I conducted this interview with David Almond in May 2003, after I heard him speak at the Reading Matters conference at the Australian Centre for Youth Literature at the State Library of Victoria. I hope this transcript captures the conversational tone of the interview, which was for me, both fun and informative. I realise that some of the discussion rises straight from David’s presentation at Reading Matters, but I hope that readers familiar with his novels will make sense of the conversation and benefit from his insights into his writing process.
I was really interested when you talked about Skellig arising as a gift, and then you went on to say that you didn’t know what Michael was going to find in the shed and you didn’t know that Mina was going to appear. I was fascinated then to find out what part of the story came to you before you discovered all those other elements that were going to be in it that are so critical to it.
I suppose it came with… I think the reason why it just went so well, because it was a book that just went fantastically, was because all those initial elements came at the beginning. So I had Michael’s voice and I had the moving to a new house, I had the family, I had the baby coming, I had the garage, and the garage really was the thing that Michael had to go in to explore it, so it gave me this opening that Michael was exploring. He didn’t know what he’d found so it was like I could go along with Michael. And then when Michael had gone in(to the shed) a couple of times, up pops Mina. She was like the other element as well. She was an element that gave a lot of discipline to the whole thing, because Mina’s always telling people you must do this, you must do that. So Mina for me was the sort of (heart) of the story really.
In some ways she helps propel the action, she makes Michael act at times when he’s not otherwise going to.
That’s right. I think without Mina the whole thing could have collapsed into nothing and become very slushy or too long. But Mina had a kind of strictness about her which helped everybody inside the story. It certainly helped me. So in a sense I suppose I felt I was almost a character in the story as well, I was in there with them.
Has that discovery of elements and characters that you didn’t initially plan or know were going to be there, has that happened in all of the books? There seems to be a sense that as you read (your books) that things unfold. I wonder if that’s how the writing process works (for you).
It is really. I hope that I write in such a way that I allow myself to discover things as I’m writing. So often I’ll get into a story and I think, oh, so that’s what it’s about and I have to throw away everything. that went before and then make this new track, follow this new track. And I always wait for the moment when the story does take on its own life and it begins to give me something instead of me having to control everything. In Kit’s Wilderness the major moment for me as the writer was when Burning Bush, the teacher, says to the kids “Now you’re going to write a story about an ice boy” and the first sentence is His name was Lak. That really came almost out of the blue and when I wrote that I thought, oh no, I’ve got to write that story as well.
Like that “Oh, no, he’s an angel!” moment in Skellig.
Yes. And then again I thought, “Right!” But because it was given to the class it really was like, when I came to those bits of the story, to Lak’s story, it really was like, “Oh, Kit can write this”. So it was like there’s another character in my head, Kit Watson, who was writing that part of the story. The Lak story just flowed in the same way that Mina’s story flowed, as Skellig did. So yes, I do tend to write in that way, it’s like putting together lots of elements, kind of assembling them in a way I suppose, like making spells. I think children do this, don’t they; they put objects together and pull things in, almost like witchery. I think I use words in that way, put them together and some kind of spell emerges from them.
I’ve heard you refer to spells and chants. Ritual in language as well as ritual as act seems to appear quite often in your work.
It does and that’s something that I haven’t deliberately pursued, but once I found it was happening I was very happy with it. It felt like a natural way to write about the things I want to write about.
Well, kids have rituals and all of the playground chants and so on are part of that.
That’s right and I love all that. The game in Kit’s Wilderness is a kind of ritual…
You said you’d actually seen kids… was it at the school you taught at?
No, it was the school, I was a kid, I was maybe five or six, and I remember the big boys played this game on the grass outside the school, and there were lots of rumours about it. Of course when you’re five or six that’s terrifying. I remember being absolutely terrified. And looking across to see them playing this game on the grass one afternoon, I was scared stiff, and then when I sat down to write Kit’s Wilderness, the memory of it just kept coming back, so the ritual was something I could construct the book around.
