Whenever I meet a famous author, peculiar things happen inside my brain. The more famous they are, the more peculiar my brain goes and I cannot do anything about it. Where most normal people say, ‘Hello, please will you sign my book?’ I turn bright red, develop a stutter and then say something very odd (at a book signing last year I told Eoin Colfer that I liked his hands). Maybe I get starstruck? Or maybe I just have a scrambly moontrug brain.
It is raining on the evening I make my way to the Royal Over-Seas League (a fancy old building near Green Park in London). I arrive soaked to the bone with five minutes to go before the event starts. David Almond is speaking about his award-winning wonder of a book, Skellig, to celebrate its 15th anniversary. Already my moontrug brain goes scrambly. I see a cluster of people making their way into a room called The Buttery on the far side of the reception hall; I dart over and follow them in. It takes me several minutes to realise that I’m surrounded by excited grannies who have gathered for a weekly event: ‘Technical Tuesdays – How To Use Email’. I mumble a non-word (words that invent themselves and escape from my mouth before I can stop them) – ‘thuuuuurrrlump’ – then slip from the room. And then I see the sign – so enormous it’s practically bumping me on the nose:
DAVID ALMOND: 15TH ANNIVERSARY OF SKELLIG
I shuffle in, take a seat near the back then whip out my iphone: what is a buttery and why is it here and not on a farm? Turns out it’s an old-fashioned pantry that stores bottles of wine NOT butter. Stupid, stupid, stupid misleading fact. For better ones, click here. Just as I am imagining a pantry filled to the brim with great slabs of golden butter, David Almond walks in. For some strange reason I half expect him to look like the creature from his book: part-owl, part-angel – covered in bluebottles and dusty cobwebs.
But he looks very normal – until he starts speaking, that is. There is only one way to describe Almond’s soft Geordie voice: full of magic. He begins by reading aloud from Skellig and as soon as he’s read the opening line, ‘I found him in the garage on a Sunday afternoon’ the whole room is spellbound. The Buttery is a distant memory.
Skellig is Almond’s debut novel about an 11-year old boy called Michael whose world is suddenly lonely and uncertain when his family move house and his baby sister becomes frighteningly ill. Then, one afternoon, Michael stumbles into the ramshackle garage of his new home and finds something magical. A strange creature – part owl, part angel – a being who needs Michael and his unusual friend, Mina’s, help to survive: Skellig. But it’s only later that Michael realises how much he needs Skellig if his sister is to survive.
After a while, Almond stops reading and there is silence. You could have heard a pin drop or a feather fall. And the reason? No one in the room is really in the room anymore – they’re inside the ramshackle garage looking at Skellig for the very first time. Because that’s the way it is with Almond: he has the power to pull back the curtain on everyday life and ordinary people to reveal the subtle magic beyond.
Once I get my head around the fact that I’m in the Royal Over-Seas League, not inside Michael’s garage, someone asks Almond about where the idea for his book, Skellig, came from. Almond smiles. ‘Skellig? It just happened. I began to discover a way to expose the extraordinariness in ordinary things… After that, it was if Skellig had been waiting. It was as if the story itself had an instinctive knowledge of what it wanted to be. At times it felt as if it was writing itself. There were moments when I was spellbound by what I was writing. I thought, if I can just gather it, control it, then maybe the spell will go out to the reader too.’
The book is set in Newcastle and the house Michael moves to, with its crumbling garage, is based on the Newcastle house Almond once lived in – the garage was in the same condition as the garage in the book and there really was a loo in the dining room! Almond recalls that when he wrote Skellig his mind was filled with half-remembered sounds: ‘the creaking of a dilapidated garage, the scuttlings and scratchings inside, a baby’s heartbeats, her breath, the songs of blackbirds, the cheeping of chicks, the hooting of owls, the dawn chorus, the voice of a girl quoting William Blake, the sound of the city beyond a small suburban garden.’ I wonder whether Almond would ever write a story set in another country and as if he’s reading my thoughts, he says, ‘I’d love to write a story set in Japan or Morocco but I know I’d end up describing Newcastle.’ Geordies riding camels across St James’ Park football stadium? There’s a glint in Almond’s eye now – like there’s mischief lurking close.
But Almond draws more than just the setting from his personal life. At the core of his story is Michael’s loneliness and his baby sister’s illness – and when Almond was a child, his own baby sister died. He said, ‘Often children’s writers have a darkness in their childhoods’ (Roald Dahl lost both his father and sister when he was just 3-years-old) ‘and as an adult, they want to write a message back to themselves as a child. Skellig was my message back to my childhood self.’
But what is Skellig? Angel? Monster? Arthritic tramp? Owl man? Whatever he is, his presence haunts the novel. Almond tells us that he took the name ‘Skellig’ from a visit to the Skellig islands off the south west coast of Ireland – islands steeped in history and home to grey seals, leatherback turtles, minke whales, dolphins and puffins. But more than that even Almond is unsure. ‘I don’t know where Skellig came from, how he got into the garage, or where he goes to at the end. He remains a mystery – like much of life. Right from the earliest times, people have told stories and made images of beings who are like us but also have wings. When I was little, my mum used to tell me that shoulder blades are where our wings used to be, when we were angels…’
I rub my shoulder blades against the back on my chair (quietly, gently – so the person beside me doesn’t think I’m a weird) and then I shiver. What are shoulder blades for if not for wings? I’m lost for a few seconds imagining what my wings would look like (black, shimmery, almost transparent with silver tips) then I realise that Almond is rustling in his bag for something. He brings out a tatty-looking notepad and holds it up. ‘I carry a notepad everywhere. In it I doodle, I write, I play.’ I get a quick photo of its wonderful madness:
And then Almond’s talking about his love of highlighters, full stops and Foyles bookshops. Suddenly everyone is clapping and it dawns on me that the book signing is only moments away. I rush over to the bookstand, grab two copies (I’m greedy) of Skellig and get in line. Don’t mess this one up, don’t let your moontrug brain go scrambly… I rehearse my line over and over in my head (‘I loved Skellig – please will you sign my book?’) so that the words don’t turn to mush when I meet him.
The boy in front of me is getting his book signed. I search for signs of awkward weirdness but he is cool, confident and chatty. I scowl at his back. And now it’s my turn so I step forward and say: ‘I loved Skellig – please will you sign my book?’ HA! OUT LOUD – NO MISTAKES. Almond smiles. ‘And who shall I make it out to?’ At this point normal people say their name. My brain jiggles around and I panic and for some extraordinary reason I hear myself saying ‘Jeremy.’ I don’t even know anybody called Jeremy. I have gone totally mad. Almond reaches for my second book. ‘And this one?’ My greediness pays off – I have another chance – and I get it right this time and we end up talking: about words and stories and moontrugs and brains full of babbling non-words. Like mine. Like Mina’s. Almond winks at me. ‘Keep writing and reading because without stories, we’re just fragments.’ And I grin and say a non-word that might have looked a little like this: