WRITERS' MINDS Kevin Crossley-Holland

Carnegie Medal-winning author and well-known poet Kevin Crossley-Holland sheds light on his life as a writer – from his suspicion of inspiration, to the great juggling act, and the value of unbroken momentum. Jools Abrams reports.

Kevin Crossley-Holland's award-winning Arthur trilogy has won worldwide critical acclaim, sold well over one million copies, and been translated into 25 languages. He is a world expert on Norse mythology and the author of The Penguin Book of Norse Myths. He has also translated Beowulf from Anglo-Saxon, and his definitive collection of British and Irish Folktales, Between Worlds, will be published by Walker this autumn.  He lives on the North Norfolk coast in East Anglia.

1. Inspiration – where do your ideas for a story come from? Hunter or gatherer?

Because I'm a historian manqué ('What!' a BBC reporter once exclaimed. 'A historian monkey!'), and for the most part write historical fiction, my starting point is likely to be a historical moment or oddity of text. This is what happened when I went to the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul and saw there, runes carved by a Viking mercenary; and when I looked up at the glorious hammerbeam of the roof in our local church and realised all its wooden angels had gone AWOL. But sometimes inspiration – I'm rather suspicious of that word! – can be the result of a prompt – someone pointing me in a specific direction. This is what happened when the great poet W.H. Auden directed me to look north, and to get to know the thrilling myths and sagas of the Vikings because, he said, "they're not only wonderful but children, as you are, of northwest European culture and sensibility.  When you read them, you'll feel you're part of them and they're part of you".

2. Are you a plotter or a pantster – is there method in your process, or do you fly by the seat of your pants?

I'm a plotter. I cover huge planning sheets and reams of A4 getting to know the likely progression of a novel, and while in discussion with my characters (hearing how they speak). These are my lifelines. When I begin to write I often depart from them, but can always return to them.

3. Shed sitter or café dreamer? Where do you write?

Train journeys are good, provided I'm not within earshot of a mobile. And between times are good because I know how to concentrate. But my own study is by far my favourite place, looking in three directions over the estimable hills of Norfolk, and only one-and-a-half miles from the North Sea.

4. Do you have any artefacts, mottos or words of wisdom by your desk?

No, but some are so firm and quick in my mind that there's no need for them to be. Festina lente: hurry slowly, unhurry. . .  Be brief in what you say. . .  No ideas but in things (i.e. don't waft abstracts around – deal in stuff!).

5. Target word count per day or as and when it comes?

I very often resume by visiting and revisiting my previous day's work, so as to build up a head of steam. In a day? 1500 words, maybe.

6. High days and holidays? Do you write seven days a week, or have weekends and holidays off?

This is a key question, I think. How is one to balance one's personal and professional life? And what are each of them to consist of? I've a large and fond family (wife, four children), plenty of friends. I enjoy socialising. I know I need to take more exercise than I do – not badminton or wrestling or standing on one foot for hours on end but simply walking. And professionally I'm like an amateur juggler: not only a children's writer and poet and translator and librettist, but involved in writing workshops in community and school (I'm helping to write a pageant) and endorser and speaker and judge and so on. This means I have to expect interruptions the whole time; an expectation that makes a rare unbroken day a wonder. But of course, I'm aware that momentum reaps its own rewards: a second writing day is likely to be more productive than the first, and a third better than the first two put together. But when all's said, there comes a moment when the novel I'm writing has a way of insisting...

7. Quill or keyboard? Pen or technology?

Pen. Waterman. I'm fortunate enough to have a PA who types my drafts, and I then revise them. Many times.

8. Music or silence to write to?


9. Chocolate or wine?

Good wine. Followed at a respectful distance by dark chocolate.

10. Perspiration or inspiration?

Persistence – out of which, felicitously and rather mysteriously, the unexpected word or idea or image arises.

11. Where do you find the muse? Any techniques for inspiration?


12. Do you ever hear your characters' voice in your head? Have you ever seen them in real life?

Certainly, I hear my characters' voices (cf. my answer to Q2). No, I've never seen one of my characters past or present but, while I'm developing my characters, I sometimes see/hear someone who may come in useful!

13. If there was one piece of advice or wisdom you could impart to other writers about the craft of writing, what would it be?

See my answer to Q4. But also: keep a notebook, be playful, fall in love with language.

Find out more at www.kevincrossley-holland.com  

Feature photo: Kevin Crossley-Holland


Jools Abrams is an award-winning writer of short stories for children and adults. She writes middle grade and YA and ghostwrites memoirs. Jools is also a qualified primary teacher, currently working at English Heritage, cat wrestler and parent. Blog: shewhodareswrites.blogspot.comTwitter: @joolsdares

Carry de la Harpe is features editor for Words & Pictures. Contact: writers@britishscbwi.orgTwitter: @Carry_delaHarpe     

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