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A SONG FOR ELLA GREY, the new novel from Skellig author David Almond, draws on the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice to spins a poignant story of music and joy, of hope and tragic love.
The story is recited by Claire, who has lost her best friend Ella Grey to the mysterious Orpheus, an enigmatic wanderer and musician. From the moment she meets Orpheus, Ella Grey knows she has always been destined to love him but, as their all-consuming love plays out, tragedy strikes.
We spoke to David Almond about A Song for Ella Grey which is set, like many of his previous novels, in the landscape of the North East.
Q: Why did you want to write a book that draws on the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice?
A: It's a story that's haunted me and so many people, it's such a powerful story and it's one that I've touched on for years and it's in many of my books.
When I finished writing The Tightrope Walkers, which was published in July, the myth just came back to me and grabbed me and it seemed time to do it. I started reading around it and making notes. Everything seemed to fall into place, that it needed be set in Tyneside in Newcastle which is my home town, and to be about contemporary teenagers. It all seemed to be a perfect fit.
Q: What was it like to write a story where you already know the ending?
A: When I began writing, it fell into place that my story would be the sum of the many different versions of the Orpheus myth and that gave me a structure. Most of my books grow organically but with this one I had a set pattern; Euridice will die, Orpheus will try to bring her back, and then Orpheus will die. Once I accepted that, the things that happened seemed to make it happen like that.
It does sometimes feel that some stories are destined to follow a pattern from the start, while with others the challenge is to find the pattern that is already there.
Destiny is interesting to work with as a writer. In a couple of short stories I have written where I have explored destiny, the writer is there to allow the pre-destiny of the story to take place; you allow someone to do something and let them move in that direction. In other stories, you’re aware of creating a structure for the story to happen within. And sometimes you’re there with the story and it’s telling itself through you.
Q: So did you almost have to let this story write itself?
A: Once I started it seemed to have its own strength, not that it wrote itself but there seemed to be a natural rhythm to it. You hear authors say that there is a flow to writing, a kind of letting go, and I've also read that about performance – how in the best moments, there’s something Orphic about music and also art, there is something that can come through us, something meta-human.
Q: The book is probably your most lyrical to date. Did you feel you were writing a song, rather than a novel?
A: I wanted that sense of finding a voice that is the song of life; in the best moments in the book, it will sound like music. I'm very aware of the relationship between words and music, novels and opera. This book was an opportunity to explore that relationship and I let that move the book into existence.
Q: Why do you feel the myth worked so well with teenaged protagonists?
A: The story is told by Claire, Ella Grey's best friend. It had to be someone close to Ella, who loved Ella as much as Orpheus did, so her loss is the same as his. Teenagers are so intense in their relationships and their friendships, so I felt it was relevant. The story is so intense; it is perfect for teenagers who are passionate, creative and aware of having nothing but opportunity and love and loss in their lives.
Q: Why did you return to your North East roots for the setting for the story?
A: It had to be the setting. The Northumberland beaches where the group goes for a holiday, and where they meet Orpheus and most of the action plays out, are so beautiful. The book is a song to some of the beauties of Northumberland and like the kids say, let’s turn Northumberland into Greece where the sun doesn't shine.
I also set part of the story, where Orpheus goes underground, in the Ouseburn Valley, where you find the Seven Stories children's centre and the Cluny, a very distinctive and artistic area by the river Ouseburn.
I did a lot of walking around the area and to these places as the book developed. You're walking and exploring as a way to explore the story. That area around the Cluny is very distinctive and there's even a tunnel there that goes under the city, just as it does in my story, while in the street above is the Seven Stories, a place where children act out stories.
Q: As in the myths, your Orpheus plays a lute, but what does that sound like?
A: I listened to a lot of lute music I had collected from a few years ago, then I had to find out a bit more about Ancient Greek music and what it might have sounded like. There are some short pieces that you can listen to, that try to recreate what the sound might have been like. I felt it sounded a bit like Japanese music that I have listened to, which is to do with calling ghosts into the upper world. So there's a very strong Japanese influence in the book.
Q: How absorbed did you become with the myth of Orpheus while you were writing about it?
A: There were moments when I really believed in Orpheus, when he seemed to have an actual presence, and I felt there was something genuinely true about the myth. There's something very powerful about the Orpheus myth because in many ways it is true; there's a kind of Orpheus in us all. There have been some concerts that I've been to where you could almost sense Orpheus on the stage, like a presence.
Q: Are there other myths that are drawing you to write about them?
A: The myths that speak to me are Persephone, which is always close, I've touched on it in a couple of books, and the Minotaur myths are very appealing to me. Maybe I will do something on those one day.
Q: Where do you write?
A: I like to go to the Literary and Philosophical Society of Newcastle upon Tyne (or the Lit & Phil as it is popularly known), an historical library in Newcastle upon Tyne. When I'm in the middle of a book I write there. The building is 200 years old but once you're through the doors it's very modern. A lot of writers go there, it feels like a democratic place to be.