David Almond interviewed by Nikki Gamble

David Almond was born in Newcastle and grew up in a big Catholic family in Felling-on-Tyne. He had four sisters and a brother and lots of relatives in the streets nearby.  After an unhappy secondary education he went on to study English and American Literature at the University of East Anglia, David worked in several temporary jobs before training to be a teacher.

 David’s first book for young people, ‘Skellig’, was published in 1998. The book went on to win the prestigious Carnegie Medal.  It has since been adapted for stage and for television and has been transformed into an opera.

David Almond was awarded The Hans Christian Andersen Medal for writing, an international honour that is bestowed for a lifetime’s achievement. In the same year ‘My Name is Mina’ was published, a book in which Almond revisits one of the characters from ‘Skellig’ in order to tell her story.

In this interview he talks with Nikki Gamble about 'My Name is Mina', a prequel to 'Skellig',  and some of his thoughts about education.

You have  talked a little bit about Mina sitting on your shoulder as you wrote this book, can you tell us what you mean by that?

 When I started writing 'Skellig', I hadn’t planned the character of Mina…. well nothing of 'Skellig' was planned. But when Michael came out of the garage Mina popped her head over the wall and said, ‘Are you the new boy here?’ I thought she was looking down at me and saying, ‘Are YOU the new boy here?’ Mina just jumped into the book and without her 'Skellig' would have been nothing; it would have been soft and soppy. She had the right kind of sternness and imagination to make it work. It’s Mina who brings all the stuff about birds, education and William Blake into the story. At first I was surprised. I wondered where this girl had come from. But at the same time I was delighted. I had to reread Blake and I had to find out a lot about birds just to keep up with her.

I found that  the further I read, my impression of  Mina changed. I hadn’t really appreciated her vulnerability or the fact that she was troubled in 'Skellig'.  I wondered whether she changed or developed during the process of writing.

 

She did change. In fact she has in the time since I wrote 'Skellig'. Mina has always been a very powerful presence in my mind. Over the years there have been several stage productions of 'Skellig', there’s been an opera and there’s also been a film. So I keep getting drawn back to revisiting  the story again and to seeing Mina afresh. In the play in particular, Mina has always been the character who is hardest to cast. You have to find someone who looks young but who can say the kinds of things that Mina says and still be believable. I learnt a lot about Mina through that process

In the most recent stage production I was talking to the actress who played Mina and she said, ‘well of course she’s troubled as well, isn’t she?’ From that conversation I began to think about the reasons for Mina’s actions and the things that she says.There was always a sadness about Mina even when I was writing ‘Skelling’, which was to do with the death of her dad, but as soon as I started to write her story, it all came to light. It’s interesting that in 'Skellig' she tells Michael that her dad died before she was born, but as soon as I started writing ‘My Name is Mina’, I realised that he hadn’t; it was just something she told people. Once I realised that Mina could remember something about her dad, she had incredibly powerful memories to draw on and reasons for her strange emotional life.

In ‘Skellig’ Mina comes across as being the resilient one but her vulnerability is exposed in this book. I suppose that is in part due to the difference between the external viewpoint in ‘Skellig’ and the internal viewpoint in her own story.

 Yes, it’s very much Michael’s view of her in ‘Skellig’. There are moments towards the end when he comments that she’s strangely shy

 today, when her guard drops a little bit. A scene that has always been important to me, especially when looking at the stage productions, is the moment when she has a confrontation with Michael over his friends, Leaky ad Coots. She’s very angry and very expressive about the kinds of things she believes in, but in the midst of all this is her own turmoil; she would love to have friends as Michael does. It’s almost as if being Mina is her protection against the world.

It is an interesting reading experience coming to this book having read ‘Skellig’.  But what do you think the experience would be for a reader who hadn’t read ‘Skellig’ first?

People have often asked if there would be a new ‘Skellig’ story but I’ve never wanted to go anywhere near that, apart from adapting it for the stage. And then when it became apparent that I was going to write something else, I didn’t want to write anything that would tread into the ‘Skellig’ territory. I couldn’t tell Mina’s view of the ‘Skellig’ story. It was important that the story was going to be about her. The only way I could make it join up was to end the story at the point that she first meets Michael.

 Obviously a reader can choose to read the books in whichever order they please, and because Mina’s story is first chronologically, perhaps some will chose to start there. What would your advice be, if you could control the order in which the books are read?

 I would definitely say, ‘read ‘Skellig’ first’, but you can’t control your readers like that. In some ways it’s a prequel but it doesn’t feel like a prequel to me. It feels like a very different, separate story about one of the characters that simply happens to be in ‘Skellig’.

One of the things that is mentioned in the book is Mina’s ‘weirdness’ but towards the end when she encounters her old school friend, Sophie, she is told ‘we’re all a bit weird’. Is Mina a special child to you or does she stand for the uniqueness of all children?

