Traditionally, Christmas is a good time for angels. But although Skellig, the mysterious tramp befriended by young Michael in David Almond's book of the same name, turns out to be an angel, he is no white-robed fairy. The kids' novel, which scooped a Whitbread prize when it was published in 1998, dwells on Skellig's rank breath, atrocious BO and on his taste for bluebottles, cold Chinese takeaways and brown ale.
"This mix of harshness and spirituality was very important to me," says 52-year-old Almond, who has just adapted his best-seller for the stage. "When I was writing the book, Michael puts his hand across Skellig's back and feels what turn out to be wings, and at first I thought 'Oh no!', because there's so much claptrap about angels. Book shops are full of nonsense about them." It was OK to have an angel, he concluded, as long as he was a bit repellent.
"I was brought up a Catholic so the notion of angels was familiar," says Almond in his gentle Geordie voice. "I remember these wonderful creatures flying across the church wall." Does he believe in them? "I get out of that one by saying that I believe in imaginary angels. Ever since humans began to tell stories, angels have been in them." His angel was named after the Skellig islands off the coast of Ireland. "They're totally uninhabitable now, but in the Dark Ages they housed a community of monks."
Skellig was Almond's debut and an instant hit. It won prizes galore and he was hailed as "the Gabriel Garcia Marquez of children's fiction". It also marked a dramatic change of direction and fortunes in a life that's been anything but predictable. Almond grew up in Felling-on-Tyne, across the river from Newcastle. His father, a Tyneside office manger, died suddenly when David was 15. "It was traumatic," he says, "but my mother took on work, although she had arthritis. She used to refer to it as 'Arthur'. You're not aware of it at the time, but tragedy can sometimes steel you. When I was a boy, we had a baby sister who died. And that experience fed into Skellig too."
After studying English at East Anglia university, Almond became a teacher. At the age of 30, his marriage collapsed, so he left his job, sold his house and moved to a commune in Norfolk. "I opened the paper one morning and there was a tiny advert asking for people to rebuild a dilapidated country house and form an artistic community. So there were about 15 artists and writers." Was it a bit hippy? "It wasn't really because the house had been bought by a property speculator, whose American wife had the idea of forming this community." It was, he recalls, "wonderful and idyllic, but these things are doomed to failure. I stayed for a year but it all foundered in the end." Still, he met his current partner there, and the couple have a five-year-old daughter. Almond returned to the teaching profession, but after the success of Skellig, gave it up again to concentrate on his writing.
It was a few years ago when Almond was invited by Trevor Nunn, who was then artistic director of the National Theatre, to write a stage version of his book. Nunn, who is directing the show at the Young Vic, remembers: "There was a considerable stir about the book when it came out. My wife, Imogen [Stubbs], read it to our daughter (who loved it) and was contacted by a recording studio to read David's next story for an audio book." Nunn and Almond met up, and the stage version gradually came into being.
"The story is magical, poetic, mythic and moving," says Nunn, "but, curiously, it's also everyday, real, contemporary and nothing at all like fairy tales. This means it's a very big departure for the Young Vic Christmas show, which has always explored children's literature of a more fantastical kind."
How are they tackling the characters that sprout ghostly wings? Neither Nunn nor Almond are giving anything away. "They'll be suggested," says the author, "but a lot depends on the audience's imagination. One of the good things about the stage is that it elicits an imaginative response from the audience." Dramatising his own book was a steep learning curve. "I learnt about theatre and about my own story. The obvious thing in the book is its words, but when you take the characters out of the book and they don't have words surrounding them, then they take on a different kind of life." He's very strict about his writing, but he's had to "let go" in the theatre, trusting Nunn and the actors to create a different world.
Was he nervous about dramatising Skellig then? "Yeah," he says, eyes sparkling. "It was a challenge." He's prepared for critical barbs but is more interested in what young audiences think. There are no plans for any Harry Potter-style sequels, but he is happy to recreate Skellig in another medium: his screenplay is currently with Phoenix Pictures. And while Almond is not exactly sitting by the phone, he'd be chuffed if his good angel not only gave his book a stage success but a celluloid life as well.
'Skellig': Young Vic, London SE1 (020 7928 6363), previewing, opens 3 December, to 24 JanuaryReuse content