Interview with David Almond

Date: 13 November 2020
Interviewer: Vanessa Joosen
Transcript: Miet Baelen
Copy-editing: Vanessa Joosen

VJ: You started publishing your first books in the 1980s. Sleepless Nights dates back to 1985, but I gather from previous interviews that you were already writing long before that. Is that right?

DA: Yes, I had been writing all my life really, and then I had been writing lots of short stories. Those short stories were getting published in magazines by small presses, and Sleepless Nights was a little collection of those very early stories that I had written in my twenties.

What about when you were a child and adolescent?

Yes, I was always writing and scribbling and writing in notebooks.

Do you feel that your own age has had an impact on your writing process?

It is a bit hard to define exactly how it has. Obviously as you get older and you have written for a long time, in some ways you become more confident about what you can do, even though a sense of self-doubt and [laughter] self-despair never goes away. But you do develop a kind of confidence: “yes I can do this, I know how to write a sentence.” One of the things that has happened with me, with my different ages, is that some of those early stories, say Sleepless Nights, are very dark and very troubling. There is darkness in all of my work, but I think that as I have gotten older I have become less overtly dark and less willing to indulge darkness as a way of controlling a story. Probably, maybe as a person I have become more hopeful, more optimistic and maybe that has something to do with writing for young people.

Did the writing routine you developed help to build that confidence?

I think so. If you spend your life writing and using notebooks, you do develop a kind of a mental trajectory that holds you together, this is what you do as a writer. So the ability to sit down and actually do it becomes just what life is, that’s what you do, you sit down and get on with it and you [laughs] ignore the voices that tell you to get up and walk away from it. 

Age is also interesting because when Skellig came out I was 47 and had been writing for a long time. So when Skellig was such a huge success and a lot of attention was given to me suddenly, I think because I was a little bit older than lots of writers who make a breakthrough like that, I knew the important thing was just to do the next book and not to get carried away. So when people said, “oh what are you going to do now,” I said “well, I am going to write the next book, what else would I do?” So that is the great thing about developing a routine over the years: routine is something that you keep on going back to and that is what produces the work.

Are there specific moments or experiences in your life that were decisive in taking your writing in a new direction?

I suppose so. Yes, certainly when I began to write Skellig, it was amazing because I had never expected to write for young people. I did not think I was a children’s writer, I was writing these rather dark stories for adults and then I realised I was not really getting anywhere. Then I wrote a whole series of stories based on my own childhood called Counting Stars, and writing those stories really changed things a lot for me. I began to experience a kind of childhood – the intellectual and emotional and physical sense of being a child again – and to write through that experience. When I finished those stories, Skellig appeared out of nowhere and when I began to write Skellig down, I realised it was the best thing I had ever done. It was a culmination of everything I had done before and also to my amazement it was a book for children. When I realised that, it really was like a moment of revelation. I thought: “yes I can do that” and I found a new way of writing, a new kind of power, a new kind of confidence and a new kind of rhythm, which enabled me to write Skellig and then to find myself as a children’s author. It was entirely unexpected, I never planned to become a children’s author, I knew nothing about the children’s book markets and here I was writing a children’s book. But I knew inside myself that it was good, I knew that this is what I should be doing. So it felt like coming home, coming home to how I should be.

Is this a realisation that you had yourself, as you were writing the book, as the story was developing?

Yes, I realised that it was a book for young people, I realised that somehow it grew out everything that I had done before, all those stories, all those years. I had been writing for twenty years or so by this time, and I knew that something had happened inside me [laughs], and on the page that drew it together, all of those elements. Here was this thing called Skellig, and this was what I was doing now, but it was also my future. Somehow my future developed from this moment of writing called Skellig.

Feel free if you do not want to respond to this question, but when did you first become a father?

I became a father the same year that Skellig was published.

That is interesting. 

Yeah. So Skellig is dedicated to my daughter who was born the same year.

Do you see the two as being related?

I could speculate about all kinds of relationships, but no, I do not. 

Do you sometimes find it difficult constructing characters who are substantially younger than yourself?

