Kevin Crossley-Holland: A long road to Camelot

The poet and children's writer Kevin Crossley-Holland has finally hit the big time as a best-selling historical novelist. He tells Peter Stanford about late success
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It is amazing that Kevin Crossley-Holland ever persisted with writing. As a young poet, he was introduced by a family friend to that grand old man of letters, Stephen Spender, who condescended to look over his verse. "He sent me a three-line letter, saying, 'I don't feel there is anything I can say about them.' It hurt so much." Crossley-Holland is smiling as he recalls a body-blow that might have finished off many a hopeful. There is, I sense, a happy ending coming up.

But first he begins another story, also apparently against his younger self. He had been stepping out with the daughter of Terence de Vere White, literary editor of the Irish Times, he recalls. De Vere White also offered to read his poems. "He came down to breakfast the next morning and said to me, 'I think you might make a good prose writer.' It was so kindly meant. And he was more right than I could possibly accept at that moment."

Four decades on, Crossley-Holland has become one of our most acclaimed and successful children's prose writers. That has mostly happened, however, in the past six years. Before that, he had made his mark as a poet and reinterpreter of myth, legend and folk-tales. It was his retelling of the Arthurian legends that changed his career and has now led to Gatty's Tale (Orion, £12.99), which he describes as his "first full-blooded novel".

When he started what became the Arthur trilogy, he did not initially have a children's audience in mind. What emerged, though, was a fusion of legend with Crossley-Holland's own character, Arthur de Caldicot: a bullied younger brother, ace archer and would-be squire in the Welsh Marches who navigates medieval life at the time of the Crusades with the help of his mentor, Merlin. The trilogy has quickly become a modern children's classic, winning awards and topping the children's charts.

"Before Arthur," Crossley-Holland says, "I'd dismissed altogether writing fiction. You only have so many semi-sharp arrows in your quiver, I'd told myself, and I was not going to be able to write a novel. But then I found I had written a sort of novel in the Arthur trilogy - part historical fiction, embodying a retelling of traditional tales, but also trying to relate those tales to the lives of someone growing up in the early 13th century. That was a breakthrough for me."

And a halfway house. From the cocktail of legend and fiction that made Arthur such a draw, he has moved on to Gatty, whose story is entirely his own creation. Yet Crossley-Holland stresses that he has spent three years painstakingly researching its historical context. Gatty was an eye-catching character in the Arthur books, the girl who believed that she could walk to Jerusalem because it was just the other side of Chester.

"I got a deluge of letters asking me about her," Crossley-Holland says. "Obviously, she had touched some nerve, this spirited, self-reliant, brave, tender, pragmatic, witty girl. Did she have a future? What sort of future did a girl have in the early 13th century? I began to wonder. And then I thought, why not send her to Jerusalem, and see what would happen."

Crossley-Holland has a delightfully gentle but precise voice, which makes him an instant hit with children. The day before our interview, I had watched him enchanting a throng of youngsters who had gathered in a garden in north Norfolk to hear him read from Arthur.

The storytelling gene comes, he suggests, from his father, a composer, musicologist and controller of music on the BBC Third Programme. He would sit down by the beds of the young Crossley-Holland and his sister, Sally, with his Welsh harp, and tell and sing folk tales. "That was the diet I grew up on. I never had the faintest doubt that the story of the king who is asleep under a hill and will one day wake and come out was in fact all about the hill that we lived next to in the Chilterns."

Crossley-Holland carried on the tradition with his own four children, all now grown-up. "We used to live," he says, "in the old vicarage in a place called Walsham-le-Willows in Suffolk. The parish church there had a hammerbeam ceiling which once had been decorated with angels, but they had been removed in the time of Cromwell. There was a rumour in the village that they were still around and about, that one wing of one angel had been displayed in the 19th century in the old vicarage. And that made me wonder, what if a crafty rector had hidden the angels down the well in our garden? So my daughters and I spent a great deal of their childhood lowering plumb leads."

