David Almond - 'A humble giant of a writer'
Published on: 08 June 2015 Author: Sita Brahmachari
Meeting my own literary hero, hearing him talk about his work and the magic of listening to him read from A Song to Ella Grey was the highlight of my Hay festival and so much of what he says serves to inspire:
'We need to break away from narrow notions of learning into something more tender, more creative, more complex that explores the strangeness of the human heart, that explores the real world and real objects and the mystery of them. Mina's character shows that there are so many ways to be educated beyond SATS tests...'
'If you dream hard enough, if you read hard enough. You are going to do great things. I sometimes look at politicians and think come and see and listen to these children. Sit there, shut up and don't interrupt and stop talking about targets and driving standards up.'
'A lot of learning comes from the exploring the subconscious mind and creativity. Education policy doesn't encourage us to explore that. I wrote Skellig as in a dream, I became the story, rhythm and beat of the words. I think we need to return to some of the more philosophical questions about teaching and learning...'
'I love writing for young people because what they know is that they don't know everything.'
David Almond - quotes from an interview with Sita Brahmachari at Hay festival
I first met David Almond through Skellig when my eldest daughter was 10 years old. I remember the night I began reading it to her and she begged me not to stop. From the opening sentence we were both inside the story with Michael and his family: moving to the new house; making a friend in Mina; discovering the strange being in the garage; hoping against hope that the baby would survive. We were not reading the book together, we were living it.
The next evening my daughter asked if she could go to bed early because she couldn't stand another break in the story, and she had to see if the baby would live. I think it was after reading Skellig that my daughter's passion for independent reading really took off. The last word of Skellig is the naming of a baby - 'Joy' and it was a profound sense of joy and connection to a mysterious universe that we both felt having read this book. It's how I've felt reading My Name Is Mina and all David Almond's work ever since - changed and enlightened by the gift of his word-weaving and storytelling.
From the cover of 'Half a Creature From Under the Sea' Published by Walker Books.
Kit's Wilderness is one of my favourite books because it takes you inside the landscape past and present, in a way that I remember feeling absorbed by the history of the ground on which I stood as a child.
Recently, I have read Almond's jewel like short stories in Half a Creature from the Sea which begins with these words:
'I'll start with things I can hardly remember, things I've been told about, things that are like fragments of a dream.'
As I read this page, on which words are set out sparsely like a poem or a thought track, I realised what it is about Almond's writing that is so particular. Everything he writes feels charged with a passion for life and a sense of its precious, fleeting, wondrous, mysterious quality.
I was lucky enough to be given a proof copy of A Song for Ella Grey, David Almond's recent, Carnegie nominated novel. I opened the book and the pages turned themselves. It's a novel that is charged with the wildness and passion of youth in search of love and freedom and answers to the big questions about life and the universe that anyone who looks up at the sky on a clear night will have asked themselves.
It takes the lives of seemingly ordinary teenagers and links their struggles and loves to the timeless myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. Almond manages to make a seemingly ordinary every-day tale of teenage trials and loves both extraordinary and universal. The result is that his story speaks powerfully of the value, power, potential and creativity of young people. This insight is present as a constant, activist undertow that is present in all of his work... and all these elements he manages to weave into a word-spell that once it takes hold of you feels trance-like.
Whenever I feel like I'm losing my way in writing a story I only have to read a page of one of Almond's novels to be reminded of the power that words and stories woven with skill, heart and soul, can wield.
You can imagine then my delight in finding out that I would be at The Hay Festival this year at the same time as David Almond. Following my own school talk I ran to a tent where all the students at Hay were assembling to meet the humblest of giants of the children's book world - David Almond.
I slipped in behind some girls who had been to my talk. They turned around and seemed amused that I was so out of breath running to hear David Almond speak. There was no time to explain to them that I was as star-struck as all the young readers in the hall because as David entered the stage, a deafening roar of applause greeted him.
I have tried to capture for you a collection of the gems that David Almond shared with both the students in the hall and myself in an interview afterwards. These are words that I will treasure as a writer and a reader... and words are meant for sharing.
David Almond at Hay Festival 2015
'I grew up in Felling-On Tyne, Newcastle, to an ordinary family. Very young I knew I wanted to be a writer. Someone said to me "If you want to be a writer son, you're going to need a writer's imagination." What I discovered is that we have all an amazing imagination. Because we all have these things called heads on our shoulders.
'People ask me where do you get your ideas from and I answer - they come from my mind.
'Let's do an experiment that seems daft. But then it's quite daft to write, daft but amazing. If you look at your head it's not much bigger than a football but it contains all the things and people, and places you've been to and all your dreams.
'Who likes to look at the stars? Who likes to turn this thing, that's the size of the football, to the stars and think wild thoughts? All this wondering comes from inside your head. This head is the most extraordinary universe.
'I couldn't write my stories, what's in my head, without your head. My stories only get finished when they're in your head.
'My head is full of rubbish too - angel delight, bacon sandwiches, book writing, films I've seen, TV. Football.
'When I was 13 we played football... we imagined we were fantastic footballers - we were at Wembley being cheered on by the crowd. When you play football you commit your body to the game but you're driven on by your imagination. Sometimes I would play football till I couldn't see the ball anymore- then I would go to the library. The more I went to the library the more my dream to be a writer would get stronger and stronger and I imagined seeing my name on books.
'Recently, I've been back there to that square room of books and inside me there was this 13 year old boy who was so excited, still looking for himself in a book.
'Who likes to sing? Who likes drama? Who likes sport? Who likes to draw? Who likes to paint? Who likes to read? Who likes to write?'
(The hall of young people put their hands up in waves and roar with excitement as they respond to the questions.)
'You inspire me to do what I do.
'Books look so perfect, don't they? But books are messy. My work is messy.
'I love notebooks, notebooks with no lines.
'Who likes pencil cases? Sharpeners? Post it notes, sharpies?
'You might be thinking to yourself. Hang on what's a grown up published writer doing talking about this stuff? But my messy notebooks are a way of exploring. The danger of a computer is that it makes your work look perfect from the start. But people don't see where all this creativity comes from. Who's perfect?'
(A couple of boys put their hands up!)
'Aww, there's always a couple!
'But if we were perfect we wouldn't do anything.
'You all look very mysterious to me. That's the thing with people who seem ordinary, they can transform with the beauty of words once they've been imagined, filleted and shaped into a book!'
Meeting my own literary hero, hearing him talk about his work and the magic of listening to him read from A Song to Ella Grey was the highlight of my Hay festival and so much of what he says serves to inspire. So when a young boy put his hand up and asked the final question.
'Will you write more books for us?'
David Almond's answer touched my heart as it did every reader's in that room.
'When I'm on my death bed I'll be saying 'one more story!'
Check out Sita's book
More from Sita's time as Writer in Residence.