Hidden Landscapes: talking to David Almond about music, The Dam and illustrated books for older readers

‘He woke her early. “Bring your fiddle,” he said. The day was dawning. Into the valley they walked…’

So begins The Dam, a hauntingly beautiful picturebook about a remote northern valley where a dam is being constructed. Two musicians – father and daughter – are making their way to an abandoned village where they will play traditional music to honour those who used to call these buildings home. Soon the waters will rise and flood the landscape. “This will be gone,” the father says. “And this will be washed away. And this will drown....” 

As father and daughter play and sing, their music fills each house and dances out into the air. And then the waters rise, and many things are drowned and lost. But other things are born and made - a beautiful lake and more besides, and what might have been an elegy becomes more nuanced. This is a book about one particular place and time, but loss and change are everywhere. What has gone lives on inside our memories, and if we let it, hope will always lead the way. 

Written in sparse and lyrical prose by David Almond and illustrated with extraordinary landscape paintings and vignettes in a muted palette by Levi Pinfold, The Dam was published last year by Walker Studio and has already won major prizes for its creators. Easy to read and enjoy, yet instilled with an almost elemental power that is deeply affecting, The Dam will be appreciated in different ways by readers of all ages. 

This book was inspired by a true story shared with David Almond by Kathryn Tickell, one of the UK’s most respected folk musicians and composers, and her father, Mike. The Kielder Valley really was flooded, and the reservoir created in this quiet corner of Northumberland is now the biggest man-made lake in Northern Europe. Thousands of visitors come every year to walk, sail, enjoy the collection of open-air art and stargaze - Kielder is home to the Kielder Observatory and has been designated an International Dark Sky Park. 

To hear Kathryn Tickell playing while you read this blog, click here

In a quiet corner of Newcastle’s oldest library, David Almond spoke to Cast of Thousands about The Dam and some of the themes and ideas that inspire his work.

Our conversation was hosted by Newcastle upon Tyne’s Literary and Philosophical Society, a wonderful independent library housed in an old and atmospheric public building in the heart of the city. Many thanks to all at the Lit and Phil for finding us a comfortable space! 

Hi David, and thank you so much for taking the time to talk to Cast of Thousands. Can I start by asking you where the story for The Dam came from, and what drew you to it? 

The story for The Dam came from Mike and Kathryn Tickell, who I’ve known for some time. I heard it first about ten years ago on their Northumbrian Voices tour.
"But when I actually sat down with them and they told the story again – what happened when Kathryn was a little girl and they went into the valley and played music in the houses for the very last time before the valley was flooded - that’s when it really got me."

That will be about four years ago, I guess. I remember sitting with Mike and I had this shiver up my spine, and I just knew it had to be a book. For them, it was something that happened long ago, but to an outsider like me, it had this wonderful, almost mythic proportion to it. So I asked if I could have the story and they agreed. I knew right from the start that it had to be a picturebook, because of the need for landscape, and I knew it didn’t need to have much text. It just needed to have words like musical notes in the landscape of the illustration, and right from the beginning it was about the same length it is now, so quite short. And once I’d got it, it came quite quickly and smoothly. 

I checked with Mike and Kathryn to make sure I was using the right names and I sent it to Walker Books with a prelude describing the circumstances and historical context for what happened in the Kielder Valley, together with the story itself. They just loved it from the start, and suggested Levi Pinfold as illustrator, and I thought, mmmm, perfect! So I went back to Kathryn and Mike and said that Walker wanted to publish it, and they thought that was wonderful. But it was strange because I felt such a responsibility to them - it was their story, and I wanted to give proper honour to them and the people in the valley, and make sure that I wasn’t somehow subverting it, that I wasn’t twisting the story to fit some other agenda. But they were very happy with all of that. And then Levi who lives in Australia came to Northumberland, and I went round parts of Kielder with Levi, which was fantastic.

The Dam by David Almond and Levi Pinfold, published by Walker Studio 2018

I was going to ask whether Levi knew the area and whether he’d worked closely with you or independently?