It is weird but [laughs] to construct any character is difficult, but it is not like constructing a character, it is like discovering a character. You find a character and it kind of grows through you. Once you find that character and their voice begins to come through you, it is not easy, but there is an ease to it. So I do not find it difficult to enter the mind of a ten-year-old boy, or when I was writing My Name Is Mina, it was very weird when I was writing about Mina: I felt like Mina, I felt like I was Mina, that Mina was speaking through me. I think more and more that writing is a process of discovery: you discover these characters, you discover this language, discover these stories that somehow feel as if they were already there. You have to get yourself into such a position that these stories, these characters, these voices can come through you. So you become aware that these beings can enter the world. That sounds mad, but the more I go on and the older I get, the more I believe that the story writes you, the characters write you. It is a mix between deliberation and acceptance and inspiration and allowing yourself to become this character.

So you started writing Counting Stars before Skellig, but they were published in the reverse order.

Yeah, you are right.

What inspires you to create certain child characters? I think with some of the characters in Counting Stars you draw the link with your own biography?

Yes, Counting Stars grew out of my own childhood and that was a deliberate act. I wanted to write some stories for the people that I love, so they are written for my sisters and my brother and they were a way of dealing with experiences in my own childhood and not confronting them directly, but using them as a kind of basis for fiction to reimagine them. When I began to reimagine them and turn them into these stories, and I wrote from a point of view of a narrator who was a kind of me, I found a way of writing about myself as if I was not myself, so it was like even I discovered myself. Also my sisters and my brother take part in these stories too. They are a mix of real events and imaginary events. They take particularly two very dark events from my own childhood, the death of my sister, the death of my father – these are the two experiences at the heart of those stories. I found a way for the first time to write about them in a way that was not just a kind of indulgence of grief, or an indulgence of sadness, but a way of using that sadness, using that grief, but to reconstruct them as fiction. Story writing and creating any kind of art is an act, in some way, of healing, putting together things that are lost, of reassembling things that have been fractured. When I wrote those stories that is how it really felt. It was like I was taking some of the troubling things from my own childhood, putting them together again in a way that did not mean it was totally destructive. So the act of creation, the act of creativity was an act of healing for myself, for my sisters, for my family and also weirdly it was a way of going back to me when I was a little boy and to my sisters when they were little girls and saying “it will be okay, it will be alright.”

I find the kitchen scene in that book so moving and so hopeful.

That was the last story in the sequence that I wrote. I knew I had one more story to write and I knew it had to be this story, a way of bringing everything together, to bring the living and the dead together in one place. When I finished that story, that was the moment when the sequence was finished, I said, “yes I have done it now.” The kitchen was the solution.

Aidan Chambers is an author who reads a lot about childhood and adolescence in particular, and so he is often inspired by newspaper clippings or even books of psychology, philosophy related to adolescence. Is that something you ever do as well?

No, not in that kind of a conscious way, I do not.

Have you ever been inspired by a news event or something you read about adolescence or children?

I must have been. I was a teacher for a long time. I worked with primary age children, very young children and I worked with adults who could neither read nor write. I dealt with children with special needs and I think that was very instructive to me as a writer, to work with children who literally could not write, to work with children who found it difficult to speak. I think a lot of writing is like that, it is doing something that is really hard. So it is very human: you speak, you write, you make language. I think I was very inspired by children who had real difficulty with language. It is interesting to listen to a lot of authors who have had stammers or who have found it difficult to speak at all in public. We become hopefully fluent with language, but we often have difficulties with language too. Writing is a way of speaking out, of entering the world through language which some of us find difficult in lots of ways. I also do a lot of work on stage, I work in theatre quite a lot and it is interesting how many actors have similar problems too. Many actors have problems with dyslexia or are very reserved and shy, but then you put them on the stage and they become very outgoing and public. 

Since you have been an author, have contacts with children and young people also been influential for you? 

