Leave standing ... Skellig author David Almond has gone from unpublished to a Hans Christian Andersen gold medal in 12 years. Photograph: Mark Pinder for the Guardian
David Almond had just posted a collection of stories to his publisher when the opening sentence of Skellig popped into his head. "I wasn't thinking of anything; I was planning to take a few days off. I dropped the manuscript in the postbox, turned away, and bang! Skellig was there."
"I found him in the garage on a Sunday afternoon," begins the novel, which would go on to win the Whitbread children's book award, the Carnegie medal and the sort of awed encomiums normally reserved for literary greats. It tells the story of Michael, a 10-year-old boy whose easy life has been turned on its head. His family have moved into a filthy, falling-down house on the far side of town, and his parents are distracted by his newborn sister, who is troublingly ill. Poking around one day in the garage at the back of the house, he finds, amid the clutter of tea chests and rotting rolls of carpet, a skinny, pale, black-suited creature, "covered in dust and webs . . . dead bluebottles scattered on his hair and shoulders". This is Skellig: crotchety, arthritic, addicted to Chinese takeaway ("food of the gods!") and brown ale ("sweetest of nectars!"). He's a tramp, to all intents and purposes, remarkable only for the fact that beneath his greasy jacket is folded a pair of tatty wings.
The question of what Skellig is – angel, monster, next step on the evolutionary ladder – haunts one of the most weirdly beautiful novels to emerge in British literature, children's or otherwise, in years. In plain, pared-back language, Almond picks out the tale of Michael and his friend Mina as they care for the squalid miracle they've stumbled across. It "tells a story of love and faith with exquisite, heartfluttering tenderness," said Raymond Seitz, chair of the 1998 Whitbread judging panel. "Almond treads with delicate certainty," said Philip Pullman, reviewing the novel for the Guardian, "and the result is something genuine and true."
Almond – in his late 40s by the time Skellig came out – had spent the previous two decades plugging away, with varying degrees of success, at adult fiction: publishing a story here and a story there; seeing his first novel roundly rejected; failing to finish a second. Skellig, by contrast, came to the page almost fully formed. It took just six months to write, alongside a full-time teaching job – in part, he found, thanks to the freedom imparted by his new audience. "I got halfway down the first page and realised to my astonishment that this was a story for young people," he says. "And I felt liberated. It was an area where I could renew myself." The ease with which the story flowed staggered him. "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."
It did. The novel was a bestseller on both sides of the Atlantic, selling out its first print run in four days. Now – 12 years and nine novels later – Almond has decided to revisit its world. Michael's friend Mina is an odd, bright presence in the original novel, given to pronouncements on formal education and devoted to William Blake. She keeps a journal in which Michael sees her furiously scribbling, and when Almond's US publisher called up to ask him for "a little bit extra" for a 10th anniversary edition, it was the journal that came into his mind. The result is My Name Is Mina: a vibrant mishmash of a book, played out in flights of fancy, blank pages and concrete poetry. "She always seemed the most powerful character to me," Almond says now, "Often, when I had to make a decision, I'd ask myself, 'What would Mina think?'. This book sees her coming to terms with the world and her own sadness, learning how to write and communicate, learning how to think. She's a girl who's growing up and has to transcend her troubles, and she does it through art, as we all do."
Almond grew up in Felling, a town of steep streets and old mineworks set high on the banks of the River Tyne. One of six children, he was raised in a "big Catholic family in a big Catholic community, with a great big Catholic church at the bottom of the hill." His stories are fired by and freighted with the stuff of his home: the 1960s Newcastle of Clay (2005); The Fire-Eaters' folk songs and coaly sea (2003); the pit cottages and pockmarked, heathery hills of Kit's Wilderness (1999); Michael's town in Skellig, which is a shadowy version of Almond's own. And while Almond is no longer a practising Catholic, the ease with which Michael and Mina accept the wonder at the heart of their story has its roots in a religious upbringing that required him to expect and embrace the mystical. Skellig is a thoroughly unremarkable miracle; a hobo-angel who takes his sacrament from the takeaway menu, intoning the order numbers "27 and 53" in place of chapter and verse. Such liturgical echoes ring through Almond's novels in words and phrases that reverberate like chants: "Jeez, Kit, man!" says Allie over and over in Kit's Wilderness, while in Heaven Eyes (2000), Erin and January mutter "Hell's teeth" back and forth to one another like a charm. On the one hand the speech in Almond's books is very naturalistic: his characters aren't burdened with overlong sentences, and he creates dialect through rhythm and vocabulary rather than Irvine Welsh-style transliteration. On the other, the lyrical repetitions create a formal, poetic feeling, mimicking the call and response of a mass.