 I think every child has that potential and one of the reasons that so many children love Mina is because they recognise something of themselves in her. When I was thinking about the dedication, I almost thought about writing ‘To everyone who has a bit of Mina in themselves’ but it would have sounded corny. Nevertheless, I do think it’s true and Sophie understands that. She also recognises that Mina is still using her wackiness as a shield.

 There are children who thrive on being different and standing out from the crowd, but if you create the conditions that allows that wackiness to thrive, then you find there are more children with those qualities than you might perhaps have realised. Most children have something that interests them almost to a point of obsession, but that interest may never surface in the classroom.

 I agree with that and it’s one of the reasons that the arts are so important. They allow children to display something of themselves and gives an expressiveness to the act of growing up, which is really important.

 I used to teach kids with learning problems and they were in the class for all kinds of reasons. It wasn’t to do with having brain cells missing.

 ‘My Name as Mina’ has been described as a statement about education, and at one level it is that. Is the view of education encapsulated in the book, informed by your experience as a teacher, as a writer visiting schools or by watching your daughter pass through the education system?

 All of those things. I didn’t like school. At least I quite enjoyed primary school, but I didn’t like secondary school at all. I found it dry and dull. I was one of those children who didn’t fit in. I spent my time at the library reading and I used to write, but I never felt I could express those things in school.

And then to my amazement, I found myself a teacher, which was really weird. I became a teacher because I thought what a great job for a writer – you get long holidays, I thought. But of course I was always too exhausted to write, and to my amazement, I found teaching really interesting. There are moments in teaching that are unlike anything else in your life – magical moments. I think I was probably influenced by the kind of teaching that I’d been subjected to, I wanted to do it a different way. I was an OK teacher. I think I went through patches of being a very good teacher and quite inspirational, but it’s just such a difficult job.

Sustaining that level of inspirational teaching is certainly hard.

Yes, very hard. I ended up teaching in special school to avoid the problems of working in mainstream education. You were freer of bureaucratic demands. We wrote together, we made books. The kids loved it. They enjoyed making stories and having their stories read back to them. Many of the children were in special education just because they hadn’t had that experience of stories being read to them; they had no narrative experience. So in school the teachers are fighting a difficult battle against what has happened to these children when they were very young.

Although Mina doesn’t end up going to the Pupil Referral Unit, your picture of what happens there is a positive one. It’s free from the pressures of the mainstream school… well that’s the only way those teachers and pupils are going to have any chance of success.

 Yes, I think so. When I was training to be a teacher, one of the things I was interested in was the philosophy of education and the deschooling movement. A lot of that seems to have been forgotten. I’m sure there are a lot of 

teachers in classrooms today who are probably unaware that there WAS a deschooling movement. An important moment for me came when David Blunkett was Secretary for Education and made the pronouncement that any child not in the classroom was a child not learning. 

That's the opposite of Mina’s motto, ‘How is a bird that is born for joy sit in a cage and sing? Perhaps that should be mounted on the wall of every classroom.

 I wrote ‘Skellig’ when I had been teaching for a long time; the National Curriculum had just  been introduced. I was reading a lot about alternative views of education.

 One thing that dominates education today is an outcomes driven curriculum. In ‘My Name is Mina’, you talk about ‘talking a line for a walk’, in other words the journey that is as important as the destination.  You don’t always know where that line is going to take you.

Yes, absolutely. I think an outcomes driven curriculum is one of the most backward things that has happened in education. When I was teaching it got to the point that you had to state your outcomes before you started a lesson. Before they did anything children had to say what they were going to learn and then at the end they had to say whether they had learned it or not. Some teachers like it, they think it gives structure to what they are doing, but it is not a true reflection of how people really learn.

 It inhibits learning if it  gets to a point where teachers are worried about wandering off the point because that isn’t what the children are meant to be learning in particular lesson. But in truth the digression may well lead to a far richer learning experience. Knowing when to follow those paths should be an aspect of professional judgement. From the children’s point of view knowing where you are going to end up  means there are no surprises… and surprise leads to delight.

Yes. The misconception is that this would lead to a ‘free for all’. On the contrary, I don’t believe that ‘anything goes’. If you look at a published book it looks nothing like ‘anything goes’. It’s just that the outcome isn’t strictly defined; you don’t know exactly where it’s going when you set out.

teaching as you have described it actually  demands a lot of rigour. It is erroneous to think that this approach is about easy teaching and makes no demands on either the learner or the teacher.

Yes, they think you want to let children play around.That isn't the case.  It’s a different kind of rigour and it is actually more difficult and demanding than the outcomes straitjacket.

 I agree, it’s not about working without planning. As a teacher you need to have a broad, critical knowledge, to know and understand what is available to be learnt, so that you are able to work flexibly and to take learners in the different directions that emerge from their interests, abilities and responses.

