David Almond sees himself as a realist and as the author of strongly realistic fiction for children and young teenagers. And while there are no wizards or obvious magic in his novels -- from his wildly popular breakthrough novel Skellig to his most recent book, Heaven Eyes -- Almond places his realistic protagonists into situations tinged with mystical mysteries so subtle you're never sure if what you're reading is real or fabricated in the childish imaginations of his characters.
Talking with David Almond, though, you get the feeling that all of this gentle mysticism might seem normal to the 50-year-old Newcastle author. Soft spoken and self-effacing, the author speaks gently about the gift that Skellig was for him: a reward for 15 years spent writing without much public reward. "When Skellig came," says Almond, "it really was as if somebody said: Oh, here, you've been working hard for a long time. Have this. It was like a gift for all that work."
The gift, if that's what it was, likely outperformed all of the author's expectations. Published early in 1998, Skellig's advance notice and reviews created a satisfying buzz around the book even before it was published. Once the book was available and kids everywhere started reading it, Almond became something of an overnight sensation: at least in the children's literary circles in which his books travel. His first children's novel -- his first published novel, in fact -- won the most distinguished awards available to it: it won the 1998 Carnegie Medal, the 1998 Whitbread Children's Book of the Year Award, it was a 2000 Michael L. Printz Honor Book and was a New York Times bestseller. More importantly in the long term, the charming story -- about a normal young boy who finds a mysterious creature in his garage -- established a large audience for Almond's future work.
Now 50, Almond lives in Newcastle, England with his wife and daughter. He is currently at work on another novel, a children's picture book and the stage version of Skellig.
Linda Richards: All of your work that I've read features elements of magic. Not Rowling-style wand magic, but more magic on a heart level. Your fiction is filled with everyday world magic, I think.
David Almond: I think the books are realistic. When people try to describe them as fantasy I say: They're not. They're not fantasy. Because they're all set in a very real world that I could take you and show you where each of these stories take place.
Skellig was the first of your young adult novels?
Skellig was the first children's novel, yes. I had planned to do one and thought at some time I might, but it really just kind of happened to me, Skellig. It was only just after I finished Family Stars, the stories. And as soon as I finished those, which are all about childhood and childhood experience, it was just like Skellig was waiting. There it was. And as soon as I started writing I thought: Oh, this is a children's novel. It was very exciting and very interesting.
I think people try to classify you as a fantasy writer sometimes.
Well, everybody tries to sort of classify you and categorize you. So when people try to categorize me as a fantasy writer I say: Well, I'm not. I'm a realist. My books are very realistic. I suppose what they do maybe tend towards is to show how extraordinary the world can be. Especially for children. We tend to forget that a lot of the time and give children a very mechanistic view of the world and I think try to limit their imaginations. And there's something about writing for children, for me, there's a lot of room to explore those kind of areas that I couldn't explore as effectively when I was writing for adults. It's a fantastic feeling to write for children. It's very kind of open and experimental. It's a very energetic area of publishing.
There's certainly an edge to your work for children. A strong reality. I remember that in Kit's Wilderness, the main character actually tries smoking. And you create it almost as sort of hazard he has to go through. But I think a lot of children's authors are afraid to go near things like that.
One of the things about writing for kids is they want you to be honest: they want to know the truth. And I think they can tell when you're kind of lying to them or pretending. Like, with the smoking thing: some kids smoke and other kids react to it in certain ways. And most kids will say: Oh, I'm not going to do that. The smoking [in Kit's Wilderness] was part of a ritual and you can't pretend that all rituals are going to be very tepid and very safe. And also, I think kids -- and all of us -- need to expose ourselves to danger and to trouble and kids know that they want to do that. Kids don't just want to play in the front room or in the front garden or in the front street. They want to go a bit further. They want to go just over the horizon where it's a bit wilder. I mean, they need to know that home is nearby, but when exploring the unknown they want to feel as though they're a long way from home. And I think that [adults] often want to try to limit children's experience, to deny them the opportunity to roam. I think we're so terrified that kids will get scared or be bored. We're so afraid they'll be bored! So we give them a worthwhile activity and another worthwhile activity and another worthwhile activity and over control them in some ways. Children need space to dream.
