David Almond is, above all else, a Northern writer. The language, cadence and humour of the North, as well as its landscape, nature and history are at the heart of his books. He is an explorer of the extraordinary that exists within the seemingly ordinary, examining the wondrous and strange possibilities of everyday life. Born in 1951 to a large Catholic family in Felling on Tyne, Almond studied English and American Literature at the University of East Anglia. He trained as a teacher and worked at a primary school in Gateshead for five years. While working as a teacher, he wrote and published several short stories for adults. Today, he is one of the UK’s leading writers for children.
Last year Almond donated his personal archive to Seven Stories, the National Centre for Children’s Books, in Newcastle. As part of an AHRC PhD placement, I have had the extraordinary opportunity to explore these archives, which include manuscripts, artwork, letters and the very first notebook containing the ideas that eventually became Skellig. Published in 1998, it won the Whitbread Children’s Award and the Carnegie Medal – the most prestigious awards in children’s literature. Skellig has also been adapted for stage, screen and turned into an opera. Further strange, lyrical and fantastical books for children earned Almond international success, including a second Whitbread in 2003 for The Fire Eaters, and the hugely prestigious international Hans Christian Andersen Award in 2010, which recognised his ‘important, lasting contribution to children’s literature’. His work is now being celebrated through two events at the Great Exhibition of the North: Where Your Wings Were, Journeys with David Almond, an exhibition held at Seven Stories; and an art trail along the Ouseburn valley, Winged Tales of the North.
I met Almond at his home a couple of weeks before the exhibition opened, where I asked him about his writing process. He immediately began laying out spiral bound hardback A4 notebooks and emptying a pencil case full of coloured pens, pencils and highlighters, all with huge enthusiasm. This is what he said:
The thing about a book is when it’s published it looks perfect. All those neat lines, so beautifully bound, what a beautiful object it is. And I remember when I was a kid and wanted to write they were terrifying. I thought ‘I’ll never be able to do that!’, it looked impossible. I was imperfect. The thing to do about creativity is to accept we are imperfect, and that our minds and lives are messy. They are not perfect like a finished book. So for me notebooks are really important, all my books, which end up looking so perfect, begin in notebooks like this one for The Colour of the Sun.
(The unlined notebook pages are covered in colourful doodles and drawings, alongside scrawled writing that loops and swirls in all directions. I recognise circled notes scribbled in the corners that are crucial character and plot points in the finished novel.)
What a mess! But the weird thing is, making this mess releases you. You don’t have to worry so much or think ‘oh I’ve got to be perfect’. You can doodle and scribble away and the weird thing is, in the process, you find yourself writing down things that you never expected to write down. You discover things about your story. Creating images is central to me as a writer; I use colour to help me to imagine. It’s a way of releasing what might be in my mind and discover what the story might be. And a lot of times when I’m doing this I’m staring into space, I’ll be chewing me pencils, I’ll be wondering, I’ll be dreaming. Central to it is this vast scribbling and it’s almost like the movement of the hand is really important. Writing is a physical thing.
Looking back over your writing career, what were your key influences and inspirations from the beginning?
I drew on the influences of my childhood,. People said ‘what you gonna have to write about, you’re just an ordinary kid from Felling?’ But the paradoxical thing is the more I’ve drawn on my own background and used it as a source of inspiration and a source of stories, the more my work is being read around the world.
When I began to write seriously and try to get published I thought, ‘well, I’m gonna have to imagine I’m from somewhere else’. I thought, ‘maybe there’s some literary language out there somewhere, that I’ll be able to find and attach to meself’. So, for a long time I didn’t want to write about the North, or about things that were deep influences on me, like my childhood Catholicism. But, of course, that’s nonsense. Your own language is in your bones, blood, history and memory.
Location, landscape, exploration and your love of the North East flows through your work. Why is it important to you?
