In Interview: David Almond
…they grow, grow, grow into these formal things which look as though they have always been there. But they are the end product of a very playful, messy, human process.
David Almond, author of Skellig and many other novels, stories and plays, joined us at Word Factory #19 to read his short story The Knife Sharpener. Before the salon started, we asked children’s author Lou Kuenzler to interview David for us. We think you’ll love it.
Lou Kuenzler: You are going to read The Knife Sharpener for us tonight. Is the short story a form that you particularly enjoy?
David Almond: I always saw myself as a short story writer from the start. That’s what I did for years. I was published by little magazines, small presses. I had a couple of things on the radio. Then I wrote a novel which was rejected by everyone. I went back to writing stories. Then started another novel. But always short stories were the beat underneath everything. Then I wrote a whole series of stories called Counting Stars. When I finished those, I wrote Skellig. It grew out of those short stories … they freed a space up for Skellig.
LK: In the introduction to Counting Stars you say the stories, “merge memory and dream, the real and the imagined, truth and lies.” Is that sense of your own memory – drawing on your experience – something that is important in all your writing?
DA: Before I wrote them I had been writing for years. I had a handful of readers who thought I was really good. And I wrote the novel which was rejected by everyone. When I wrote those stories I took a deep breath and thought “Sod it! I’ll just do the kind of things that I really love doing.” I relaxed and allowed myself to be northern. I allowed the Catholic influence to come in. I had always resisted being a northern writer and drawing on Catholicism. I found a way to write about my own childhood experience, some of which had been quite tragic. Some quite joyous. I found a way of doing that – by just allowing myself to do it. So I wrote those stories and they were a mixture of things that had really happened to me and my family, mixed in with imaginary things. The imaginary things gave a frame in which the real things could lie.
LK: That idea of combining the real and the imagined makes me think of spoken stories – of gossip and local folklore. That’s something that comes into your work again and again.
DA: When I was writing Counting Stars I thought, I know what this is: it is a community of stories. It wasn’t like a sequence of stories – it felt like a community.
LK: A village or town of stories?
DA: Absolutely. And I am still writing it. I have a collection of stories coming out with Walker next year. Several of those stories are in the same group as Counting Stars. And the story I am reading tonight is too. It’s like a sequence that I’ll be writing for the rest of my life.
LK: It’s great to have short stories for children. It is not something they’re always offered.
DA: That’s right. I am really pleased that there is another collection coming out. Walker have asked me to do some linking pieces to explain where they came from. Something about the place because they are all set in the town where I grew up. So it’s about place and memory. Again it is about mixing memory and imagination. And truth. I guess that’s what I am always doing.
LK: It seems that a lot of your characters do that too – even ones who wouldn’t think of themselves as storytellers. Is that something that you want to get across to your readers and to your characters? That we are all storytellers?
DA: Yes. One of the things people say when you write for children is “Do you have a message?” (David raises his eyebrows and groans). But what I do want to do is to help everyone think we are all creative. We all have stories inside us. I teach a lot of creative writing and that’s one of the reasons I do it. I do the same thing with children as I do with people who have an M.A. or a Ph.D … to allow them to see the stories that are inside themselves.
LK: You’ve talked about “playing” before you start writing. Is that a way of stirring up those stories inside?
DA: Definitely. I think the notion of playing is really important. My notebooks are messy, scribbly things. Then they grow, grow, grow into these formal things which look as though they have always been there. But they are the end product of a very playful, messy, human process. When I work like that with kids, they get it. They say, “Oh yeah … that’s what I do.”
LK: But they spend so much time getting formalised in school.
DA: Yes. And it all goes back to front. They are taught the formalities of it before they have allowed themselves to enjoy the playful loveliness of writing.
LK: There is a real sense of poetry and rhythm in your work. Is that something that comes in early drafts or something you edit later for?
DA: It comes in from the start. When something comes well it comes with a rhythm. With a beat. Then I get it all together and go through some great kind of fiddle. I start to edit for full stops and commas. Then I go back to accentuate the rhythm.
LK: So you run an edit looking for exclusively for rhythm? For language?
DA: Yes. What does this book sound like? I read aloud to myself all the time … I also think the look of it is really important. So I’lI take a lot of time to make the paragraphs look nice. It’s a kind of playful thing. I’ll sometimes change a sentence so it fits a line – I’ll chop a word out of a sentence so it fits the space instead of hanging loose. Weird. (He laughs.) It’s the look of the page, the sound of it, the beat – all these things together. I think without that you can’t have meaning. It’s about beauty and finding loveliness in the language. Even if it’s very dark, you find a way to make it seem beautiful.
LK: There is darkness in your writing but I often find it very funny too – especially in some of the character studies.
DA: Thank you. It’s something that I found when I began to write well. I found that I was writing stuff that was quite funny. I remember when Clay came out, and this guy said, “How can you cope with having these terrible things?” And I said, “Well, actually, some of it is quite funny.” You can’t just have determinedly dark stuff and I don’t think I do.