We discussed the book together and then Levi went and looked at the landscape and I could tell he just got it. Then he went back to Australia, and these illustrations started coming through, and they were just superb. So wonderful, and so Northumbrian, with those huge vistas alongside all those little details of flora and fauna. The match to me seems just about perfect. People ask whether you know what the illustrations are going to be like, but you have no idea. You have a vague concept in your mind of what might happen, but when you work with somebody like Levi, he gives you something that’s so much more. And you say oh yes! That’s what it needs to look like…

So there’s an element of surprise there for you?

There really is. And I think of all my books, this is one of the ones I’m most proud of. It’s really special to me. It felt like a collaboration between me and Levi, the publishers, Kathryn, Mike and all the musicians from Kathryn’s childhood, all the musicians that Mike had grown up with. 

Had you heard them playing what they'd played inside the empty houses before you wrote this story? 

They don’t know exactly what they played, but they know the kind of thing and I had listened to it. And then, before the book was published, Kathryn and I made a stage show and toured it, and at the heart of the show was me reading The Dam, Kathryn playing the music and Amy Thatcher dancing. It was just wonderful!

That sounds great - you’ll have to tour it again, David. I’m sure you’d have lots of people wanting to come along! Can you tell us a bit more about writing a picturebook text? Because I’m wondering how that works for you, and how it differs from writing other kinds of text. Are you thinking about allocating your text to specific spreads, and how that’s going to work? And about page turns and so on?

I don’t really think about that when I begin. I know some people do think of it deliberately in terms of spreads, but I don’t. I just think about the story, and what needs to be in the story. So with The Dam it was just a series of incidents, a series of groups of words that I knew needed to be there. And then the publishers and the designer decided which words went where. You don’t know what the picture’s going to be like, but you have a sense of empty space around the words. So for me it’s that sense of particular groups of words in a space, which an illustrator will then come and re-imagine.

That’s such an evocative idea… and music fills a lot of the space in this book, doesn’t it? Alongside Levi’s artwork... What sort of place does music have in your everyday life?

I think it’s really important to me, and the more I write, the more I realise that the connections between music and my work are fundamental. I’m writing a novel now which is set in Northumberland, and in some ways it’s been generated by The Dam, and a lot of it is about the nature of folk music and what it does to you. Music’s always been important to me – when I was writing Skellig, for instance, I thought, where does this come from? And it doesn’t seem obvious at all, but for me it came from Monteverdi, and I thought – yes, of course! And once I’d thought of that, it gave me a freedom to write in a particular way. 

So do you listen to music as you’re writing?   

No, not when I’m writing. I can’t! Although for some reason I did listen to a lot of Arvo Partt when I was writing The Tightrope Walkers, because there was something about Arvo Partt that just fitted the way I was thinking. But that was the only time.

When you talk about music – here and in your books – it sounds as though you’re describing a sense of connection with it, of opening yourself up to what the music can bring you… and unleash in you too, I guess? Which makes me think about one of the girls in your recent novel, The Colour of the Sun. She’s singing and she says “just open yourself up to this and it will flow through you…”

That’s Shona, yes… and that sense of flow is becoming more and more important to me. A few years ago I wrote A Song for Ella Grey, which was about the Orpheus Myth. It explores the idea of the Orphic Voice which is that sense of opening yourself to something that’s not you; something that will come through you. I think it’s what you’re trying to do as a writer, or any kind of artist. It’s something you see in great performers and musicians, too. I was talking to Kathryn about this, when we were doing the stage show together. Performing isn’t my favourite thing, but strangely I really enjoyed performing in that show. And I said to her, sometimes I just feel like I could go on doing this forever, and she said that sometimes she feels like she could walk off the stage and there’d still be somebody carrying on. And that sense of detachment and flow is becoming more and more important to me. You’re the one who makes the words and gets them into order, you’re the one who creates and shapes the sense, but you do it so that this other thing can come through you. 

And you’re quite clear about that in The Dam, aren’t you? On the last page, where you say “The music is inside us. It flows through all the dams in us...” 

