Skellig’s garage is out the back…
David Almond may discover that he’s wrong. "One of the great things about being a children’s writer is that nobody’s interested in who you are," he tells me in his soft Geordie accent. We are sitting in the front room of his terraced house on the outskirts of Newcastle-upon-Tyne; rain sheets down against the windows. From the corner of my eye I can see into the hall, where Fletcher Sibthorp’s dramatic, enigmatic oil painting for the cover of Skellig leans against a bookcase.
Skellig, Almond’s brief, compelling tale of Michael, Mina and the creature – part owl? part angel? part dosser? – they find in the garage of Michael’s house, has now sold more than 60,000 copies in 15 countries. It was snapped up by Hodder, the first publisher to see it. Almond’s editor Isabel Boissier says: "You can spend your career waiting for the right book to come along at the right time – and Skellig was that book." Yesterday it became only the 5th first novel in the 63-year history of the prestigious children’s book award, the Carnegie Medal, to take the prize.
Richard Adams won the prize in 1972 for his first novel, Watership Down; 20 years before that Mary Norton won it for her first book, The Borrowers. But Almond is in danger of growing accustomed to
prizewinning: in January, Skellig won the Whitbread Children’s Book of the Year Award. According to the chairman of the judges, Raymond Seitz, it was only the fact that children’s books are no longer eligible to win the Whitbread Book of the Year Award that kept the book from finding itself neck-and-neck with Ted Hughes’s Birthday Letters. It is illustrious company in which Almond finds himself; and here I sit before him, a tape recorder on the table between us. No one’s interested in who he is? Things, perhaps, are beginning to change.
In a certain sense he is right, of course, when he remarks that the increasing popularity of "children’s" books among children and adults (the stampede for the latest Harry Potter from J. K. Rowling rivalled that for Thomas Harris’s Hannibal) has not led to authors such as Rowling and himself becoming staples of the literary gossip columns in the way that say, A. S. Byatt and Martin Amis are – though the recent discovery of the "real" Harry Potter may mark a move in that direction.
The focus has tended to be exclusively on the work, which pleases Almond (whose life, he admits, is not a riot of Will Selfish excess) but can have its downside. When Skellig won the Whitbread, a letter appeared in The Guardian remarking of the television coverage of the event: "(Almond) was not interviewed. His book was not discussed by the studio panel. We didn’t see him receiving his prize. I guess he is lucky that the BBC and Whitbread let him stay up late and join the grown-ups at the banquet."
But then for Almond, banquets and television coverage, however enjoyable they may be, are not the point. The books are. Almond, 47, whose second novel for children, Kit’s Wilderness, was published in May, and whose third, Heaven Eyes, will appear from Hodder early next year, is amused to find himself labelled "a new writer" and "a discovery".
He has been writing seriously for the past 15 years or so (it was only when he was about 30 that he realised that a big part of being able to write was having the discipline to finish things). He published stories – for adults – in small magazines like Stand, Iron and Panurge, the last of which he edited for six years from 1991. Two volumes of short stories – Sleepless Nights and A Kind of Heaven – are published by Newcastle’s Iron Press. A Kind of Heaven offers a presentiment of the spare prose and dark vision that colours Skellig.
He supported himself as a teacher after taking his degree from the University of East Anglia in 1975. In 1982 he decamped to a Norfolk commune to write ("I made Pounds 1,500 last 18 months," he says with understandable pride). It was while in Norfolk that he met his wife, Sara Jane – they now have an adorable daughter, Freya Grace, 15 months – but went back to teaching to give himself the financial freedom to write exactly what he wanted. Up until very recently, he still taught part-time at Southlands School in North Tyneside, which, he says, has been very supportive of his writing – granting him an extended leave of absence after Skellig was published.
He has since resigned, but continues to work in schools, reading from his work and encouraging children to write. He sees no evidence, he says, that reading is losing out to television or computer games: he is deluged with fan mail. But he acknowledges that children need encouragement: "I think a lot depends on good, creative teachers and creative librarians. One of the things I’ve found in the last year is how fantastic children’s librarians are; I’m overwhelmed by their knowledge, attitudes, beliefs, and how effective they are in energising children and promoting books."
Skellig, he tells me, arrived quite suddenly, after Almond had been working on a series of stories about his childhood. Its setting is based around his own house – "Skellig’s garage" is out the back. "I think part of me had been planning Skellig, picking things up from the stories; when I finished them it just literally came out of the blue with the first sentence and I had to dash back into the house, sit down and start writing. I didn’t have to plan it, really – it was as if all the planning had been done. It came with wonderful speed and precision, and I think it was a kind of reward for all the years I’d put in perfecting my technique. When I hit on Skellig it was like the idea and the ability to handle the idea came together. Now, because of Skellig, I know what I’m looking for in the next books."
What Almond seems to be looking for, what he has found, is rare in any kind of writer, whether for children for adults. Skellig is not an easy novel, with its crochety, mysterious eponym, its hero, Michael, shadowed by his baby sister’s illness and his uneasy adjustment to a new house. Kit’s Wilderness, in which a group of children play a game called Death, is even darker: but it is the elemental that drew Almond to writing. He grew up in a Roman Catholic family in Felling, on the Tyne.
His father was an engineer who died when Almond was 10; three years earlier his baby sister, Barbara, had died at the age of one year. Though Almond won’t describe his work as autobiographical, he does draw on his own history: in Skellig, Michael’s baby sister is gravely ill. He is no longer a practising Catholic, but his upbringing is still a strong influence. "I had the same experience as Stephen Dedalus in Portait of the Artist – these hellfire sermons; the suppurating flesh, the jaws of Hell, the spikes – you’re sitting there, a child, taking this in. Absolutely terrifying. And you are confronted with death all the time: I remember being six or seven and told, today could be your last day, be prepared." He laughs, somewhat ruefully.
Other influences don’t come from children’s books – which he rarely reads. Sitting in the school library – his refuge from the classroom where he was "a bit of a waster" – as a teenager he was galvanised by Ernest Hemingway’s A Clean, Well-lighted Place; later by the work of Raymond Carver. Of Carver he says that he admires "the way he would, in just a few words, suggest so much, in very simple, direct syntax. It looks dismissable but it isn’t." The very same could be said of Almond’s work which, like the best literature for children, is in fact simply literature.