Monday, 29 August 2011

Skellig author David Almond | The True Tale of the Monster Billy Dean | Q&A

David Almond is a highly regarded author for children. He's won a Hans Christian Andersen medal, a Carnegie, the plaudits of the critics and he has seen his first novel, Skellig, turned into a play, an opera and a film - the latter starring Tim Roth in a production by Sky.
His new book is pitched at an older market. It read to me more like an adult novel than a child's. But it will appeal to YAs too. 
What follows is a portion of an interview I had with him. You can read more in The Big Issue (on sale on the streets of Britain this week).

David Almond

Billy speaks in a very particular way. The accent is from your own home area?
Yes it is. More and more in my work have been using a northern language. One of the liberations I’ve felt over the last few years is that I have felt able to use this voice and language of this area – and to kind of explore and celebrate its fundamental beauty. Even though Billy’s language is fractured and quite dark it came to me in a poetic way.
How did you decide how the words were written down?
I didn’t do a plan, it felt instinctive at first. Then I realised it needed to be more orderly. In the final version once his spelling improves it is because he has learned words in the world. When his dad leaves him a letter, his words improve. They are spelled properly after the letter. In the butcher’s shop he learns how to spell the words in the signs. But at first it was a way of getting his thoughts into paper.
Billy has been raised in isolation – in a prison effectively. Were you inspired by the likes of Natascha Kampusch, the Austrian girl who was kidnapped and held?
I wasn’t thinking of that one. It is based more on earlier stories. There is a film by Herzog The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser [1974], about a boy kept in darkness for the first twenty years of his life. It had an enormous shattering affect on me and I think since then I’ve been trying to write that movie. It is [also] very influenced by a French boy , the Wild Boy of Aveyron, a true story of a boy who grew up in the woods and was brought out into civilisation and they tried to civilise him. So it drew on those stories, people from the past who were brought up in darkness. There were always stories about wolf children and kids who grew up with monkeys so it is using that idea but in what begins as a very ordinary northern town. You think what will happen if these things happen here?
There is a dystopian aspect to the novel. We get the sense that something terrible has happened, can you explain?
Yes, that came about because I wanted this boy who had been kept away. It needed to be a story about learning how to become a boy, becoming civilised, learning how to write, and there are examples of that sort of thing - a case in Los Angeles where a girl was kept in a shed at the back of the house. But they tend to be quite dark tales of abuse. And I didn’t want to write that kind of story. I didn’t want him to be abused. I wanted him to be kept in darkness and to save himself. So I thought he has to be born at a time of great drama, of great doom. There was a sense to his being kept away. But also he was the one true good heart in the midst of all this destruction. A time of great terror. It is seen as a great time of hope that as all this is going on he is being born.
I got the sense that the people in the book had been thrown back to a pre-modern time, there was something quite medieval about them.
The father, the priest, has this kind of medieval vision of himself and it probably comes from my own catholic upbringing. It wasn’t a deliberate attempt to seem medieval but as I wrote the story it felt medieval to me. As Billy writes on the mouseksin using the feather of the bird it’s like he is going back to Anglo-Saxon times, like he is the microcosm of Christianity. I wasn’t doing that deliberately but that is kind of what seemed to be growing to me. He senses that his story is the story of civilisation.

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