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 and Entertainment
Secrets of JK Rowling's Harry Potter workings have been revealed in a new bibliography
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade
radio The popular DJ is leaving for 'family and new adventures'
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Public Service Broadcasting are going it alone
music
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne as transgender artist Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl

First look at Oscar winner as transgender artistfilm
Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015 Bringing you all the news from the 87th Academy Awards

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscars ceremony 2015 will take place at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles
Oscars 2015A quiz to whet your appetite for tonight’s 87th Academy Awards
Arts and Entertainment
Sigourney Weaver, as Ripley, in Alien; critics have branded the naming of action movie network Movies4Men as “offensive” and “demographic box-ticking gone mad”.
TVNaming of action movie network Movies4Men sparks outrage
Arts and Entertainment
Sleater Kinney perform at the 6 Music Festival at the O2 Academy, Newcastle
musicReview: 6 Music Festival
Arts and Entertainment
Sleater Kinney perform at the 6 Music Festival at the O2 Academy, Newcastle
musicReview: 6 Music Festival
News
Kristen Stewart reacts after receiving the Best Actress in a Supporting Role award for her role in 'Sils Maria' at the 40th annual Cesar awards
people
News
A lost Sherlock Holmes story has been unearthed
arts + ents Walter Elliot, an 80-year-old historian, found it in his attic,
Arts and Entertainment
Margot Robbie rose to fame starring alongside Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street

Film Hollywood's new leading lady talks about her Ramsay Street days

Arts and Entertainment
Right note: Sam Haywood with Simon Usborne page turning
musicSimon Usborne discovers it is under threat from the accursed iPad
Arts and Entertainment
A life-size sculpture by Nick Reynolds depicting singer Pete Doherty on a crucifix hangs in St Marylebone church
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Escalating tension: Tang Wei and Chris Hemsworth in ‘Blackhat’
filmReview: Chris Hemsworth stars as a convicted hacker in Blackhat
Arts and Entertainment

Oscar voter speaks out

film
Arts and Entertainment
The Oscars race for Best Picture will be the battle between Boyhood and Birdman

Oscars
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn (Claire Foy), Thomas Cromwell (Mark Rylance)
tvReview: Wolf Hall
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Meighan of Kasabian collects the Best Album Award
music
Arts and Entertainment
Best supporting stylist: the late L’Wren Scott dressed Nicole Kidman in 1997
film
Arts and Entertainment
Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan as Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey in Fifty Shades of Grey

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Mick Carter (Danny Dyer) and Peggy Mitchell (Barbara Windsor)
tv occurred in the crucial final scene
Arts and Entertainment
Glasgow wanted to demolish its Red Road flats last year
architecture
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

    Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

    Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
    How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

    Time to play God

    Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
    MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

    MacGyver returns, but with a difference

    Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
    Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

    Tunnel renaissance

    Why cities are hiding roads underground
    'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

    Boys to men

    The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
    Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

    Crufts 2015

    Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
    10 best projectors

    How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

    Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
    Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

    Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

    Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
    Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

    Monaco: the making of Wenger

    Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

    Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

    Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
    In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

    In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

    This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
    'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

    Homage or plagiarism?

    'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
    Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

    A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

    Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
    A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

    Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

    A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower