergusson relied on their extensive conversations for her narrative's foundation, she spoke to many others too. Some of whom said things Morpurgo was surprised to read. And then there was the other research: "boxes and boxes of material, some of which was gold dust. And some of which Michael had not actually read, like the letters between his mother and stepfather during the breakdown of her marriage."

Access to your subject and his memories is an obvious benefit of writing the biography of someone alive and co-operative. But there are downsides, too. For one, explains Fergusson, "you can't see the whole shape of somebody's life until it's done". And you're in thrall to living memory, which is a slippery thing. After a piece of research, she says: "I'd have to say to Michael, 'Actually, I don't think it's quite as you remember' ... " And naturally, particular sensitivities apply when writing about the living. That potential for discomfort is delicate, but necessary. "It's a bit nerve-wracking, but the only way of telling an interesting story is to have the light and shade – and it's also the only way of telling a convincing story."

"An honest story," Morpurgo adds.

For his part, Morpurgo found the process of excavation "cleansing". Sometimes "exhausting". "Uncomfortable", sometimes, too. He and his wife were given a complete draft to read, and while they responded with factual corrections, they never demanded cuts. He'd chosen Fergusson for the job himself (he'd just read her award-winning life of George Mackay Brown and admired its "integrity and honesty") and trusts her.

While always careful (her word), Fergusson doesn't shy away from that "shade": the complex relationships between Morpurgo's parents, say, or his sense of his own inadequacy as a father. She describes crippling losses and great regrets. His books examine war and loss without flinching. Yet on reflection, he considers himself "essentially an optimistic person".

Morpurgo's balance comes from Clare, whose presence pervades the book, and our conversation. When they married he was still a young military cadet at Sandhurst (to extricate him temporarily for his wedding, his mother had to send a pretend-desperate "Situation Critical" telegram). That was 49 years ago. One of the things Morpurgo discusses most proudly is an enterprise they set up in 1976 and ran together for a quarter-century: disillusioned and frustrated by his teaching experiences, the couple established Farms for City Children, since when more than 100,000 kids have spent a week living and working on an FfCC site. An experience during one such visit produced the spark that quickened the story that became War Horse.

Now re-imagined as a Spielberg movie and sell-out West End and Broadway show, War Horse has become Morpurgo's best-known book. The opening describes a "small dusty painting of a horse" in a Devon village hall. The painting, of course, was a fiction, but last year a real painting of "Joey" was unveiled in just that spot. Fiction and truth reveal one another; they can transform one another, too.

While working on the book, Fergusson found herself at a dinner sitting next to the biographer Richard Holmes, who quoted Virgil's Georgics to her: "Felix, qui potuit rerum cognoscere causas". "He said: 'Just pin that up on the wall in front of you, and keep asking where this story came from; how it happened'." Fergusson translates the line roughly as: "Happy is he who can know the causes of things."

"I'm not sure it's true, actually," says Morpurgo. Then reconsiders. "It gives you something that makes you understand, and that should give you some sort of reconciliation and contentment .... Yes."

Reading Fergusson's explanation of his causes has taken him by surprise. "Life for me has been a rush. I've leapt from one thing to the other with not nearly enough time to be thoughtful ... I feel the gathering of the causes, the understanding of causes, has helped a lot." Good stories will do that.

Michael Morpurgo: War Child to War Horse, By Maggie Fergusson

Fourth Estate £18.99

"Drawing on his memories of Kippe reading to him as a child he found that, if he could himself enter into a story, he could hold the children's attention perfectly until the bell went. But some stories worked better than others, and one February afternoon, reading Year 6 the first chapter of 'Stig of the Dump', he realised he had lost them. That evening, after talking to Clare, he decided to tell the children a story of his own ...."

