David Almond: the freedom of knowing your limitations

Photo Credit: Donna-Lisa Healy
Rowena House asked for some writing advice from David Almond, the Carnegie, Whitbread and Hans Christian Anderson Award winning author of Skellig and more than fifteen other novels, plays and short story collections for children and readers of all ages.






What I’d like to talk about mostly is the ‘how’ of writing, but I am very aware that it’s arbitrary to disassociate the ‘how’ from the ‘what’. So can we start with a very interesting comment you made at a recent seminar at Bath Spa University. You said, ‘You only discover how to free your imagination by knowing its limitations. Discover your boundaries and then you are free to explore this world.’ Could you expand on that idea a little?

For me it was a matter of accepting certain things about myself that were going to be the things that gave me my true voice and my true subject. It was to do with discovering the way I write, the way I speak which is kind of dictated by the language I grew up with. There were certain things about me that I couldn’t change like the fact that I had been brought up as a Catholic; that I had been brought up living in the North East. I spent a long time trying to struggle against those things and cast them out from my work. It was only when I got to the point of realising that that wasn’t working, and just sighing and saying, ‘Oh yes, that’s what I am’ and accepting those things, that they actually brought a great deal of richness and imagery to my work, and a language and rhythm which I had been kind of denying myself. But I don’t think I could have used them properly without first denying them. It’s a paradoxical thing. (US author) Flannery O’Connor was a big mentor for me. She said that thing about the imagination not being free.

Your Wikipedia entry describes your work as philosophical, but for me it often seems more spiritual. So how would you describe the core question that you are answering in your work?

I suppose I’m not answering any questions. I’m exploring. For me writing is more and more to do with voice and language. It’s about finding ways of using language in powerful ways. The spiritual thing, maybe that comes from being brought up a Catholic because when you’re a Catholic you are given certain answers. You are told the world exists in certain ways. You are told certain things about the miraculous. When you cast it off and say, ‘No, that doesn’t fit’, I think for a time as a writer you try to find alternatives. So I was naturally driven towards finding what there is beyond this world. What is there beyond the limits of language? What does the miraculous mean? But then when you say that actually there’s nothing, then the world itself becomes the true miraculous place. If there is any transcendence, it’s in the world itself. So I guess my work is going more towards (exploring) the nature of the world. What language is. What it means to be creative and how we can become more than ourselves, more than what we appear to be by being creative, by being artistic. Of course, language can’t be detached from the things that you’re describing ... So I take great pains to make whatever I’m writing very realistic and very touchable. I take ordinary things and just kind of look at them and show how astonishing they are. The language that I use is very ordinary too. It isn’t abstract. It’s very solid. There are lots of nouns and verbs. You can’t write abstractions. You have to write reality. You have to write stories about dust and dirt.

I take ordinary things and just kind of look at them and show how astonishing they are.

I’m fascinated by your journey as a writer from, say, the short stories in Counting Stars to your later novels such as My Name is Mina. Your use of language, for example, has changed hugely.

I think that’s true. For me Counting Stars changed everything. That was kind of the release, when I thought, ‘Oh yes, I’ll write about the North. I’ll write in a kind of Northern rhythm.’ Mina is very different when you look at it, but I think it draws on many of the same things. The sort of stuff the children talk about in Counting Stars could well be talked about by Mina. Buffalo Camel Llama Zebra Ass is in some ways a very Mina-ish sort of story. It’s light and rhythmical and a bit daft and focuses on the names of the animals. It talks about God but brings God down to earth. I think Counting Stars in a way did lead to Mina.

I must admit I wept when I read ‘The Kitchen’ [one of the stories in Counting Stars in which David re-unites the dead and living members of his family for one ‘impossible afternoon’.] But I wondered how children relate to it?

When I wrote those stories I wrote them for adults. I didn’t think of myself at all as a children’s writer at that time. Counting Stars came out as a children’s book after I’d published my first two or three novels with Hodder. I still think of them as being stories for everyone ... The one you mention, The Kitchen, did everything for me at that time. It allowed me to write about things I hadn’t been able to write about. It was really hard to write, really hard to get it to work. When I’d finished that story I knew the book was finished.

