About The Author
David Almond grew up in Felling in Tyne and Wear and had his dreams of becoming a writer kindled by his local library. After taking a degree in English and American Literature at the University of East Anglia, he endured stints as a hotel porter, a postman and a labourer before turning to teaching. It was during this time that he began to have his stories by published by various magazines.
He went to live a Norfolk commune in order to give himself more time to write, but a shortage of money resulted in his taking on work writing booklets for an adult literacy scheme and teaching children with learning difficulties.
After increasing success with his short stories, which appeared in a number of anthologies and magazines, as well as being read on BBC Radio 4, his first novel for young readers, Skellig, was published in 1998; it won both the Whitbread Children's Book of the Year and the Carnegie Medal and has since been adapted into a play, a film and an opera.
His children's books, the latest of which was a prequel to Skellig, My Name is Mina, since have won a further Whitbread Award and the Smarties Prize (twice), as well as numerous awards all over the world. His books have been translated into over 30 languages. He's worked with award-winning illustrators including Polly Dunbar and Dave McKean. In 2010, he was presented with the Hans Christian Andersen Award, the children's literature equivalent of the Nobel Prize.
This year, he publishes his first adult crossover novel, The True Tale of the Monster Billy Dean.
Billy Dean is a secretive child but much loved by his parents. But when his father vanishes, Billy finds out the shocking truth about what happened the day he was born. In time, Billy finds he has the gift of helping to rebuild what is broken. But there's one exception: a figure beyond healing, who comes looking for Billy. And who is determined on a kind of reckoning.
In this exclusive interview for Foyles by Frances Gertler, David talks about the beauty of illustrated fiction, the inescapable influence of a Catholic upbringing and his daughter's role in editing the new book.
Questions & Answers
Although you're known as a children's writer, you did write a novel for adults before your breakthrough book, Skellig. How did the transition come about, and is Billy Dean a conscious move back towards adult fiction?
I never planned to be a children's writer. I was an educated grown-up adult, so I'd write novels for educated grown-up adults. I wrote a novel that was rejected by every publisher in the land, short stories that came out in a range of little magazines, and a couple that were broadcast on Radio 4. I had two short story collections published by the tiny, heroic Iron Press.
Then Skellig came out of the blue. As soon as I started writing it down, I knew that it was the best thing I'd ever done, that it was somehow the culmination of everything I'd done before; and I realised, to my amazement, that it was a novel for young people. I still remember the feeling of excitement and liberation this brought. I was freed to write about what I wanted to write about, for readers whose minds were flexible and in a state of evolution, who could accept stories in many forms. I continued to to write novels and short stories, but I also found myself writing for the stage, collaborating with amazing illustrators, experimenting with print and the appearance of pages. The children's book world is a place of playfulness and experimentation. It's often dismissed as being minor or marginal, but it's central to our culture. I don't think I could have written Billy Dean if I hadn't worked in this world. The book isn't a sudden leap into a new literary dimension, but feels like an organic development of what I've been doing before.
Where did the idea for Billy Dean come from?
Billy's been in my mind for years. Over the years, I've scribbled fragmentary scenes, images, possibilities, and experimented with ways of getting his voice onto paper. I knew I'd have to take proper notice of him, but I also knew I'd need to clear a proper amount of time and space. I managed to do this a couple of years ago, and started to tell his tale. I knew a few things about him - that his father was a priest, his mother a hairdresser, that there'd be a kindly butcher, that he'd grow up in isolation in a devastated place called Blinkbonny.
But the story grew and developed as I wrote it. It's filled with things that fascinate or obsess me, of course: Blinkbonny was part of the town in which I grew up It; Billy's holy island is based on Lindisfarne; like the Lindisfarne monks, he makes a weird illuminated manuscript; there are séances and spirit writing; birds and birdsong; the connections between beasts and human beings; the ways of getting words to make sounds and sense; etc etc. But it often really did feel as if Billy was speaking out from me, that his voice was mine, that he was guiding me through his world.
Skellig has been turned into a play and Clay was filmed; do you find yourself thinking about adaptations when writing?
Not consciously. It's hard enough thinking about writing a book without thinking about what the book could later become. But it's been great to be involved in the various adaptations of my books. I've loved working in the theatre, going through the wonderful collaborative process of getting words and scenes to work on the stage, and this has probably influenced the way I write prose.
The images in My Dad's a Birdman added another dimension to the story. Why is it assumed that once children reach, say five or six, they no longer require pictures? Would you like more of your books to be illustrated?
