David Almond writes like no one else. His lyrical stories set in the north-east of England have captured the imagination of generations of readers. Here he describes how his breakthrough novel Skellig came as a surprise; how to handle writer’s block; and why he loves writing for young people.
What’s your writing routine like?
It’s also messing about a lot. I do a lot of scribbling, a lot of doodling, a lot of playing around with notebooks and pens, seeing what’s inside my head and what’s in the language.
What does it feel like when an idea first starts to form, does it come out of that playfulness and the scribbling?
Often it does, it just appears while you’re messing about. You think you know what you’re going to write about and then in the process of scribbling, you think, gosh, that’s what it is! A new idea either jumps out or the idea takes on a new formation and goes somewhere else.
It’s important to do that all the way through, to keep on testing out what you’re doing, to keep on playing around with it. The process of using a pen and paper, scribbling and doing things quite quickly and actively, is much better than trying to think your way through a problem in writing – that can be counterproductive.
Do you ever get blocked and what helps with it?
Saying, ‘Well, I’m not blocked,’ and denying it! In many ways that’s true: the idea of being blocked is a trick that your mind plays on you. There have been times when it’s been incredibly difficult for me, and I thought, what am I going to write? But each time I’ve come out of that. You start writing and you find out you’ve got all kinds of stuff just waiting to come out.
How many drafts would it take?
I’m redrafting all the time. I’m not a writer who writes one draft and then another. I’m constantly rewriting, redrafting, chucking stuff out, putting new stuff in, all the way through. I always write linearly. I might have ideas about what’s going to happen ten chapters in, but I always try to get the narrative going from the beginning. So it keeps a consistent narrative and a consistent drive and a consistent tone.
I’m endlessly moving: rewriting and then going back to the start and pushing it all forward again. When I’ve finished something, I’ll get to the end and realise I have to go back and do a bit of a stitching, a bit of changing, but most of the major change has been happening as I go along.
I don’t plot. I don’t say, ‘this will happen on page 27’. It’s a mixture of being in control of what you’re doing and allowing the subconscious to take some control as well. So it’s a weird balance between pushing it forward and allowing it to find its own place, its own manner.
I really enjoyed A Song for Ella Grey. What are you writing at the moment?
At the moment I’m writing another novel for younger children: a lighter, funnier book for Walker Books, which will be illustrated. The last book I did with Walker Books was The Boy Who Swam With Piranhas, with illustrations by Oliver Jeffers. That’s kind of book I’m doing now.
Why do you think you chose to write for children and young adults? You wrote Skellig after writing two adult novels, didn’t you?
I’d written one and a half novels for adults that had never been published. I wrote short stories for adults. I wrote some stories that grew out of my own childhood which were eventually published as Counting Stars.
When I’d finished those, there was something about dealing with childhood and reimagining what it was like to be a child again. And then Skellig came out of the blue. I thought, ‘God, it’s a novel for young people!’ I hadn’t planned to do that. I was totally surprised by what happened.
I can collaborate with artists. I can do short books or long books. I can do short stories. I write plays. I write operas. For me it’s been a really fertile thing.
I still write for adults – I had an adult novel published earlier this year by Penguin – but that benefitted from the fact that I was a children’s writer.
Whose work do you admire in this field?
We do live in a really good time. Just in the time I’ve been doing it, the quality has developed so much. There are some really amazing writers around. I’m just looking at my shelf…
I think Shaun Tan is an incredible writer who should be read by everybody, no matter what age they are. He’s fantastic.
Sally Gardner is a wonderful writer.
I really love Brian Selznick. Like Shaun Tan, the way he’ll work with illustration and text together - I love that.
We’ve got Meg Rosoff. Melvin Burgess.
There’s a French writer called Anne-Laure Bondoux, who’s a fantastic young people’s writer who should be better known here. We’re not good at translating non-English fiction into English. There’s a great book called Nothing by Janne Teller: a Danish writer.
I’m a huge admirer of Shirley Hughes. Somebody else I really like is Kate Tempest, the poet. She’s absolutely fantastic.
If you could send one of those books – or another book - in a time machine back to 14-year-old you, what would you choose?
I think I’d send Tales from Outer Suburbia by Shaun Tan because it’s such an amazing book: a mix of story, poetry, illustration and strangeness.
I put out a call for questions to ask you. Now we’re switching to some fantastic questions from Year Six at Hebden Royd School.
Gwen and Freya ask: ‘Where did you get your inspiration from - was it from other books?’
Yes, a lot of it is from other books. My books are filled with all the books that I’ve loved. I think that’s how you develop your own voice. You develop your own voice through your own personal experiences, but also through all the books that you’ve loved as well. And for me, from the people I’ve known and my own childhood and the world we live in.
There’s an amazing world! People sometimes say to me, I don’t know what to write about. Just look at this world: this extraordinary place just filled with stuff that is just waiting to be written down and turned into art.
Louisa and Freddie ask: ‘Do your characters’ experience or the tone of the book relate to your own life?’
Lots of the things in my books are drawn from my own experiences – they’re bound to. Some of the characters in my books have grown out of people that I’ve known myself.
It’s a mixture of people that I’ve known, things that I’ve imagined, things that I’ve dreamed.
But even when you take something real – all of my books are set in the north-east of England, so they’re set in real places – but as soon as you begin to write them down, they begin to become different. You begin to re-imagine them, so they become fictionalised.
That’s one of the things I love more than anything about being a writer is taking things from the real world and reinventing them so they become things in stories.
Jonny asks, ‘Would you change any of your books, looking back?’
Oh yes! There’s always something that you would change. I never do a reading without changing some of the words that I’m reading off the page. And then when a story’s in a book, it looks fixed, it looks caught, but stories are constantly changing.
So all of the books have got something I’d change – it might be a sentence, it might be a word, here and there - not major changes, but there are always details.
I adapt my books for stage sometimes. When you adapt a book, you give it a new life. I make loads of changes to the basic story in order to make them work better for the stage.
That’s the excitement. Stories are never fixed: they keep on changing.
Molly asks, ‘Do you have any tips on writing?’
· The main thing is just to do it. Sit down and do it. Make time for it.
· Don’t think you have to write something wonderful. Be imperfect. If we were perfect we wouldn’t have to write anything, so accept that you’re going to be imperfect.
· Just experiment. Play around.
· Read widely, experimentally, across ages and genres. I discovered Hemingway and other great writers when I was a mid-teenager. I also read many barmy books about ghosts and spirits, and books about football and adventurers, and lots of comics. They all helped me to grow into the writer I am today. Don't be too categorised. Enjoy the serendipitous nature of book-browsing.
· Try and be the best writer you can. Try and be as good as Shakespeare – why not? As well as being quite modest – it’s just me putting words on a page – you can think, actually I’m going to try and be as good as Shakespeare.
Thank you, David! You can read more about David on his publisher’s website here, or his own website – currently having an update – here, follow him on Twitter here.