The QT

Wednesday 22 May 2024
22/05/2024

Wedded to words… and each other

Prolific authors David Almond and Julia Green will be on stage together for the first time in the North East at Alnwick Story Fest. David Whetstone visited them at their home at the coast
David beneath the framed artwork for Skellig

David Almond and Julia Green have lived on their quiet Tynemouth street since November 2022 and if ever a place could be called a house of stories it’s surely theirs.

Bookending the upstairs landing are studies — one each, with desk, writerly paraphernalia and personal flourishes.

Julia’s has a bookcase with David’s published titles and her own arranged on separate shelves.

Overseeing David’s is a splendid picture of Skellig, as used on the cover of his famous breakthrough novel of 1998.

It was stories that brought them to this spot.

“We looked at so many houses,” says Julia.

“At one point,” says David, explaining how they were constantly getting pipped to the purchasing post, “we wondered how anybody ever buys a house.”

Having met at Bath Spa University, where Julia devised and ran an MA course in writing for young people and David was a visiting professor, their early lives together involved lengthy commutes.

Then Julia sold her house in Bath and they moved into a flat in Newcastle before David fell quite seriously ill.

“We’d been looking for a couple of years and once I got through that, we started looking again,” says David, better now although, as it happens, on the eve of a knee operation.

“We’d looked in various places but the more we looked the more the coast seemed like where we needed to be.

“Julia had an event at The Bound (Whitley Bay’s bright new book shop) and I crossed the road to an estate agent’s and this house was there.”

A his and hers bookcase with David Almond and Julia Green titles

“Whenever we had any free time we’d come to the sea and walk so why not be here?” reasons Julia.

They wasted no time and so here they are, them and the cat; and perhaps, less tangibly, a lingering magic, dormant until you open a book and a story reaches out to pull you in.

Both seasoned veterans of literary events, they will be on stage together in the North East for the first time at Alnwick Story Fest when Julia interviews David in a session called History, Mystery & Magic.

It should be a lovely event.

Each has clearly found in the other a kindred spirit, someone for whom words and storytelling are as fundamental as breathing. And, of course, they’re mutual fans.

“It’s a lovely book,” confides Julia under her breath as David starts to talk about his latest, Puppet, due out in April from Walker Books (illustrations by Lizzie Stewart), which does indeed seem another worthy successor to Skellig and so many more.

“It’s about a puppet master who thinks he’s been forgotten by everybody,” explains David.

The house puppets keeping an eye on things

“He’s given all his old puppets to a museum but he goes to his attic and makes one last puppet. He can’t really stop making puppets but as he’s making this one it comes to life in his hands.

“It’s the story of Sylvester the puppet master and this new puppet that he creates.”

There’s also a girl called Fleur who shares his puppet obsession.

The setting is, says David: “Kind of the here and now, not the modern world but recognisable with a park and shops. It’s a believable place but this rather beautiful event happens.

“Fleur wants to learn from Sylvester how to make a puppet that will actually live so it’s passing on the creative gift.

“It’s like making a book. It takes lots of hard work and a lifetime. It’s about the artistic act, I suppose.”

The idea came from… well, David can’t instantly recall.

“It was kind of dodging about. I started making little puppets, just from bits of sticks.”

He produces one to show me, a rudimentary cartoon of a figure with tapering legs fashioned from twigs.

Julia at her desk

“It was in Bath, wasn’t it?” prompts Julia.

“I can remember there was a particular tree in a park. A beautiful tree.”

David remembers. “These are sticks from Bath. I put them together and if you look at them the right way…

“People ask where stories come from and they can come from a few sticks on the ground.

“Often I’ll be working on another book at the time but things accumulate and I’ll make notes. I’ve got quite a big notebook for Puppet. I do drawings and maps and it grows and grows and eventually becomes the book you have to write next.”

Breathing life into things is what he’s always done, he says, recalling Clay, his 2005 story based on the legend of the golem, in which some boys in Felling (the Gateshead borough where David grew up) set out to make a life-sized man from clay.