LK: Your recent book, The Boy Who Swam With Piranhas, is more overtly funny, still. It seems different to me from things you have done before.
DA: I think it is. When I began to write the books I’ve done with Walker – the illustrated books – I found a way to be funny. They are all written in the third person. It threw it out from me. It threw it out from a narrator. I could play around more … and structure things … and say things that you couldn’t say in a first person narration. And I found it really liberating.
LK: In what way?
DA: With first person narration it’s as if all those words given by one narrator, one mind, almost charms the reader. You are inviting them into a hypnotic thing. Whereas when you write out, into the third person, you kind of play around with it out there so you can manipulate it more.
LK: And that freed you?
DA: Yes. I really did that for the first time in My Dad’s A Birdman with Polly Dunbar. That started as a play, so when I wrote it as a novel it was like playing with it out in space. Playing on stage. Making characters act.
LK: In The Boy Who Swam with Piranhas there is a very distinct narrator. He is omnipotent, looking down and controlling it. Was that fun to do?
DA: It really was. Specially as the book went on. Playing around with that sense of the all-seeing narrator. There’s a bit in the book where the narration goes up into the sky and looks down. It was entertaining for me as a writer to do that. And to do it in the form of a children’s book. You can do lots of stuff in a children’s book that, if you did in an adult book, would be seen as metafiction and postmodern. It would become very serious. But children just take it all in. Kids read all kinds of forms and don’t find them weird.
LK: Is that one of the things that appeals to you about writing for children?
DA: I love it. I’ve learned so much from it – the way children read. In a book like My Name Is Mina, it’s got third person stories, it’s got first person stories, it’s got poems … it’s got empty pages…
LK: Kids take it as it comes. They are not expecting anything else.
DA: Yes. And children’s publishers are great too. They don’t say, “This is odd.” They just say, “Do it, David!.” In the children’s book world there are all these great people doing amazing experimental stuff.
LK: You do write specifically for adults sometimes. Is there anything that you approach differently. Other than perhaps levels of darkness? I am making an assumption there …
DA: There isn’t really. Even when I am writing something for adults, like the story I’m going to read tonight which was originally commissioned by Cathy Galvin for The Sunday Times. I assume most of the audience will be adults. But there isn’t really a difference at all. I have a new book that comes out with Penguin in June as an adult novel. But it is coming out in the States as a young adult novel. It’s hard to define. That’s one of the pleasures of it… Not so much now, but a few years ago, when there was all the stuff about ‘crossover’, you got people who were writing for children and you knew they didn’t really want to write for children. They were just trying to get in the door. I thought that was really cheating. It’s such a privilege to write for this great audience. Children are just so fantastic, aren’t they? They’re just marvellous. People don’t believe it. I say, “Go and meet them. Go and see them.”
LK: But I think it is also exciting when a book comes out from within those bands and a writer like you is able to be brave, not as a marketing tool, but because people enjoy it. Adults love Skellig, children love Skellig, or My Name is Mina … not because of their age, but because they engage with the story.
DA: Yes. And that, to me, has been the real pleasure of it.
LK: Two of my favourite books of yours are Skellig and Clay. They seem to counterbalance each other perfectly – one about flight and lightness and the positive influence of someone imaginative coming into your life, in the case of Mina in Skellig. The other very leaden and earthy – and exploring a much more negative influence from someone like Steven Rose, who is creative in a darker way.
DA: I think that’s true. When I was finishing Clay I was aware of that. It was lovely to work with. Writing it was actually like working with the earth and clay – like muscling in on something very physical. And when Steven came in to it, I thought, very innocently, he’s a bit of a terrible lad but he’ll turn out to be ok. It’ll unfold and he’ll be all right … But there was nothing I could do with him.
LK: You couldn’t save him?
DA: He just kept on resisting. There was nothing I could do. And, at the end, he just goes on to wreak havoc somewhere else, probably.
LK: But the book doesn’t end darkly. We feel hope – except perhaps for Steven. And I quite like that he’s still out there, somewhere, being dangerous.
DA: I thought that. It meant the book still lingered. The family gain some kind of optimistic ending but there is this sense that stuff is still around. I think that was influenced very much by what was going on at the time (Clay was first published in 2005). Terrorism, wars, bombs … Iraq. All the stuff that was going on and that is still going on. I am very optimistic person, but when I was writing Clay I thought: ‘Oh yeah, maybe there is something quite nasty in the world.” There was a review and it said something stupid like “Almond has lost all hope!” And I thought, “God. How boring… It’s just a book.” The next thing I wrote was My Dad’s a Birdman, and I thought, “Right – I’ll show you …”
LK: We’ll have wings again!
DA: Exactly! You play with your own writing. It was interesting to finish Clay and write my My Dad’s a Birdman because they are such very different books. But they have some kind of common core in the language and the place that they come from.
LA: It seems to me that lots of your stories come back to the idea of creation or evolution. I am guessing that your Catholic upbringing is an influence in that. But is it also about the process of creativity. Of writing itself?
