In our Seven Stories feature, we ask a Scottish children’s author to share some stories about their own life.
This month we meet Alan McClure, whose debut, Callum and the Mountain, revels in the greatness of our Great Outdoors. We loved exploring his fantastical world, and couldn’t wait to find out what inspired it.
1) NEWS STORY (What’s the story with your new book?)
It’s called Callum and the Mountain, and it follows the adventures of four young pals in a wee West Coast village. Everything is peaceful, normal and, to be honest, dull, until the kids make the acquaintance of a group of bizarre nature spirits. These beings, known as Things-of-Green, Things-of-Blood, Things-of-Stone and Things-of-Water, open the children’s eyes to the marvels of nature, but often in surreal and terrifying ways.
Callum and his friends have to navigate a series of wild events – exploding schools, talking dogs, undersea kingdoms, half-crazy cavemen – with only their wits and the advice of Callum’s wise old Papa to help them. There are a few fairly big ideas floating about in there, but it’s mainly supposed to be a rip-snorting and hilarious action story in the Celtic Faery-tale tradition.
2) SHORT STORY (Sum up your book in five words.)
Modern leaves from ancient roots.
3) LIFE STORY (How did you get where you are now?)
I grew up in Aberdeen, studied zoology at university, traveled about and worked in places like Peru and Zambia before settling in Galloway.
My first job down here was Ranger on an organic farm, which involved maintaining nature trails and organizing school events. It turned out I enjoyed working with kids, and my wife (who was already a teacher) pointed out that I could do that full time, earn twice as much and get six week long summer holidays…
Whilst a ranger I’d also started storytelling under the guidance of Tony Bonning, and stories became a vital bit of my classroom practice too. I’ve also been a songwriter since I was seventeen, so there’s been a thread of writing and creating going back a while. As well as teaching, singing and writing, I help to organize Gatehouse of Fleet’s annual Midsummer Music Festival, I’m involved in the Big Lit literary festival, and I’ve been part of a five-year campaign to build a skatepark in Kirkcudbright which looks as if it’ll finally come to fruition early next year!
4) LOVE STORY (What do you really care about?)
I suppose I’m in love with Planet Earth. It seems an odd thing to say, but it breaks my heart to see how disconnected today’s kids are to the natural world which produced them. I spent my childhood up trees or around campfires and I’m still probably at my happiest tromping through woods or rock-hopping around the coast – I’m very lucky to have willing companions in my two boys and my wife Michelle. Music is high on my list of magical and splendid things, too – I’ve made more friends through music than through anything else.
5) ADVENTURE STORY (What was your biggest one?)
It’s got to be fatherhood. Robin and Fergus, who are 11 and 14 respectively, have a knack for scaring the bejeezus out of me as they navigate the world – everything is re-framed from their perspective and the world is daily refreshed by their enthusiasms and fascinations. I never had any ambitions to be a dad when I was younger, but other than writing, I really can’t imagine how I ever thought anything else was important now!
6) OLD STORY: (Share a few childhood favourites.)
I was, and remain, a sucker for a good comic book – I devoured the Tintin books at our local library and one Christmas I got the full set of Asterix books from Santa – I think that remains the best present I’ve ever received and I still have the books, despite my boys’ best efforts to read them into tatters. I think The Magic Faraway Tree was the first chapter book I read myself, and while I’m not a big Enid Blyton fan these days I can still remember the excitement of getting totally lost in a fictional world. I’ve been chasing that feeling with most of my book choices ever since.
7) BEDTIME STORY (What’s your bedtime reading now?)
I can still just about cajole Robin into letting me read to him at bedtime, but we’ve mainly been picking non-fiction lately. At the moment we’re working through Homo Britannicus by Chris Stringer, which tells of the early colonization of Britain by humans. It’s mind-boggling stuff.
Myself, I’m reading the second Ambrose Parry book – I think I’ve read everything Chris Brookmyre has ever written and I’m loving this new incarnation. The historical detail from Victorian Edinburgh is fascinating and the plotting is as tight and exciting as you’d expect.
I have a mounting pile of great Scottish children’s writing by writers with whom I’m newly acquainted, such as Barbara Henderson and Lindsay Littleson, and reading those is going to be a very pleasurable project for 2020.