It's a memory that he plans to develop into his next children's book, albeit transferred to the fictional setting of Waterslain. Already featured in his poetry, it is based on the harbour at Burnham Overy Staithe on the north Norfolk coast, close to where Crossley-Holland now lives and where he spent his childhood holidays. The genesis of the new book, he notes, is an example of how long it can take for a good idea to reach the point where it is ready to be addressed. "For a good 20 years, this book been quietly on the hob, then suddenly the moment has come. I'm not enough of an analyst to understand why that should be. It just seems to present itself."

There is a parallel between the slow maturing of a book and the development as a writer of Crossley-Holland himself. His early years seem to have been blighted by older voices telling him he wasn't quite up to the mark. "My mother [a distinguished potter] always thought I was 12th man on a team of 11," he remembers, without apparent rancour, "and it has often felt like that. I failed my common entrance and didn't get in to Bryanston School, but after an interview the headmaster said he'd take a chance on me. Then I tried for St John's College at Oxford and didn't get in but eventually managed to scrape in to Teddy [St Edmund] Hall." As a youngster he was not, he admits, a keen reader. Only later was he "set on fire" by language, history and traditional tales. His late arrival at the top of the children's publishing tree, however, gives him a novel perspective and few inhibitions about voicing it. So while the rest of us are enthralled by the supposedly new phenomenon of "crossover" writers who can appeal both to children and adults, he can remember his parents' friend, the novelist Rumer Godden, who wrote for both grown-ups and youngsters.

There is a key difference. Godden was writing in two different strands whereas contemporary authors like JK Rowling produce a single book that aims to appeal across the board. He is something of a crossover sceptic. "The best children's books have always done it. Think of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. It is equally intoxicating for children and adults. All this crossover talk is something publishers are using as a selling device, a kind of post hoc rationalisation of what was happening already." It is a charge, he is happy to admit, that might easily be addressed to his own publishers, who are about to bring out paperback editions of the Arthur trilogy with adult-orientated jackets. "But it is all to do with merchandising," Crossley-Holland points out, "and nothing to do with my intentions when I wrote it."

Which brings us back to his hopes for Gatty's Tale. Given the link with Arthur, I suggest, some will be tempted to see it as the next instalment in a sequence. "I slightly resist," he says, "the idea of endless cycles and sequences of books, just as I resist the idea of exponential growth in which each book is half as long again as the previous one... I intend Gatty's Tale to be able to stand entirely on its own, but I suppose, too, it might also be that much more rewarding if you've read the trilogy, because Gatty is already established as a character in those books."

Its publication is something of a landmark for Crossley-Holland. Will it also be, I wonder, a moment to reflect on De Vere White's foresight? Crossley-Holland prefers to recall the advice given to him by his one-time collaborator, the novelist Jill Paton Walsh. "She wrote to me after I'd written the first of the Arthur trilogy and said something along the lines of, 'Good Lord, I always knew you were capable of the voltage of a short lyric poem but I am frankly astonished to see that you are also capable of the complicated dance, interweaving and planning of a novel.' And the truth is, so was I."

Peter Stanford's biography of Lord Longford, 'The Outcasts' Outcast', is published by Sutton

Biography: Kevin Crossley-Holland

Kevin Crossley-Holland, 65, grew up in the Chiltern Hills. While an editor at Macmillan, he began writing poetry and reinterpretations of myth, legend and folk-tale. In 1972, the first of six poetry collections, The Rain-Giver, appeared. His first book for young people, Havelok the Dane, came out in 1964. He won the Carnegie Medal for Storm in 1985. His Arthur trilogy, begun in 2000, has sold 300,000 copies and been translated into 23 languages. The first instalment, The Seeing Stone, won the Guardian Children's Fiction Award. Gatty's Tale is published by Orion, and Moored Man: Poems of North Norfolk is published next month by Enitharmon. Crossley-Holland lives with his wife, Linda, on the north Norfolk coast.