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David Almond’s Adventures in Words.

February 8, 2013

Mouse Bird Snake Wolf Cover

I think every parent knows who David Almond is, and I would be surprised if those grown-ups who don’t have any children have been able to resist a least a quick peek in one of his books, just to see what all the fuss is about. He certainly seems to be in touch with his ‘inner child’, as his stories are able to capture that sense of playfulness and seeing the world from a fresh perspective. His writing captivates, because each one of his stories is an adventure that both immerses and challenges the reader.

You’re now firmly established as a children’s author, but initially you wrote for the adult market. Why the sudden change?

For me it just happened. I never expected to write for children, but then I wrote a whole series of stories based on my own childhood called Counting Stars. When I’d finished them, it was as if it had cleared away something and it had changed the way I wrote. Skellig just came along (although this was probably the culmination of years of work). As soon as I began to write it down, I realised it was the best thing I’d ever done. To my astonishment it was a book for young people, or mainly for young people.

So what you’re saying is, it just felt right?

It felt right, but also when I started to do it, I just felt a sense of elation and excitement. It was as if a whole new world had just opened up for me, a world that I could explore. With children you can dodge a whole range of categorisations. For me, writing for young people has given me a kind of freedom to write in all kinds of forms that to some adult publishers and adult readers would just seem weird, whereas children just accept them.

This would make sense because looking at book like My Name is Mina, is like looking at Mina’s notebook. The font is made to look like handwriting and varies in style from chapter to chapter. This would never work with an adult book (unless it was a graphic novel), but you’re saying that children are quite happy to take this on board?

Yes. This book has worked really well. It has empty pages, pages of nonsense, concrete poems, stories from different points of view, dreams, speculations, stories about stories. An adult publisher might have found that all too strange, too difficult, but the children’s publisher thought it was great. That particular book has been very successful and kids love it, adults and publishers love it. So that’s what I mean when I talk about the freedom I have with my writing. You’re allowed to explore.

What sort of comments do you get from children about writing in this way?

Children just love reading it because they love exploring sadness alongside being exciting and young. They love the exercises that are in there. There are some extraordinary exercises to take part in. In fact, what it has done is inspire kids to write themselves.

Do your books generate discussion?

It’s surprising that people don’t really know how interested children are in books. They will ask the most perceptive questions and explore all kinds of literary ideas. People need to know about the excitement that comes from reading a book and how excited children are by language.

Does feedback from children affect the way you might write the next book?

In terms of feedback I do write back to children who have written to me. I love that sort of interaction. I love engaging in all sorts of discussions with them. As far as my writing is concerned I don’t think I specifically respond to feedback. But it does encourage me to feel that I’m doing the right thing. I haven’t ever taken idea from a child and used it, that I’m conscious of, but probably I may have because you get ideas from everywhere. A lot of my energy comes from knowing that I’m dealing with an audience whose minds are flexible and very creative.

Certainly you’ve been very experimental in your writing but also the subject matter can at times be very challenging. For example Billy Dean is not an easy book to read both because it’s written in a made up language and because of the very serious subject matter in it. How do you know how far you can go with writing for children?

You go as far as the book allows you. You can get into all sorts of discussions about what is appropriate for children, but my writing just seems to generate the book. So I suppose if you want to know how far you can go, it depends on the voice of the narrator and the children who you’re dealing with who are likely to be reading the book. Billy Dean is a very serious book but then it’s also a book about beauty and joy. It’s about life. If you’re going to write about somebody who lives through difficult circumstances, you just have to see where it goes. Children might be playful but they are interested in serious matters. Children are always questioning about the universe and God. They’re always asking big questions.

The True Tale of the Monster Billy Dean Book Cover

You write for a wide age range. What amazes me is your ability to move from different age groups. Do you have to consciously switch over in your mind or does it just happen?

I just enjoy doing lots of different things and working in different forms. So I think that I just look at these books as different ways of working. I think that with each different book I’m exploring the language; the use of words and how many words I can use. I do love working in very short form. I’ve done a couple of short books with Dave McKean that are just about a couple of thousand words. It’s almost like chipping away at a lot of verbiage; like trying to form poetry. It’s wonderful to work with not many words. Then when you get the artist coming in on the project as well, it’s really interesting. I’d get bored if I was just writing novels.

