Q&A with Kevin Crossley-Holland
JUST IMAGINE: A lot of your work concerns folk tales, myths & legends. What inspired your interest in this topic?
KEVIN CROSSLEY-HOLLAND: Traditional tales are so immediate. They don’t mess around with difficult issues or the heart’s conflicts and contours. They proceed straight from the A to Z of action without hesitation, deviation or repetition. That’s one reason why they’ll always appeal to children.
And another is that they hold up to the light all our shared human strengths and weaknesses. They tell us to laugh at ourselves.
Myths are another matter. They may be more weighty. They embody our values and religious beliefs.
JI: Did you always intend to write books for children or was this something that just naturally evolved?
KCH: I only started to write after abandoning my intentions to be a radio commentator, then an archaeologist, then a priest. I begun by writing poems, as many teenagers do, to express passionate feelings and to iron out knots in the grain of things. The first prose that I wrote, when I was 20, was a novel for adults, called Debendranath. I never showed it to anyone and it’s now locked away in the Brotherton Library at Leeds University. My first job was in the publishing house of Macmillan (publicity department!) and that’s when, greatly excited by the entire ambience, for the first time meeting authors and reading ten to the dozen, I began to write. Strangely, I had very little idea of who my readership might be; not even whether I was writing for children or adults. I simply retold two medieval romances as best I could (Havelok the Dane and King Horn) and they were published for children. After that, I settled into retellings of single folk-tales (The Callow Pit Coffer, The Green Children and The Pedlar of Swaffham), all the while becoming more interested in how to write well for children.
JI: Do you think children should be taught more about Anglo-Saxon tales such as Beowulf within school?
KCH: Absolutely. But just compare the situation now when Anglo-Saxons and Vikings, and Beowulf and the Norse myths, form part of the National Curriculum. We have come a long way in the last generation in recognising that they are very great stories, and form part of the birthright of all those of us who live in the north-west European world.
JI: What sort of books do you read for pleasure? Do you have a particular work that inspired you to write yourself?
KCH: By my reading armchair just now, I spy children’s fiction (Katherine Rundell) and adult fiction (Ruth Prawer Jhabvala) and poetry and history and travel books. A mixed diet!
What first made me want to write something for myself was H.E. Marshall’s Our Island Story. It’s too nationalistic for people’s tastes now, but Marshall was British Empire born and bred, and a terrific storyteller.
JI: Could you offer us a few words of advice for any budding young writers?
KCH: Buy a notebook. Write in it each day. A little character sketch, perhaps; or a joke; or a short poem; describe a tree, or a building; write a few lines of rapid conversation; or just write the beginning sentences of a story… How do different sounds affect the feeling of your writing. Try writing using only three vowels. Or using only words of one syllable. Play word-games. Fall in love with language… Find a friend who you trust and can share your stuff with… Read, read, read. Discover how other writers do it.
JI: And finally, are you able to tell us a little about any forthcoming projects?
KCH: Next year, Walker will put together a big, fat book of all my retellings of British and Irish folktales, illustrated by Frances Castle. And then the year after Chris Riddell and I are joining forces to do a one-volume King Arthur: the very greatest tales, the ones we all need to know. And in addition, I’m revising a little novel about the Great Floods in 1953, All the World was in the Sea, and writing more poems…
Many thanks Kevin for taking the time to answer our questions.
Just Imagine Story Centre Ltd