Children's Literature Interest Group: Interview with Kevin Crossley-Holland

Gabrielle Cliff-Hodges interviews Kevin Crossley-Holland

kevin Crossley HollandWhat advice do you think it is helpful to give young writers?

Firstly, write every day. Have a notebook and write in jokes, little bits and bobs, things you’ve overheard on the tops of buses, beginnings of stories, character sketches. Learn to use language. Don’t try and write a history of the world. Set yourself small, fun targets. Secondly, see how flexible the language can actually be, as if you were a musician practising your scales. Try writing a few sentences without ‘a’s and ‘e’s. Or decide that the ‘oh’ sound (as in ‘moan’, ‘bone’, ‘groan’, ‘stone’) is the saddest sound in the English language and write something only with that sound in to see if it’s true. Thirdly, read, read, read, read (which is exactly what I never, never, never did when I was a boy!) and see how other people do it. Fourthly, have a little group with whom you can share bits of writing and get in touch with PublishingHouseMe (for which I’m the patron) and send them something. It’s a really worthwhile organisation. Learn the skills so that when you have more to say, you won’t be held up by how to say it.

How do you write?

I write by hand. Why do I do that? It’s not that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. I do use the computer quite a bit. But writing by hand works for me and it seems to coincide with the speed that I think. I love the continuum of brain and heart to hand to pen to page – the flow of ink. I can’t tell you how often I have not known how to say something but the minute I’ve started putting it on the page I’ve known how to say it. The act of writing generates the ideas, the emotions and the words themselves – for me – and then by virtue of redrafting in a different colour I can see at once what I wrote first and what I added or subtracted. Then I usually revise it once more, in a third colour so I can see the progression of a script. Quite often I revert to what I have written in the first instance. Then my work is typed up on the computer. 

How do you do the research for your novels?

I absolutely love finding out about the theatre of action. That finding out takes different forms. At the moment, I’m involved in two different worlds. One is the world of the Vikings and the other is the world of the composer, Vivaldi, and eighteenth century Venice. I’m doing a book on Vivaldi with Jane Ray. It’ll be longer than a picturebook but shorter than a novel. It’s about Vivaldi, the remarkable Orphanage where he taught and his choir of children. Jane and I have said for years we’d do a book together and this is it. Jane has worked with the Coram foundation and is very interested in foundlings and children who are disadvantaged one way or another. It’s funny, but I’ve always thought I wanted to write about composers. And what a story! Vivaldi modified instruments for children with physical defects and children were brought in rather like Mother Teresa’s children, posted through a hatch. There were 800 children in the Orphanage and Vivaldi selected about sixty for the choir and/or orchestra. I find it purely thrilling going to museums or going to Venice or going to Scandinavia, talking to people who know more about these places and times than ever I will. I’m not a scholar, but I love the historical research, reading documents from the times in question, reading one or two modern interpreters, but on the whole avoiding fiction set at the same time because writers are like thieving magpies and they don’t even know when they are.

Many of your books have been produced with beautiful illustrations by several different artists. Do the illustrations matter to you?

Decisions about the illustrations are never foisted on me by a publisher. That would be a recipe for the writer-publisher relationship coming apart. I was lucky to go straight into working in a publishing house when I left university and immediately be surrounded by quality writers and illustrators. I suppose I was in a privileged position of being able to suggest who might illustrate my books, for example artists like Brian Wildsmith and Charles Keeping, although I wouldn’t have got away with that for very long without needing to prove myself! In 1966, Margaret Gordon and I worked together on The Green Children and won the Arts Council Award for the best book for young children. We won £500 between us! I was twenty five and it virtually doubled my salary. Sometimes it is interesting when an illustrator has a different perspective on a story to the writer. For example, I think Charles Keeping who illustrated Beowulf felt much sorrier for Grendel and Grendel’s mother than ever I did. Our thinking about the story was definitely coloured by each other’s ideas. It showed me for the first time how the interaction of author and artist must be part of the story and the way it develops. I’ve been extremely lucky with most of the artists with whom I’ve collaborated.

What are you enjoying reading at the moment?

As ever, a complete mix. At the moment, I’m reading Tove Jansson’s stories Art in Nature. I’m also reading a book in case I want to become a Carthusian! I’m re-reading for the umpteenth time Edward Thomas’s poems. I’ve just read a huge tranche of children’s books for the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize and I think that the published long list on the website would give you a good indication of what I’ve recently read and, in some cases, greatly enjoyed.

Where do you most like to read?

We have what we call an alcove with an old Chesterfield sofa – re-covered and re-sprung – and there’s light from a window above so you hear the rain and see the birds. I like to read there, and in bed for about twenty minutes at night. Every few nights I have a lovely reading evening from eight- or nine-o-clock onwards for two or three hours with stuff lying around on all sides. You have to make time to read.

What would you like to have been if you hadn’t been a writer?

That’s easy to answer. As far as children are concerned, the important thing is that you have a dream about what you might want to be. It doesn’t matter that the dream changes – of course it will – but you must have a dream. As a child, I wanted to be a radio commentator (my mother said I talked the hind leg off a donkey) and then an archaeologist, and I had what I proudly called a ‘museum’ in the garden beyond the gooseberry bushes and began to collect all kinds of things for it, including a shield that my grandfather gave me to go in my museum. When I polished it up, it turned out – astoundingly – to be a twelfth century Saracen shield, and he found it for a few pounds in Fakenham, in a junk shop. I was on fire with the ‘who’, ‘what’, ‘where’, ‘when’, ‘why’ of objects. And I do think objects are a wonderful way for children to begin a story. Dream or think your way into an object. Listen and tune in to it. That’s what Arthur does in The Seeing Stone: ‘each of us must have a dream to guide our way through this dark world’. The museum idea lasted for a while and then when I was about fourteen, I thought I would become a priest. As much as anything, I think it was the power of ritual and the language that attracted me. I was neither encouraged nor discouraged by my parents, but eventually that went off the boil by which time I was just beginning to write. So, as with lots of kids, there were a number of stepping stones before I had the faintest idea.

What would your arguments be for children still encountering ancient stories like Beowulf?

I’m completely dedicated to the idea of children being made more aware of the literature of the North West European world. It is a terrific, racy, ice-bright hoard of stories, especially the sagas and the Germanic hero legends. The greatest mountain peak is Beowulf. Beowulf is not only a thrilling story but it also engages with a very wide range of our experiences as human beings. So, you see in it courage, cowardice, loyalty, honour, and as you get into it you realise it is actually immensely principled. One of the things I felt reading for the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize was that there were certain books that were brilliantly done but lacked what I would call a moral compass. They didn’t have quite enough to say about right and wrong, however well disguised that has to be in a children’s book. There wasn’t quite enough guidance. In Beowulf, you’re never in any doubt about what the poet believes to be right or wrong. Also, if children are able to engage with a little bit of Anglo Saxon when they read it, then they are also beginning to understand something about the beginnings of the English language and the way in which it evolved. Understanding Beowulf is also to understand a very great deal about the social structures of Anglo-Saxon England. You want to feel you’re in safe hands with a historical novelist – that’s the crucial thing. We can’t say quite what people were thinking or feeling, though we can have a damned good shot at it, but there’s no excuse for not being right up to speed with historical research.

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