Interview with Micheal Morpurgo

Children’s writer MICHAEL MORPURGO is best-known for War Horse, which has been adapted for stage and screen. He tells Zo� McIntyre how French literature and fashion have inspired him

Tell me about your family connection with France

My grandfather was a French-speaking Belgian and my late uncle Francis Cammaerts lived near Montpellier, where we visited him a lot. He was in the Special Operations Executive (SOE) during the war and worked with the French Resistance. He loved France and its people, and talked to me a lot about it. I have written a fair bit about France, particularly Waiting for Anya which my uncle helped me with.

So you speak good French?

It is the only other language I speak. When I go to schools in France and talk to teachers I can really communicate and am not just a tourist. The lovely thing about speaking French with children is they think it’s funny. You’re a friend of theirs and they’re a friend of yours. When you speak English, you open your mouth and there is always another English person who despises you; whether you come from this region or that, this class or that. In France you are just a funny English person, and that’s fine. So I can relax a lot more there.

Do work and play make you a regular visitor to France?

I spend a lot of time in Normandy as I have friends there. I have been to Domr�my-la-Pucelle in Lorraine where Joan of Arc was born and I know the Bayonne area around the Pyr�n�es where Waiting for Anya is set. But the holiday that my wife Clare and I love most is getting in a car, boarding the boat, getting off at Cherbourg, having the first breakfast in town and then just driving. France really is paradise.

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Where is your favourite French destination?

A particularly important place is Saint-Malo. I went to a children’s book festival there about ten years ago and walked into a shop that was selling an amazing red jacket and trousers. I bought one and have been wearing red ever since. I have to go back when I want another suit, which is every two years. The man working there sees me walk in and knows what I’ve come for. I love Saint-Malo; the walls, the ships coming in.

What is your earliest memory of France?

France was the first foreign country I visited and my earliest memory was going to Le Tr�port on the coast of Normandy. I will always remember the smell of bread, and beaches that seemed to go on forever, and towns such as Honfleur that seemed to come out of storybooks. Everything about France is still different; the towns, the cheese, the wine, the cider…

So you’ve had plenty of opportunities to sample French gastronomy?

I eat a lot of seafood because we travel a lot along the seashore. I love cassoulet and bouillabaisse; the peasant dishes, I suppose. It’s not just that the French are clever with cooking, but that the ingredients are so extraordinary. I would be 25 stone if I lived in France. They don’t know it, but they are really spoilt!

Have you a particular interest in French literature?

I feel very connected to the spirit of French literature. The French are connected to their writers in a way that I wish were possible in Britain. It is wonderful that if you go into a town they will often have a Place Victor-Hugo. You are lucky to find a Charles Dickens Street over here.

Do you have any favourite French authors?

One of my favourite books in the world is French writer Jean Giono’s L’homme qui plantait des arbres (The Man Who Planted Trees). It is set in a part of France that I love; down in Provence in a rather sparse and stark landscape, with lots of stone and hills and blazing sun. Published in the early 1950s, it’s a story of a young man who wanders the hills and meets an old shepherd. Every day that the shepherd goes out with his sheep, he plants 100 acorns. Five years later the young man returns to find the hillsides covered with trees. It is about one man’s efforts to bring an arid landscape back to life; very relevant to today.

Are you working on more books set in France?

Not yet, but now you mention it – why not!

Michael Morpurgo’s latest book, Sparrow: the true story of Joan of Arc, is published by HarperCollins, priced �6.99