I think that’s the line that matters to me most. It’s about moving through our own blockages. It’s saying that music will flow through all the problems and difficulties and set us free.

Which is such an interesting - and optimistic - way to end this book. There’s an elegiac feel to the words and pictures, but even though the story is about destruction and loss, it’s also about development and growth. You’re saying that the flooding happened, and things were destroyed as a result, but that good things came from it, too. And that sense of profound hope and optimism for the future is really affecting in this context.

That was my feeling from the start. The valley was flooded and The Plashetts was drowned, and people did have to move, but I never felt that the story should be entirely negative. There was loss and hardship but some great things have come from it, things like the Kielder Valley being renovated. People go there, it’s a Dark Skies Park, there’s lots of art there, and lots of music.
"And in that sense the music continues, the memories continue, even though the water’s there. I think some things never go away."I’m struck by the way that music and memory are so closely connected in this book. As Mike and Kathryn step inside the first boarded-up house, Mike says “play for all that are gone and for all that are still to come,” and Levi shows us all those ghostly musical figures being unleashed. And as you turn the page, you see vignettes of different buildings, with the same musical figures swirling around and taking possession of the space. It’s an arresting sight - for anyone, I think, but particularly those who’ve lost someone or something that’s dear to them. And then there’s another spread at the end, where we see Kathryn playing her fiddle and the ghosts are still there, dancing in the night sky. And your words are there too, reminding us that music will help us to remember and to dream...

That’s right. And I think when Mike and Kathryn told me the story, it already had those elements. It felt as if a kind of ghostly music still existed, from these people that Kathryn knew when she was a little girl and that Mike knew when he was growing up, some of whom had died. So there was a sense with the music that that’s how they continued, that’s how they were resurrected. 

Kathryn playing in one of the abandoned houses         Image copyright Levi Pinfold for Walker Studio


Change is such a major theme throughout your work, but it’s particularly interesting to see how loss and change are dealt with in The Dam. In your illustrated novel Mouse Bird Snake Wolf one of the children wants to know whether they can turn back the clock, asking “Can I unmake things, as well as make them?” But of course, when a valley’s flooded, that’s it. In creating the lake, you’ve drowned the plants and destroyed the habitats. And that could feel profoundly pessimistic but it doesn’t. There’s change in the valley but it’s not all bad. 

Because change isn’t always bad, of course it’s not. Change can be good. We always need change, we always need the future, we always need to be moving into the future. Especially for young people now, in this kind of world that we’re bringing them into. Change has to occur and they’re going to be the agents of change, and that’s one of the great things about writing for young people. It’s like writing for a new world, a new hope. In some way, you hope to inspire them, perhaps to be more fully themselves. 

But trying to educate for openness to change can be really challenging, can’t it? Especially when so much education seems to be about absorbing facts to pass exams.

What purpose can that sort of education have for this kind of world that we’re growing into?

And how do we prepare young people for the changes that will come when we’ve no idea what they are?

Instead of pouring stuff into our heads and filling them up, we need to find a way to liberate what’s there. We need to let things flow the other way.

Absolutely. I think we can agree on that!

But let’s think a little more about the relationship between change and creativity by talking about your illustrated books. When you were first published (starting with Skellig back in 1998) you were writing text-only novels, but many of your more recent books have been illustrated. And I’m wondering how that relates to the bigger picture in children’s publishing. What have you noticed in respect of illustrated books over the last twenty years or so, and how have these changes impacted on you?

