You have inspired so many children and teenagers with your writing. But what book(s) marked you as a child or teenager, and why?
When it came to stories, I liked them either quite heavily illustrated and short, or both. They had to rattle along briskly, and be filled with excitement and verve and adventure. But it was the stories read to me by my mother as a child that have stayed with me ever since. Kipling’s Just So Stories in particular. She would read them over and over again, so I learned to love the tune and rhythm and fun of stories – she was an actress and so read them beautifully. Oscar Wilde’s short stories ‘The Selfish Giant’ and ‘The Happy Prince’ were favourites of hers and I’ve loved them ever since. She would often be in tears during those readings, and for years I wondered why. Now I know.
There were poems too, like William Cowper’s ‘John Gilpin’, and Coleridge’s ‘The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner’. Poems by Lear, Kipling (again), De la Mare, Wordsworth, and Shakespeare too – still echo on in my head all these years later.
As I got older, I took to reading comics where there were fewer words, where action was fast and furious, funny and fantastical. I read the Beano and the Dandy and the Eagle avidly. And I read the great classics in picture form in a series called ‘Classics Illustrated’. As a teenager I wasn’t a great reader. I preferred to play rugby and it wasn’t until university that my tutor read Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and my imagination was captured again by the sheer joy of storytelling.
I was Hawkins on the deck of The Hispaniola, hiding in the apple barrel… Robert Louis Stevenson has been my hero-writer ever since
And what book(s) inspired you to become a writer?
If there is one book or writer, it would be Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. Stevenson’s words could evoke time and place and people so well that I felt myself living the story. I was Hawkins on the deck of The Hispaniola, hiding in the apple barrel, overhearing the dastardly Long John Silver’s plans for mayhem and mutiny and murder. Robert Louis Stevenson has been my hero-writer ever since, the writer I most want to be.
What do you think it is about the First World War that still inspires writers, readers and audiences?
I think it is something to do with the overwhelming admiration and gratitude for the courage that generation showed, at the front and at home, but above all it is ‘the pity of war’, as Wilfred Owen called it, the waste of young lives on all sides, that fascinates readers and writers, but also leaves a longing for a world without war, inspiring us to go on singing the anthem, telling the story.
What were your inspirations for the story of War Horse?
It was talking to one of the old veterans in the pub in my village in Devon who I knew had served in the First World War as a young man.
I asked him what regiment he had been in. ‘The Devon Yeomanry,’ he told me. ‘I was there with horses.’ He told me of his life at the front with his horse, how she became his friend, how he would confide in her when he was feeding her, when he was riding her, when he was grooming her, confide his deepest fears and hopes. He told me the horse would listen, really listen. I was moved by his story and felt that he was passing it on to me. I called the Imperial War Museum and learnt that as many horses as men died in the First World War. After that the story of Joey began to weave itself in my head, a farm horse, sold away from a Devon farm against the wishes of Albert, who had grown up with him, used by the British as a cavalry horse, then captured by the Germans and used by them to pull guns and ambulances. This horse would witness the war on all sides. It would be the horse’s eye view of the war.
What were your first reactions when the National Theatre wanted to make War Horse into a stage show? How did they persuade you that it would be convincing on stage, and how do you feel about that show now?
At first, I have to confess, I was sceptical. I wondered how they could make a convincing drama of the First World War using life-size puppets of horses. Pantomime horses came to mind all too easily. But this was the National Theatre after all. For a year or more Tom Morris and Marianne Elliot workshopped the story with Basil Jones and Adrian Kohler from Handspring and the rest of the team – designers, musicians, writers – to explore how it could be done. They came down to Devon, where I live, to see the landscape of the story, to watch horses working the land. There were some tense moments during the previews when it was obvious that the play was too long, even clumsy in places, but in the end they got it together somehow. Press night was a triumph and the rest is history. It is the most incredible phenomenon now and returns to the National Theatre in November this year. Someone once called it ‘the greatest anthem for peace’. I just feel incredibly lucky to have been part of it.
