MICHAEL Morpurgo tells DAVID ROBINSON about the true stories he draws on for his fiction
SOMETIMES," sighs Michael Morpurgo, "I worry that I have very little imagination." Coming from one of the country's finest children's writers, a man with 118 books under his belt, this is a bit of a conversation-stopper, like Tiger Woods confiding that he's no good at hitting golf balls, or Chris Hoy admitting that really he's a bit of a slowcoach when it comes to pedalling a bicycle. And the conversation does indeed briefly stop, while I try to work out a reply that doesn't sound like a creepy ego-massage. I settle for a derisive snort.
"No really," continues the former children's laureate – indeed, the man who first dreamed up the job along with his near-neighbour, Ted Hughes. "It gives me confidence to know that what I'm writing has a veracity of its own without me having to invent it. When I'm writing fiction, I must believe it to be true, or I can see no point in it.
"So I really can't write fantasy. I cannot invent a world which does not exist. And I can't read fantasy either. As soon as I realise I'm reading a book that hasn't got its roots in a reality I can comprehend, I switch off. In The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, for example, I'm interested right up to the point at which the children go through the back of the wardrobe. Then ..." He shrugs helplessly.
But if the Morpurgo imagination doesn't stretch quite as far as Narnia, it certainly has free range into the past. "Oh, yes, yes. Newspaper stories often give me a way in. In Kensuke's Kingdom (his 1999 best-seller and one of his favourites among his own novels] it was reading about a Japanese soldier who stayed behind on a desert island 28 years after the end of the Second World War, which he didn't know about."
That point of entry into the story must, of course, also echo themes with which Morpurgo wants to engage: Kensuke's Kingdom, for example, in which a boy finds himself shipwrecked on the same desert island as the old Japanese soldier, is really about mutual understanding across cultures and generations. But it helps, he says, if there's a heartbeat of reality at the story's core, and he's always delighted if he's got that right.
"With Kensuke's Kingdom, only last month I had a letter from the nephew of the real Japanese soldier, saying how similar Kensuke actually was to his uncle. And it's the same with War Horse (Morpurgo's novel and subsequent play, still wowing West End audiences a couple of years after its first National Theatre production].
"With War Horse, the key fact, the way into the book for me, was that a million horses had been killed in the First World War. I then used my own farm in Devon as the setting and made the story about a young farmhand whose beloved horse had been sold to the army by his drunken father. The horse is then used as a British cavalry horse and by the Germans to pull ambulances; the boy joins up and finds the horse on the battlefields.
"I can imagine a lot of readers thinking, 'Oh yes – like that could actually happen!' But ten years after I wrote that story I came across a story by the journalist Hariman Scott about a First World War Suffolk farmworker whose horse gets sold in the same way and who also rediscovers it in France."
All of which is by way of extended introduction to Morpurgo's two latest books, Running Wild and The Kites Are Flying. For the first, a newspaper snippet provided the way in: at the time of the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami, an elephant then giving a boy a beachfront ride sensed the approaching tsunami, pulled away from its handler and charged off into the jungle, thereby saving the boy's life. For the second, it was seeing the so-called "peace wall" dividing Israel and Palestine and working out how two children from either side of it might come together through a shared love of kite-flying.
It's no great surprise that Running Wild has more than a few trace elements of Kipling's The Elephant's Child and The Jungle Book: Morpurgo's own childhood imagination was fed by those books, read to him as bedtime stories by his actress mother. But the ecological twist he gives to the story, and its message that humankind can be saved through contact with animals, could almost be the template for Morpurgo's work.
That belief in the need for deeper connections with the natural world isn't confined to the pages of Morpurgo's fiction. Along with his wife Clare, he set up the charity Farms for City Children in 1976: since then, its three farms in England and Wales (he'd love, he says, to find another one in Scotland) have shown 70,000 children the importance of caring for animals and the land.
In that time, the disconnect he was trying to bridge in the first place has grown ever wider: salmonella, mad cow disease, foot and mouth and e-coli scares have seen to that. Primary education has become ever more thirled to an imagination-sapping curriculum, overprotective parents have limited their offspring's adventurousness, and now the Westminster government even absurdly insists that storytellers visiting schools should pay 64 for the privilege of proving that they are not paedophiles. So much is geared towards trammelling childhood's freedom and freedom of imagination.
But in words and deeds, the kindly 65-year-old storyteller carries on the fight against toxic, limited childhood. It's not a lost cause, he insists. "Just the other day I got a letter from a girl who says that whenever she reads my stories, she feels as though she is living inside them, that they take her on journeys she's never been on before." The Morpurgo imagination may not stretch into fantasy, but it takes children on fantastic journeys almost everywhere else.
• Michael Morpurgo is at the inaugural Lennoxlove Book Festival next Saturday, 14 November. Tickets, 4. For details of the programme visit www.lennoxlovebookfestival.com. For tickets, tel: 0845 357 7611.