Interview: David Almond | Living North

Interview: David Almond


David Almond by Donna Lisa Healy
To celebrate the 200th issue of Living North, we’re celebrating the biggest and brightest talents of the North East. We caught up with bestselling author David Almond, who grew up in Felling and whose love for the North East has never waned

First of all, could you tell us a bit about your new book The Dam – where did the idea come from?
It came from talking to Kathryn Tickell and her dad Mike, who told me the story of what had happened when the dam was being built at Kielder, when the houses were boarded up ready to be flooded. Mike and Kathryn went into those houses when she was little and played music in them for the very last time. When they told me the story I just thought it was such a great one, and I asked if I could have it. 

The Dam is quite a haunting book – you write quite a lot of children’s literature with darker themes. What is it about children’s literature that keeps drawing you back?
I never expected to write for young people but when I began writing Skellig I suddenly realised that it was a book for the younger generation. It seems to me that if you move into that age group, the storytelling possibilities are immense. So The Dam (which is a book which is for all ages really) is published by a children’s publisher, because they know how to put together words and pictures in a beautiful way. It’s that kind of thing that keeps drawing me back to writing for young people, and also the flexibility of their imagination. 

Do you ever write books for adults?
I have written them, but even when I write for adults, there is usually some kind of sense of youth, or a young protagonist. I had a book for adults come out a few years ago, The Tightrope Walkers, and that’s about children growing up in North Tyneside. I think there’s something magical about the drama of growing up, people changing. When you write for young people, or with young people in your conscious, in a way you’re writing for the future. You’re not saying this is a static thing, a work of art is a not a static thing – it’s something that tends to change.

So do you draw a lot of inspiration from the North East?
I do. The North East is where all of my books are set, even when they don’t seem to be, they’re set in a sort of fictional version of the area – it’s become the geography of my imagination. 

What is it about the North East that makes it so special?
Well the fact that I grew up here, and also because in many ways it still seems like it’s still pretty undiscovered. When things started to happen for me, a lot of people imagined I would move down to London, but I stayed here because there’s a very unique kind of beauty here. I love the language here, I write in a northern voice, and I love the history. I love not being based in a metropolis, the sense of being on the edge of things. 

When you first started writing, did you expect the massive success that your work received?
You can’t write anticipating success – what you have to do is write just because you have to write. For years I made no money, but in a sense I really didn’t care because I was doing what I loved and had done since I was a child. I had some readers and I was getting published in some little magazines, and then when things really started to happen, when Skellig came out, I just thought ‘yeah that’s wonderful’. The success is wonderful, but you can’t begin to write thinking ‘I’m going to be successful’ – you just write because you want to.

Do you have any creative rituals before you write?
I use notebooks, they’re central to what I do. I scribble – my writing’s too messy to write longhand – so I do lots of scribbling and doodling, little pictures of what I’m writing about and explore the story in notebooks, then I begin to write on the computer. 

Is it possible for you to choose a favourite out of all your books?
Gosh, it’s really hard. I like all of them – I think one of the things you have to do as a writer is to find a way to like your work. In some ways I do think the best thing I’ve ever done is The Tightrope Walkers – it was also published in America, and it got absolutely astonishing reviews. It’s a very northern book, very Geordie, but somehow they got it. I think in the US there’s a tradition of regional writing, people writing who aren’t just based in New York or San Francisco, and I think they recognised that in my work. 

You’ve had so many great achievements throughout your career, but what are you most proud of?
I’m proud of the awards and I’m proud of the publications, but one of the things I’m really proud of is that I have focussed on the North East, that I have shown the North East as a place of great beauty, that it has a wonderful language, a history and a culture which is much more powerful than people often recognise. We have a culture that goes right back to the Lindisfarne Gospels.

What’s your advice for any budding writers?
The best advice is just to do it. I get lots of people saying, ‘Oh I’ve got a great idea for a book, what should I do?’ and I go, ‘Just write it.’ There’s no avoiding it, you just have to sit down and get doing it – use notebooks, don’t expect everything you do to be wonderful, be imperfect. When you start writing for the first time, you think it has to be perfect, but you can’t be. And write for yourself – write your own story in your own way.

Who are some of your own literary inspirations and what’s your favourite book?
It’s really hard to narrow it down. Throughout my career there have been writers who have really influenced me: Hemingway was a big influence; Gabriel Garcia Marquez, he’s amazing; an American writer from the southern states, Flannery O’Connor; and poets like Ted Hughes and Seamus Heaney. There’s a writer I’m reading at the moment called Ann Wroe, and she’s just fantastic, and I know she’s going to be a big inspiration for me. 

What are you working on for 2019?
I’ve got a book coming out in the spring called Joe Quinn’s Poltergeist which is about a kid in Felling who has a poltergeist in the house. I’m writing another new novel at the minute which I should finish in January and will come out next year which is called The New Kid, and I just had another book published for the centenary of the end of the First World War called War Is Over. I think it’s important to keep busy and keep doing different things – one of the things that I’ve done in the last year was a stage show, again with Kathryn Tickell. It was a blend of words, music and dance, and it was wonderful to do, especially with someone as great as Kathryn.

What was your favourite thing about growing up in the North East?
I think for me growing up in Felling it was being on the edge of the city and the country, and the countryside was quite rough. So it’s that blend of the city and the country, that sense that the wilderness is never far away.

How has the North East changed in your opinion?
I think the North East is such a great place that keeps on changing and developing. Newcastle keeps reinventing itself, certainly compared with when I was a kid, it’s much more multicultural – you hear so many different voices around and see so many more kinds of people. I think in some ways Newcastle has recognised its own beauty – I keep bringing people here and saying, ‘Look, this is truly a beautiful city’, and I think Newcastle has worked really well to expose its own beauty.

You can keep up with all of David’s new releases and news at 

Published in: December 2018

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