1 The death game in Kit's Wilderness is hauntingly real. Is it based on something you played yourself?
No, but a group of children at my primary school did play a similar game. I remember them huddling together and whispering in the long grass at the edge of the playground. I never knew exactly what was going on, but knew that fainting and feigned death were involved. It terrified me. When I began to ponder the images and characters that were eventually to form Kit's Wilderness, the memory of the game returned to haunt me. At times, I was very scared when I was writing the book!
2 The new novel is at once a much darker and a braver book than Skellig. It acknowledges an adolescent fascination/fixation with death in a way which fastens on to themes found in Shelley, Coleridge and the early Tennyson. You seem wholly uninfluenced by contemporary fiction, or by the contemporary PSHE (Personal, Social and Health education) mindset. Do you, like the Blake-quoting character in Skellig, derive your inspiration from writers of earlier periods?
My influences come from all over the place. I have been influenced by lots of contemporary fiction writers - Marquez, Raymond Carver, Cormac McCarthy, E. Annie Proulx, Beckett among many others. I am interested, though, in modern novels that are themselves influenced by ancient storytelling traditions, and that are drived by oral as well as 'literary' modes of expression. I think it's right to say that I'm uninfluenced by the PHSE mindset, to which I sometimes feel positively antagonistic. Influences from earlier periods include early opera and song eg Monteverdi & John Dowland, who both used apparently small resources to devastating and passionate effect. Before I began to write for children, I'd also been reading a good deal of early Christain history (St Bede, lives of saints etc). I also find just now that Dickens is a strong influence.
3 Many, many children's books deal with a battle between the forces of light and the forces of darkness. In Kit's Wilderness there is also a literal conflict between the underground darkness of the mine and the sunlight above. Were you conscious as you wrote that the pit-setting provided you with the perfect metaphor, and did you have to guard against drawing too-obvious parallels.
The best images/metaphors arise organically and almost unconsciously. As I wrote, I did realise that the pits that riddled the landscape were perfect for the dark/light conflict, but I simply allowed the story to develop as it did. I knew that at some point Kit would have to answer Askew's call and travel into the dark. I was aware as I wrote that Grandpa and Allie were forces of light, that they would help Kit to resist Askew's darkness. I was also aware of the massive power of the ancient light/dark conflict and writing the final third of the book frightened and exhausted me.
4 Powerful and individually-realised main characters are essential in a good novel. You certainly have those in Kit and Askew. But the really great novels also have resonant subsidiary characters, and Kit's Wilderness has those as well: in the girl, Allie, and in the grandfather. Your depiction of the old man's encroaching senility is wonderfully observed. Is it drawn from watching your own relatives become old?
I did see relatives decline and die. These people were not really hidden away as they might be now, but were seen as part of the world's natural rhythms. So yes, I must have drawn on them, but I didn't have one particular relative in mind.
5 You have spoken elsewhere about the way in which the writing of Skellig somehow released you from an overly self-conscious approach to writing. You began with the opening sentence and the rest of the book seemed to write itself. Can you talk about this?
Skellig did come with great pace and certainty. I had to accept that I wasn't really in conscious control of the characters or events. Because of this, it was a thrilling book to write. Before Skellig, I spent many years painstakingly putting together short stories and an unpublished novel. I used to worry about my small output. Skellig felt like a gift, a reward for all of this hard work. As I wrote, as well as feeling the lack of control of plot, I also felt began to feel a really thrilling technical control of the language. This was repeated with Kit's Wilderness, which was technically a much more difficult book to write (many months to get the early chapters right, for instance) - and much more emotionally demanding. Once the story began to flow properly, it suddenly developed several levels, and I wondered for a time whether I was able to write such a book. The confidence I gained from writing Skellig helped me to maintain control of all the different strands, and again, the recognition that I could do it was a great thrill.
6 What's this thing you have about angels?
I grew up in a large extended Catholic family. Angels were spoken about quite openly. There were statues and paintings of angels and angels featured in many of the stories we were told. There were angels watching us, angels at our shoulders, angels caring for us and helping us through life, angels writing of our actions on earth. And people did speak of seeing angels in the streets and houses of Felling, especially when a death had occured. When I realised that Skellig had angelic features, I was a little concerned, since there has been so much (often sickeningly sentimental) hype about angels in the past few years, and I wondered whether I might be seen as jumping onto a bandwagon. Luckily, Skellig is hardly a glossy sentimentalised angel, and his bestial characteristics are just as strong as his angelic. For me as I wrote, his worldly nature definitely came first.
7 You had completed Kit's Wilderness before the rush of Skellig-induced media attention engulfed you. Was your third novel, due for publication at the end of this year (1999), more difficult to concentrate on? And can you tell us anything about it?
Yes, the third novel, Heaven Eyes, was difficult to concentrate on from the time the Whitbread shortlist was announced, and the final quarter of the book took as long as the first three-quarters. But it's finished now, I'm delighted to say. It's about a group of children who make a dangerous and dream-like escape from a children's home by sailing downriver on a raft. They make a strange discovery in a dilapidated printing works on an ancient quayside. It's all very realistic, and set in a version of present-day Tyneside, but there are magical happenings with mud and water, a fair amount of unsolved mystery, lots of darkness and lots of light.
