British author David Almond received the 2010 Hans Christian Andersen Author Award at the Bologna Book Fair in March. With his first novel, Skellig, published in the U.S. in 1999, he introduced the strange bird- or angel-like being of the title, whom young Michael and his new friend, Mina, nurse to health. The author has continued to link otherworldly and real present-day events in books such as Kit's Wilderness, set in a shuttered mining town in which the children's make-believe game of "Death" takes on haunting overtones; Heaven Eyes, which stars a ghostlike girl with webbed hands; and Clay, in which two boys play god with a creature made from clay. Almond has also written a collection of autobiographical vignettes, Counting Stars, and picture books, his most recent being The Boy Who Climbed into the Moon (Candlewick, $15.99, 9780763642174/0763642177, 128 pp., ages 8-12, April), illustrated by Polly Dunbar. Here David Almond talks about his life and work.
The Hans Christian Andersen Award jury cited your "unique voice as a creator of magic realism for children." Do you think of your approach to storytelling as magic realism?
Well, that phrase has been used various times over the years; as soon as someone tries to categorize your work, you resist it. I'm certainly influenced by Marquez and Borges and Calvino, so I can't throw off that label entirely. But for me, the primary thing about my books is the realism. They're straightforward, ordinary people in ordinary places, but inside them are extraordinary things.
With your first novel, Skellig, you introduce that idea of the real and the magical co-existing. Did you know that you would write a novel when you began that story?
I'd written short stories for adults and one adult novel rejected by every single U.K. publisher, then stories again. When I started Skellig, I didn't know what it was. I knew it was a short novel, and in the first few pages I realized it was for children. It wasn't planned at all.
Was Felling, the coal-mining town of your childhood, the inspiration for Kit's Wilderness?
It was, definitely. When I was growing up, all the mining was finished by then, but we used to play by the coal mines, next to the monument to the 1812 pit disaster. The landscape is very like the landscape of County Durham, which is just beyond Felling.
In both Skellig and Kit's Wilderness, you have a character who acts as a kind of conduit between the present and this other world--Mina served that role for Michael in Skellig, and Allie does that in Kit's Wilderness.
Mina was a total surprise to me when she came into the book--she arrived unannounced. I didn't plan to write her, she came from somewhere in the depths of my imagination. She was the most important character in Skellig, and a muse for me as I was writing the book. Allie in Kit's Wilderness also developed to my surprise, her dancing and her lightness, and the way she connected the real and the magical world. I suppose what they both do is make the boys whole. Without them, the boys wouldn't be as strong, wouldn't be able to tell the story.
In your books, storytelling almost seems to be a means of survival, for Heaven Eyes especially, but also for Michael in Skellig, and Kit in Kit's Wilderness. Do you think storytelling is important to childhood?
Writing a book is like growing up. You only find the story by looking back at it. It's like exploring and discovering and finding the means to go forward as a child, which is very much like story to me. I do think that stories are fundamental to human experience and human society. Particularly in Kit's Wilderness I was deliberately exploring that. Story holds us all together and takes us forward into the future.
In your more recent books illustrated by Polly Dunbar, you've revisited some of your signature themes--but with a lighter touch. Does your daughter have something to do with that?
Yes! I read many picture books with her, and I realized that there are so many fantastic authors and illustrators in that area. When I wrote My Dad's a Bird Man, my daughter was seven or eight. I was disturbed by the way the market was rushing toward YA books and leaving behind kids of that age. Picture books for me were a way to write differently, lighter and faster, stripping away the narrative--and to be funny! When Clay came out, a review said, "David Almond is obviously devoid of hope...." That surprised me because I thought Clay was rather funny. That spurred me to write My Dad's a Bird Man.
You thought Clay was funny? I found the character of Stephen horrifying.
I thought Stephen was horrifying, too. The darkness dominates. The great thing about kids is they accept stories in all sorts of forms, and I'm always challenging myself to move in different ways. I wrote the story [for My Dad's a Bird Man], and Shoe Baby is so lovely, I said [to my publishers], "Oh, it would be great to have Polly Dunbar do it." I had the feeling that her vision would somehow match mine.
Your essay "Angel of the North," for the Guardian, tells how two boys showed you the way to transform Skellig into an opera. What is it like for you to hand over your story for someone else to interpret?
It's great. You work with someone you trust, just like working with Polly [on the picture books], you trust her to do fantastic stuff. When I did Skellig for the stage, I learned so much about the story from watching the actor act it out. I love the process of collaboration and transforming story into different forms. The Skellig play is coming to the New Victory [in New York City] in March 2011.
Your next book is My Name Is Mina. What brought you back to her?
Ever since Skellig came out, people have said, "Will there be a sequel?" And I thought, there's no way to do a sequel. But when the 10th anniversary edition came out, Beverly Horowitz at Random House said, "We'd like a little something extra to include." And I thought, "I'll write a couple pages of Mina's notebook," and it was as if Mina said, "Oh come on, it's taken so long." So My Name Is Mina is a prequel. It finishes at the point where she meets Michael for the first time. When people ask me, "Who's your favorite character?," Mina is the one I kept thinking of.
In your books, you grapple with the paradoxes of being human, the tension between creation and destruction, morality and religion--especially in Clay.
You don't choose your subjects or your themes, they come and get you. Ever since Skellig
, all those oppositions, dark and light, the problems of morality and religion, it's almost like the stories are ways of working out these things. To do it for children seemed natural because these questions are very close to children, and especially adolescents. What happens to us after death? I think it's like that for children when you're growing up; the questions you ask are the big questions.It does seem as though we lose track of the big questions when we enter adulthood, doesn't it?
Because we realize that the questions are unanswerable. There's a tendency to turn away from them, to say they're boring or beyond solution. One of the things about writing for children is you look at the world through their eyes, and the world remains astonishing. I haven't got a clue what it is, and it seems to me more and more beautiful, but more and more unanswerable.--Jennifer M. Brown