You were saying that Skellig just sort of arrived for you.
Yeah. It really just came as I was walking along the street one day. And as soon as I had the first glimmerings of it I knew there was something really powerful coming along. And at times it almost wrote itself. I just had to sit down in front of the computer and wait for the next scene to come on. I didn't know what it was about, I didn't know who they found in the garage: it just happened and I didn't plan it. It's filled with things I know: It's set in my house and set in my garage so Michael's experience reflects my own experience but the story itself [just happened].
That book is a multiple award winner, I know. And it's been a consistently huge seller. It won the Carnegie Award, didn't it?
Right. And the Whitbread and several other prizes.
And did you know as it arrived to you that you were doing something right?
Yeah. When I was writing it I knew I was doing something right for me. I didn't know quite how it would fit in because I knew nothing about children's books. I hadn't read a contemporary children's book in quite a while but I knew it was a book for kids. And then when I finished it and my agent looked at it straight-away and said: You know this is going to [be big]. Because I'd been writing for years. I'd been writing for 15 years with moderate success and things were going along OK. And then, suddenly, here was this book that, as soon as the publishers took it they started saying all this kind of stuff was going to happen. And I just said: Oh, yeah? And I set up writing the next book. But even in the six months before Skellig was published it was creating a real stir.
What year was that?
You were writing novels before?
I was writing adult short stories and publishing in magazines -- literary magazines -- and I did stuff on radio. I'd published a small press collection of stories. I wrote a novel that was rejected by everybody -- an adult novel -- and then Skellig and then Counting Stars, which in some ways kind of taught me again how to write and what to write about. It was like turning away from the mainstream and saying: I'll just write stories about the place that I came from and write about my landscape in my language and write about childhood. That changed what I was doing and then Skellig came along and took seven months to write and [was then] taken by the first publisher that found it. So it was quite amazing.
Did you have an advantage not reading children's books?
I think in some ways I had. And I didn't know any children's publishers. Because I think if I'd gone to a children's publisher and said: Look, I've got this great idea for a book that's going to be loved by boys and by girls and it's got William Blake in it and it's got a figure that might be an angel in it and it's set in the north of England. They would probably have said: Think again.
Or maybe they would have said: Well, set it in London and make the boy a girl and...
Yeah. All that kind of stuff. And I waited for the review that would call me an overnight success. Because there it was: 16 years or something. And I was being described as a new writer. And I was saying: Hang on. [Laughs]
Are you a dad?
Yeah. I've got a three-year-old. She was born a few months before Skellig was published.
I wonder how being the dad of a growing little person will effect your writing?
Well, it's taught me about reading and how books work. You know, like when a kid reads a book, even though she's seen the book 25 times before, you turn the page and there's a sense of anticipation and surprise. You watch kids read -- especially young children -- they're very simple and elemental about stories. It's about a series of discoveries and uncoverings and opening of secrets and seeing what's on the next page. And now I've written a picture book text.
Was that with your daughter in mind?
It wasn't with her in mind but it was incredibly influenced by what she was like as a baby and what we did with her as a baby. Some of the first things you teach a child is animal noises, don't you? Why do we do that? Why do we teach kids how to bark and how to meow?
Are you asking me seriously?
Yeah: because it's interesting.
I think because kids respond so strongly to animals?
They do, don't they?
Yes. Because you can have them out in the park and they say: Oh! A dog!
Yes. Because they see something that's really similar to them, don't they? Half civilized beings: they're closer to animals. So it's kind of influenced by that. And I suppose writing a story that I think she'll enjoy when she's four or five.
What is the book called?
It's called Kate, the Cat and the Moon.
What's your daughter's name?
She's called Freya. [Laughs] Not Kate.
Are you working on anything else right now?
I'm writing a new novel which is called The Apprentice now. It'll probably change. But that's still in its infancy. I want to finish it [in 2002] sometime. And I'm writing the stage play of Skellig.
