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Confetti - Your Future

Interview: David Almond

11 February 13 interview: Emily Cooper
photos: Donna-Lisa Healy

Master story-teller, Nottingham Trent lecturer and novelist David Almond has broadened the landscape of dreams with his latest book Mouse Bird Snake Wolf. And he’s not afraid to scare the kids…

What’s your writing routine?
Sitting down at my desk, that’s the thing. Routine is really important, so a lot of the things that I do seem very free and easy but actually are done within a very tight routine and hard work. I think writing is about long-term concentration so even when I appear not to be writing, I probably am. I think that’s the same for all writers. There’s always a part of your mind which is working.

Is writing a graphic novel different to fiction and children’s literature?
Not really. I think one of the great things about writing for young people has been the variety of forms that you can work in. Kids don’t make distinctions between different forms as adults do, so kids will very naturally spring from words on a page, to words in drama, to dance, to song. I think that’s what storytelling is, it’s all kinds of forms. If I think what I’m writing has to be illustrated then there is something going on in my mind, leaving space for the artist to come in with their own vision. It’s certainly been the case when I’ve been working with Dave McKean or Polly Dunbar or Oliver Jeffers. When I wrote Mouse Bird Snake Wolf I wrote it originally as a short story. I didn’t think about it as a graphic novel but I thought it would be illustrated, I just thought of it as a story that had to have enough space to allow Dave to bring in his own talent.

Before you worked with Dave McKean did you see any of his work?
Oh yes, I’d seen his work with Neil Gaiman, Wolves in the Walls. It was those kind of books which drew me towards Dave. I read Wolves not long before I began to write The Savage and thought what he was doing was fantastic. I had a sense while I was writing that we had similar imaginations, that we were alike: similar sources, similar roots. When we managed to get the manuscript to him I think he felt that we were colleagues of the imagination.

You’ve collaborated with Dave McKean several times. How does this work?
Generally it has been that I have written the stories and hope that Dave would like it enough to illustrate them. The first one we did was The Savage, and when I was writing the book to be illustrated, half way through it I knew that the perfect illustrator would be Dave McKean. So for the second part I was writing with the great hope that Dave might somehow be drawn into it. But I didn’t sit down and talk to him. The first time I met Dave was after he had done the illustrations at the launch of The Savage. It was the same with Polly Dunbar, when I did the novels with her I wrote them and then the illustrations came back and were perfect.

Neither you, Dave McKean or Neil Gaiman seem worried to have a children’s story that’s a little scary…
If you need to go to scary places, you have to go there. It’s not that you do it deliberately, or say “I really want to terrify these kids”. Kids imaginations deal with scary enough things all the time; monsters under the bed, noises at the window. It’s very natural but some of the best children’s stories are going to be scary. Good books reach down into those things inside ourselves and civilise them.

Mouse Bird Snake Wolf - what’s it about?
It’s set in a world which is very like this world but hasn’t been finished yet. The gods have become lazy and they lie around on clouds, drinking tea and eating cakes, just admiring the lovely world beneath them. But there are still spaces in the world. The story starts when three children begin to wonder about this, “Why is the world not finished?” and they begin to create little animals for themselves. Because it’s a creation story based around children it was just fantastic to do, and I sent it to Dave to come back with a remarkable stream of images.

Lots of writers get asked where they get their ideas from - but how do you know an idea is worth pursuing?
It’s when a story comes with a kind of ‘fizz’ around it and it feels like it has the strength to be extended. When it connects with something within you, matching what’s on the page to a feeling. For years and years I didn’t quite know what to work with, which one to take forwards and be turned into something decent. The more you do it, the more you get a sense of the things that matter to you. Then you turn it into something the outside world might like or be interested in. So it’s a mix between messing with the ideas and finding the right one. Then committing to it.

You have been described as a “Master Storyteller”. How do you feel about that?
When I saw that written for the first time I was astonished. It’s very nice if people say that sort of thing. I think when someone says something like that you have to say, “That’s very nice, thank you very much”. Then you just have to crack on. The next story is always the hardest to write, so you think, “Well, if I’m a master then I can do this.”

How do you balance tutoring and writing?
You just have to keep things under control and find a balance. I enjoy teaching, sharing the ‘writing act’ and the process of creativity. But the central focus has to be on my own work. So you can’t allow work to invade.

What’s it like working with new writers at NTU?
This is one way of doing my job as a writer and keeping the literary culture alive - by sharing something about my skills and doing how I write. There are many things about writing that you can’t teach but you can share lots of things and give each other imaginative opportunities to develop your own talent. I do the exercises I set my students, not as deliberately, but they are distillations of how I do my writing.

What’s next on the list?
I’m finishing a new novel at the moment called The Tightrope Walkers which will come out in 2014. My first ever stories are being re-published this year by my first publisher, Iron Press. Then there’s a short novel I want to write - which is the next main thing I want to do. I can sense what it will be like, condensed, rhythmical.

What can we expect from your talk at the Festival of Words?
I’m talking about Billy Dean, Mouse Bird Snake Wolf and The Boy Who Swam With Piranhas. They all deal with similar themes, some of them quite scary. They’re all really about growing up and creating our own lives, and that’s what stories are - things that grow up. So writing for children is the perfect way of writing. Kids are growing up, like stories themselves. So I’ll be talking about those three books, how I made them, the power of illustrations and language. I’ll also be trying to inspire the audience to think of themselves as writers…

David Almond: True Tales, Imaginary Piranhas and Half-created Worlds, Wednesday 13 February, 7pm, Waterstones, Bridlesmith Gate, NG1 2GR. Emily Cooper: Writing Comics talk and workshop, Saturday 16 February, 10am, Newton Building, Goldsmith Street, NG1 4BU.

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