Well, it’s really interesting because not long ago, people were predicting the end of the picturebook. They were saying that picturebooks were dead, which was just madness. The first time I deliberately set out to do a book that would be illustrated was when my daughter was about 8, and I walked into a classroom one day and one of her friends was reading a hardback of Philip Pullman’s The Amber Spyglass. Which is a wonderful book, but there was this little girl and a great big hardback, and people were very proud of the fact that she was reading it, and one of the things they were proud of was that there were no pictures in it. It was seen as a step up, because she was leaving pictures behind. 
"It was at that point that I wrote My Dad’s a Bird Man, knowing it would be illustrated, and it was almost like a statement."
Why should children do without pictures? And once I’d done that first illustrated book, I discovered how much I loved it, because I love collaborating with people, as you do when you’re working on the stage. And I wanted to do more, so I started writing shorter texts that would be illustrated, and that’s how the others came about. And I was going to say that the bulk of my work is still just text, but that’s not true. There was The Dam, last year, and David Litchfield illustrated The War is Over, which was great. I’m lucky to have been able to work with so many wonderful illustrators: Polly Dunbar,, Dave McKean, Eleanor Taylor, Oliver Jeffers, Alex T Smith, Salvatore Rubbino, Vladimir Stankovic, Stephen Lambert and now Levi Pinfold. What great artists do is they take the work and reimagine it, they recreate it. So its not that they’re attaching images to my words, it’s like they’re rediscovering and recreating them.

You mentioned the child who was reading The Amber Spyglass. Have you seen any differences in schools recently in terms of attitudes to illustrated books?

I think people everywhere are beginning to accept more and more that illustrations and words should go together. Of course they should! Think about one of the world’s first great books, The Lindisfarne Gospels… it’s full of pictures, and it was designed to look beautiful, just like illustrated books are now. So writing books that will be illustrated feels like being part of an ancient tradition which is really important. 

And maybe your work has been part of the movement towards that acceptance, particularly for older readers… I’m thinking of the series of smaller format hardbacks illustrated by Dave McKean (The Savage; Mouse Bird Snake Wolf; Slog’s Dad…) which have grittier subject matter. Some of your illustrated books are aimed at middle-grade readers, but you probably wouldn’t give the McKean books to younger children. So when they came out it felt as if you were making a big statement about the value and importance of high-quality illustrated texts for older readers. David Almond's early novels were labelled YA fiction and were not illustrated. Fast forward twenty or more years (and 30+ books) and things are very different. Four out of the five titles published in 2018-19 were illustrated, including three novels, and illustrated books – particularly for older readers – have had a welcome renaissance. This illustration is by Dave McKean from The Savage, first published by Walker Books in 2008There used to be that idea that picturebooks were just for little kids; 4-5 year olds, you know? And illustrated books were for 8-9 year olds. But then you look at something like The Savage or Joe Quinn’s Poltergeist and these are stories about all sorts of other, older things.  It’s like asking who The Dam is for. It’s for everybody. And I think there’s a growing acceptance that that’s what illustrated books can be.

So how did your illustrated books come about, in terms of working with your publishers? Because you have at least two in the UK, don’t you, as well as those who publish your work abroad?  

I began by doing novels and short stories with Hodder. But when I started writing Mouse Bird Snake Wolf I knew it had to be illustrated, so I talked to my agent who suggested approaching Walker. So I went to see them and realised that I’d love to work with them on an illustrated book. It was the attraction of working with people like David Lloyd in a company that had a different kind of culture. Hodder are fantastic and Walker are fantastic, so for me it works really well.

And now Hodder has also started commissioning illustrations for some of your books?

That’s right, which shows how things are changing. I was doing a webcasting the other week with American School Library Journal, and they were talking about the same kind of thing; about the growing acceptance of graphic novels and illustrated books.

That’s good to hear! Do you have a clear sense of who will read your books as you’re writing them?

People often ask what age range I write for, but I really don’t know. Literally all kinds of ages come to my events, which is fantastic. And more and more often, adults and children are attending together. It’s great to see adults and children in the same audience, especially when you’re taking lots of questions, because the adults come up afterwards and say, that was amazing, how did those children know how to ask those questions? And I say, because that’s what children do! And it really does seem like the children are educating the adults.

How wonderful, it must be great to hear their insights!

Half a Creature from the Sea: short stories by David Almond, illustrated by Eleanor Taylor. Published by Walker Books 

You’ve published several collections of short stories, haven’t you? Can you tell us about the connections between your short stories and your illustrated books? 