DA: It is. Just the loveliness of what we do. To use words. And language. And pictures to make all these things. I think we are a very creative species. I love the sense of making something which hasn’t been there before. To make a book. To make a story. And also to work alongside children. To see how children create the world. People say you’re romantic but kids are natural artists. I go into a class and say, “Who dances? Who draws? Who likes drama? Who sings?” And they are just doing all this stuff. I have learnt from my audience a sense of that. I am writing for an audience which is involved in art anyway. And they are all writers. All kids write. All kids are learning to read. So you feel like you are in something which is bigger than one single book. Bigger than one single story. You kind of communicate. It’s a culture.
LK: In first few lines of Clay you tell us that the story happened: “Not so long ago, but it was a different time.” Is that something you feel, that the past, when you were young, is “a foreign country”?
DA: When I started to use the past, which was in Counting Stars, exploring elements of my own childhood, I really experienced that thing of the past being a foreign country. But I’ve actually been there. So it was like going back to it and exploring it afresh. It is like going back to it as a traveller, not someone who knew it intimately. It was like revisiting it. I guess that is what I was trying to bring across there. But also the fact that when you are writing about something that actually happened or a time that really did exist – because you are writing about it – you are fictionalising it. It is not exactly as it was. The story I am going to read tonight is all about storytelling. It’s about an incident which happened in the past. But how much do we believe? … That’s one of the things I have found myself doing more and more. Playing with the notion of what’s true and what’s not true is maybe the same as imagination. It has all kinds of implications for the world. People forget. One of the things I have written recently has been about war, for the 1914 Centenary. It’s amazing, I grew up through the Cold War and the Cuban Missile Crisis. People have forgotten all that but we were absolutely terrified…
LK: Reading Raymond Briggs under the bed…
DA: Where The Wind Blows. We were all going to end. And the world was filled with dread. And then that gets forgotten. And then terrorism becomes the next new thing. Everyone was going to get blown up. Just a generation ago. And then that gets forgotten as well. So it’s about that too: how we change and remain the same.
LK: Also, given the age of kids you tend to write about, contemporary children couldn’t get up to some of the things that your characters do. They just wouldn’t be given that sort of freedom?
DA: I think that’s one of the things that a lot of children like about my books. Kids just go out and have fun. Children do live quite sheltered lives but they need a sense of wilderness, of wilderness and danger. And I think they’re going to find that no matter how we try and shelter them. I know as a parent I am guilty of that. I just did a programme about Stig of the Dump and Barney just goes off … that’s not going to happen now.
LK: That idea of wilderness comes back again and again in your work. Wilderness seems to be an incredibly fertile place for you.
DA: The sense of a physical wilderness is really important so that we can project ourselves into it. But also a psychic wilderness. I think all good stories, somehow, are in touch with something alien.
LK: Can you expand on that idea of psychic wilderness?
DA: … A sense of space to do with history. With the wider world. Things about ourselves that we are not really aware of. One of the things that happen when you write well, I think, is that you almost forget you are the writer. The story becomes the thing. The words come from somewhere that you are not quite sure of. And, when they come well, they come with a sense of having been a long way. It is drawing on a wildness in ourselves. That’s another of the reasons why I am really interested in education. When we teach children how to write and how to read, we see it as very civilised, very cultured, and of course it is. But, if it’s any good, it’s also a bit crazy as well… To write well is to be a little bit crazy. The best things we read have a strange flavour about them. So it’s that sense of difference and distance and a bit of wildness.
LK: That sense of the story taking over is brilliantly captured at the start of The True Tale Of The Monster Billy Dean, when Billy says: “I am told I wil lern how to rite the tale by riting it. 1 word then anotha 1 word then anotha. Just let the pensil wark.” Is that your own method?
DA: I do all kinds of things. I am a painstaking editor. I really move things around. So at that stage I’m very careful. (He mimes chopping something very precisely with a knife and fork.) But also I love that rush that comes. I think it’s important to have the two things. So you have something that is very wild and then something that is very fiddly (he mimes again), making sure you get the mechanics right. It’s that mixture that I love. That’s what I do when I talk to children about writing. I show them my process.
LK: Presumably, knowing you are good at that second stage, frees you up for the first?
DA: Yes. That’s really important to show to children and to show to schools. When Skellig won the Carnegie, I made a speech and I did talk about education. Blunkett attacked me the next day for an “anything goes, free-for-all” philosophy. And I thought you don’t know what I’m talking about, because we don’t mean that, do we?
DA: Absolutely not!
David Almond is the author of Skellig, The True Tale of the Monster Billy Dean, The Boy Who Swam With Piranhas and many other novels, stories and plays. His story collections include Counting Stars and the forthcoming Through the Sunlight to the Sea. His awards include the Hans Christian Andersen award and the Carnegie medal. He is professor of creative writing at Bath Spa University. Find out more about David’s work at www.davidalmond.com.
Lou Kuenzler is the author of Shrinking Violet, Princess Disgrace, Aesop’s Awesome Rhymes among others. You can find out more about Lou’s work at www.loukuenzler.com