David Almond: Frankenstein goes to Tyneside

David Almond drew on monster myths for his new children's novel. But his northern roots were crucial too, he tells Benedicte Page
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Yet for decades before all this success, Almond had toiled quietly at his craft, taking odd jobs as a postman or labourer to enable him to write, but with little to show for it, his single adult novel remaining unpublished.

It was only in his forties, when he reconnected with the material of his childhood, that the turning point came. He produced a collection of short stories set in the small mining town of Felling-on-Tyne in the north east of England, where he grew up (it was later published as Counting Stars). That somehow released the floodgates, and as Almond began his first children's novel, Skellig - the haunting tale of a creature part man, part owl and part angel, which was to win him the Carnegie and the Whitbread Children's Award - he knew that everything was about to change. "It just had such an energy about it, it drew on forces within me I'd never used before," he says.

Almond's new novel, Clay, once again draws on that childhood background in the north east. It features a young boy, Davie, growing up, as Almond did, in a working- class Catholic family in Felling in the 1960s. As ever in Almond's work, this realistic setting anchors events which spin off in a wild and strange direction. Davie's ordinary daily life - duties as an altar boy, a feud with a local gang and the newly discovered phenomenon of girls - is disrupted when a new child arrives in Felling.

Stephen is charismatic but disturbing, with a special talent for sculpting figures out of the local soil. Drawing Davie into an intense relationship, Stephen persuades him that together they can bring the earth he moulds so nimbly with his fingers to life. The novel subtly shifts register as the two boys succeed in their ambitions and Clay, a lumbering, barely conscious yet living and moving being, is created. The town of Felling has become host to a Frankenstein's monster.

Almond, who now lives in Northumberland with his partner and young daughter, says it has been "a little private journey taken for myself" to create a literary location called Felling-on-Tyne. "In some ways the north east is an undiscovered country in literary terms; you might think it's a place that's not very interesting, excluded from mainstream culture. Part of my purpose has been to use ordinary places, to emphasise that in very ordinary places extraordinary things can happen." He says Clay is "a very Geordie book, relentlessly Tyneside". He's used more of the local dialect in this book than he has ever done before: "I've been moving towards that, and I thought: 'What the hell, just do it, really use the Tyneside language.'"

The novel was an opportunity to mingle Almond's own private mythology with other, older ones. "The idea of clay is something that keeps cropping up in my books; it seems to me that there's something very basic and fundamental about working with the earth, making stuff from it," he says.

"Once I started working with the idea in the story, it drew in so many links: Frankenstein obviously, and the Jewish myth of the golem, and Christian creation where God creates man from the clay of the earth and breathes life into him. Setting the book in Felling was a way of grounding those stories and making them mine."

For a long time he'd held out against the Catholic influences of his childhood. "For years I excluded it, because I thought: 'I don't want to write about those things.' If you are brought up fairly strictly as a Catholic, in total belief, then the process of growing up is quite painful, because you have to throw it off. But I remember turning 40 and starting to look back, and just allowing Catholicism to come in instead of keeping it at a distance. Suddenly all this wonderful imagery just started coming, it was like a gift. 'Oh my goodness, I've got this!'"

But Clay is a notably dark novel. Almond's books have always been marked by a sense of wildness and danger, as children on the brink of adolescence face up to the powerful forces within themselves and in the wider world. Yet experiences of suffering - even in The Fire-Eaters, set during the Cuban Missile Crisis and exploring the destructiveness of war - have until now been contrasted with the vividness of youth and hope. Clay offers little of that optimism. For brilliant, twisted Stephen, there is to be no redemption; and Davie emerges at the end of the novel bruised and weary, into a world where he now knows the potential for evil within human nature.

"I think he's disillusioned in some way," confirms Almond. "He's struggled to hold his faith in the world, but Stephen has shown him something. Stephen showed me something. When I was writing the early parts of Clay, I was thinking 'You know, Stephen's going to turn out to be OK, he'll be redeemed.' And then as I went on, I realised he wasn't, he was sticking by his guns. So I suppose for me there was a kind of growing up, as there is for Davie in the course of the book."

While the novel is set in the 1960s, Almond says it really draws on his response to current events. "There are some things in the world that seem to evade redemption. I grew up at a time of optimistic socialism, when I believed, probably very innocently, that politicians had the goodness of the world at heart. Then you see the actions of the politicians over the last few years and you see that actually they don't. George Bush doesn't have the goodness of the world at heart and yet this man is rampant in the world. Or what happened in Rwanda, how can that be accommodated within a sense that there's an essential human goodness?"

'Clay' is published by Hodder (£10.99) To buy a copy for £9.99 (free p&p), contact Independent Books Direct on 08700 798 897