Birmingham Stage Company’s production of children’s classic Skellig opens at the Old Rep tomorrow night. Ten years on from its publication, author David Almond tells Terry Grimley how he came to terms with success.
Award-winning children’s author David Almond admits there was a period of two years when he refused to talk about his novel Skellig.
In a kind of parallel to what is known in the pop music world as “second album syndrome”, the dramatic success of his first published book threatened for a time to set a standard he would struggle to match.
But, happily, not for long: “Some of my later books have done even better, and so I don’t feel oppressed by it now,” he says.
If ever a writer had a breakthrough book, Skellig was surely it. Almond, a former teacher, was already 47 when it was published in 1998, having had many short stories published over the years and spent five years writing a novel for adults which was turned down by everyone who saw it.
Speaking from his home in Northumberland, he recalls that it was when he started to delve into his own childhood, to deal with some troubling images, that “Skellig came out of the blue, as if it had been waiting for me.
“I also began to discover the imaginative word of childhood and began to write in a different manner, in a way to deal with something that was quite troubling about my own childhood.”
What emerged was the strange story of a boy who discovers a mysterious winged creature taking refuge in a derelict garage. Though seemingly at least part-angel, Skellig is far from being angelic. Almond says he is always being asked to explain his strange creation but has never felt able to.
“He resists familiar definitions. He’s quite mysterious. I think sometimes you have to write about things you don’t truly understand.”
However, the connection between Almond’s own childhood and Michael, the boy in the book, seems clear enough. Michael’s relationship with Skellig develops against the background of his premature baby sister’s serious illness, and Almond himself had a baby sister who died.
“When I was writing Skellig I felt the influence of that, but when you find yourself dealing with things like that you have to be careful that it doesn’t become some sort of emotional indulgence. I had a happy childhood, but there were troubling aspects, like that death. Sooner or later these things come and get you.”
Whatever its roots, it was clear that Almond had hit upon a powerful image. He remembers that there was a “fuss” even six months before the book was published, with discussions about film rights.
The proposed film is finally being shot now, on location in Dorset, with Tim Roth in the title role.
“It’s been kind of bowling along for about seven years now, getting to the point of actually making the film,” says Almond. “There have been all sorts of complications, but now Sky TV have put in a lot of money. I think Tim Roth will do it really well.”
Next month Skellig will appear in its fourth incarnation as an opera, with a score by American composer Tod Machover setting Almond’s own libretto, at The Sage in Gateshead.
But after the novel, and before the film and opera, Skellig became a play. And, unusually for a successful children’s novel being presented on stage, in this case the author made his own adaptation.
“It’s true that it’s unusual but there seems to be a natural process about the whole thing,” he says. “By the time I adapted Skellig I had already written a play, Wild Girl, Wild Boy, for the Lyric Hammersmith. They saw something in my writing and my approach to writing that suggested I could do it, and I took a deep breath and said yes, of course I’ll do that.
“Then Trevor Nunn came along and said I’d love to do Skellig as a play, and I just loved the whole process because I like the way stories keep developing and changing and taking different forms.”
However, he drew the line at writing the script for the film.
“I had ago at writing the film script, but the process of making films just isn’t for me. One of the things I love about writing books is you sit down and write it and then give it to someone and they go away and publish it.”
The first major stage production of Skellig was the one Trevor Nunn directed at the Young Vic in 2003, and Birmingham Stage Company’s version, which opens at the Old Rep tomorrow night, is its first major revival.
“There have been various smaller ones, and a lot of people kept on asking about it but it didn’t seem right. Birmingham Stage Company came in at the right time, and they are really successful at getting shows around the country.”
Having been a late starter as a published novelist Almond has enjoyed a prolific decade since the appearance of Skellig. He has also published the children’s novels Kit’s Wilderness, Heaven Eyes, Secret Heart, The Fire-Eaters, and Clay, and a collection of stories based on his childhood, Counting Stars.
His first picture book, Kate, the Cat and the Moon, illustrated by Stephen Lambert, came out in 2004. As well as Wild Girl, Wild Boy and Skellig he has written My Dad’s a Birdman and Heaven Eyes for the theatre.
It was only when he was some way into writing Skellig that he realised he was addressing a young audience, and he says he finds it liberating to connect with children’s imaginations.
“It’s not about teaching, but I think one of the things is that they are themselves included in the creative process. But I do have a wider adult readership and with the plays people are starting to see a good story is a good story. I also keep on writing short stories and they get produced on Radio 4.
“I am exploring certain things and I think that’s what good art is about – a few subjects keep coming to get you. But it seems I do keep moving on and changing. My new novel is really a pretty realistic novel, very different from the others.”
* Birmingham Stage Company presents Skellig at the Old Rep, Station Street, from October 7 until October 18 (Box office: 0121 303 2323). David Almond’s latest book Jackdaw Summer is published next month by Hodder Children’s Books.