I really love how when you bring in those quite mysterious moments, as in Kit’s first death in the game—you’re a very different writer from Diana Wynne Jones, but you remind me of her in the way you don’t feel obliged to explain everything. That’s the thing that I really admire about her work, but it’s also something that she’s been criticised for by adults who say to her, “Your books are too difficult for children.” Have you had that kind of reaction?
Occasionally people have tried to float that. But if people say that to me I really take no notice, and I think, well how absurd. If it’s too difficult then they wouldn’t read it. And as a writer your job is simply to give everything you can to each book. There’s loads of stuff in the books that people don’t see and I don’t expect them to see, because they’re very personal to me. But the books can only work if I commit everything. If I held back, said I can’t put that in because it’s too complicated, you know you can’t kill the book off, so you have write unfettered. And the thing that holds you, the thing that disciplines you is the language, is the story. You put everything that you can into that story. And it has loads of things that people will see and loads of things that people won’t see…
And things that they’ll see that you won’t see…
…that I don’t see. I’ve found out things about my books from sitting in front of kids, “have you got any questions?”, and a boy or a girl will ask me a question, and I’ll think, That’s why I did that!
Can you think of any examples of that?
There was one boy put his hand up one day—it was just after Kit had been released, there were just the two books, Skellig and Kit’s Wilderness, and he said Mina’s got a cat, and Askew’s got a dog. He said, so there’s some relationship between Mina and Askew and the cat and the dog, you know, the relationship that children and animals have, familiars…
Had he read Philip Pullman?
I don’t know, he may well have. It started to come to me, yes there is a kind of relationship between Mina and John Askew that the boy had seen that I hadn’t seen.
I suppose they play a similar function in terms of the structure and the plot. Of course, they’re very different characters.
Yes. Of course, a lot of this is stuff that adults say kids won’t get. If you write books that seem quite complicated, a lot of adults say, well we’ll get those bits and the kids’ll get the nice story. It’s a very kind of patronising attitude towards kids. A kid one day put up his hand and said, “After Skellig goes away, Doctor MacNabola is never there either. We go back to the hospital and Dr MacNabola isn’t there.” And I said, yes that’s right. So he said, “Possibly, Dr MacNabola was like an element of Skellig, of Skelligness.”
That’s a very sophisticated response.
Yes. And I looked through the book again, and I thought, well! It could well be there. Another thing that struck me the other day, and again it was about Kit’s Wilderness, a few times a boy or girl has said, “When they’re doing the death game, they really die, don’t they?” and I’ve always said, “No, they don’t, it’s just a game, they’re kids, it’s just a game of pretend”. And then I was in a school in Brisbane the other day and I read them the first chapter, which is about them coming back out into the light again, and I was reading it and I thought, My God! They could have died, maybe they did die, and the whole thing is a post-death experience. So children do all this wonderful, sophisticated re-imagining of the book, which as a writer—what more can you ask for?
Again, Diana Wynne Jones says she prefers writing for children because when she writes for adults she has to keep stopping and explaining things. She never feels obliged to do that for children. Perhaps there’s a sense of trust that children still have that the author will take them wherever they’re meant to go, and things will become clear or not as the story requires.
Yes. Kids don’t have this need to know everything. As adults we think, if I don’t know something I’ve got to make sure that I do know it. But kids live in this sort of area where they know that they don’t know everything, so that’s there sort of natural way of being.
You wrote for many years before Skellig was published, primarily I take it for an adult audience, however one makes those distinctions. Did that other writing have in common with the books you’ve since had published for a young audience—I won’t even say blend—that recognition of the mysterious and the fantastic in the every day?
Some if it did, yes, but I hadn’t really found a way to manage it. I wrote a long novel that was based on the boundaries between what we know and what we don’t know, between the real and imagined. Then I half-wrote another novel that was exploring quite obviously religious themes, and bringing it up today, and using a character like the character in my new novel The Fire-Eaters, someone who bangs up against the edge of the world of dreams and something else. But it had never settled, and there was something about writing for children that let me find a form to write what I wanted to write about in a way I wanted to write, and also to write fluently. I write much more fluently than I did when I was writing short stories. I used to write short stories and as is natural to short stories everything sort of shrank. I made things very small and neat. But when I began to write for children—this obvious thing as a writer, what do you do? You tell stories, so the storytelling thing really sort of released all this and gave me a sort of manner that I could write through.