School has also proved a rich seam for his fiction. "Like Catholicism, it offers deep-seated imagery and rituals to me as a writer," Almond says. "Themes around education and learning run through my work." After passing his 11-plus, Almond went to a Catholic grammar school, and "didn't enjoy it. The nature of schooling back then was so different. There was a lot of corporal punishment; people were strapped for next to nothing. And there was a great deal about moral fibre. If you were seen to be failing in that, you were treated with contempt." The school in The Fire-Eaters, in which the central character, Bobby, is strapped on his first day for "failing to pay attention when a teacher speaks", is a "very heightened version" of his own.
As a result, Almond did most of his reading at the library. He was obsessed by Roger Lancelyn Green's retellings of Greek myths and the legends of King Arthur ("a fantastic writer – I read Malory at university and was disappointed"), but the first writer who truly spoke to him was Hemingway. "I pulled a volume of his short stories from the shelf and was electrified. The plainness of the writing felt like a language I could relate to." The encounter in part prompted Almond's decision to study English and American literature at the University of East Anglia, where he read his way through the American greats. "I learned to be a regional writer by reading people like Flannery O'Connor," he says now. "She was a huge influence. She said that writers of the American south must wrestle with their southernness 'like Jacob with the angel until they extract a blessing'." I thought, that's exactly how I feel. And the Texan author William Goyen: when I read his wonderful dialect, I could hear the north-east in it. I learned Geordie through Goyen's Texan."
After university, casting around for a job that would allow him to write, Almond, to his shock, found himself drawn to teaching. "My leanings were to head for the backwoods, live in a tent and write, but I realised I couldn't do that," he says. "So I came back to Newcastle and did my PGCE. It was the hardest thing I'd ever done – but I also found it fascinating. It made me think about many things for the first time: politics, society, how one person should treat another, how children's minds work." By the late 1970s, he was teaching in Gateshead, and writing the first of many short stories. Over the next few years, he became a fixture on the small press scene: "getting published in magazines that have disappeared now", bringing out two overlooked collections of short stories, and editing the literary journal Panurge.
At the same time, he was working on his first piece of full-length fiction. The novel, Seances, took five years to write, and was rejected by every one of the 33 publishers who read it. "It was," he admits with admirable stoicism, "disheartening. But on the other hand, like the teachers at school who'd said 'you'll come to nowt', it made me think, 'I'll show you'!" He set off on another novel, but abandoned it, dissatisfied, halfway through and turned again to short stories. This time, however, he effected a double homecoming – as well as returning to his favourite form, he found himself considering the place where he'd grown up. "I'd turned 40 and my mother had just died," he says. "It felt natural to look back to my childhood on Tyneside. Until then I'd shied away from writing about it because I didn't want to be a 'northern' writer. But suddenly I found I could see a way to draw it into my work. I started to write a series of stories set in an imaginary version of Felling." In these stories (published as a collection, Counting Stars, in 2000), his early encounters with Hemingway and O'Connor bore fruit. "I began," he says, "to discover a way to write very plainly about very ordinary things, but somehow to expose the extraordinariness in them. Those stories changed everything. They got into magazines I'd been trying to get into for years: London Magazine, PN Review, Edinburgh Review. I won a couple of small prizes. I could see there was something in them. After that, it was as if Skellig had been waiting."
In the wake of Skellig, despite having written for adults all his life, Almond found himself in the curious position of being viewed as a children's writer. The decision to continue down that path and write his next book, Kit's Wilderness, for children too, was, he says, "organic. Skellig had given me confidence; with Kit, I thought, here's my chance to really go for it."
Skellig, for all its wondrousness, was in technical terms a small tale simply told. Kit's Wilderness, by comparison, is an opera. The old mining community of Stoneygate, where the novel is set, becomes the locus for a tale which digs back through the land's recent history all the way to the ice age; in which the ghosts of former pit disasters mingle with the industry's modern-day victims (an unemployed father, "muttering and cursing, leaning against the pub wall"); in which class, family and heritage all have a part to play. The whole thing is wound about with Kit's Granpa's songs and stories of his time underground, and the symbolic weight of the caves which honeycomb the landscape, acting as shelter for the characters of Kit's stone age imaginings, bringing death to the miners who are trapped in them, becoming a place of memory and forgetting for Granpa, who likens his Alzheimer's to having a "head full of caves and tunnels". "I remember going for a walk when I was writing it and feeling like there were 27 different storylines to keep straight," Almond says. "If Skellig was like wrestling with an angel to extract a blessing, Kit was like wrestling with a gorilla. When I finished, I was knackered. I was in bed for a week."
