This December, Michael’s Christmas story On Angel Wings has been animated for the BBC, with another festive tale, Mimi and the Mountain Dragon scheduled for Christmas 2016. I talked to the author of War Horse, Private Peaceful and Kensuke's Kingdom about his inspiration for this, and the rest of his vast catalogue of magical stories.
How did On Angel Wings come about?
I wrote the story over 10 years ago. I always go to the Christmas service in my village church. Normally they very kindly ask me to read one of the nine lessons. They always ask me to choose (because I’m a little bit older and they think it will be nice for me to choose) but I always pick the same one to make life easier for me and for them. That is the shepherds on the hillside and the angel coming down that we all know so well.
So I was at the lectern in this little church and I know it so well that I was reading it quite easily and because I wasn’t concerned if I was making a mistake, I started listening to the story rather than reading the words. I was conscious of two things: 1) this is a great story and 2) no-one was really listening as they’d heard it a hundred times before. I just happened to be listening to the story really hard.
So I thought it would be fun to try to change the story so people would really believe it. It was trying to add a smile to a story full of smiles.
Are you Team Print or Team Kindle?
Neither. As far as I’m concerned, I started life with print, so it’s a habit, both the writing of it and the reading of it. But what I’m completely convinced of is that the most important thing for young people is that they have access to stories. I don’t care if they come in print, or on the Kindle, eBooks, if they’re read on paper, I really don’t mind. All these things should be add-ons to the book.
Do you think eReaders can help children engage with reading?
I think they’re wonderful because children really are fascinated by the whole business of technology and can access it with great ease. I’m very nervous about it, I don’t cope with it that well. I write longhand and still do and always will. My wife and daughter can type things out for me, but I never write down straight onto the computer. So I’m not nearly as computer literate as I should be. I do understand that this generation, it is simply another language they grew up with. They have no fear of it. And if it’s of benefit, that’s great.
But it can also do great harm, I have no doubt about that at all because they have so much available at the touch of a button and it’s difficult to choose properly when you’re that young. I also think there are slight dangers of thinking that when you read something on Wikepedia it must be true.
That said, I think the amount of knowledge it spreads around and the understanding, and the beginning of understanding – to my mind they’re all one thing, not something different at all.
What is your writing process?
The actual writing I’ve always found, ever since I was a child and I never liked it when I was a child because I was frightened of the empty page. To some extent I still am, I find it quite intimidating to start, so I postpone starting for quite a long time. I call it ‘research’, but it’s in fact procrastination. But there’s a use in procrastination.
I was advised by a very great writer some time ago, Ted Hughes, not to ever sit down in front of an empty piece of paper until I was sure I could start. The more you sit and stare at it, the worse it gets. There’s a worse thing, which is to start something and then not finish it. Because then it’s so hard to start again the next time. Because so much of writing is about confidence. And it has to be self-induced because you’re the only person there doing it.
So I have learned to spend a lot of time on what I call ‘dreamtime’ which is the part I really enjoy. Which is thinking it through, dreaming it up, speaking it out loud as I go on long walks, talking it through with my wife, a bit of plot batting it back and forth. Until I understand the atmosphere I’m creating, until I understand the voice with which I’m telling it and then when I feel confident this is something not just I want to write, but I need to write, it’s become so important to me that I have to write it, I can write my Once Upon a Time. And then I tend to write. I really love this bit because your hand flows your thoughts flow and it really doesn’t matter and I write as if I’m talking…
I have to say it’s the dreamtime I like most. And then I get very tired doing it, so I write about maybe a thousand words a day, in the morning always. In the afternoon I’ll correct it, or maybe go for a long walk and think about it, but I tend not to hurry it these days. I tend to think about it and pace myself a lot more.