It was only when I began to accept my Northernness and the influence of Catholicism that I began to write in the way that I’ve been writing for the last 20 years or so. It was like looking back again at something that I had tried to move away from and seeing it for the first time. So the North East, which I knew, became weirdly a place I could explore, renew and recreate. The North East I write about is a real North East: I could take you to its places. But it is also a fictional North East that has been reimagined so it works inside stories.
Felling, this little town on the banks of River Tyne, is where I grew up. A very ordinary place. But then, of course, it’s not ordinary: everywhere is extraordinary. Felling goes from the river to the sky. Underneath it are old mining tunnels, at the top is a sky filled with skylarks and buzzards. And between is the town. It has always been rich in its population and the voices that occur there.
Childhood was a process of wandering about. We moved across different landscapes: the urban and the more rural. We walked to the wild places at the top of the town with the ponds and the paddocks, the abandoned mineral workings and old railway lines. Now what I’m doing is taking that wandering I did as a child, and it’s almost like the page becomes a place where I can wander through these landscapes again, to see them anew, to recreate them. I use language, the pencil and the pen to move through a landscape and discover stories in it.
Tell me about a key development in your career.
I knew from the time I was quite young that I wanted to be a writer. And, of course, you don’t know how to become a writer except you just write. And so I kept on writing: I wrote when I was a boy, I wrote when I was at university, I wrote when I was a young teacher. At first I was published by small presses, by little magazines; it was very important for me to have that sense of people who knew my work, who liked it, and who would publish it, even though it was read by maybe 30 people, that didn’t matter to me. But I was constantly kind of hoping and aspiring to reach a broader audience.
I wrote a novel that took me five years to write and was rejected by every single publisher in the UK! And people came along and they said, ‘Now, David, everybody rejected this novel, what are you gonna do now?’ and I said ‘I think I’m going to write another book’. Because one of the things about writing is determination and doggedness, and that kind of an ability to feel stupid in some ways.
The thing that really changed my life was writing Skellig. I never expected to be a children’s writer. But I was literally walking along the street one day and this story appeared in my mind. I thought: ‘Ah!’ As soon as I began to write it down, I knew it was the best thing I’d ever done, and I’d been writing by this time for 20 years or more. I felt liberated, excited and it transformed everything for me. It enabled me to enter a new world I never really knew existed: the world of children’s books, which is wonderfully creative and experimental. You can play around with all kinds of means of storytelling. Now I will collaborate with artists and musicians, and I do work on stage. But the core of it is still writing novels, plays, stories and picture books mainly for young people. I’m astonished by what I do. I never expected to do this; I didn’t think I’d be this kind of writer. But on the other hand, I think, weirdly, this is the writer I was always supposed to be.
Several of your works have been adapted for the stage. What was that process like?
I never really expected to be a playwright, but I remember one day I went into a school in Newcastle and told the story of Skellig, and two little boys ran out into the schoolyard and began to act out the drama. And a couple of years after that I was asked by Trevor Nunn if I would like to adapt Skellig for the stage. I took a deep breath and I thought about those two little boys: if they can do it, maybe I could do it as well. So I did. I have gone on to adapt several of my novels for stage and I’ve written new plays as well for stage. I wrote the libretto for a Skellig opera, I wrote another opera libretto, I’ve worked with musicians. Often we think that you’ve got books, you’ve got dance, you got drama, you’ve got song and they’re all separate art forms. But they’re not. If you think in the way of children, they mix everything up together. I love sitting at a desk writing novels, writing stories and focusing and being entirely me, but I also love when you work with directors, actors, musicians, dancers, and designers to recreate a story and make it into something new. Again, kids don’t find anything strange about that. It’s like all art. It’s really a kind of serious play.
‘Where Your Wings Were – Journeys with David Almond’ is at Seven Stories from 21st June 2018 to 30th June 2019.
‘Winged Tales of the North’ street art trail runs from 22nd June to 9th September 2018.
Thanks to Harjeet Kaur and Sarah Lawrence at Seven Stories and Will Sadlier at Arpeggio Films for making this interview possible. Special thanks to David Almond.