Do you think there should be a place for the short story in every writers’ world - and I’m talking here about writers for children and young people - even though it’s very hard to get them published these days?

I love writing short stories. I think they’re a great form for people to practice. I know some people hate writing them ... but what they do is force you to focus on every word, every sentence and on the overall shape of a piece. Short stories are like poetry and song. You can’t mess about. You have to be very tight and rhythmical. So for me they are really valuable things to write.

Can we talk a bit about endings? I’ve heard you say that for writers, endings have to be elusive, otherwise you aim too directly at them; you dive at them for security. Can you expand on that?

Often I might know what the ending of my story is, what’s got to happen, but that isn’t enough. It’s only when you write something that you really know it. You might know ‘He dies’ but you could write that in a thousand different ways. So I hold off knowing exactly what the ending is, how it’s going to happen, because the whole story leads up to that point. A story’s got to grow in a very natural and organic manner. That’s the important thing.

So you’re not saying that writers shouldn’t know the essence of their endings, just that we shouldn’t write the last chapter first.

People write in so many different ways. Some people plot their stories really tightly before they even start them. Some people tell you never start a story until you know how it’s going to end. But for me that doesn’t work. I advise people to be wary of plotting too much because if you plot too tightly you’ll miss so many opportunities. At any moment in a story, there’s a chance for a drama which can take your story in different directions. You have to be alert to that. A story has to grow from within. If your story’s any good, you realise the deeper implication of it as you write ... You can’t know everything before you begin. Not knowing things is really important.

I advise people to be wary of plotting too much because if you plot too tightly you’ll miss so many opportunities.


Can we turn to The True Tale of the Monster Billy Dean and My Name is Mina. You’ve said Billy and Mina were talking to you inside your head for a long time before you told their stories. The outcome in both cases challenges the reader to go beyond traditional story structure and style. Can you explain how you structure books like these? How you discipline your characters, perhaps.

The main thing in both of those books was to find the right voice. With My Name is Mina, that book could only have been written in the way that it was because that’s the way Mina thinks about language, that’s the way she thinks about story. It had to be a book that looks kind of fragmented. It has poems in it. It has songs, speculations. So the nature of Mina and her approach to storytelling dictated how that book would look ... With Billy, again it was the voice. I had Billy inside my head for a few years before I had the time to find out what was going on there. Once I began to write Billy’s story, I realised it would have to be written in the way it was. Billy can’t write, so obviously he can’t spell things properly, so it had to be a book which was spelt wrongly. There had to be a reason why he couldn’t spell, which was the fact that he’d been locked away for so much time. He can’t write but he’s still driven to tell his story. It’s a very basic human need to tell a story. Mina and Billy Dean are very different books, but they are both dictated by the nature of the character that’s telling them.

You’ve recently been appointed Professor of Creative Writing at Bath Spa. How do you view being taught creative writing techniques compared to all the other ways of learning the craft?

The main way to learn how to write is to write, and to read and to experiment ... But I think there are lots of things that can be done on creative writing courses. For me one of the main things is to give (students) an example of how I do it and suggest ways they can experiment with their own voices ... There are dangers of putting creativity inside an institution because then you are constantly trying to define creativity. If these courses are saying the way to write is X, Y and Z, then I think that’s the wrong approach. For me, the right approach is to allow students to write in their own way, and then help them to develop their own voices. Creative writing courses also create a community that people are in touch with, which I think is really valuable, especially at the start. You need to be nurtured by some kind of community. In the end though, whatever stage you’re at, you’re on your own. It’s one writer, one sheet of paper, one pen, one computer.

I’ve heard you talking about the importance of routine. About writing fragments of scenes, and jotting down memories; about how you’ve got to start at the beginning and write to the end in order for the voice to be consistent and hold the story together. If you had to narrow all the advice down and give us one top tip as a writer, what would it be?