Absolutely. I had worked a lot with children as a teacher, but with children as a writer I discovered something new about the love that children have for story, the love that children have for language. There was a time that people were saying: “oh kids, they do not read anymore, they are not interested in books.” When I became an author and entered the children’s book world, I found this amazing world of people who really did believe that good books could change the world. Then to go to festivals, I had to go into schools as an author and to see the love that children have for narrative, for story, to see the love that they have for language, of course they do. It feels very correct for me to be writing for young people because again these are people who are developing their sense of language, they are constantly learning, they are constantly changing and to be an author is to do the same thing as well. So I am in the same kind of childlike position as a child is: we are moving forward, we’re trying to find ways of being in this world, find ways of using language in this world, find ways of speaking. So for me that has been really inspirational. 

Whenever I go to a big event with children and adults together, one thing that people say is: “you are really inspirational to those children.” And I say: “yes, but actually, they are inspirational to me.” The other thing that happens every time is that the adults in the audience always come to me and say: “that was amazing; how did those children know how to ask those questions?” There is a kind of prejudice about children, about what they are capable of thinking about, what they are capable of asking. More and more I think that adults and children should spend more time together, we should not separate them. So when I am doing events, more and more I have adults and children together because then the adults learn from the children. Adults assume that they are going to be the ones teaching the children, but it is not like that. Children will teach the adults and we see that in the world now, we need more childlike influences in the world. When you look at some of the dull, boring, so-called grown-ups, they are just despicable.

Has it ever happened that you were surprised, or that a young person’s reaction gave you new insights into your own work?

Oh yes, children often ask questions that make you stop and think and understand your own work. Because you write a book, people assume that you understand everything about the book, but it is not true. One of the things that I always say to people is: you have to write about things even if you do not understand what you are doing. I think that is really important. You cannot understand everything you do. So often children ask me a question about my work that is a revelation to me. Children will ask about Skellig, they will ask about Mina’s cats and the relationship between Mina’s cats and Askew’s dog in Kit’s Wilderness. Or they will ask about Doctor MacNabola in Skellig and say “well is Doctor MacNabola a fragment of Skellig in the hospital?” I think it is really important that when you write a book you allow space for the reader’s own imagination, they help to create the book, they discover the book, and they discover things about the book that you did not know. The writer cannot know everything about their own book. 

Would you go as far as to test work with young readers? 

No. The thought of doing it is not terrifying, I just would not do it. I am kind of private. I show my wife my work and she is a fantastic reader; I show my editor some of my work as I am going along, but again I am very secretive. I like to be my own first reader, so no I do not. I know some authors do and the thought of going into a classroom or into a hall of children and saying “this is my book, I am going to read some of it to you” – I would get fifty different reactions, so no.

Klaus Vogel and the Bad Lads was published with Barrington Stoke. It has a little text at the back that says that they test their books with readers. Were you involved in that process at all?

That book was not tested with readers. It had already been written and it had been published in another collection, so it was not tested in that way. I know that Barrington Stoke do that with lots of their books but they did not with this one.

Since your first children’s books, you have also started writing for younger children, with stories like My Dad’s a Birdman. What was the occasion to do that? 

The first one that I wrote like that was My Dad’s a Birdman. I had written that as a play first for a theatre in London, the Young Vic. When my daughter was about eight and she was reading lots of stuff, there was an assumption that when she became eight or nine that she would begin to leave pictures behind and that she would grow up and start reading hard books, complicated books. It was as if there was something that was not interesting or intelligent enough about books for young children, so I deliberately wrote My Dad’s a Birdman to be illustrated and for children of about that age. Once I did that I loved it so much, I love working with illustrators, I love collaborating. So once I began that, it just became that strand. In fact I am writing one now, and one has just come out last week called Brand New Boy, which is an illustrated novel for I guess that kind of age. I think it is really important. There was a kind of move years ago where it felt that children had to be pushed to read books that were just texts and that were in some ways quite difficult. I thought that was madness and it took away a lot of the joy of reading. I think that the wonderful blends of pictures and words that we get in work for younger children is one of the great joys of being a children’s author, that you can work in this whole spectrum. So I write picturebooks, I write books for younger children, I write books for adults, I write books for teenagers or adolescents and I love that variety and that range of forms. I love to write so many different forms, which is why I like to write for the theatre as well, to write songs. I worked with a lot of musicians in the last few years and it is all a kind of form of storytelling, it is all a way of using words, using language to hopefully make something of beauty. 