Are you a people observer?
Not really, no, not in the sense that I’m looking out for quirks, but I must pick things up I suppose. A lot of it comes from voices, but sometimes the most profound affect can be had from someone you just glimpse out of the corner of your eye, it can be the tiniest thing. Like in the new novel, the fire-eater himself comes from a guy I saw when I was a child on the quayside in Newcastle. So it comes from all over the place. But I’m not a writer who sits and observes. When I’ve said to people I’m writing a novel for children, a few people have said, “Ah! So have you researched what young people are like today? Have you listened to them? Have you watched them?” “No!”
Going back to my first question again—When I read Skellig, I don’t know if I consciously thought about this, but I would have imagined that what you “received” was that image of Skellig, that incredibly strong visual image of that creature, angel, man in the shed. If I’d written that book, that would have been my starting point. So I was astonished to find that you didn’t know he was going to be there. So is it voice? Is it character?
With Skellig I think it was the voice. It was like somebody saying, “I found him in the garage”. I think instead of having an image of Skellig as he was when he was found, it’s like… I think when I’m writing I look for a tiny chink, an opening into something, and that little bit of Michael saying “I found him in the garage” was the chink to move through. So I think it often comes like that. Sometimes it comes from—with Secret Heart it was the tiger, so that was visual. In the first chapter of Secret Heart you look at the window and you see the ridge of the tent, and that came as a really powerful image, of a tent across the drab rooftops of an estate in England.
Helmouth! Helmouth comes from, in mediaeval mystery plays, which used to go touring around in cities in England, and set up a stage, and very often at the edge of the stage there’d be a hell mouth, (and) the bad characters would jump into it. So that came from that.
(A brief discussion of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the Hellmouth ensued!)
That’s one of the things that impresses me. In Secret Heart I think the circus features largely because it has this mediaeval (feel) and I’m interested in that, in things that are still extant now but have got their roots way back and we’re trying to civilise them. We’re trying to civilise the circus.
I remember somebody asking you about that at Reading Matters.
If you just say the word “circus” to some people in England—“Circus, it’s a terrible thing.” And I agree with them, but—
There’s an almost surreal resonance about circuses, and the fascination with that life, what it must be like.
I think I agree, it is a shame to have lost that—I suppose in a way it’s a direct inheritance of the travelling players isn’t it.
Yes, it is.
So talking of myth and what we inherit from our forbears in story and all the rest, are you conscious—there’s a sense of a greater myth underlying a lot of what you do. Are you conscious of that? Or is it just your world view?
It’s my world view when I write. When I began to write these books, I just found myself in a different place. I found myself in a place where there was this mythology still going on. Karen (Brooks) was talking about myth the other day at the (Reading Matters) conference—it’s like (we hear) these stories and we know them already. I remember when Freya, my daughter, began to hear fairy tales for the first time it was like she (already) knew them. I remember reading “Hansel and Gretel” to her a couple of times and the second time around she said “You’ve missed out a bit Dad”. It was the bit I’d missed out that was the scariest thing, when the witch is going to eat them up. It was like she knew the story. She loves the Greek myths and it’s almost like they’re part of us. And when I began to write these books I found myself in that area where it’s almost part of them. So the words are a way of getting into that realm, my sort of modern language and modern world view is drawn into that.