Do it. Get down and do it. I just read a really good book called Performance by Anthony Rooley, about Renaissance philosophers who said in order to make good art you have to have discipline. The second thing was the ability to move around, and work quickly and fluidly. The third thing was grace - moments when you forget yourself. But it’s all built on discipline. It’s all built on doing it. Not contemplating doing it, not thinking about it, not saying I’m going to do it. Just sitting down and doing it.

One final question. On Desert Island Discs, your luxury was a note book. I thought ‘Cheat!’ I thought the whole idea of the luxury was that it couldn’t be useful. So if you weren’t allowed a tool of your trade, what would your luxury be?

A box of tea. I can’t get going without tea.



Rowena House is a journalist by trade - an ex-Reuters foreign correspondent in Europe and Africa, now a sub-editor specialising in international affairs. She turned to writing fiction for young people to meet a deep desire to tell gritty stories that are true in an emotional sense, without being constrained by ‘the facts’. At the moment, she’s working on a love story for teens set in Africa as part of the MA in Writing for Young People at Bath Spa. Rowena lives in rural Devon with her remarkably tolerant family and their less tolerant dog, a grey-and-white sheep dog called Fletcher.

20 comments:

  1. What a fascinating interview, thanks, Rowena. The question and answer about endings was especially good.
    And that final answer - what is it with writers and tea?!

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    1. Thanks, Lesley. Re tea, I'm not sure but I've just heard the kettle click!

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  2. This is a great interview, thank you so much David and Rowena!
    It's great to hear things like "A story’s got to grow in a very natural and organic manner." I always think of it like, sculpture, moulding a lump of clay.
    And the ending - the question of how much you need to know - I'm coming to the conclusion it's different every time so "not knowing things is really important" is really helpful right now.

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    1. The thing is, the act of writing is also the act of getting to know your character, and I think what David's saying is you have to be flexible in case your character turns out differently from the outline! Really inspiring advice.

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    2. Absolutely, Candy. For me, his point about voice - finding the character's voice as well as my own voice as a writer - was the thing that made me think most deeply. I've not found my 'northern rhythms' yet, but at least I know I should be looking.

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    3. That flexibility is so important - I see it as balancing two different types of confidence. I like to have structure as I'm working to give me confidence that the book is headed in the right direction. But I also like to allow serendipity as I'm writing because that really adds life to characters and scenes - this requires a different type of confidence because I have to feel that I have the skill to bring the story back into line afterwards.

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  3. Great questions Rowena, and inspirational answers from David: such calm yet vibrant advice. And congratulations to David on his longlisting for the Guardian children's fiction prize for The Boy who Swam with Piranhas.

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    1. Yes! Many Congratulations, David!

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    2. From me too.

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  4. Glorious interview - I will admit to being a smidge jealous. Thank you - much to think over deeply.

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  5. A beautiful interview - thanks Rowena, it is packed full of insight. I love it and I love David Almond.

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  6. Thanks for a wonderful interview - such insightful questions and answers. It's made me look at writing in a different way.

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  7. Well done Ro. This is fabulous. So jealous of you getting to question the master in person. Never been brave enough to ask him anything in our seminars.

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    1. I was nervous, too, but he was completely charming. It was such a privilege to be able to ask the questions I really wanted answered, so a huge thanks to W&P for this opportunity. Thanks, too, to everyone for their comments and good luck with your writing.

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  8. Brilliant and inspiring, Rowena. Many many thanks


    Sandra

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  9. Great interview, Rowena, thank you.

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  10. What a great exchange - thanks! Love the bit about seeing the astonishing in the ordinary, and how "you have to write reality. You have to write stories about dust and dirt."

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  11. 'Counting Stars' really moved me, it's my favourite collection of short stories.Thanks for these insights, especially about the need to be tight and rhythmical.

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    1. It's an extraordinary book, isn't it? I went back & re-read several stories after talking to David, and saw them in a wholly new light. I wondering now about taking a similar journey, to see what themes come out, rather than assuming that the novel I'm currently writing is actually about the things I'm trying to say.

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