Congratulations on your recent knighthood.
JUST IMAGINE: How do you begin your planning for each new book? Are you able to write anywhere or do you always prefer to be in your tea-house at home?
SIR MICHAEL MURPURGO: I spend time dreaming up my story and working out who my characters are and how they relate to each other before I ever put pen to paper. Sometimes this process can take months and sometimes less . Once I’ve settled on an idea that I care about and am really passionate about, then I research around it and dream it out in my mind, until I am familiar with the characters and their back stories and the back ground to the story. I don’t plan out the plot, rather let it emerge as I write. I prefer to write at home if I can and I tend to work in the morning. I sit on my bed in the house or in the tea-room, with lots of pillows supporting my back and resting the little exercise books I write in on my knees.
JI: Your books cover a wide range of historical events. How important do you think it is that children have access to these complex subjects through the media of fiction?
MM: I think we tend to underestimate children. I write about history and war both, because I want to understand the past, but also because of a desire to show the absolute futility of war. Wars are still happening today and children see the effects of war and suffering all around them, on the tv, in newspapers and through the people they know. I think as adults we have to talk straight about these issues and not talk down to children.
JI: You often write about animals in your books; why are they so important to you and do you have a favourite animal?
MM: I am fascinated by the relationship between animals and humans and how it can affect us. How we can give and receive affection and trust. I think animals often bring out the best in us because they listen without passing judgement and accept us for who we are without prejudice. For some people, this can be the most important relationship – a loving and uncomplicated one – as it is for Albert and Joey in War Horse. My fascination with animals also comes partly from my life too. Running our charity Farms for City Children, we had groups of children from inner cities coming to live and work on the farm for a week. It was fascinating to see their responses to the animals and the animals to them. My favourite animal is an elephant. I’ve written about them a few times too.
JI: If you could follow the journey of any character from one of your books, who would you choose & why?
MM: I would love to be a sailor like Kitty in Alone on a Wide, Wide Sea and sail across the world. The bit I love best, based on a true happening, is when Kitty sees the International space station in the sky and asks NASA to contact the an American astronauts on board. She strikes up an amazing friendship with them. I love that.
JI: How have you enjoyed the experience of seeing your novel War Horse coming to life on stage & screen? Were you heavily involved in the creation of both of these and were you happy with the final outcomes?
MM: It has been the most incredible experience and a wonderful piece of luck. At first, I was sceptical when the National Theatre approached me about making a play. How on earth could a convincing drama of the First World War be made using life-size puppets of horses? Pantomime horses came to mind all too easily, but this was the National Theatre and surely they knew what they were doing? But the play has been a triumph all across the world and will have been performed for 10 years this November. I have seen the play many times and it always amazes me both as a piece of ground-breaking theatre and a wonderful anthem for peace. The film too was a revelation. We had this joke in the family that we should always pick up the phone when it rang in case it was Spielberg on the phone. And then, one day it was. . There are sublime moments in the film and, wonderfully funny moments, but Spielberg never shrinks for a moment from the horror of that war. We live with Joey and Albert, willing them to survive, to find one another again.
JI: Your latest title Flamingo Boy is about a child with autism; what inspired you to give it this title & the setting you did?
MM: Two things inspired Flamingo Boy. First, is my 15 year-old grandson, Laurence. He is autistic and I have never known what that meant until I spent time with him and got to know him more closely. I hadn’t wanted to write a book about an autistic boy as it had been done so well before by Mark Haddon in The Dog in the Night Time. But then, my wife Clare and I travelled to the Camargue region of France, a wonderful wild natural park where white horses roam free and pink flamingos live. It was seeing these animals that I had thought of a boy who is autistic growing up there on a farm amongst these creatures, and how he would relate to them and them to him. . I set the story during the Second World War when France was an occupied country. Where children and people who were different were under threat whether they were gypsies or Jews or people who did not seem to be like other people, autistic children amongst them. It’s the story of how people from different culture and backgrounds can come together in difficult times.
JI: And finally, what can we look forward to from you next?
MM: My next book is the true story of my two uncles – Francis and Pieter. One a teacher and a pacifiist and the other, an airman killed early on in the war. It is the story of their war and how Francis joins up to join the Resistance in France to becomes a war hero. The story of these two uncles affected my life profoundly. I felt the time had come to tell their story.
Many thanks for taking the time to answer our questions.