This is going off on a slightly different tack but it’s still very much about language. Hearing you read aloud in your accent, and having a brother-in-law from the same part of England, was a total revelation to me. I’d read the books but hearing them read aloud — I can’t quite explain it, but it was like really hearing them. And then somebody very shortly after that asked you a question about being a regional writer and I’d read the books and wasn’t consciously thinking of them being set in Newcastle, but then I heard you read them and got a whole other layer of response to it. So I suppose I’m interested in that sense of where you’re from and …
It’s been great for me after Skellig. I spent ages trying to get agents and publishers and I think one thing that worked against me was that I lived in the north (of England) and wrote in the north and writing a lot of the time about northern themes. But it’s a great liberation to me to be able to do that. When people say “Oh, David Almond, yes he writes in that kind of voice about that part of the world”, and it’s really kind of undiscovered territory in literary terms. So a lot of the way I write is drawn from the way people talk, it comes from an in some ways non-literary tradition. So I’m really interested in that—the voice, use of language, storytelling, chants, ballads. And yet, it comes from where I live, where I was born. It’s not apparently sophisticated in the way that a lot of English lit is apparently sophisticated, but there are some things I detest about English literary sophistication because I think it becomes inwards and inbred. I think a lot of writers like to be on the fringes of literature and I really feel as if I’m on the fringes of mainstream English culture and I’m picking up something that’s very old and hopefully helping to make something that’s very new.
Do you think that your northern voice is more evident to English readers?
Oh absolutely. Certainly when I talk, of course, but even in the books themselves I think it is. When I go on tour in some parts, I get into groups of people, and I can tell you some people who’ve wanted to meet me, and they meet me and they say, well, you’re not supposed to be the person I’m meeting, because you talk like that (laughs).
From my experience, and it was a very brief time I spent in Newcastle, I was there for a day two years ago, but even in those few short hours I couldn’t believe how much the city has changed over the years (since my first visit).
It was ’88 that I there staying with my sister and her husband. I know that the north and Newcastle is looked on as industrial and grubby, but walking around Ryton-on-Tyne (a village outside of Newcastle)—and maybe it’s just my romantic nature, but I had a very strong sense of its history and there being something very—I’m using the word resonant again. I can remember walking around the church there, the Anglican church, and there’s the ancient burial mound there in the church grounds and the village cross, and I was walking out, just a country road out of the town and I got this really strong sense that if I kept walking I’d come across someone from a past time! It’s really kind of silly, but there was a very strong atmosphere that had nothing to do with the reputation of the north as just being working class, industrial, unpleasant, ugly, uncultured.
If you go to Newcastle now it’s just incredible. It’s probably about to be the European city of culture. It’s filled with these beautiful buildings—Newcastle’s always been a great city but it’s becoming to be recognised more now, so kids look to go to Newcastle University, it’s one of the most popular choices. But there is still in English life this downward looking view of the north. It’s been interesting coming to Australia, and going to America, saying to the audience “Who’s been to Newcastle?’ Certainly in Australia every time I’ve asked, there’s been someone who knows Newcastle. But if I go into Surrey—how many people have been to Newcastle…?
I’ve read recently that there’s concern that young people from regional England are losing their regional voice. They’re losing their accent, they’re losing their dialect, they’re talking like East Enders, they’re talking like the prevalence of London English on television.
It’s true and in some ways it’s inevitable, with TV and travel. When I was a kid, nobody really travelled (unless it was for an execution!). Now it’s very common, so it’s bound to happen. But I’m concerned—for me, as a writer, on the one hand I’m trying to maintain something and say “this is what it was like, this is the language”, but also it may well be lost, and there’s nothing you can do, but as a writer you have to draw on the things that matter to you. So it’s great for me to be able to use bits of dialect. It doesn’t matter if nobody knows what it means.
Did you teach primary or secondary?
I started teaching primary, then I taught adults, then I gave up, then I went back teaching special needs, which was like the main part of my career. I taught special needs, and then for the past eight years my teaching was part time, part time teaching kids with special needs, and that was great, because I worked three days a week, so I had this money to pay the bills, I had time… It was very interesting to work with kids who found it difficult to articulate…
Like Joe (Maloney, in Secret Heart).
