When David Almond's novel Skellig (Delacorte) appeared in the author's native England, his publisher, Hodder Children's Books, had to go back to press after only four days. And when Skellig won the Whitbread Award, it looked like an overnight sensation--but Almond's success as a novelist was almost 20 years in the making.
Like many authors, Almond wanted to write from a very young age. In college and in his early 20s, he says, he wrote "bits of things--bits of stories, bits of poems, bits of plays. I never finished anything." Then, in 1982, when he was 28 years old, Almond quit his job and sold his house. With the proceeds, he moved to a commune and began to produce short stories. They appeared in literary journals and were collected in two volumes, Sleepless Nights (Iron Press, 1985) and A Kind of Heaven (Iron Press, 1997).
For years Almond enjoyed what he calls a "respectable" career. He won various competitions and had work broadcast on the BBC, and for six years he edited and published a literary magazine called Panurge. He took various jobs--an author's note in Skellig lists stints as a mailman and brush salesman, but most involved teaching. For the past eight years he has taught English part-time to special-needs students ages 11 to 16.
Skellig emerged, wholly unexpected, from Almond's stories for adults. Almond had been writing a collection about his childhood, "about me and my brothers and sisters and uncles, and the small town we grew up in, which is on the banks of the Tyne. It was a mixture of very truthful happenings merging with the semi-imaginary. When I wrote the last of these stories, I stuck them into an envelope, and as soon as I'd posted away the book to my agent, the story of Skellig just flew into my head, as if it had just been waiting there."
Like the stories that preceded it, Skellig is a mixture of very realistic and fantastic events. The main character, Michael, grapples with his newborn sister's critical illness at the same time that his family has moved to a rundown house. There, in the garage, Michael discovers Skellig, who first appears to be a man in need of help and then, once aided, reveals himself as a creature with wings, capable of transforming himself and those around him.
"As soon as I started writing, I thought, 'Oh, yes, this is a children's book,'" says Almond, who concedes that he is "not steeped in children's literature." He identifies Gabriel García Márquez, Italo Calvino and Raymond Carver as influences on Skellig, Márquez and Calvino for their magical realism, Carver for his "apparent simplicity."
It was "great" to write for children, Almond continues, "for an audience with a fluid imagination, able to accept all kinds of possibilities. Several times I'd start to write something and say, 'Oh, you can't write that,' but then I'd think, 'Of course you can, because you're writing for children.' Everything for them is new and fresh, whereas maybe adults have become a bit tired, and their expectations are rather different."
Almond's own expectations--of the publishing process--were to be turned upside-down. Previously published by small presses, he was thrilled to have his manuscript accepted straight away by Hodder. "As soon as they got it, they said, 'Oh, it's a prize-winning book,'" he recalls. "They've been marvelous all the way through. They had great confidence in it, and they've done a wonderful job promoting it. Now it's being translated into 15 languages."
Almond has been able to take a long-term leave of absence from his teaching job, and has seen Hodder publish his second book, Kit's Wilderness, to glowing reviews (Delacorte will publish it here in spring 2000). It, like Skellig, concerns a boy growing up in the north of England, and it, too, has a mystical component. At the moment Almond is completing revisions on a third children's novel, Heaven Eyes, for which Delacorte is in negotiations.
Will he go back to writing for adults? "I'm enjoying writing for children so much," he says, "and I'm learning so much, I'm concentrating on it. I do have a half-finished adult novel, which I'll be going back to. But I seem to have so many ideas [for children's books], it feels like time to strike."