What can you tell us about the show War Horse: The Story in Concert, which will appear in November in Edinburgh and Leeds? How do you think it will feel to read your own work live in front of an audience?
It will be incredible. The last time we performed the concert was at the Royal Albert Hall a few years ago. I’m looking forward immensely to reading the story with the wonderful Juliet Stevenson in Edinburgh and Leeds and hearing Adrian Sutton’s music performed by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra and the Orchestra of Opera North. This version of War Horse is one of my favourites, whether simply told with one songman or a symphony concert performance, it is the voices at the heart of it, telling the story of Joey, the horse on a Devon farm, sold away to the army to go to the front in 1914.
I still don’t dare enough – and writing is so much about taking risks – but I am getting there. I hope. I think.
How has your writing, its themes and your own interests changed since you published your first books in the 1970s?
When I first started writing stories I drew mostly from memories of my own childhood, and from family stories, and from the lives of the children I was teaching. But as confidence grew, so did the depth and breadth of the subjects I chose to write about. So I delved more into history for my inspiration, into the lives of others, old, young, female, male, from the time of Beowulf and King Arthur and on up to the two world wars and to the conflicts still raging today. As I grew as a storymaker I dared to write more and more out of my comfort zone, dared to become my characters – even if they were horses or swallows – empathised with them more closely, felt their predicaments more deeply. I still don’t dare enough – and writing is so much about taking risks – but I am getting there. I hope. I think.
What do you do to get in the right frame of mind for writing?
I go on long walks in the lanes around our home in Devon. Walking seems to help me weave my stories in my head. I have a special tea-house in the garden, which is very light and airy and a great place to write. It’s quiet there too as there’s no phone. I write upstairs sitting on a bed, with lots of cushions supporting my back and arms. I often write in the morning and then go for a long walk in the afternoon.
When did you last visit your local library, and what do libraries mean to you?
I visited Exeter library about six months ago. A wonderful example of a library revived, busy, relevant, connected to the needs of the people, young and old. An example of how libraries should be kept alive in this digital age.
Libraries are so important, so essential to our wellbeing. They are free and available for everyone. And they should be. They are places where we can gather the knowledge we need to understand ourselves and the world about us better, where we can grow intellectually and emotionally. Pick up a book you love, and you are no longer alone. Close a library and you cut the people off from their culture, from their right to know as they grow, you impoverish the people, you take away opportunity and hope.
I don’t prefer children to adults, largely because grown-ups are children.
How do you retain enough of a childlike mind to write with such heart, for children? And who do you like better, grown-ups or children, and why?
I have been lucky. The child in me still lives! An accident of fate, rather than an achievement, I think.
I was a child once, a really long time ago. So far my memory of those days is good, though no doubt wishful thinking and invention come into it. But then I was a father rather young, and plunged into the world of my own children. And by this time I was a teacher teaching small children, so it was children at work, children at home, and I was listening, watching, remembering.
Then my wife Clare began her charity, Farms for City Children, and I exchanged classroom for a farm, so farmed with city children, hundreds of them, thousands of them, milked cows, moved sheep, fed pigs, for over twenty-five years. By which time I had become a grandfather several times over, and now a great-grandfather. So let’s put it this way, I had opportunity enough to be reminded often about how it was to be a child. So telling children stories, writing them, comes naturally enough. As I said, I’m lucky!
I don’t prefer children to adults, largely because grown-ups are children. They might like to deny it, they might have forgotten it, but that’s what we are. The ones that do remember, that do acknowledge the child in them, by and large I like; the ones that don’t, I don’t!
What are you working on now/next?
I’m not writing at the moment as there are rather a lot of events going on this autumn, but a story is starting to weave itself in my head, and I will start again after Christmas and take a few months to write it down.
War Horse: The Story in Concert will hold a Centenary Concert at Usher Hall, Edinburgh at 4pm, Sunday 18 November 2018
War Horse: The Story in Concert is available on CD (published by BMG)