8 Before Skellig was published you had written a great deal for adults. Two short story collections were printed by a small press, but an adult novel failed to find a publisher. A comment you made in a piece printed in a free customer supplement produced by Dillons will have rung a chord in every aspiring writer: "In Dillons one afternoon, I was seized by envy for the writers on the shelves." How did you prevent iron entering your soul?
I'd always been aware of the dangers of bitterness, and I'd always been determined not to be a bitter writer. I loved what I did, no matter how 'successful' I was, and my work had gathered a fair amount of respect over the years. I was also confident (though it sometimes felt like a crazy kind of confidence) that I'd get wide recognition one day. I told myself how stupid my envy was. I didn't even like the work of some of the writers I envied. I decided to write what I liked for the people I liked. I wrote a whole sequence of stories about my own childhood. I wrote them for a tiny audience and as each one was finished I sent it around the family. The stories did really well and were widely published. When I finished the sequence (called Stories From The Middle Of The World) Skellig lay in wait.
9 There was a buzz about Skellig long before it was published. Someone at Penguin recommended it to me while it was still in proof, and such word-of-mouth vibes surely contributed to its needing to be reprinted after just four days. At what stage did it hit you that the book was making a big impact?
I was at a Hodder roadshow about six months before the book was published. Half-way through the afternoon, after the presentations, someone called out, "There's a box of Skellig proofs here" and people nearly knocked each other over to get to them. At the same event, I was told that the book would do well in the States. I took this with a pinch of salt. A few weeks later six major American publishers were bidding for the book and my agent had begun to sell rights throughout the world.
10 From the point of view of a reviewer of teenage fiction, it was/is exciting to discover such a talented 'new' UK author, when so much of the really good fiction for 'young adults' is American or Australian. Are you hopeful that your books can cross over into an adult readership, or do you intend also writing for younger children?
Yes, it would be nice to get an adult audience for my books, and it's certainly happening with Skellig. Having said that, I'm very happy to be writing for children. They're an exciting, creative and perceptive audience. Writing for children has really made me focus on the elemental nature of stories and books, and I've learned a huge amount about my craft. I feel very much at home. I am going to write for younger children as well, and I'm really looking forward to this.
11 You have described your time as editor of the fiction magazine 'Panurge' as 'a labour of love and madness'. Why madness?
Over a thousand manuscripts a year thudded through the letterbox. I did everything at home, from choosing the stories to licking the stamps to completing fiendish grant application forms. Some folk had the impression that there was a suite of Panurge offices in Newcastle. I received letters addressed to the marketing department, the subscriptions officer, the advertising assistant. I put out two fat issues a year for six years. I received no pay, a part from a notional small fee that was of course simply swallowed up into the overall budget. While I was doing this, I was working as a teacher, and writing my own short stories and a novel. I watched many of the writers I'd published, unencumbered by such demands, steadily pursuing their own work. I woke up with a blinding - and very obvious - insight one night: there was no need to continue. Next day, I phoned the founding editor, John Murray, and asked if he'd like to take the magazine back. He said yes, and the madness was over. There was great excitement in doing it, of course: the thrill of finding a great story, the satisfaction of publishing a beautifully-printed issue every six months, the joy of seeing 'unknown' Panurge writers taken on by major publishers.
12 When you worked as a teacher did the pupils and your colleagues know that you were also a struggling writer?
Yes. I went part-time a long time ago in order to focus on writing. I was lucky to work in a school that gave me support, eg allowing me leave of absence to write at Hawthornden Castle for a month, and to take a term off following the Arts Council Award in 1998. During these absences, I wrote most of Kit's Wilderness and started Heaven Eyes.
13. Have you been into schools since Skellig was published? What sort of questions do you get asked by young readers?
Yes, I've been into many schools. Children are fascinated by Skellig himself and want to know how I came up with him. They're always interested in the baby and in exploring their worries about her as they read the book. I'm pleased that so many girls really like Mina (she's the most important character in the book for me). It's been a heartening experience talking to children about the book. Children are truly perceptive and creative readers, and some of the discussions I've had would put to shame some of those who claim that children 'don't read' or that their minds are ruined by computer games etc. Some discussions focus on broad issues like where ideas come from or whether any of the book is autobiographical. Other children want to interpret what happens, eg does Michael really see Skellig, or is he sleepwalking/dreaming all the time. I've had some great discussions about technical details like the length of chapters, the repetition of phrases, the way the paragraphs are presented etc.
14 Skellig is capable of being appreciated by some Y6 readers. But Kit's Wilderness--as I say, a much darker book--is, in ACHUKA's opinion, an authentic teenage novel. Does the publisher have any fears that this will limit sales?
No, it hasn't been an issue. Hodder have been just marvellous from the day they took me on: encouraging and supportive, and very keen not to restrict me. I have a wonderful editor. She understands the way I work and I have immense trust in her critical eye and judgement. And the book has already been really well-received by reviewers, booksellers and librarians, so there's lots of encouragement for potential readers.
15. Skellig has just been published in America. Have you received any early reactions?
There have been some great reviews, eg in Publisher's Weekly, Kirkus Reviews, School Library Journal, and great quotes, eg from Robert Cormier, Karen Cushman and Sid Fleischmann. The USA edition is a handsome hardback with glowing quotes on the cover.
16. What have you treated yourself to on the back of your success?
A lap-top computer. A second hand dinner suit for the Whitbread. And we exchanged our car for a two-year old Skoda.