“It’s obviously an obsession with me. I guess that’s what storytelling is — things come to life in your mind.”

“It’s also what children do,” adds Julia. “It’s what play is.”

The couple have three children between them, from previous relationships.

“When Freya was little,” says David, “we’d act out dramas with her soft toys and it seemed very natural to me.”

When Jesse, one of Julia’s sons, embarked on a hair-raising global adventure with a friend in a very small boat, she, buoyed by his safe return, determined to write a book about it.

It couldn’t be a novel, she reasoned, because he was in possession of all the details. It was his story. Instead, it became her first picture book, The Boy Who Sailed The World, beautifully illustrated by Alex Latimer.

Julia talks to her son about his trip around the world

“It’s really a story about having a dream and then making it happen because you work really hard to make it happen,” says Jesse’s proud mum.

“It was extraordinary what he did.”

Julia’s next book, aimed at older children, is called Ettie and the Midnight Pool.

Due to be published in June by David Fickling Books, who also published her picture book, it tells of a girl who lives with her grandmother in a place ‘not unlike the Lake District’.

“It’s set slightly in the future and there’s obviously been some sort of catastrophe.

“The grandmother has this wonderful, nature-based life and Ettie loves it but is at that point in life where she wants more adventure.

“Then she meets a mysterious girl she sees walking through the woods.

“The girl, Cora, leads her into dark and difficult places, in particular a quarry pool which is extremely dangerous. But there are family secrets, too, that unravel through the story.”

Julia’s interested, she says, in our relationship with the natural world, and particularly young people.

And while she’s still new to the North East, having grown up and worked in the South, she says she has always been drawn to northern landscapes as the settings for her books, of which she has written more than 20 for children and young people.

This house in Tynemouth is home to a pair of lifelong readers and writers, although both claim to have let years elapse before they shared the fruits of their labours.

Julia and David in David’s study

There were moments of validation, David getting a story published in Peter Mortimer’s IRON magazine and Julia winning a short story competition.

In both of them, as passionate educators, burns a fierce belief in the need for creativity and stories.

Julia says creative writing courses are burgeoning while English literature at university appears to be waning in popularity, although students on her course were always encouraged to read.

David speaks darkly of the Government’s ‘downer on the humanities… what’s the point of studying Eng Lit?’.

The teaching of English in schools, adds Julia, ‘has changed beyond all recognition’.

“We still have people who want to write,” says David.

“You open a creative writing course and it’s going to be full. The rise in bookshops round here is amazing.

“There’s been a rediscovery of the fact that a book is a beautiful object. Publishers take great care to ensure books look wonderful.

“People who don’t know anything about it are always telling you books are doomed. It’s infuriating claptrap. You always want to say, ‘Come and see the children we see’. They’d be astonished.”

Julia agrees. “People sometimes say children don’t like books but they do. They love books.”

David with his 25th anniversary edition of Skellig

And books, of course, change lives.

Last year marked the 25th anniversary of Skellig, a story which David has always claimed flew into his head and demanded to be told.

Julia recalls that it was reading Skellig when it first came out that made her think of writing for young people. Before that she had aspired to adult fiction.

And it was notable, meeting the creative team behind the new stage production of David’s A Song for Ella Grey (on at Northern Stage until February 15), how many of them had grown up with and been inspired by Skellig.

On the landing in this house of stories, two perky and lifelike puppets look down knowingly from a shelf.

David alludes to them like old friends, co-creators almost in the art of writing stories with its hard graft and dash of magic.

If Sylvester’s the puppet master, David’s the master storyteller who can’t really stop telling tales.

The paperback edition of Island, his 2023 novel set on Holy Island, has recently appeared and almost inevitably he has another new one out this year. The Falling Boy is scheduled for autumn publication by Hodder. 

Before then, though, you can catch David and Julia at The Alnwick Garden on February 16 at 6pm. Details from the Alnwick Story Fest website

@DavidJWhetstone

Morpeth Chantry Bagpipe Museum has more than 120 sets of pipes, including Northumbrian pipes, Northumberland being the only English country with its own musical instrument

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