Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Undaunted Author of 'War Horse' Reflects on Unlikely Hit



The New York Times

April 11, 2011

Undaunted Author of ‘War Horse’ Reflects on Unlikely Hit


LONDON — Before it was made into a hit West End play, before it was bound for Broadway, before it was set to be Steven Spielberg’s next big movie, “War Horse” was a slim, powerful children’s book about a young man and his beloved horse on the front lines of World War I.

Published in 1982, the book was a “huge nonevent” at the time, according to its author, Michael Morpurgo; it drew better reviews than his earlier works but relatively little sales. It did get nominated for a big national prize, which it failed to win. Mr. Morpurgo, transported to the ceremony in a limousine, found that the car had mysteriously dematerialized during the evening; he left by subway.

Undaunted, he kept writing and publishing, sometimes two or three books a year (he has now written more than 120), and his reputation grew. From 2003 to 2005 Mr. Morpurgo was Britain’s third children’s laureate (a post similar to that of poet laureate, but for children’s literature), an honor befitting someone who had become one of the country’s best loved and most visible children’s authors. But while many of his books were hits, “War Horse” seemed destined for noble semiobscurity. “If sales ever reached 1,500 copies a year, I would be surprised,” Mr. Morpurgo said.

But that all changed in 2007, when a dramatic version of “War Horse” opened at the National Theater. Starring, as the horses, life-size puppets created by the Handspring Puppet Company of South Africa, the play was a huge, emotional triumph, leaving audiences wrung out and weeping. It transferred to the West End, where it is still selling out. It opens Thursday at Lincoln Center Theater in New York, where Mr. Morpurgo will be in the audience. And in December the film version, directed by Mr. Spielberg and starring the British actors Jeremy Irvine, Benedict Cumberbatch and Emily Watson (and a cast of real horses), is to open in the United States.

The cause of all this excitement is 67 years old, acutely modest and delightfully chatty, able to turn almost any observation into an entertaining anecdote. Dressed the other day in a beret, rumpled Nantucket-red pants and a matching Nantucket-red safari-style jacket (equally rumpled), he seemed alternately thrilled, surprised and amused by what had befallen a book he wrote so many years, and so many books, ago.

He had had his doubts about whether “War Horse” would work onstage. When he first heard of the plans to use puppets, he said, he thought it sounded disastrous, “like a joke.” But he calmed down when he saw the result: life-size puppets that move, whinny, startle and nuzzle so much like real horses, they seem to be fully realized characters.

Mr. Morpurgo’s novels, set all around the world, tend to focus on some favorite themes: humans’ extraordinary bond with animals, children’s courage in adversity, and the power and wonder of nature. Many have gone on to win awards, and four have been nominated for the Carnegie Medal, Britain’s best-known children’s literature prize.

“He’s the most respected British children’s writer working today, whether he’s writing for very young readers or for teenagers,” said Jon Howells, a spokesman for Waterstone’s book chain. “He’s a very powerful, very evocative, very insightful writer. He doesn’t patronize or condescend to his readers, and they really respond.”

“War Horse” is published by Scholastic in the United States, with more than 500,000 copies in print, said Kyle Good, a spokeswoman for the publisher.

Why has “War Horse” broken out in such a big way? The story resonates now more than when it was written, perhaps because of the era we live in. “In 1982 the only war in Britain was the cold war,” Mr. Morpurgo said. “But times have changed in the last 15 to 20 years. War does seem to be endemic. When it’s possible to do it, we seem to do it. It never ceases to amaze me that we fall into that trap again and again.”

The book, which has been called a great argument for pacifism, is written from the point of view of Joey the horse. It was inspired, in part, by a series of conversations Mr. Morpurgo had had years ago in his village, Iddesleigh, in Devon, with an elderly man who had served in a cavalry unit in World War I. “He told me with tears in his eyes that the only person he could talk to there — and he called this horse a person — was his horse,” Mr. Morpurgo said.

From the Imperial War Museum, Mr. Morpurgo learned that between one million and two million British horses had been sent to the front lines in the first World War, and that only 65,000 or so had come back. He resolved to write about them but struggled to find the right voice.

Then one evening he was at the farm he and his wife run in Devon, where poor children come to work with animals. (There are now three in Britain, and one in Vermont.) He was passing through the stable yard when he saw one of the children, a troubled boy who had a bad stutter and had not uttered a word in school in two years, standing head to head with a horse.

“He started talking,” Mr. Morpurgo recalled. “And he was talking to the horse, and his voice was flowing. It was simply unlocked. And as I listened to this his boy telling the horse everything he’d done on the farm that day, I suddenly had the idea that of course the horse didn’t understand every word, but that she knew it was important for her to stand there and be there for this child.” That became Joey’s role in “War Horse” — observer and witness as much as protagonist.

Mr. Morpurgo’s books have been set in jungles, on islands and in communities torn up by the Arab-Israeli conflict and by the 2004 tsunami. His most recent book, “Shadow,” tells the story of an Afghan boy who flees to Britain, only to be put in a detention center as he fights to stay in the country. One of Mr. Morpurgo’s many campaigns has been to end the practice of incarcerating children in such centers.

He is in demand as a speaker and an advocate for, among other things, libraries, literacy and the rights of children. But it may well be that “War Horse” is his defining piece of work.

“All this should have happened 30 years ago,” he said recently. “It’s all come at completely the wrong time. But better late than never — although I don’t think my wife thinks so, sometimes.”

© 2011 The New York Times Company

Donations can be sent to the Baltimore Nonviolence Center, 325 E. 25th St., Baltimore, MD 21218.  Ph: 410-366-1637; Email: mobuszewski [at] verizon.net


"The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and everything to lose--especially their lives." Eugene Victor Debs


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