When you write a book that’s illustrated, (because you’ve done picture books and books that have pictures in them) how closely to work with your illustrators?

Not very closely. I’ve been really lucky to work with illustrators whose work I love and really admire. So if you have somebody like that, you have to allow them to bring their own vision to the work. When I’ve worked with Dave McKean, there’s been a couple of quick emails and that’s it. I just send the stories away and Dave just does these extraordinary illustrations. I think that is the best kind of collaboration for an author. If I put too many of my own ideas in then I’m limiting the artist’s vision. A good collaboration is when two visions come together. When that happens, you get something that is beautiful. When the illustrations arrived for The Savage I was astounded. When I worked with Polly Dunbar who did the illustrations for My Dad’s a Birdman, I could see she’s got a great gift and responded in a wonderfully ‘Pollyish’ way to my writing. It was the same with Oliver Jeffers and The Boy Who Swam With Piranhas.

The Boy Who Swam With Piranhas

This issue of interpretation is interesting because, for example, Skellig has been made into a play, an opera and a film. Does this mean you’re interested to see how people interpret your work?

Yes. I love collaboration. I love working in the theatre. I wrote the stage play for Skellig, but you still have to give up the story, because as soon as you write the stage play you have understand that the actors and director take over. When you look at how they workshop it, you suddenly see the story being born again. I learnt so much about the story from watching people act it out. So you have to allow people to recreate it and that was certainly the case with the stage play. I also wrote the libretto for the opera, then I had to give it up for someone else to put the music to it to make the story their own.

How did you come to write for the theatre?

I’ve done a little bit of theatre years and years ago, but I’d never thought of myself as a playwright. As soon as Skellig came out, there was a lot of interest in my writing. I went to the Lyric in Hammersmith for a meeting and came out of the meeting knowing I was going to write a play. I was astonished by that possibility and again there was a sense of this being another way of storytelling. So I went and wrote ‘Wild Girl, Wild Boy’. Then I worked the first time with ‘Pop-Up Theatre’. That was just such a fantastic experience. Then the National Theatre came along and asked me to adapt Skellig.

I’ve learned about writing for the theatre as I’ve gone along, but again got my confidence because of the children. Because kids don’t see the barriers between different forms like we do. If you tell a young kid the story of Hansel and Gretel, very soon you’ll find them tiptoeing through your house because it’s a forest. So the form of the story and acting out make believe flow into one another.

When I began to understand this and how children read and how to make things work for children through drama, dance, song and writing fiction, it’s all flowed together. It gave me a great sense of possibilities. Some of the most interesting things have happened in the theatre. It’s just been great, because it’s possible to learn so much from other people, from the directors, from the actors and musicians. I love sitting down and writing a novel, but it’s also great to work in the theatre and get away from the desk for a while. You give somebody a line and they feed it back to you and you think, ‘So that’s what it was.’ The whole experience is very insightful. I love it.

This sense of enjoyment certainly comes over in your writing. It’s almost as if your books have been written by an adult who is a child.

Yes. I think I am a bit childlike, but all art is childlike. I think in order to be a good artist you have to allow yourself to be childlike and rediscover that childish playfulness and curiosity, which is at the root of what you do.

How important is dialogue in children’s books?

For me it’s very important. The great thing about using dialogue is that because someone is speaking, the page becomes populated with people’s voices. Also when you write dialogue, you hear the dialogue and you don’t have to make it up or invent it. If you write well and you have characters on the move, then the writing comes alive. Dialogue from me is dramatisation. There’s talk about show and tell. Well for me it’s showing. A lot of budding writers think that dialogue must be hard. But a lot about writing dialogue is about relaxing and allowing the characters just to speak.

Thinking about dialogue, most of your books do seem to lend themselves to audiobooks. How successful are the audiobooks?

I think they’ve all been done as audiobooks. I’ve read most of them. I think they’ve done pretty well and I certainly seem to get a good response. People do seem to like them and I do enjoy recording my own work because my rhythm matches what’s on the page.

Your background seems to be an important part of your work. How much of your background comes in to your stories? If someone wanted to be a writer, how useful is it bringing elements of your life into your writing?

