For his contributions to children’s literature, the British writer David Almond, author of Skellig, My Dad’s a Birdman, and others, was awarded the Hans Christian Andersen Award. But before becoming a writer, he spent many years working as a teacher. David Almond came to Moscow in 2016, and two of our correspondents—a teenager and an adult—had a chance to sit down with him and discuss his childhood, writing process and works, what the school system should be like, and lots more.
Interview by Anna Klykova, 12
As I was preparing for our meeting, I tried to imagine what David Almond would be like—what he would look like, how he would talk, and what he would be like as a person. And then there he was in front of me, a famous writer known around the world. I was surprised to find he looked more like my grandfather. A bit tired, but with a genuine smile. I was very worried, but the longer we talked, the more comfortable I felt.
- Dear Mr. Almond, I represent the children’s editorial staff at Papmambook. I really like your book, but I wanted to ask you about yourself.
- I grew up in Northeast England, in the city of Felling on Tyne, which is not far from Newcastle. It’s a small, industrial town, not known for anything in particular. I lived on the outskirts, to one side we had houses, and to the other, the moors. I was born to an ordinary family, went to an ordinary school, but from a young age I decided I wanted to be a writer. I even remember my childhood conversations with friends. When they asked me who I wanted to be when I grew up, I usually said I wanted to be a football player. That was a popular answer at the time. But when I gave it more thought I decided I wanted to be a writer. And from then on, that was my answer. Some people were surprised. “A writer? You must have a great imagination.” That terrified me, I couldn’t understand what that should look like—“a great imagination.” Later, when I had already started writing and had more time to think about all this, I realized that there is nothing special about imagination, everyone has it. It’s the most ordinary thing. Even when we are deciding what to eat for lunch, that too is an expression of our imaginations.
Another thing I heard was: “So you want to be a writer. But you live in a small town. What will you write about? Felling?” As a result, something remarkable happened. The more I wrote about Felling, the more my books were read around the world. A few years ago, Half a Creature From the Sea came out. It includes an illustration of a street from the Felling of my childhood. You can even see the passageway to the print shop which my uncle owned. I spent a lot of time there as a boy. I was entranced by the pages flying from the press. It was amazing! That was one of the reasons I became a writer—those black letters on a white page. It’s beautiful. I think that’s when I decided I wanted to be a writer.
- Was there something else that influenced your decision?
- Yes, there was another place that had a colossal impact on me. It was the library, a small square building packed with books. It was right across from where my friends and I played football. I wanted to be a great football player but at the same time, when I would come to the library, I would imagine myself reaching out and taking a book from the shelf, and finding it said “David Almond” on the cover. As a child, I constantly repeated this when I went to the library: “My book will be here.” Then I grew up and left Felling. A wonderful thing happened a few years ago. I was invited to speak at that very library. I went into that same building I would come to as a young boy, I reached out and took a book from the shelf. It said “David Almond.” The ten-year-old boy inside me yelled: “I made it!” So it all started in childhood.
- Did your parents read aloud to you?
They did. Not very often, but at times.
- How did your parents feel about your desire to become a writer?
- My dad knew about it and he supported me. My parents gave me the freedom I needed to become a writer.
- I’ve heard you wrote stories as a child. Do you still have any of your notebooks from that time? If so, what do they mean to you now?
- Unfortunately, they were lost. They still matter to me because I know that I was writing even then because I always wanted to be a writer. Many children write and I’m often asked when I started to write. Practically everyone starts to write in childhood.
- What is your process like when you write?
All these books are half reality and half imagination. They have everything that there was in my life. I remember when I was small, books both entranced and scared me. I liked them and I wanted to be able to do that, but it seemed absolutely impossible. They seemed so perfect! I understood that my thoughts and my writing were far from that perfection.
But books are actually a sort of trick that the publishers do with the manuscript. People see a published book and think: what perfect thoughts David Almond has! But if we were all perfect, we would have nothing to do then. In any case, we certainly wouldn’t need to write! But the heart of any art form is imperfection. My books, which seem so “perfect,” start in my far from perfect head. The human mind is an amazing thing. Our head, which isn’t so big in size, carries everything that has happened to us since birth. All the books we’ve read, all the places we’ve been, all the people we’ve met. We can even think about what happened a hundred years ago, or dream about what will be in another hundred. We look up at the stars far above us. And all that fits in our minds.