…like Joe, like Joe Maloney. And I think I felt as if I could do it because the kids I was working with, it was like every time you set out to write a book, it’s like you’re learning language again, each new book’s new challenge. So the kids were going through the same process as I was, so it was far more interesting working with them than teaching literature. I never went and taught literature in a secondary school.
You made the observation at Reading Matters that the importance of the imagination is denied to children. Would you expand on that?
I think it possibly always is. It’s just a feature of children trying to fit into a grown-up society. But in England—and in talking to people here it seems like there’s much the same attitude here towards the way children learn and what they’re allowed to do with their own language—in England everything is seen as a task in school. It’s a task that has to be completed and there has to be a positive outcome—tasks, outcomes, tasks, outcomes—even for things that have to do with the imagination like writing stories or drawing pictures or whatever. And I mean great teachers, and there are so many, and somehow they manage to work with kids… but also the political masters don’t really want that. When I won the Carnegie I made a speech in which I dared to use the words “creativity” and “imagination” and it was just amazing, the response. The next day I was attacked on page one of one of the papers by the education secretary; the week later there was an article by the chief inspector of schools, naming me; “People like Almond want to return to a free for all, anything goes attitude to children which did so much to ruin a whole generation.” It’s this fear, I think it’s an English fear of chaos. If you take away the chains, if you take away the targets and the tests and the scores, you’d just be left with chaotic kids. Also what I found in Government statements was, I was asked on the radio one morning, “So, why don’t you believe in grammar?” Of course kids need to know grammar, we know this. And his response was, “Kids need to learn grammar so they can function properly in this society and get better jobs.” Why do we have language? We don’t have language so we can get a job, we have language so we can think, so we can be full human beings.
I was really astonished to hear that you got such a public response from people like that.
It’s incredible. It was obviously a very raw nerve.
Did you get much feedback then after they’d come out and made those comments?
From teachers, yeah, I still do, and what, it’s five years now? And there’s a whole army of teachers who think I’m wonderful because of what I said in that speech. I was invited to speak to the people on the national literacy strategy, which I was amazed by, because it’s a government thing, and the guy who invited me to do it said I was invited because I made the speech. I think it’s not something that’s just about now, it’s always the case when society wants to—that sounds very Wordsworthian, doesn’t it—wants to pull us down, our possibilities in order that society can function as an economic unit. And it’s for other people to say no, we’re more than this. And also, maybe now, I think the kind of economic strictures enforced on children are very scary, like credit cards, student debt. Students leave University in England with debts of 10,000, 12,000 pounds.
We were talking about voice before. Heaven Eyes voice is so different from—and it stands out in that book but also in the whole range of your work. Where’d she come from?
I had to invent a language that she would be able to speak, that I wanted to be light and sweet, but also that it was a voice that was untutored. All the influence she really had was Grandpa. I tried various times to get it right, and I just couldn’t get it, and I kept trimming it and trimming it and trimming it… I think it comes from—early song. I really like early song, pre-Tudor times in England, and there’s a kind of sweetness and lightness about early music which I am very fond of. So I think it came from that, from the very early poets and ballads. I think, but I don’t know.
Do you re-draft a lot?
And do you over-write and cut back, or…?
I do sometimes. But when I’m doing well it usually comes out in a kind of form that it emerges as, it finishes as, but with loads and loads of constant re-drafting as I go along. I don’t write and then re-write, I re-draft, re-draft, re-draft all the time. I usually spend the most time on the first third of the book and throw it away, throw it away, throw it away, and then find the proper form for it and then it works.
You recently threw away an entire book that you’d spent a couple of years on.
Yeah, called The Apprentice. That was just going up the creek, going nowhere and I just woke up one morning and hated it. The pay off was that in its place came this new book, The Fire-Eaters, out of nowhere really. It just kind of burst into life, it was great, a lovely book to write. And the other one kind of led me to it, so it wasn’t a waste of time.
Well, it’s all process isn’t it. You were saying, again at Reading Matters, that you started writing these books when you were nine.
So it’s been a long time!
And they’re on that shelf in your local library!