The main character in Heaven Eyes is a girl. And I've spoken with authors before who have told me that making the main character a girl is the best way to kill a children's book because girls will read about boys but boys won't necessarily read about girls. Did you think about that at all? Or did [the character] need to be a girl?
It needed to be a girl. When the story was coming up and I was starting to do the first work on it, she was the strongest character and the one that could kind of run the kind of story that I thought it needed to be. Also I wanted to write from a girl's point of view because the first two books had been from a boy's point of view. So I just wanted to try it to do something new. Each book is a new book: a new challenge. It's nice to do something new every time and try out different ways of writing stories. It seemed to me very much Erin's story. She was the one who was going to tell the tale.
Was there a big difference writing from a young girl's point of view rather than from a young boy's?
I didn't think there was. There was a fuss made because Nick Hornby's new book was written from the point of view of a woman -- a girl -- and there was all this stuff in the paper about how can a man write a book from a woman's point of view? But if you look at [the world of] children's books, it's filled with women who write as boys, men who write as girls and it's just like an imaginative jump that you do. It's just part of the task of the writer. And it just seemed really natural. There was another fuss made when there was a book written from the point of view of a dog. An adult book. Hang on: If you go into a children's book department it's filled with books written from the point of view of animals.
That was Timbuktu, I think, by Paul Auster that was written from the dog's point of view.
Yeah. And there was all this stuff in the paper and I thought: Hang on, have a look at some children's books. It's done all the time.
How old are your readers? I know you see a lot of them at your readings.
The readers I get are older children and younger teenagers. But also occasionally eight and nine-year-olds. And you come across real, dedicated enthusiasts who ask the most complex questions about specific areas of particular stories. And I get loads of letters from kids who have read the books and liked them and ask all kinds of questions. And I get a lot of letters from parents. Especially after Skellig came out. People will sometimes tell you the most amazing things in response to reading a book.
When you've touched something and spoken directly to them in some way.
What do kids mostly want to know when they talk to you?
They want to know about the characters, where they came from, why they're like they are. They often want to know what happens to them afterwards. And they also ask very technical questions about language and the structure of the books, chapter lengths and stuff like this. Things that people assume kids won't know about or wouldn't be interested in. But they are.
Where did Heaven Eyes come from? It's such an original storyline. Not quite like anything I've read before.
It came from the river, I think. The river Tyne which flows through my town. It's a very important river. They used it to take the coal away and build ships so it's a feature of people's minds. I wanted to write a book set on the Tyne -- a book for children on the Tyne -- and see what happened. And also I wanted to use the Black Middens because there is a place called the Black Middens on the Tyne. And how can you not write about a place called the Black Middens? It's fantastic. It really is.
Describe the Black Middens, as they exist.
On the Tyne it's an area of kind of rock and wood just inside of the mouth of the river where ships would founder. In the book it's different from the true Black Middens because it's kind of silty and muddier.
So [your characters] could get stuck?
Right. Stuck deep down, yes, so they couldn't dig out. It's all very sloppy, isn't it? [Laughs] It was nice to write about that: all this muck. And also, I wanted to write something about happiness. Because when Skellig came out there were a couple of reviews that were saying how surprising it was: Here are some people in good fiction who seem to be happy. As if the two things cancel each other out.
Yes. As if it were impossible. And I thought: I actually know people who are happy. Despite problems that they had. So I wanted to write a book about people who had lost everything -- the kids in the book have got nothing, they've lost everything, they've got no family, they've got no past, they've got no home -- and yet they're sort of courageously happy. You know, Erin is heroically happy. As she says to [counselor] Maureen: You just keep looking at my troubles all the time. But actually I'm very happy. So I wanted to explore that area.
Is the process really like that for you? Where you wanted to just set these kids adrift and see where it went?
It was for that book. After doing Kit's Wilderness, which had been a difficult book to write: scary with lots of underground and all that kind of stuff. So I wanted to write a different kind of book and send them on the river so it was a different kind of experience. I always knew they'd come back on the river: the tide would turn and they'd come back again. So it came from all those kind of areas. And also from the way that we often sort of counsel kids. I think that some of the ways that we kind of pretend to treat children -- some of the counseling that we do for kids -- which is meant to help them is only to give power to the counselor: the person who is giving this to these poor little children.
