Four Questions for Michael Morpurgo
"War continues to divide people, to change them forever."
By Michael Stahler
World War 1, often overshadowed by the consequent World War 2, rarely finds a spotlight in pop culture. One, seemingly unlikely, story that found mass acclaim and multiple incarnations is the story of a horse serving in France and his owner's attempts to bring him back. The popular 1982 English novel War Horse found itself adapted into a play in 2007. The play, adjusted for the stage by Nick Stafford, stays loyal to the book while using advanced puppeteering to depict the horse. It would later tour all over the world, collect 2 Olivier awards and win all 5 Tony awards it was nominated for, including Best Play. It was so popular that Steven Spielberg in 2011 chose to direct an adaptation of this adaptation. The film that he directed wound up a box office and critical success, grossing nearly $180 million and earning 5 BAFTAs, 2 Golden Globe nominations, and 6 Oscar nominations. But before the spread of this story across multiple award-winning mediums, it was a beloved book for younger audiences. We were lucky enough to spend some time with the author of the book, Michael Morpurgo, who has had well over 300 books published with many more on the way. But of these books, the one that has gone the farthest illustrates the world little seen by the public audience, the complicated world of the Great War.
There are only a handful of novels, plays, and movies about the Great War that have been able to reach a wide audience. War Horse is all three. You also have written Private Peaceful, edited Only Remembered, and worked on non-fiction work all about the War. Have you always had an interest in World War 1? How did it begin?
I was a war baby, born in 1943. As I grew up, I soon learned how war had torn my world apart. I lived next to a bombsite, played in it because we weren’t supposed to, and because it was the best adventure playground imaginable. But I soon learned that much more than buildings was destroyed by war. My parents had split up because of it. I knew my handsome young uncle Pieter, killed in 1940, in the RAF, through a photograph, through the stories I heard of him and through the grief my mother lived every day of her life. I missed him and I’d never known him. War continues to divide people, to change them forever.
Are there certain aspects of World War 1 that fascinate you more than others? What inspired one of your more popular works, War Horse, which centers on the role of horses and cavalry in the Great War?
It isn’t a particular thing that fascinates me about World War I but more the universal suffering of war. As a war baby, I was closer to the Second World War – I had seen for myself what effects it had on people lives and the people left behind. It was later when I heard accounts of the First World War from veterans that I talked to in my village that I was first drawn to it. I learnt from them about the friendships and about how attached the soldiers had become to their horses, how they confided in them, talked to them as best friends when they went to see them in the horse lines. But never having witnessed this myself, I could never quite believe it. I thought it might be perhaps just an old soldier’s sentimental notion.
But it was seeing what happened to a boy from Birmingham who came with his school to Nethercott Farm, one of the farms of the charity Farms for City Children that my wife Clare and I founded over 40 years ago. He was called Billy and I was told by his teachers that he had never spoken, not a word, and if I tried to speak to him, he might run away. But one evening when I came down to read to the children as I sometimes did in those days, I came into the stable yard and saw Billy standing by the stable door, talking freely to our horse Hebe. He was just talking and talking without stopping. Incredible. It made me convinced that I had found the right way to tell my story. It was as if the horse just seemed to know instinctively that it was important to listen to this boy. And for the boy, here was a creature that would listen without judging.
Tell us about your process in writing such illustrative narratives about the war. What does the war mean to you? How do you reach out to people?
I think it’s about living inside the story, inside the characters, so you try to live through it in your head. When I tell my stories, I try to be truthful and just tell it down on to the page. With Best Christmas Present in the World about the Christmas Eve truce, I approached it via a letter from a soldier back home to his beloved, trying to feel what it would have been like to meet a German solder in No-Man’s Land, to shake hands and share schnaps, sausage, chocolate and ciggies in the freezing cold. It is beautifully illustrated by Michael Foreman. It is also a story that I perform with the accapella, group Voices at the Door at Christmas time in theatres and churches. These readings with music are another way of telling the story.
Are there any future projects in store for you about this period of history or any others?
Next year I have a book out which I’m not allowed to tell you very much about yet but it’s about my own uncle Francis Cammaerts who was an SOE in the Second World War. It’s an extraordinary true story but you’ll have to wait till next Spring to find out more.
Michael Stahler is is summer 2017 intern at the United States World War One Centennial Commission.