SYDNEY (Reuters Life!) - Michael Morpurgo has been writing award-winning children’s books for decades but he has lost none of his passion for story-telling or his fascination with taking a real-life event and fusing it with fiction.
Morpurgo, a 66-year-old Briton and former primary school teacher, has written more than 120 books with his latest, “Running Wild” inspired by the real story of a boy saved by an elephant during the Asian tsunami in 2004.
In Morpurgo’s world, the boy is left an orphan as his father has been killed fighting in Iraq and his mother presumably killed by the tsunami so he is raised in the jungle, where he finds the main threat to life there is mankind.
Morpurgo, who was Britain’s Children’s Laureate from 2003 until 2005 and was awarded an OBE for services to literature, spoke to Reuters about writing and story-telling:
Q: What was the fascination with the elephant story?
A: “I was brought up by a mother who loved Rudyard Kipling and she read to me “The Elephant’s Child” in the “Just So Stories” which I loved and it stayed in my head all my life. Later on when I started to read, I read “The Jungle Book” and I always had the idea that I would write a book about an elephant and a wild child lost in the jungle but I didn’t dare go there.”
Q: What changed that?
A: “During the reporting of the terrible tsunami in 2004 I only came across one story that I thought was positive and hopeful and enchanting. A young boy was on an elephant ride on the beach ... it sensed something was not right and pulled away from the handler and charged into the jungle with this boy on its back. His life was saved and his father came back later and helped the handler look after the elephant and helped rebuild the village that was destroyed. One of the things that inhibited me from writing about a wild child and an elephant was that it tended to be set back in time and associated with empire but here was a story that was absolutely now.”
Q: Do you have to have a real story as your starting point?
A: “It is important for me. It is just the way I write. I have to root my stories in something I find utterly credible. I don’t have the kind of imagination to write something like Harry Potter. I can’t go to worlds that are invented ... but when I feel so engaged with a story, then I almost need to write it.”
Q: Do you consume piles of newspapers to find these stories?
A: “Not really. It is about keeping your eyes and ears and heart open. My wife was awake a year or 18 months ago listening to the radio and came across a story about a woman in Belfast in 1943. This lady worked at the zoo where staff were told to shoot ... animals when the bombs came so they could not escape. This lady went to the man running the zoo and said she had brought up this elephant from a baby and did not want him shot so could she take charge of him and take him home every night to her garden which was walled. He agreed. I Googled this woman and found a black and white photo of this elephant in her backyard drinking out of a bucket.”
Q: How did you change that story (which is his next book)?
A: “As a fiction writer when you find something that is true you can take it elsewhere. I thought it would be more interesting to be set in Germany and maybe Dresden and when I looked it up I found one thing people hated during the bombing there was the screams of the animals from the zoo. I found out the same order was given to the zoo there so I changed this story to Germany.”
Q: Do you keep a file of possible stories?
A: “I cut out things as I read and when I hear funny stories I do try to note things down. l don’t write immediately. I like to leave some time so it can soak in.”
Q: Do you write more than one book at one time?
A: “I write one book at a time but I tend to read around another one. By and large I’m not good at multi-tasking. Writing a book is like a relationship. It’s hard to have an intimate relationship with more than one person at a time.”
Q: You do a lot of public speaking and also run your charity “Farms for City Children,” which gives about 3,000 urban kids the chance to spend a week on a farm. How do you balance your time?
A: “We divide our year in two. Half is spent doing a lot of talking and I like that side of it, but it takes six months. Come this side of Christmas I then have time for being who I am and that is writing books and this will go on until July — then I am back in the maelstrom of being a public figure.”
Q: Can you see yourself ever stopping writing?
A: “It is a question really of the ideas keeping flowing. I don’t think I will ever get fed up with it because I love telling stories. I am a storyteller rather than a writer.”
Editing by Miral Fahmy