Where do you live?
In Newcastle in the north of England. About 280 miles north of London. At the bottom of my street is the Roman wall -- Hadrian's Wall -- which used to mark the northern frontier of the Roman empire. So it's always been a frontier place: a place where the mainstream seems a bit scary and a bit wild.
You're from there originally?
Yes. I've lived away a couple of times but I kind of went back again and live there and write about it. It's a great area: it's very beautiful. Great coastline.
Kit's Wilderness took place close to there?
Yeah. In Kit's Wilderness there's a place called Stoneygate and there's actually an area of my hometown called Stoneygate, so I used that. And the town in Kit's Wilderness is very like some [of the] mining towns 10 or 12 miles from Newcastle. The town I grew up in was a mining town. They had a mining disaster in 1812 when loads of kids and men were killed.
Are you ever startled by the success of your books? It's been such a short period of time.
It's been very short but, you know, I've been writing for a long time so part of me has been prepared for it. If you write for so long you kind of believe that it's going to be all right somehow. I was never anxious, you know? I was never worried about having quick success. And also I've been writing so long that I just know that the important thing is the next book. And to keep on working. But it's also surprising that it's been so fast and that it has such a wide scope. You know, all these languages, so many countries.
And now lots of publishers write and say: That novel that's in your drawer...
Might you take it out of the drawer?
I'd need to rewrite it drastically in order to satisfy [myself] now and I don't want to do that at the moment. I want to write new things. Who knows? I may someday in the future because I think it's pretty good. But I think a lot of the resistance to it was the fact that it was set so definitely in the northeast. I mean, at one time I tried to get on an agent's books and she said: I like your work. You write with a northern working class voice and I already have a couple of those so I don't need you. So it was like classification: I know how you write, I know what you write and it's not interesting.
She's probably kicking herself now.
[He chuckles pleasantly] I hope so.
Is your wife a writer as well?
No, she does ceramics, sculpture. I think one writer in the family is enough, probably. [Laughs]
How old are you?
When you talk about your own writing process, you make it sound very easy. Effortless. Some authors spend hours bleeding over semicolons, your own process sounds more ethereal.
What I do is work really hard to get the stories into place and I'm always looking for the place where the story begins to take on a life of its own. So there's hard work in getting towards that point. It's usually in the first third to half of the book so I write and rewrite and rewrite for months to get all the elements in place properly. Like with Heaven Eyes, the first third took a long, long time to do. But then when it picks up its own life and its own pace it just sort of goes along. And I think that a lot of the fluency I have now is to do with those 15 years of really hard painstaking work. When Skellig came it really was as if somebody said: Oh, here, you've been working hard for a long time. Have this. It was like a gift for all that work.
Any fluency that you get has to do with hard work. Like how does someone become a good baseball hitter? Lots and lots of hard work. Until they can do it almost without thinking. I think it's something like that.
So you paid your dues. Were you doing other things for a living before Skellig came?
I was a teacher for a long time.
What were you teaching?
Mainly I taught kids with learning problems. Last eight years I've been teaching three days a week, which is perfect because I had a salary and I had time to write. It worked out pretty well. And I always thought it was important to earn my own living. Not to jump ship too early or rely on grants. I always wanted to avoid feeling anxious about the writing, feeling anxious about not getting published as much as I thought I should. I wanted to avoid bitterness, you know? Because the world is full of bitter writers. It was always important to me to kind of look after my duties so I could just focus on the books and focus on the stories I was doing. And when that novel was rejected by everybody, in a sense it didn't matter: I learned something from the process. The book was rejected: Oh, what a shame but let's write another book. Whereas if I'd given up lots and lots of stuff in order to write that book ... and it was rejected it could have left me feeling really anxious and really bitter. But it didn't. I was OK and I was writing. | February 2002
Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine and the author of several books.