In recent years you have also started publishing books for adults again. How did that come about?

Yes. The True Tale of the Monster Billy Dean, which was the first one which was put out for adults and for teenagers. It’s just that thing about wanting to work in different forms and for different audiences. I wanted to write something kind of bigger and maybe more troubling and I wanted to write The True Tale of the Monster Billy Deanin the form that it is, a very phonetic language. Then I got a contract to write two books like that for adults which would also be published for teenagers too and it was such a great opportunity for me to write longer. I did Billy Dean and then did The Tightrope Walkers. I think they are both two of my best books.

I was thinking of those when you were saying before that you started out with writing that was considerably darker and then turned towards lighter themes. The Tightrope Walkers, for example, resumes elements from older stories. The friendship between Vincent and Dom reminded me of the one between John Askew and Kit in Kit’s Wilderness, but it gets other layers, darker and more sexual dimensions. Do you see those books also as being related?

I think they are. When I was writing I was thinking exactly the same thing, I thought: John Askew and Kit and Dom and the boy. So there was this connection between the two books. It was taking threads from earlier stories and re-exploring them.  It was the same with The True Tale of the Monster Billy Dean. It takes on elements from a novel that I had written many years before, it was never published, rejected by every publisher. It takes some of the elements of that novel and reimagines them. In some ways, constantly turning over the same material, digging the same ground and discovering the same, and obviously all the stories are very different, but underlying them, are maybe some obsessions and some continuous threads between all of the stories. Even between something apparently light and funny like My Dad’s a Birdman and something dark and troubling like The Tightrope Walkers, there are connections between the two. Which I guess is bound to be, because it is my psyche that’s doing all this stuff somehow.

It is interesting to see how those themes then play out if you also consider the different audiences. Do you feel that there are certain elements that you were able to develop in The Tightrope Walkers because it also included an adult audience that you felt less comfortable putting in a children’s book?

I think so. It was going to be published in the UK as a dual edition – there was going to be an edition for adults and an edition for teenagers. In the end they just put it out as an adult book. In the States it came out as a YA, and it got fantastic reviews. But yes, I could explore things that probably would have been very difficult to explore in a children’s book without doing it very subtly, without hiding them. So, yes, the sexual thing between the boys in The Tightrope Walkers would have been very difficult to explore to that extent in a children’s book. But it is one of the opportunities that writing gives you. If you try to define yourself as a writer too closely, you limit your opportunities. When I began I saw myself as a writer for adults, if I had just hung on to that and said, “I just write for adults”, I would never have written My Dad’s Birdman, I would never have written Skellig, if I had said “oh, no I can’t write a children’s book.” But so the process of accepting, that is what I did, and that is what I loved to do. At the same time, doing those things did not drain everything else away, so when I came to write The Tightrope Walkers or Billy Dean I could then draw on stuff and intensify some of the themes that were in the books anyway. So it is a constant kind of visiting different themes and exploring different forms. One of the reasons that I work in so many different forms these days is because I am aware that maybe all of my books in a sense are the same book. Similar things are happening in all of them, but what is offered to writers is the opportunity to write in different forms. I have just written a new picturebook which should be coming out next year, and it is very light and airy, up up up, but I know inside that at the heart there is a darkness there, too. It is not obvious to someone who is reading a picturebook, but I know that the themes that are written in The Tightrope Walkers are in some of my lighter work too.

Did you voice a preference about the audience for which it would be published? 

