In the darkness of the television studio at Bath Spa University the children’s author, David Almond, sat behind a table patiently waiting for the audience to abandon the wine table and the event to start.
I knew Skellig of course, but wasn’t aware of all his other novels and plays. Julia Green, who runs the MA in Creative Writing for Young People at Bath Spa, led out a dizzying list of publications. My Name is Mina, The Savage, The Tightrope Walkers, A Song for Ella Grey were mentioned as well as his four doctorates and numerous prizes.
He grew up in the North East, in a small place called Felling. The sound scape was the Latin of Catholic mass, women who could reduce a room to laughter or tears by the stories they told, steel seams being smoothed by pneumatic hammers rising from the Tyne so the ‘ships were as tight as a drum,’ and above David’s council flat on the hill, the ripening call of skylarks.
At a young age he fell in love with print – his Uncle had a print shop – and he still delights to see black ink on white paper.
But as a young man with working class roots, writing from the regions, he asked himself what could he write about? Others asked that too. Literature seemed to belong to the London elite and the way forward seemed to be to emulate them, to change himself, to move but he resisted and eventually the stories that wanted to be told came through.
The answer of what to write about, for David, lay within. He explained how he found his voice by echoing the voices of those around him in Felling. He began to write stories about where he was from – it almost sounded as if writing being channelled through him. After initial set backs and being dismissed as a Northern writer again he sent off some stories to his agent. But as he walked back from the post box the first line of Skellig came to him, directly into his head and that seemed to mark the turning point for him as a writer.
‘Writing is about being brave, saying yes,’ he said. This was in the context of writing using the beauty of Geordie phrases – one example being ‘nowt’ and ‘bliddee’. He pointed out that tastes and traditions vary. His American editors were sympathetic and accepted all the words in the book while the UK counterparts and reviewers were less enthusiastic. He mentioned Huck Finn and pointed to a greater acceptance of place and respect for regional voices in America. His point was that the current wisdom is to shy away from using dialect, but it was the right thing to do for him as a writer and gained critical acclaim in the U.S.
He cautioned writers not to abandon their roots, ‘if you’re not writing in your own voice, where is it going to come from?’ He asked us.
‘Accept the story knows better than you,’ he said. This was becoming almost mystical but I knew what he meant. It’s that magical moment as a writer, a little like dreaming as he described it when the writing takes over, roars off and races onwards.
I asked him at the end what happens if your story gets stuck and although I was hoping for an answer that was magical and mysterious he said, like countless other writers before him, ‘keep going’. He described how one of his books was hell. He hated writing and editing it but ploughed on, day by day, as writers must, to get it finished. It was only months later that he thought, ‘that’s not so bad.’ I was encouraged by this as even great writers, like Almond, have books that do not come easily.
He explained when someone asked him about his working process that when he’s working on a novel he has a spreadsheet and writes down how many words he’s done on a given day and tallies up the word count each week.
The conversation moved onto writing for children. While he never set out to write for children the genre allows him to be experimental in the way other genres aren’t. He touched on the qualities that children have – he’s clearly passionate about working with them and enjoys their innate creativity. He showed us some of his working notebooks and they were covered in pictures drawn in coloured pencils. He tapped his head. ‘Writing isn’t about the brain,’ he said, ‘it’s far more. Kids don’t see the boundaries that we do between plays or books.’
The things I responded to from this insightful evening was that stories want to be written, they come from a place deep within so finding your writing voice is the key to success, so give yourself permission to write about stories that come from within yourself. Mix what you know with your imagination.
For working class writers one of your greatest assets is the experience you have. He said he realised that what might be thought of as disadvantages were, in fact, privileges. He described a job he’d had cleaning the inside of a steel ship, and how he could use that experience in his writing. These are the things that make him unique. I was reminded of a similar talk I’d listened to recently – with the Australian writer, Tim Winton, who writes so beautifully about small town experiences. Both writers find universal themes in the small details of life.
The evening ended with an evocative reading about a childhood walk with his sisters visiting his sister and father’s grave. It was full of humour, warmth and love.