After that, the books came thick and fast. "I used to look at my output before Skellig and sigh," he says. "People say to me, you're so prolific, and I think, now I am! It's the payoff for all the time I spent getting sentences to work properly. Like anything, you develop a skill through hard work." Kit's Wilderness was followed by Heaven Eyes (shortlisted for the Carnegie) and Secret Heart in 2001. In 2003, he published The Fire-Eaters and won the Whitbread for a second time. "That was a great book to write," he says. "I'd been writing another book set in Northumberland, and it was useless: I woke up one morning and chucked it away. Then suddenly the voice of the fire-eater came into my mind."
On the surface, the book is a straightforward coming-of-age story: 11-year-old Bobby Burns, on the cusp of adolescence, finds himself negotiating old and new friends, starting at a different school, worrying about his father's cough. But the year is 1962, and Bobby's commonplace concerns are reflected and amplified by a wider threat. "I was the same age as Bobby during the Cuban missile crisis," Almond explains. "And I remember that sense of dread: looking out of the window for the missiles coming over, watching for the mushroom clouds. It was an amazing moment in history, and the fire-eater was the perfect metaphor to build it around. I had something right at the heart of a book about the crisis that mattered. When a story comes well, it's like a gift: it brings in all this other stuff."
Readers and critics have labelled Almond's novels modern fairytales. But for Almond himself, "the pressing thing is the realism. Skellig had to be in a real garage. Kit sleeps in a real mine. The Fire-Eaters, while it has a miraculous element to it, takes place in a real coastal town, and features a real fire-eater – he was based on this character we used to see on the Quayside in Newcastle when I was a kid. Once you've got that solid, touchable world you can do anything. Maybe that's something else to do with being brought up as a Catholic: you're taught to think about the other world, but you grow up in this one, and you realise there couldn't be anything better. So you find the miraculousness in reality."
Next month, Almond will travel to Santiago de Compostela to receive a gold medal from the Hans Christian Andersen award committee. The prize, given every two years to a living author whose work has "made a lasting contribution to children's literature", is children's fiction's highest accolade, and a remarkable achievement for an author whose publishing career is just over a decade long. "It's happened so fast," Almond says, with something like wonder. "The last 12 years have been extraordinary: from a standing start, there was Skellig, the Whitbread and the Carnegie, Kit coming out and winning the Michael L Printz award in the US, The Fire-Eaters winning the Whitbread . . . it's just gone on and on. But with the Andersen award, for the first time, it felt as if everything stopped. There was a moment of stillness. And now I'm going on again."
Almond on Almond
It's SATs day at school. Mina reads the instruction on the test paper: "Write a description of a busy place". The headteacher is staring through the classroom door. He looks like he's spent a night with ghosts. He mouths the words: Write. Don't Worry. Please write. So she starts to write:
In thi biginin glibbertysnark woz doon in the woositinimana. Golgy golgy golgy thang, wiss wandigle. Oliotoshin under smiffer yes! Glibbering mornikles which was o so diggibunish. Hoy it! Hoy it! Then woz won so stidderuppickle. Aye aye woz the replifing clud. Yes! Clud is cludderish thats trew. Tickles und ticklin woz the rest ov that neet dun thar in the dokniss. An the crippy cralies crippin unda the path doon thar. Howzit! Woz the yel. Howzit! Sumwun nose a sekritish thang an wil holed it unda. Aye! Unda! So hoy it! Naa. It is two riddish a thang for hoyin. So giv it not a thowt. Arl wil be in the wel in the wel ay depe don in the wel. An on it goze an on an on an on an on an on an on an on til the middlishniss is nere. An the glibbertysnark wil raze oot the woositinimana an to the blewniss wi the burds.
Are you taking the mick, asks the despairing headteacher. This is a page of nonsense! Mina agrees, but for her writing nonsense can make lots of sense. Would Chaucer have done SATs, she wonders. What about William Blake? The words are rebellious not because they rail against the institution, but because they're happily themselves, with their own rhythms and beauty. And they help her achieve her aim of being taken out of school. Afterwards, as she walks away with her mum through the park, she listens to the singing birds, reflects on her achievement, and is filled with claminosity.
It often did feel as if Mina was speaking through me as I wrote her book, scribbling her stories, poems, memories and dreams, and leaving empty pages like empty skies waiting for birds to appear.