Before his show for the Durham Book Festival, I sat down with David Almond to talk about finding inspiration in the North East. David’s Half a Creature from the Sea is a collection of short stories set in Felling: the town in Tyne and Wear where he grew up. His children’s novel Skellig won the Carnegie Medal in 1998. I met David while he had a pint before the event in the Gala Theatre and was instantly aware of his natural ability for storytelling and our shared love of literature.
Half a Creature from the Sea is a collection of stories firmly set in the North East; how did you find writing about where you are from?
I didn’t used to do it and for a long time I tried not to. But then I realised that this is where my blood came from and I turned back again and began to write about the North East. I rediscovered it and explored it almost as if it was a foreign country. It was quite an adventurous thing for me.
Do you think the North East lends itself to storytelling?
I think anywhere lends itself to storytelling. One of the things that some people think when they are first beginning to write is that there must be some perfect place for stories, but in a sense everywhere is a perfect place. Everywhere is full of human existence and the amazingness of this world.
Reading your work as an English student, I can see that William Blake has a huge influence, especially in Skellig. What do you think it is about Blake’s poetry which keeps drawing you back?
I’m surprised myself because when I wrote Skellig, I never expected to be influenced so powerfully by Blake. I went back and read Songs of Innocence and Experience again and rediscovered them and loved their apparent lightness and clarity. They have a deep mystery and I love the fact that Blake illustrates his work. I love the blend of text and illustration.
This evening you will focus on the stories and the books that made you the writer you are today. Is there anything you read when you were younger or at school that has particularly stayed with you?
So many things – it was really difficult choosing a set of books that have influenced me for tonight. When I was a kid I loved Roger Lancelyn Green who did retellings of myths and legends, especially the King Arthur stories; John Wyndham the science fiction writer too. I remember reading Hemmingway and for the first time feeling a sort of kinship with another writer.
You have previously said that you were ‘ambushed by a story called Skellig’. Could you tell me a bit more about your creative process and how stories ‘ambush’ you?
Sometimes stories do that; Skellig definitely did that. I was walking along the street one day and it came from nowhere. I use notebooks a lot and I do a lot of messing about and doodling. It’s about nurturing stories into shape. I don’t plan or plot; I allow myself to discover what might come under the bridge when I’m scribbling. It’s a way of unlocking the stories that are already there. When you find them you get into a process of shaping them and it becomes an act of will.
What made you want to write short stories for this piece rather than a longer novel?
I began as a short story writer and a writer of poetry. For years I wrote nothing else except short stories; I love writing them. For the kind of subject of Half a Creature from the Sea it seemed the perfect form. I have now written a novel which has grown out of those stories which is coming out next year called The Colour of the Sun. It is very like but unlike the stories in that collection.
A lot of people easily dismiss children’s books but it is where we all start. I found that reading your work as a 19 year old is just as enjoyable as when I was younger. What made you want to write for children rather than for adults?
It just happened to me when I was writing Skellig; I thought wow this would be good for young people. I felt a sense of liberation. For me, the joy of writing for children is you can avoid all kinds of categories. You can move around and you can work in different forms. I do a lot of collaborations with artists and musicians as well as stage work. It is very difficult to do that as an adult novelist, which is what I thought I would be. But as a children’s writer you can work in a variety of forms which I love.
You talk a lot about the blending of genres. Do you think that work is often constricted by genre and that authors try too hard to fit with a box?
I would get bored if I was just working in the same form. I have got a wide range of forms coming up and for me that’s the excitement of writing.
Skellig was produced as a play in 2003 and your Song for Ella Gray has been on the Northern Stage. How do you feel about seeing your work on stage?
I love it. Both of those plays I adapted myself and I have adapted other pieces of my work. It shows that stories aren’t fixed. When you see a story trapped between the covers of a book it looks like that is how it must be, but stories are endlessly moving. I love working with directors and actors; I am constantly surprised by what they do.
In one of your introductions in Half a Creature from the Sea you talk about how a story is never quite finished. How do you ever reach the publishing stage?
There is always a point in the story where you think ‘that’s enough’. But then even when it is published I am always adapting. For example the work The Savage which was produced as a play last year began as a short story, then as a longer story, then it became a play. In that sense it is never finished. That story could well become a musical piece of theatre in the future. Stories in books always look like they are finished but they are not. They keep moving within the reader’s imagination.
What can we expect next from you?
I have just finished a novel which comes out next year called The Colour of the Sun. I am doing a tour with the musician Catherine Catell and it is a blend of words and music. I am also writing another story which will be a graphic novel and will come out next year.