 

Arts & Entertainment
A stranger calls: Martin Freeman in ‘Fargo’
tvMartin Freeman’s casting is a stroke of genius

Arts & Entertainment
Maisie Williams of Game of Thrones now
tvMajor roles that grow with their child actors are helping them to steal the show on TV
Arts & Entertainment
Customers browse through Vinyl Junkies record shop in Berwick Street, Soho, London
music

Arts & Entertainment
Who laughs lass: Jenny Collier on stage
ComedyCollier was once told there were "too many women" on bill
VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Arts & Entertainment
Ken Loach (left) and Mike Leigh who will be going head to head for one of cinema's most coveted prizes at this year's Cannes Film Festival

film
Arts & Entertainment
film

Arts & Entertainment
Don (John Hamm) and Megan (Jessica Paré) Draper are going their separate ways in the final series of ‘Mad Men’
tvReview: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Arts & Entertainment
James Franco and Chris O'Dowd in Of Mice and Men on Broadway
theatre

Review: Of Mice and Men

Arts & Entertainment
art

By opportunistic local hoping to exhibit the work

Arts & Entertainment
Leonardo DiCaprio will star in an adaptation of Michael Punke's thriller 'The Revenant'
film

Fans will be hoping the role finally wins him an Oscar

Arts & Entertainment
Cody and Paul Walker pictured in 2003.
film

Arts & Entertainment
Down to earth: Fern Britton presents 'The Big Allotment Challenge'
TV

Arts & Entertainment
The London Mozart Players is the longest-running chamber orchestra in the UK
musicThreatened orchestra plays on, managed by its own members
Arts & Entertainment
Seeing red: James Dean with Sal Mineo in 'Rebel without a Cause'
film

Arts & Entertainment
TV
Arts & Entertainment
Heads up: Andy Scott's The Kelpies in Falkirk
art

What do gigantic horse heads tell us about Falkirk?

Arts & Entertainment
artGraffiti legend posts picture of work – but no one knows where it is
Arts & Entertainment
A close-up of Tom of Finland's new Finnish stamp
art

Finnish Postal Service praises the 'self irony and humour' of the drawings

Arts & Entertainment
Pierce Brosnan as James Bond in 2002's Die Another Day
film

The actor has confessed to his own insecurities

Life & Style
Green fingers: a plot in East London
TV

Allotments are the focus of a new reality show

Arts & Entertainment
Myleene Klass attends the Olivier awards 2014

Oliviers 2014Theatre stars arrive at Britain's most prestigious theatre awards
Arts & Entertainment
Stars of The Book of Mormon by Trey Parker and Matt Stone of South Park

Oliviers 2014Blockbuster picked up Best Musical and Best Actor in a Musical
Arts & Entertainment
Lesley Manville with her Olivier for Best Actress for her role in 'Ghosts'

Oliviers 2014Actress thanked director Richard Eyre for a stunning production
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter: The man who could have been champion of the world - and the Bob Dylan song that immortalised him

    The man who could have been champion of the world

    Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter and the Bob Dylan song that immortalised him
    Didn’t she do well?

    Didn’t she do well?

    Miranda Hart lined up for ‘Generation Game’ revival
    The Middle East we must confront in the future will be a Mafiastan ruled by money

    The Middle East we must confront in the future will be a Mafiastan ruled by money

    In Iraq, mafiosi already run almost the entire oil output of the south of the country
    Before they were famous

    Before they were famous

    Can you guess the celebrity from these British Pathe News clips?
    Martin Freeman’s casting in Fargo is genius

    Martin Freeman’s casting in Fargo is a stroke of genius

    Series is brimming with characters and stories all its own
    How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

    How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

    Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
    Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

    British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

    The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
    Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

    Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

    Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
    A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

    A History of the First World War in 100 moments

    A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
    Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

    Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

    The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
    Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

    Cannes Film Festival

    Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
    The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

    The concept album makes surprise top ten return

    Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
    Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

    Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

    Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
    10 best baking books

    10 best baking books

    Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
    Jury still out on Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini

    Jury still out on Pellegrini

    Draw with Sunderland raises questions over Manchester City manager's ability to motivate and unify his players