For me it’s been hugely important, to allow it to come in. I went through a stage of not wanting to rely on my background as a setting for the stories, but then when I turned back and began using it. It was like discovering another country. It brought with it a language and I drew on it for the language, the landscapes, the cityscapes and the history. It’s really helped me to find a distinctive kind of voice that works with the settings in the story.

So because of this, do the books just develop naturally or do you have to sit down and plot them?

I don’t plot my books and they don’t just come to me. It’s somewhere in between. I begin to write when something urgent comes along. I think a good story is something that has to be written. So usually it’s just a moment that sets me off. It might just be a picture, or a voice. I begin to construct it out of, maybe, a sentence which tells me what the overall shape of the story might be. Then I begin to write, change and track. So the thing grows like something organic, like a tree as it gets bigger. But I don’t say, ‘This will happen’ and ‘That will happen.’

Your books can be very short, with very short chapters. Does this mean you’re constantly having to edit, because often it is much more difficult to work with fewer words?

I don’t write long and then chop down. I constantly edit as I go along and I try to be very precise. So if it looks like the writing is getting too long, I try to pare it down it down. What I’m going by is the rhythm and sound, which keep the narrative moving along. It’s an instinctive thing. So it’s difficult to analyse it to see exactly what I’m doing. This is something that’s happened over a period of years until I don’t think about it anymore. I write how I want the writing to sound and feel. For me it’s often just the fact that something feels long and I need to chop and change to make sentences work.

Are you somebody that can only write while you’re sitting at the desk or do you have a notebook that you make notes in if you get an idea and you have to scribble it down?

I always have a notebook, because wherever I am, I’m always writing, because I love writing. Part of your head is always somewhere else writing part of a story. But the routine of just sitting down at a desk for hours on end is important. It’s a matter of just doing it, particularly if you’re writing a novel, which might be 250 pages long. You have to apply yourself to it, but within that tight structure and that routine you can be doing something very playful and fanciful that doesn’t appear to be very productive. When I’m in the flow of the book I push myself to write a certain amount each day. I’ll have a chart to see how much I’ve written each day. That helps me along. Writing a novel is like accruing pages, gathering vision, gathering wind.

The True Tale of the Monster Billy Dean Book Cover2

Do you concentrate on one book at a time or do you have several on the go at one time?

Only one at a time. In fact, if I try to write two novels at the same time it’d drive me barmy. What I can do is write a novel and write a short story, or a play. In fact I’ve just finished a novel and I’ve had to push myself to finish it because I need to write the next one. But I couldn’t set off writing the second one until I finish the first.

What do you find are the differences between writing a novel and a short story?

Think it’s just the length. Again it’s to do with how things feel. When I write a novel it feels like the length of a novel. When I write a short story, it feels like a short story. It’s as if they have a shape. I know that the idea I currently have is going to be a novel, because it feels like the story is going to go further and beyond the shape of a short story.

You’re coming to Nottingham for the Festival of Words, but you’ve had quite strong ties with Nottingham, because you were a Visiting Professor at Nottingham Trent University. What did that role entail?

That was for five years. One of the things I feel about writing is that you have a responsibility to keep the culture going. I like teaching and I enjoy education. So I did tutorials, gave talks about the writing process and gave readings. It was a case of keeping in touch and hopefully inspiring other writers by my own journey as a writer. So it was a blend of all kinds of things that I like to do.

Does this act as a reflective process for your writing?

In some ways it does. I do quite a lot of workshops and teaching in creative writing. I’m now a Professor at Bath Spa University. I find it helpful, because it makes me think about what I’m doing. Although you can become too conscious and that can kill it off. What you believe as a writer is very important. What’s been really interesting to me, is that you think you know what you think, but you actually don’t know what you think at all, when you’ve been doing something for a long time. Writers come up to me and say, ‘I want to be this kind of writer’ and I have to say, ‘Well hang on. How do you know what sort of writer you’re going to be? You only discover what kind of writer you are by writing and writing again, by allowing yourself to change and to discover your own truth, your own voice. You can’t know these things in advance.’ So the act of educating is more about helping somebody to understand what sort of writer they are. Writing helps to define the type of things that you believe in.

David Almond

David Almond

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