I was involved in the decision-making for The True Tale of the Monster Billy Dean, so we decided it would be done in those two editions, and the same for The Tightrope Walkers. I thought they were going to put it out as a YA and an adult book at the same time, but they did not. They made that decision. Then when it went to the States, they said “we are just doing it as a YA-edition,” which I was quite pleased with because they did a beautiful edition. It did really well and they were able to cope with some of the darkness. It is also interesting that The Tightrope Walkers is a very northern book, and there is still a lot of prejudice against northerness in England. In the States they did not see that, they had no prejudice against the north. Here, in some of the responses to The Tightrope Walkers, even by my publishers, there was a kind of prejudice about the north, that something that dealt with such northern themes might only be interesting to northern people, which I thought was just ridiculous. In America they had no such kind of assumptions and it just got amazing reviews in all the leading reviewing journals.

That seems to have become a hallmark of your writing anyway, the northern feel.

It is. When I first began, where I come from and the kind of language that I speak and the language that I write in it is traditionally being seen as uncultured. You cannot be cultured if you come from the north, it cannot be cultured if you write about the north. One of the things that I am most proud of is the fact that I have taken the north and presented it to the world in a way that is beautiful. I have shown the beauty of a language which still in England is seen as being uncultured. We had reports recently about young people from northern cities going to universities and being bullied because of their accents. You would have thought by this time, we are in 2020, that that kind of thing would have disappeared, but the prejudice about regionalism is still very extant in England. Writing as I do about the north and the way that I do is also a political act, it is an act of saying “this is relevant, we should never be in any doubt about the authenticity and social validity of our own place and of our own language.” Some people still hate that [laughs].

Do you sometimes reread your own works?

Not really. I sometimes have to, if I am going to be doing an event about a particular book. I forget what happens in the book, so sometimes I have to reread to check what I have written so that when someone asks me a question – “oh yes, I remember that” [laughs]. One of the important things for writers is to forget things. And if you keep on remembering everything that you have written, it can get in the way of what you need to write in the future, so I find myself forgetting what I have written until I check it again, “oh yes, that is what I wrote. Look at that.”

Have you ever been surprised by your own writing?

I have been surprised, I have been surprised.

And perhaps gained new insights?

New insights, and also allowing yourself to like them. As a writer I think it is very important, learning to like what you have written. Because it is very easy to say, “oh I am terrible, everything that I write is hopeless,” because you go through that when you are writing anyway. When you are writing you probably think that you are the worst writer that has ever lived in the world and this is the worst book that has ever existed. So it is very nice when you do go back to your own work, “oh it is okay and I do like that.”

It is something that other authors have told me as well, that it can be reassuring.

Absolutely, it is important. I say that to young people who ask about what they should do if they want to write a novel. I say: “you have to honour your work. You have given some time, you have given some effort, so you have to respect what you have done. In doing that you respect your writing and you respect yourself and you give yourself due honour.”

You also teach creative writing.

I do, I have just stopped this year, but I have been a professor of creative writing for the last eight years at Bath Spa University.

Do you share considerations about readership there as well? Do you have specific advice that you share about writing for young people?

I tend to share my own writing processes, show my notebooks which are very important to me and my ways of writing. I try to inspire writers to discover their own stories instead of trying to think “what does the market need, what does the world need?” To find your own vision, to discover the story that is in you, that is the most powerful thing. I always say to students: when I was about to write Skellig, what if I had researched the children’s book market and then said to a publisher, “I am going to write a book about a man in a garage who has wings and it is a lot about William Blake and a lot about schooling and it is going to be loved by people all around the world”? They would probably say, “no, it is not, you need to think of something different.” I wrote Skellig in a kind of vacuum, nobody knew about me, I did not know anything about the children’s book world. I just knew this book somehow mattered and it was about trusting my own vision. So whenever I talk to students or people who want to write, that is the core of what I am telling them. In the end it is your story. It is going to go out in the world, so it has to be your story, written in your language, in your way, that is the thing that is going to speak to the world.

