Do you think that writing about conflict has given you a way of making sense of growing up with the debris of war?
I come from a family that, like many families, was split up by the Second World War. One of the consequences of war, which we don’t think about, is the destruction of personal lives. I’m coming up to 68 and I’m not sure I make any more sense of conflict by writing about it. But certainly what I’m trying to do is to see if, through fiction, I can shine a light on why it continues to happen.
Would you call yourself a pacifist?
Yes, I would, now. I was in the US when the last surviving veteran of the First World War died. Aged 106, he said that he could no longer think of a good reason to send people to war. The last British veteran to die, Harry Patch, said the same thing. He had come to the conclusion, after all those years, that it doesn’t solve things at all.
When have you witnessed storytelling at its most powerful?
I suppose it would be in a little mobile classroom in a primary school in Kent. I was teaching a particularly inattentive bunch of kids and discovered that the only way I could engage them was to read a story that resonated with them. But looking down at a book separated me from them. I found that if you can look people in the eye as you tell them a story, you can transform short attention spans and then the power is enormous.
What has been the hardest journey you have ever made?
I think it has been the journey made as a parent. It is one of the roles that you are always unprepared for and have to make up as you go along. It seems simple to start with and it actually gets more complex as you and the children get older. It has been the most difficult and the most rewarding of journeys.
I’m coming up to 68 and I’m not sure I make any more sense of conflict by writing about it
Your book The Kites are Flying! follows a Palestinian child who refuses to speak – do you feel you have a role to speak on behalf of children who have lost their voice?
I feel that very strongly. Years ago, at a talk I gave in Amman, Jordan, a Palestinian girl got up and said: ‘You told us you write about things that matter to you – do we Palestinians matter enough to you to tell our story?’ When I replied that I didn’t know enough about her story, she said: ‘Well, you could find out, couldn’t you?’
You are about to publish your retelling of the Pied Piper of Hamelin: is this a tale for our time?
In that story, the rats that plague the village of Hamelin are significant. They are there because they live off food left lying around by the rich. It is a tale of the haves and the have-nots. I was holding the book in my hand the day of the London riots and thinking, this is a story of our time. If you don’t look at equality and fairness, we’ll never put things right. This is so obvious to us all, but it does mean sharing more, which we are not very good at doing.
Your books, although often with dark moments, tend to end on a positive note – what would be your own happy ending?
I think how you are remembered matters. There is a lovely song in War Horse that says we are only remembered for what we have done but I think that is only half true: we are also remembered for what we are, and to be remembered fondly, as a good friend, is very important to me.