DAD.Info’s Damian Kelleher talks to War Horse author Michael Morpurgo about his latest novel, Listen to the Moon, set in World War I
Michael, we’re back on the Isles of Scilly for Listen to the Moon, the setting for so many of your best loved books.
It’s an important landscape of my life. I have two; there’s Devon, where I live, and the Isles of Scilly. When I seen an opportunity to set stories there, I use it.
In this case, it was a geographical reason; the Lusitania was sunk off the south coast of Ireland, and the nearest land fall is the Isles of Scilly. And of course, I know the society there so the research is already done.
The story begins with a personal recollection – a memory of a much-loved grandmother.
It’s a story of a man of my age reflecting on grandparents who are gone, and the past. As I get older I do that more, so it is personal to me, too. This whole business of looking back to your earlier life and trying to remember – it seems to me to be key to who we are. Part of the reason we are here is to pass on the stories of our lives. If we have stories to tell – fictional or non-fictional – it’s important to tell them. Storytelling is as natural as breathing. It is one of the ways we communicate how we are and how we feel.
One of the themes of the book is storytelling in childhood – you mention The Ugly Duckling, Treasure Island, and there’s something of the Little Mermaid about Lucy Lost, the mysterious girl at the heart of the book.
These stories do fill our lives; often the stories we remember from our childhood relate to the person who read then to you the first time; your mum, your dad or your granny. They stay with you. And then you find yourselves reading them to your own children, and your grandchildren. They retell themselves throughout your lives and they are unforgettable.
It’s a hundred years since the outbreak of WW1, and the great thing about this story is that it keeps that period alive for a new generation.
To me it’s important that we tell the story of that conflict in a way that children can comprehend – on that level it’s not just about enjoyment. One of the great joys of reading though is to feel you are not alone; when you’re reading a story you get to know the characters and they get to know you. It’s this connection between the writer and the reader, this empathy, that enriches us as readers.
The story involves one of the great tragedies of WW1 – the sinking of the Lusitania – but it’s also a book about reconciliation and forgiveness, isn’t it?
It’s a part of the story. Harry Patch, the last surviving tommy of WWI, spoke of the absurdity of war before he died. He said that in the end, people always get around the table and they talk. But it seems that we have to go through this appalling suffering sometimes to reach that point. I feel that if you’re telling war tales they have to be positive: it is ghastly, it’s terrible, it’s mud and it’s blood and it’s horror. But there is peace after war. The culture of forgiveness and reconciliation is one I’d rather encourage than belligerence.
Listen to the Moon is also a book with family at its heart; Lucy is ‘adopted’ by Alfie’s family, and they will care for her no matter what.
There’s something in us all that wants to reach out to children in need. There are so many children out there who are lost and rejected and it’s fantastic when people put their arms around them and give them a life and a family. There’s a wonderful charity called Save the Children that spends its energies doing exactly that, all over the world.
You’ve been involved in Save the Children’s recent Read on, Get on campaign haven’t you?
I try to get involved wherever I can but it has to be a cause that I truly believe in. Reading to your children is a cultural thing. Once parents start doing it, they love doing it. It’s like taking exercise; once you start, you realize how much fun it is.
And for fathers in particular…
For a man it’s so important, for fathers and grandfathers. Once reading to children was what mothers used to do. But that culture has totally changed now; by and large, men and women are in the same position when it comes to work. Men no longer have an excuse; it’s one way of really getting to know your child. You’re not preaching at them, you’re just enjoying the story with your child. Every day, it’s just 10 minutes or a quarter of an hour of the most valuable time in a child’s life. When a dad does it, it means so much. Particularly for boys who may want to be outside messing around with a football, when Dad sits down –maybe in his football shirt – and reads a story, that makes such a difference.
Not always easy being a dad. Any advice to pass on to other fathers?
As parents we’re very unprepared for this role – you just cope as best you can. I wouldn’t pass on advice – I’m not in a position to do that – but I would say that I think the great thing is to learn to listen to your child, from when they’re gurgling at you until they’re grown up. Never underestimate them, never talk down to them, and give them room to grow. I tell you what I think is very annoying. Being a grandparent, you learn all the things you’ve done wrong as a parent! It’s all so badly arranged. If we could be grandparents first, what good parents we would be.
Listen to the Moon is out now. HarperCollins, age: 9+.