So when something comes into this imperfect head of mine, I take a notebook like this, with beautiful blank white pages. Some people find a blank page intimidating, because you just don’t know how to start. But you can see it as an invitation to a game. I have my toys: my notebooks and my pencil case with all its contents. Look—pens, highlighters, sharpeners, beautiful pencils. These are both my toys and my instruments. Instead of just sitting and creating, I start to make little scribbles like this. And the page becomes a playground. These are my thoughts, some images. I fill page after page like this. We all know that writing is a tricky thing. My approach helps me get over the difficult bits and it turns out it’s all not so hard after all. It’s like I become a child again and play. That’s when I suddenly start seeing things I never saw or knew. It’s like something new is being born. I just let my hand do what it wants. That’s how I get plots, ideas for books. I think play is very important.
All my books begin exactly this way. Of course, then it comes time for the computer. This seeming nonsense starts to take on some meaning. I type up the text, then I print it out. Then I write and edit on that page, throw it in the wastebasket, re-do it, and all along my notebook is beside me. I watch how the pack of printed pages grows, then clip them together. It starts to look something like a book. I keep a calendar and track how many words I write a day. When the manuscript is ready, I send it to the publishers. They then turn my scribbles into a book. That’s when people say: “It looks amazing!” But they don’t see all the work behind the scenes. I love this process of turning the imperfect into perfections. That’s how my books are made.
- When did you start to write for teenagers?
- When I grew up I decided: since I’m an educated grown-up, I will write books for educated, grown-up people. But one day I was walking down the street and I felt something in my head, like someone was dictating to me. That was the start of Skellig. When I wrote down the first half page, I suddenly understood it was the best thing I had ever written. Everything I had done up to that point was simply leading me to this book. I realized that this book was for children, not adults. I felt incredible freedom. A new world opened up to me. The book I wrote before Skellig took me five years. And no publisher wanted it. I wrote Skellig in seven months. And the first publisher I showed it to, took it. It’s been translated into 45 languages. It’s already become a play, an opera, and a film. If I had given up writing when no one was publishing my texts, none of that would have happened.
I’m often asked what you need to become a writer. You just need to keep writing. You have to be thick-skinned, and a little stubborn, because people will tell you you shouldn’t bother with it. You should keep telling yourself: “I can do it!” Now my books are read by children and adults around the world. I want to note that it was vital that I started writing for children, it gave me incredible freedom. I write for children as people who understand that they don’t know everything, they don’t understand everything, they are imperfect and are always growing and developing.
- What do you think is most important in a book for teenagers?
- A book for teenagers, like any other book, should be well-written, have interesting language. Most importantly, it should get inside of you, get inside the mind and the heart of the reader.
- How does it get there?
- The words in the books should be structured like a spell. Then even the heaviest things are beautiful.
- When I read your books I feel that you remember what it’s like to be a child. Do you include memories from your childhood in the text?
- I think so. Yes. Sometimes I even do it consciously. When I re-read my books, I see whole chunks of my childhood experiences.
- You once said that you didn’t like school. Why is that ?
- I liked schools until I was about twelve. It was just that the school didn’t like me and so I stopped liking it. In school they always made me feel that I wouldn’t amount to much. In any case, schools are much better now than they were then.
- You were a teacher for some time, then went to Norfolk and started writing. Were you afraid to drop everything to do art?
- No. I felt very free at that moment. Though some people told me: “You’re mad!” But I really wanted to write. It was something I had been thinking about for a very long time, and I felt that the time had come.
- After returning to Newcastle, you worked as a special needs teacher. Can you talk about that? Why was that important for you?
- I really enjoyed it, even though it was difficult. I was always interested in people who see the world differently, who have trouble with language, reading, and writing. It was very important for me to understand them. I think understanding your students is vital for teaching.
- What does your daughter Freya think of your work? Have you ever written anything specifically for her?