I began as a short story writer and for years I wrote nothing but short stories. And now it’s like my picturebooks are short stories - that’s how I think of them. And having moved from writing short stories for adults into the area of children’s books where there is more flexibility and fluidity, I’ve found children’s publishers to be braver and more willing to try out things and experiment. It’s a bit like living in the North. You can find yourself ignored up here, but that’s a kind of freedom. If you work in the children’s book world, the cultural establishment can think ‘that’s just for kids, we’ll ignore it’. But being ignored in that way gives you a kind of freedom. Some people moan about being marginalized as children’s writers, but actually that marginalization can be a source of liberty, if you grasp it. 

Freedom to push the boundaries, to write for people of all ages, to re-imagine and revisit themes and ideas and formats and texts… Your work has been defying categories for a long time, hasn’t it? I’m thinking about that great quote from The Guardian that describes your books as “strange, unsettling, wild things – unfettered by the normal constraints of children’s literature.” Which is a pretty excellent way to be described, I think!  

Thank you so much for talking to us, David. It’s been an absolute pleasure. 

Thank you, I’ve enjoyed it!

If you’d like to read more about David Almond, look out for the second part of our conversation which will be posted on this blog soon. Until then, here’s a list of the books we referred to, plus links to other sites where you can find out more about the people, places and ideas we talked about

Books mentioned in this blog

The Dam by David Almond and Levi Pinfold was published by Walker Studio in September 2018. The Italian edition (La Diga, published by orecchio acerbo editore) won the Andersen Prize 2019 for best illustrated book and for children’s book of the year, and the Premio Letteratura Ragazzi 2019, for best children’s poetry book of 2019. David Almond and Levi Pinfold hold numerous awards and accolades for other books, including The Hans Christian Andersen Award and the Carnegie Medal for David Almond, and the Kate Greenaway Medal for Levi Pinfold.   

The Colour of the Sun by David Almond, published by Hodder

Skellig by David Almond, published by Hodder

A Song for Ella Grey by David Almond, published by Hodder

My Dad’s a Bird Man written by David Almond, illustrated by Polly Dunbar, published by Walker Books

The Savage by David Almond, illustrated by Dave McKean, published by Walker Books

Mouse Bird Snake Wolf by David Almond, illustrated by Dave McKean, published by Walker Books, 

Joe Quinn’s Poltergeist by David Almond, illustrated by Dave McKean, published by Walker Books 

Slog’s Dad by David Almond, illustrated by Dave McKean, published by Walker Books

Counting Stars by David Almond, published by Hodder

Half a Creature from the Sea: A Life in Stories by David Almond, published by Walker Books

The Tightrope Walkers by David Almond, published by Walker Books

The War is Over by David Almond, illustrated by David Litchfield, published by Hodder

To find out more about the books, ideas, people and places we talked about

For David Almond's website, click here 

For Levi Pinfold's website, click here

To read David Almond's blog post on the process of writing, click here

To find out more about Kathryn Tickell - including a link to a playlist - click here

To find out more about Kielder Water and Forest Park click here 

To find out more about The Literary and Philosophical Society in Newcastle upon Tyne (affectionately known as the Lit and Phil) click here

For an interview about A Song for Ella Grey in The Guardian - "Each story comes with its own kind of fizz, gurgle and energy" - click here

To read an article in The Guardian by David Almond - "Orpheus helped me write A Song for Ella Grey" - click here

To read a restrospective by Clive Barnes on David Almond's work in the online magazine Books for Keeps, click here 

To read "I Didn't Want to be a Northern Writer" an article about David Almond in The Guardian click here

To read David Almond's blog post about his award-winning novel Skellig, click here

To read about The Dam on David Almond's website, click here

"The North is a Culturally Rich Place to Be:" to read this article in The Bookseller click here

"The Savage: A Word from the Writer" on Live Theatre's website: to read this blog click here

To read about David Almond on the British Council's website click here   

To read a 2019 interview with David Almond by Nicholas Tucker for the online magazine Books for Keeps click here

To read a 2010 interview with David Almond by Sarah Crown for The Guardian click here 

To read "Story is a Kind of Redemption", an article about David Almond by Nicolette Jones for The Telegraph, click here


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