I am optimistic about education. There are so many good teachers out there. My daughter’s experience of school is so very different from the experiences that I’ve had.

 Mina’s mother is a model for supportive teaching.

 She is. She guides Mina without pushing too hard.

 And she tells Mina when it’s time come down from her tree.

 She does. That was a great moment to write actually.

 Does the title of the book ‘My Name is Mina’ indicate that perhaps the most important thing in education is self-knowledge? And for many of us that’s the most difficult thing of all.

 I think so. Self-knowledge is the hardest thing of all. When Mina says at the end, ‘My Name is Mina’, she’s arrived at a point where she’s come out of a tree, she understands quite a lot about herself – even though we never know everything about ourselves.

You have said that Mina brought the birds to the book. How interested were you in birds before she came along?

 Today it sounds mad, but as a boy we used to go egg nesting and a lot of the boys I knew had a shoe box full of beautiful eggs. So we knew quite a lot about birds. When I started to write birds featured right from the start: birds, nests, wings eggs. Years ago I wrote a story called ‘Nesting’, which I think is one of the best stories I’ve written. Then when Mina came along she gave my interest a new lift. At that point I needed to know new things like pneumatisation;. I hadn’t known that word until Mina needed it.

 There’s such an amazing variety in the bird world. We use the term pecking order and it’s true, if you look at bird behaviour in the garden, it isn’t random there’s a definite socialised behaviour that goes on within varieties and across the varieties of birds.

I’s astonishing. They are fascinating creatures.

So birds appear as a motif throughout the book. And then there’s Whisper the cat, who is the antithesis of the birds. Cats are also a metaphor running through different books such as your picturebook ‘Kate, the Cat and the Moon’ and ‘Secret Heart’.

Yes they do. For me they are powerful elemental metaphors for something that we can’t quite explain. They are something to do with us, something to do with the world, human history and storytelling but we can’t quite explain it.

There is a flavour of Ted Hughes in that.

 Oh yes, absolutely, Ted Hughes was very important to me when I was growing up. He said some extraordinary things about writing as well as writing amazing poems.

 You must have read ‘Poetry in the Making’.

 Yes, I read that at university. It’s an extraordinary book. It was a series of programmes on the radio.

 It was written for children but there’s no condescension to a young readership. I still recomend it to students and teachers.

 That’s what I loved about it. He also wrote a great collection of essays called ‘Winter Pollen’. When I was trying to become a children’s writer and attempting to explain why I wanted to write for children, that book really helped me. It was to do with the power of imagination and the association of elemental mythology in children’s stories.

 One of the things that interested me was the amount of blank space in the book: space that isn’t filled with words. And when Mina goes walking with her mother they concentrate on the rhythm of the walk, they don’t fill time with words. Is there a sense in which ‘not thinking’ frees you so that you do in fact think and feel at a deeper subconscious level.

 Mina’s blank pages are pages filled with all kinds of stuff. The walking across the earth is important too. Wordsworth used to write when he was walking. I do think that ‘not thinking’ is really important. There are things in the emptiness. It’s mistake to think that we have to be thinking constructively all the time. I often say to kids that one of the worst ways to write a story is to think your way through a problem when you get stuck. That’s’ the same in life as well, isn’t it? Thinking your way through it often makes it more difficult. If you relax, play, empty your mind, the solution comes into the empty space that’s left behind.

 So do you walk to help with the writing?

 I like to walk and to work in the garden, but some of the best ideas come to me when I am at the gym because when you are working out you get into a rhythm, an almost meditative state. Then the answer to a problem often comes as if from nowhere.

 I think that’s important. We don’t have to have a romanticised view of the writing process. Working out at the gym is a fairly prosaic activity.

 Indeed.  It doesn’t have to be like Wordsworth walking on the banks of Grassmere, And it’s not just writing that benefits from this approach, it can help with fairly mundane things like trying to find your keys!

 It’s been said before and it’s true in this current book that you often write about families, which although troubled, are not dysfunctional. In your books the family is often a solution or comfort not the source of a problem.

Yes, when I was growing up, my dad died and my sister died and we were brought up in a one parent family by my mum. But it didn’t feel like that. We didn’t think that we had problems or that our childhood was unhappy. It didn’t occur to us that living in a one parent family might be regarded as dysfunctional or a problem. It felt ordinary that a family could have huge problems but be OK. That was our experience.

I think one of the reasons for children is like I’m going back and saying there are awful things but it will be alright. It’s about giving comfort. That’s only something that I’ve thought about recently.

 Adults are nice to children. Most adults like children most children like adults. That has been one of the great achievements in education, teachers and children like each other, they get on. And that’s why we care enough to write for them.

 

Thank you David Almond, for talking to Write Away.

 

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