- Usually she just says: “Yes, my dad wrote that.” That is to say, she’s very calm about my work. First and foremost, I’m just a dad for her. I think it’s a very healthy approach. I wrote two books especially for her. The first was a picture book. Freya was three years old then. I thought, since I’m a writer, why not write a book for my young daughter. When she was eight, I wrote My Dad’s a Birdman. At first it was a play, but I re-wrote it as a book just for my daughter. I really wanted to write an illustrated book for her. For some reason, people think that as children get older, they no longer need books with pictures. But I don’t agree with that.
- What do you think of theatre productions based on your books?
- I really enjoy them. I adapted Skellig for the stage myself. With each year, I’m more engaged with theatre projects. I love working with directors, actors, musicians, and set designers. I also really enjoy watching how a book changes when it comes to the stage. This year I made a stage adaptation for one of my books and I made significant changes. I added new characters and scenes. It happens with books. It seems sort of sacred, that you can’t change anything. But it changes every time someone reads it. It’s born a new in each reader’s mind. So a stage adaptation is just one more interpretation, one more version among a great many others.
I work with theatres and write plays. I work with musicians and all kinds of creative people. I think I learned all this from young people. They combine different forms of art, turn one thing into another.
I’m currently writing a novel, as well as a play which I hope will be produced next summer. I’m also working with a folk musician English musician Kathryn Tickell. and we will soon go on tour. There’s no shortage of projects.
- Is there something you’d like to ask your readers?
- I would really love to find out what they imagine in their heads when they read my books. What they see. I would love to know how they imagine Skellig, what he is for them. Because I don’t even know who he really is.
Interview by Darya Dotsuk
- David, let’s talk about your book My Name is Mina. You’ve spent a long time working with children who have learning disabilities. Mina is just such a child. Was that character inspired by your observations of students?
- I think Mina came out of many very different things. First, she appeared in Skellig entirely unexpectedly and took up a very important place. Many years later I decided to write about her and I heard her voice: “Hurray, I’m back!” Mina lived in me and told her story through me.
Of course, she has lots of thoughts on school and education. When I was a teacher, there was active discussion of whether we even needed schools and how well-suited they were to deal with various challenges, given the many alternative teaching models. Those dialogues are not very well received now. It’s accepted that the only way to get an education is to attend school.
- Do you agree with Mina that school is a cage?
- I’m not as categorical as Mina. There are very good schools, and teachers are one of the most important professions in our culture. But we should understand that you can learn differently—without tests and exams.
The comparison with the cage, if you recall, originated with a line Mina liked from a poem by William Blake: How can the bird that is born for joy/Sit in a cage and sing? Mina takes up a long-standing skeptical perspective: “Schools are useless, children should be free.” I don’t agree, but I think it’s important that Mina express that point of view: many people do think so and I believe the ministers of education should ask themselves why that is.
- My Name is Mina is probably the only book available in Russian about a protagonist that is home-schooled. Do you find the homeschooling approach to be more balanced?
- No. Home-schooling can seriously limit a child, and sometimes it is even dangerous.
- What do you mean?
- Well, for example, there are parents that teach their kids at home because they don’t want their children to learn about the evolution of the species at school. They need their children to fully take on their values.
- What, in your opinion, are the principles that education should be based on?
- The education system should be formed on an understanding that children are creative beings by nature, that they need to be given freedom, rather than constantly told: “Do this, now that.” The system should be more open, independent from politics and each new minister.
- You say that children should be given freedom. But these days, children’s lives are often subject to strict control and a schedule. They’re always busy.
- Yes, because we’ve started to think that are children are constantly in danger, even though that’s not at all true.
- Where did this idea come from?
- I don’t even know, and I find it rather strange. In the 50s and 60s, when I was a child, parents were much more strict with children, but they let us play outside on our own all day, and we felt quite free. Today’s parents would likely think that was too dangerous.
- Do you think, control of this sort can have negative consequences?
- Yes, but kids are kids: if they don’t like the structure the adults have set up for them, they’ll find a way to get around it. (laughs)
- What was your own school experience like?
- I didn’t enjoy school and I was rather uncomfortable. We didn’t have all the tests Mina does, but exams were still foremost in our educations. We had corporal punishment in my school. We were belted, which I remember now with horror. Luckily, schools have changed a great deal since then.
