One of the region's best-loved writers, David Almond is renowned for drawing on his roots to create memorable fiction. Ahead of his apperance at Durham Book Festival, he talks to Sarah Mulligan

DAVID ALMOND doesn’t own a Kindle. To anyone who knows his work – replete, as it is, with illustrations – this may come as no surprise, but does it suggest a reluctance to move with the times?

Perhaps a certain inflexibility? Almond insists otherwise. “Reading and writing are physical things,” says the 66-year-old, who lives in Newcastle.

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“The evidence is that the growth of the e-book has actually stopped and people are turning back to real books. I think people were under the illusion a few years ago that e-books would take over, but that hasn’t been the case. Certainly with children’s books, their advance has been minimal.”

This loyalty to the printed word is exactly what you’d expect from a man who fell in love with writing at his uncle Amos’ printing shop on Felling High Street.

It was there, as a youngster, that he became spellbound by the beauty of black type on white paper, and it was Amos, himself an unpublished writer, who encouraged him to pursue his own writerly ambitions.

“‘Do it for love,’ he told me,” says Almond. “I’ve written about him in Half a Creature from the Sea” (the book of short stories he’s promoting at Durham Book Festival next month).

Almond followed Uncle Amos’s advice, but it took him until middle age to do so. Prior to this, he wrote for adults in between teaching and other jobs, but never really hit his stride.

His first children’s book Skellig, published in 1998, represented a breakthrough, garnering widespread admiration and winning the Carnegie Medal, later being produced as a play by the National Theatre.

Since then, Almond’s output has been prolific, including novels, short stories, plays and opera librettos. In 2010, he won the Hans Christian Andersen Award, the world’s most prestigious prize for children’s authors, and his work is now translated into 40 languages.

With such credentials, Almond displays an easy confidence, yet he admits this was not always so. “I think a did go through a phase like that – a lack of confidence – but then you realise there’s no such thing as what a writer should be,” he says. “It was only when I began using my northern-ness that my work began to be widely read.”

This chimes neatly with the subject of Almond’s talk at Durham Book Festival – The Books That Made Me. In it, he’ll cover both his own work, notably Half a Creature from the Sea; and books that have influenced him throughout his life.

It will be tough, Almond admits, to narrow these down, but a handful are certain, including the essays of American writer Flannery O’Connor. “She wrote in the southern states of the USA and she wrote really well about being a regional writer,” says Almond. “As a northern writer, I felt a kinship with her.”

Having come to embrace his northern-ness, drawing repeatedly on situations, settings and characters from his childhood in works like The Fire Eaters and A Song for Ella Grey, Almond now sees this as an advantage.

“I think what I feel is that there’s this thing about the North and the South and being outside the mainstream if you work in the North,” he says. “Actually, it also brings great freedoms and privileges.”

These include access to a rich local dialect, which Almond isn’t afraid of using – despite the obvious risk that readers might not understand it.

“You can’t limit yourself too much,” he reasons. “Some of my most northern books do incredibly well in the USA. If you begin by thinking how difficult it might be, I think you limit yourself. I think what people are looking for is an authentic voice.”

While he may be comfortable with his regional identification, Almond generally dislikes labels. His work is often categorised as magic realism and, though he understands the impulse behind this, he resists being thus constrained.

“As a writer you have to keep changing and moving and avoiding the kind of categories people put you into,” he says. “It seems natural for me to work in different forms. When an idea comes, it has its own form and that’s the thing that dictates what kind of book or drama it will be.”

For Almond, the concept is fluid, meaning work can be readily adapted. A current project is a touring show with the Northumbrian piper Kathryn Tickell.

“It will be music and I’ll be reading from a short book that I’ve written about Kathryn Tickell and her father, as well as reading from books that people will already know,” explains Almond.

So, he obviously doesn’t fit the stereotype of the reclusive author, then. “I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t like it,” he says. “I like collaborating with people. I like meeting my audience.”

He’s looking forward to doing this in Durham where, as well as talking about his most influential books – of which others, apart from Flannery O’Connor’s, include those by Gabriel Garcia Marquez and his childhood favourite, Roger Lancelyn Green – he will be meeting schoolchildren as part of the festival’s Big Read.

He feels it’s a privilege to write for children, for whom preconceptions are not a problem.

“Having children as an audience does help you to be experimental, because children aren’t hung up on what a perfect book should be,” says Almond. “They’re able to explore all kinds of ideas.”

So how does he feel about the current raft of celebrities capitalising on their fame by writing children’s books? Does it muddy the waters for established authors?

“It does seem like anybody who becomes known for anything thinks, I’ll write a children’s book. That’ll be a piece of cake,” admits Almond. “But you cannot worry about things like that. All you can do as a writer is get on with your work and ignore all that.”

As a parting shot, Almond points out that Skelling is still widely read, almost 20 years after it was first published. He doubts if many celebrity authors will be able to say the same about their works of fiction. “Being a writer is a long-term commitment,” he says. “These celebrity books come and go and to writers like me, they’re neither here nor there.”

  • David Almond: The Books That Made Me is at Durham Book Festival on Saturday, October 14, from 7-8pm at the Gala Theatre. W: durhambookfestival.com, T: 03000-266-600.