That theory, that children no longer need pictures once they're beyond a certain age, is crackers. It all comes from a fear that pictures aren't serious enough, that they're infantile, that children should grow up fast and start reading proper books packed with proper text, otherwise they'll somehow be left behind. What rubbish. I wrote My Dad's a Birdman, which was originally a play, when my own daughter was about eight, with the deliberate intention of producing an illustrated book for children of her kind of age.
Polly Dunbar didn't just illustrate the book, of course - she brought her own artistic vision to the story, just as Dave McKean did in our collaborations in books like The Savage. Books can take many forms. Words and images can work together in subtle, exciting, beautiful and unexpected ways. I'm continuing to work with artists: I have another book coming out with Dave McKean, and another with Oliver Jeffers. I don't see such books as being in any way inferior to my more 'proper' text-filled books.
The fine line between angels and monsters was something you also explored in Skellig. What is it about this theme that makes you return to it?
We just have to look at the world to see that we are capable of being brutal, hateful, monstrous. The evidence is all around. There's also much evidence that we're capable of being kind, loving, angelic. I suppose as a writer I'm drawn to explore the line between angels and monsters that exists in individual characters, and the complex conflict between good and evil that is acted out in the world.
The father is a potent figure in this novel, as in others you have written. They seem loved but ultimately unstable or unreliable. Why is this?
I have lots of tender and supportive fathers, too, as in The Fire-Eaters, but even there there's the threat of his suspected illness. I guess it comes from the fact that my own dad died when I was young, so even though he himself was strong and stable, fatherhood in my fiction is prey to vulnerability and instability.
You grew up in a Catholic family and went to a Catholic grammar school. Is this at the root of the worlds you create which are both very credible but also infused with mystical and fantastical elements?
As a writer, I tried to avoid my Catholic (and Northern) roots for a long time. But Catholicism is drilled into you - or it was, at the time I was growing up. It's a very physical religion, filled with particular movements, sounds, textures, sensations, rhythms, rituals. So even when you lose the belief, you continue to be haunted by the experience. In the end, I recognised that I couldn't get rid of it, so I just sighed and allowed Catholicism to influence my work, just as I sighed and accepted my northernness and drew strength from that. I was helped a lot in this by reading Flannery O'Connor, who wrote wonderfully about being a Catholic regional writer: "The discovery of being bound through the senses to a particular society and a particular history, to particular sounds and a particular idiom, is for the writer the beginning of a recognition that first puts his work into real human perspective for him.... He discovers that the imagination is not free, but bound."
There is some hope at the end, but it's a pretty bleak book, isn't it? How does a book like Billy Dean affect your mood during the period when you're writing it? Do you have techniques for separating the two worlds that you're simultaneously inhabiting?
Well, the circumstances in which Billy finds himself are certainly pretty bleak: a weird family, isolation, a ruined town, a world at war. But for me he is the agent of change, the one who finds love and beauty in his troubled life, and in the devastated landscape of Blinkbonny. He carries the reader towards the light. And has a few powerful people who love him, who transcend the bleakness, and who give him strength: his mother, Mr McCaufrey the butcher, Elizabeth.
Yes I was affected by writing the book, especially at those times when Billy goes through his possessions, when I felt he was speaking through me. But writing any book is a pretty intense process, and even when you're deeply bound up in it all, you have to maintain an artistic distance, to make sure that you give the book an appropriate order and shape.
This novel is being presented both in an adult edition and as a book for older children. Is there a very definite audience in your head when you're writing your books; can the readership ever be that defined or is it a decision that's made as part of the publishing process?
It's always hard to define the exact audience. I write the kind of books I want to read. I've always had a fairly large and avid adult readership, but they usually come to the books via their children or through recommendations. Lots of them then express a kind of surprise that they've enjoyed and admired 'a children's book' so much. When I started Billy Dean, I just knew that this was one that should be on adult shelves as well. The publishers agreed.
You've been a teacher and have children of your own. Do you ever read work in progress to them, and has their feedback been instrumental in any writing decisions or in how you later view books you've written?
I'm pretty secretive about whatever I'm writing. I rarely show anything to anybody until I'm reasonably sure it's okay. I've been fortunate in having fantastic editors at all my publishers. I showed my daughter the typescript of My Dad's a Birdman. She went through it and found a few typos and made a couple of suggestions. She read The Savage just before I sent it to my editor. Lots of it is deliberately misspelled (parts of it are written by a young boy who's still learning how to write). She marked it up with a pen. 'He wouldn't spell it wrong like that," she'd say. "He'd spell it wrong like this!" She was often right. And her advice probably found its way into my writing of Billy Dean.