- When you wrote Mina, were you addressing the book more to kids or more to parents and teachers, to show them the inner life of a child?
- To everyone. If you think of whom you’re writing it for, as you’re working on the book, you’ll limit yourself, try to please someone. My only goal is to write a good book. Of course, when I wrote Mina I understood many children would identify with it, and that teachers would also be interested but I don’t think an author should address any particular audience.
- Many definitely see themselves in Mina. Though she thinks she is strange and even awkward.
- Every child has probably thought: “I’m strange.” That’s why I like to write for children—to me as an adult, it’s freeing to be that “strange” kid and think about the strangest things.
- Instead of boring school papers, Mina comes up with her own "extraordinary activities" and writes stories. I know you do creative writing classes with kids. What do you think these activities offer?
- I teach Creative Writing at a university and periodically conduct classes at schools. Writing helps children learn to love the language. Lessons at school are often too formal and children start to feel that language is a very difficult subject, although that’s not at all true. We speak our native language from childhood and naturally learn to correctly order words in a sentence. Then we get to school and we’re told that it’s all very difficult, that we need a bunch of rules, and we should take a hundred tests. That’s what frightens and restricts children.
Creative writing allows children to feel more confident with a language. These classes aren’t by any means intended to produce a new generation of writers, but they can help bring up a generation of people who know and love their language.
- You once said that many children have difficulties in school only because they weren’t read aloud to in early childhood. Why is it so important to read aloud to children?
- In many cases, though, of course, not all, that is indeed the reason. When we deprive a small child of books, we do serious damage, which may not immediately be apparent. Or vice versa, when we tell children stories, read aloud to them, we give them valuable experience: they follow the storyline, watch the turning of the pages and progress of events. That’s what life is, after all—a chain of events. Books help us better understand life.
- Which reading promotion programs in Britain do you think are most effective?
- It’s easiest to get children into reading when they are very small. In Great Britain, the government gives every newborn a set of vital things, which always includes books. In Scotland, as far as I know, children get sets of books three times, at birth, in a few years, and when they turn eleven. This program isn’t just for low-income families, but for everyone without exception. I think it’s one of the most effective approaches.
- Is there a required reading list in British schools or do teachers choose what the class will read?
- The teacher chooses. They’ve tried to set up a program of required reading, but they gave up on that idea in time. We do understand that there are books worth reading in school, so there are different lists with recommendations. Many schools read Skellig, for example. And Mina, strange as that may be, is a favorite with many teachers.
- You often speak at schools. Why do you find that important? And why do you think children should meet with writers?
- For me, it’s an opportunity to see my readers. They’re wonderful and unbelievably insightful. They read a lot. It’s inspiring and reassuring. It’s good for children to meet authors so they can see that writers are regular people. When I was a child, seeing a real live writer seemed unthinkable. I thought all writers had died or lived somewhere in New York. At talks I tell children how I write books. I show them my journals, drafts, pens, pencils—the most ordinary objects. Such encounters expand children’s ideas about what they, too, can do.
- Aside from school, Mina is consumed with thoughts about her father, as she tries to make sense of his death. You’re not afraid to write about tragic events for children, though many in today’s society believe that children should be shielded from such topics. Was that an issue in your own family?
- Yes. When I was seven, my one-year-old sister died, and when I was fifteen I lost my father. When I was a child, people weren’t inclined to speak of these things with children, so no one ever spoke of it to me at home or at school. What’s interesting is that now, when I write, I address the child I once was. I’m that adult that can finally speak with him of that. I think many adults have begun to discuss tragic events with children, and that is right.
- You once said that a writer needs publishers who reward an author’s courage. How does a publisher influence an author?
In Great Britain, children’s publishers are often braver and more open to experimenting than publishers for adults. They aren’t worried that a story be presented in an unusual form. My work with Hodder Children’s Books and Walker Books has been truly inspiring. My editors are very attentive to the text and never tell me what the next book should be about. They understand me and help me grow. I think that’s exactly what a writer needs—that his publishers and editors be open and receptive to new ideas. They should help an author free the best he has to offer.
Translated from the Russian by Alisa Cherkasova
Photograph of David Almond by Darya Dotsuk