And yes, of course you have to think about children and think about young people, and you have to give them true respect and true honour and write the best book you can. Some people assume that writing for young people must be easy or it is a “a lovely and sweet thing to do, to write books for little children.” We know it is not like that. It is really hard and you have to go to very profound places inside yourself to be able to do it properly. You have to be the very best writer that it is possible to be to write for this amazing audience, because they are an amazing audience. They are the most important audience in the world and that is a great kind of privilege as well, to be writing for these young people. And the people who do not believe that, I do not care about them, I do not care about the adults who look down on children’s writers. Adults look down on children as readers because they know nothing about it, they don’t understand. 

Have you ever had to enter into negotiations about your stories with publishers?

About what is inside them?

Yes, or the way they are written?

I have not really. There is always something in a book that has to have some negotiation, “will you change this, does this work?” But there has not really been any kind of challenge to any of the subject matter that I can think of. I am fortunate to have really wonderful editors and I work with great editors who understand me, who do not try and restrict me or stop me from doing particular things. But I guess I was very fortunate because I wrote Skellig [laughs].

I was just going to ask, “what about Skellig?” When you handed that in with your publisher, did it produce any issues or a debate?

Not at all, no. Skellig when I wrote it came out just about as it is now. When it went to the publishers a tiny bit of editing happened, but not a great deal. I found out afterwards they had had meetings about some of the language, whether a children’s book could contain “bullocks” [laughs]. And they just said, “yes, we have to allow this.” So, no, there were very few restrictions. But because Skellig was such a powerful force right from the beginning of my career of writing for young people, it has given me a degree of strength. I do sometimes wonder if someone wrote Skellig now, twenty years later, would editors demand some changes to it? And I suspect they might do, I suspect that Skellig might not appear in the form that it did 22 years ago.

How do you feel about the role of modern life (social media, technology) in your books? Some older authors find it difficult to include that.

It does not really trouble me. I have got a new book coming out in April [Bone Music]. The heroine is a fifteen-year-old girl who lives in modern life, she goes to protests and she uses a mobile phone. No, it does not worry me. I do not feel that I need to use lots of social media in my work or to use lots of new technology. When Skellig came out nobody mentions the fact that there is no tv, there is no telephone. Nobody notices these things and I think if we feel we have to fill our books with elements of a modern world in order to make it relevant in that way, we do not need to do that. What we are doing is writing stories and it may have elements of the real world, but we do not need to pack it with stuff to make it obvious that it is in the real world. So my new book [Bone Music] is very modern, it is set right today, but it just has touches of the telephone, touches of social media, that is all it needs. I am not troubled by that.

Good. So it means that we will be getting more books from you.

Good point. [Bone Music] is about the deep ancientness of experience. So this girl who is using a mobile phone and going to protests about the world is also in a deep, profound connection with the prehistoric world. That is what I feel the need to do, to emphasize the fact that we are alive today, but we are drawn from the ancient past as well as moving into an unseen future. We live in this space in between the past and the future, so if I am writing about that, then I do have to have elements of the real modern world, but it does not need to be packed with it. It does not seem to trouble my readers [chuckles].

Or your publishers. 

Or my publishers, no. The book that came out last week [Brand New Boy] it about a boy who may be a kind of a creation, a created boy, with an element of AI and robotness. So in a sense it is a very modern story, but the boy exists in a very ordinary world of ordinary children who like playing football and eating crisps and playing in the woods. In some ways it is futuristic because it has a robot in it, but the world, even though it keeps on changing and being modern, the world is unchanging. For children, the drama of growing up, the drama of learning how to live is the same at all times. There are the elements of the world, they all matter, but the central drama of growing up is the same everywhere and at all times. That is what drives me to write; it is like finding a common element between a man of my age and a child of ten and a child of ten five thousand years ago and a child of ten in three hundred years’ time and finding something that somehow contains all of those elements.

I am immediately tempted to compare your new book to Clay.

Yes, exactly, so it takes on something that I have used before but puts it into a different kind of context.

I hope this does not frighten you, but we are also using artificial intelligence to analyse the books in our corpus. For example, we use a programme that groups stories on the basis of stylistic similarities to see what dominates an author’s style, whether it is, for example, the period they are writing in or the age group that they are addressing.

That is interesting and scary [laughs].