It takes a special person to write a book about one man′s love of Chelsea Football club and interweave it with an emotional depiction of World War II, but Michael Morpurgo is that kind of author. In Billy the Kid a Chelsea pensioner tells his life story, drawing the reader back to events around the Second World War and how those events influenced his life. Filled with illustrations by Michael Foreman, whose idea the book was, Billy the Kid both entertains and educates young readers.
One of the founders of the post of Children′s Laureate, Michael Morpurgo is a firm believer in encouraging children to read and write for themselves and often visits schools to show them that if he can write, so can they.We interviewed Michael to ask him about his new book, how he writes and where he gets his story ideas from.
Billy the Kid will obviously appeal to young boys due to its football connections. Is this a conscious effort on your behalf to encourage boys to read?
I don′t do that when I set out to write a book, I try just to concentrate on writing whatever the story is. It was Michael Foreman′s (he did the illustrations) idea. He said "I want you to write a story about football, but not an ordinary football story, I want you to write a football story about what it really means to the people who love it" because he loves it and he particularly loves Chelsea. I said I wasn′t sure, but he took me along to this match at Chelsea because he had an idea.
He pointed up to the directors box and there were these four or five Chelsea Pensioners in their scarlet coats sitting there. I said "So?"and he said "Well, that′s interesting because Chelsea Pensioners all get a free seat in the directors box at home games, but what′s really interesting is if you look behind the goal at the shed end you′ll see one single solitary Chelsea Pensioner all on his own" and there he was sure enough.
Michael said "Well that old bloke is 88 and when he came to Chelsea hospital they said ′You can have a free seat in the directors box′ and apparently he replied ′You can stuff that.When I was a kid of 4 I used to stand with my Dad behind the shed end and that′s where I′d like to have a seat please′". I thought that was so marvellous I wrote the story.
There′s no consciousness about improving reading of boys or girls, I hope it′s a story which will engage both.
Why illustrate such a text/plot heavy book? What do the illustrations bring that words alone don′t?
It depends upon the illustrations of course - but what I think Michael′s illustrations bring is that they compliment it, they fill it out. It′s a short story and it gives the book atmosphere. Some of the very best books I grew up with were illustrated, for example The Old Man And The Sea by Hemingway which was illustrated by a man called Tunnycliffe, and I remember loving the story but also loving the illustrations.
When the two things go together so well I really love it.
Michael and I seem to work together very well. I′ve done a lot of books with Michael now and it is because of that. He seems to understand in a very sensitive way the nature of the text - he doesn′t over illustrate. Because I′m not very descriptive I don′t spend a lot of time in my stories telling people what the landscape looks like, so for instance most children wouldn′t have a clue what an Italian prisoner of war camp looks like, and I haven′t described it in the text, but because there is a picture of it instantly they recognise where they are. So my own feeling is that it brings the story to life without it having to be more text heavy than it is.
You′re not afraid to tackle difficult subjects in your work. Do you think people underestimate the subjects that children can appreciate and understand?
Very much so. I think we patronise and underestimate at our peril. It does depend what a book is for. It′s fine to have a book for entertainment and that′s great, you can dive into, really enjoy it and have a laugh that′s fine, and sometimes I do write books like that. But I do tend to tackle the subjects that mean a lot to me, as a 57 year old person, and increasingly the gulf between cultures, old and young, and how history affects us and how war affects people, they′re part of my life and they seem to be something that preoccupies me, so that′s why I write about them.
I feel the instinct is right to do so because children, particularly these days, are introduced very young to horrors that they are going to have to deal with. Whether we like it or not it′s on your television screen and sometimes it′s in your home. I think it′s very helpful to them to have confronted some of these things and to touch on some of these things in an imaginative form before or while they′re actually having to deal with it in real life.We can′t avoid these things. In a sense these things happen and we shouldn′t want or expect our children to avoid them,we would like to give them the emotional equipment, to deal with these things and I think a book can help in that respect.
Does this explain your non-judgmental approach to bullfighting in Toro! Toro!?
One of the things one shouldn′t be is judgmental, particularly about other people′s cultures. I don′t like bullfighting, and wouldn′t go to a bullfight, but that does not mean that I′m going to condemn all those that do and I hate a society that spends its time condemning other people for living ways they don′t want to live.We spend our time condemning each other instead of thinking "Hang on, that′s how these people have grown up and that′s how they are, who am I anyway to judge them?" There are plenty of worse things go on in this world than bullfighting so if I′m going to have a go at something it certainly isn′t going to be bullfighting. So as far as I′m concerned I make no judgement at all about it.
The most important thing in that story is the way the young boy gets to understand and comprehend what is going to happen and then it′s about how he comes about a resolution to this problem. He′s a very strong-willed boy and he comes across a way of doing it but it′s a way he knows is going to betray his father, and is going to do terrible things to his family, but none-the-less he does it because he feels so passionately about the bull.
That whole story came out of a walk along a hillside in Spain when I was shown the ruins of the first village in Europe to be bombed by an airforce deliberately. That′s why I wrote it really, I was so moved walking through these ruins - it′s still left as a ruin this place, you can see where the well is and where the church was - so I thought I want to try to tell people about it.We tend to think "oh it′s over in Bosnia, etc, but it′s never us"but all these stories are down to people and they′re down to children.Children have been involved in them, children have seen them, witnessed from them, suffered from them, had trauma from them and I think that′s what I wanted to get across. This man has lived with this guilt all his life and he′s getting it off his chest.
Is it true that you base most of your stories from things you come across in real life?
Yes it is, absolutely. For instance in Billy the Kid, the two brothers - one who wants to go to war and the one who doesn′t - that′s my two uncles. One was a pacifist and didn′t go to fight in the war while the other one did and was killed. The moment he was killed my other uncle joined up.
The resolution of the story - the old man coming back and living in a cabin in the house where he′s dossing - is a story which some wonderful French person told me when I was out in France. She joked that she lived with two men and I asked her what she meant. She said that about 35 years ago she was building their house on the outskirts of Aix-en-Provence and she went out early one morning of a weekend to find a tramp living in the basement which they′d already built. He seemed nice and chatted, so they offered him a coffee and very soon he was helping them.
Five years later he′d been helping them all the time and they′d got to know him really well but now he′d moved into the siting room and it was a question of what do with him. They had to screw up their courage and say they wanted to move in, and the old bloke said "You can build me a hut at the bottom of the garden", which they did.
It′s this lovely way of interweaving things which are true, that I hear about, with other things that I hear about to make the story. I think I′m actually a rather deeply unimaginative person - I need real things to weave my tales from!
The notes at the end of Billy the Kid suggest that the book could be used as a text for history lessons. Do you view reading generally as a learning experience as much as it is an escapist activity?
The answer is I think that good reading - whether you′re a child or an adult - has to do both those things really. The books that really give us satisfaction,which really do succeed, are the ones where you think "that′s new, that′s different" and give you a new slant on how human beings behave or on some particular part of history or some place. About human nature more than anything else and how we interact. But it has to be at the same time entertaining. You need to turn the page, to want the story to move on, it′s a very difficult balance. I feel that for children it′s really important that every book they read should make them reach just a little bit with each new book. Just because this story is set in history I think it′s important to give them little signs that this is not a totally strange world. So they can find out what Bergen Belsen was and they can connect that to Anne Frank, as lots of them will know about Anne Frank but they won′t know about Bergen Belsen. Then you can talk about the V-bomb - well we′re threatened by missiles now - and it links up with present day existence. That′s what I think is important with those notes to somehow link it up with things they already know. It′s a signpost, but you can read the book without it.
What I′d love one day is if someone reading a book says "What is this Toad-in-the-Hole? Why don′t we try to cook it?" so they could make batter and stick sausages in it and see if it works. It′s things like that I like.
How difficult is it to find the right tone for your books?
The most difficult part of the creative process with writing any story is who′s going to tell it? Are you going to be within the story, are you going to tell it like God from without it, are you going to move your players around or are you going to be one of the players? Then when you′ve chosen the way the story needs to be told the difficulty is to create that character.
I think it′s like acting. My Dad is an actor and my Mum was an actress, and what I′ve got is a way of speaking in a different tongue - I feel quite capable of doing that. Of being an old Spanish chap living in Malaga and then six months later - I′ve just done a book called Out of the Ashes - I had to become a 14 year old girl (I used my granddaughter for that because she′s 14) but none the less I get into character.
I′m doing a story at the moment called Cool where I′m a young boy in a coma, I can feel things and I can hear things but I can′t move and I can′t see. So it′s quite a reflective story but none the less the tone has to be the tone of a small boy of today, so again I′m having to become that character.
So it′s getting into character that′s the most important thing before you actually write the story, particularly if it′s in the first person.
Billy the Kid, Farm Boy and Toro! Toro! all have older male figures telling their stories later in life. What is so effective about this way of telling a story?
I hope it is effective, I don′t know. It′s a technique to get back into history or elsewhere which is credible. This is why fantasy is so popular at the present moment, because children understand fantasy, it′s a world you dot into and boom you′re away. But when you′re in Spain and in the Spanish Civil War it′s very difficult for children to be there unless somehow you take them by the hand and bring them there. So what I try to do in each of these cases is to make it start now, in a park watching a game of football or in a garden in Malaga. I think it′s important to give it a "now" to grasp the reader, and that grasps me as well, and then through the memories or story of a character wants to tell I can get back naturally without it being a great jerk and to keep both the reader′s attention and enthusiasm. What I love about children′s reactions to many of my stories is that they write me letters saying "Is it really true? Did it really happen?" and that to me is the greatest compliment that they really do think this happened. And then you explain that bits of it did but bits of it didn′t, and they understand that as well. It helps them with their own writing.
I go into schools a lot and I talk to teachers who are trying to encourage children to write, that their own lives are interesting and very often they don′t write about that, they tend to write about Martians landing in the playground. It′s the things that actually fill their lives they should be writing about and that′s what they will find it easier to write about, because it′s what they′re interested in. I think that the business of being interested in what you write is important for children to learn very early and not to think you have to have this thing called an imagination, which takes you off into "fairyland" because quite a lot of people can′t do that stuff.
So for you as an author it′s as much about encouraging children to write as it is about encouraging them to read?
Absolutely. I′ve always concentrated, during my teaching life and now on the farm with children and going around schools, on encouraging children to write. I almost take the reading for granted. If I′m not writing books there are going to be plenty of other people writing fantastic books, but what I can do is to tell them how difficult I found writing myself when I was young, how badly I was taught and when what was expected of me was impossible, I gave up and thought I was stupid.
I think someone like myself who has written books can go to a child and say "Here′s the book, this is where I got the idea from - simple isn′t it?" And they all go "Yeah." It′s storytelling and storytelling is a natural thing - we do it around dinner tables, they do it in playgrounds - and it′s when it becomes writing, becomes serious and becomes literature that they lose their flow and confidence. So much of writing is confidence, I find even now at the age of 57 when I′m sitting down to write your lack of self-confidence is still there and you have to build yourself up before you start in just the same way I did when I was writing an essay when I was about 10. So nothing changes and I think they should know that.
How long does it take you to put a story together?
The longest part of it is the dreaming of it, the weaving of it together and that′s the bit I enjoy the most too, that takes some time. So Cool, about the child in the coma, that I′m working on now, has been in my head for 3 or 4 months. I′m writing very fast now, not because I know exactly what′s going to happen but because I′m in character. Generally that′s the position, I take a long long time, sometimes I need to do a lot of research - with Billy the Kid Michael Foreman and myself went to Chelsea Football Club and made sure we got everything exactly right as it should be - all those things take time. We even walked around Fulham and saw which house we would have bombed. We went to talk to Chelsea Pensioners and asked what their life was like and how their life had been before and, sure enough, there are some people in there who′ve lived through pretty hard times before they came in there.
So you build up all the time until you′re really confident to write and then when I write I tend to write very very fast. The last book, Out of the Ashes, I wrote in 10 days and I think once I get going on Cool I shall finish it in about 3 weeks. I write on paper, very very fast and then write it up again neatly. 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 I′m satisfied with it.
You were involved in the creation of the Children′s Laureate. Can you tell us a little bit about your involvement in this project?
The reason for creating,with Ted Hughes, the role of the Children′s Laureate was that I felt that there is a massive amount of somewhat unrespected talent in the Children′s book world and some of these people are not recognised by their adult peers as serious writers. I find that desperately sad because a lot of the people who ignore it or sideline it were first brought to literature by a great children′s book themselves and now because they′re sophisticated they forget that. Of course there′s some awful children′s books written (there′s some awful adult books written too) but some of the best are great literature, not just great children′s literature but great literature.
We happen to have just at the moment a real golden age of children′s literature. There′s the phenomenon, and it′s an extraordinary phenomenon of J. K.Rowling, but the impact that she has made on two things: first of all on enabling a vast number of children to read and be enthusiastic about books who were not before; secondly she′s done an extraordinary thing because she has enabled children and adults to share enthusiasm for the same book. I think the impact on the adult world has been to say,"Actually you have to take this children′s literature stuff seriously" because people make money out of it. The truth is it′s been successful in adult terms commercially, it′s not a little thing you can put on one side and say "so what".
You have people like Philip Pullman, Anne Fine and Julian Cross, all these extraordinary people out there and then you have illustrators, who are among the greatest artists we have at the moments, whether you′re talking of Michael Foreman or Quentin Blake or Antony Brown. The adult world by and large does not recognise them. Ted Hughes for instance, who was one of the rare "adult" writers who had written extensively for children, disliked it intensely when people separated out his children′s work from his adult work. As far as he was concerned they were his work, his stories and he thought it was a ridiculous way of carrying on.
I said to him one evening "We′ll what can we do about this? How can we get the grown up world to focus a little more on the importance of children′s literature for children and for culture in general? What about a Children′s Laureate?" He said that was a great idea. He was the person who gathered the support we needed, in terms of a sponsor, someone to run it and then sadly he died before the first Children′s Laureate, Quentin Blake, was appointed. Quentin did an extraordinary job for two years and suddenly we had a Children′s illustrator having a exhibition of his own in the National Gallery, unheard-of stuff.Which was exactly the point of the thing: to get respect and affection for children′s literature - in this case children′s illustration. The second one is Anne Fine, who is doing a very different job but bringing it again to the fore, to the attention of an adult public. I think children are proud to have a children′s Laureate and that it′s been a help. It hasn′t changed the world but it′s been a help.
About Michael Morpurgo