Tell us about your book – ‘Callum and the Mountain’

It’s a magical-realist tale for 8-12 year olds which is really written to be read aloud. I had a few aims for it: first, it had to be completely thrilling from the outset, so the pace is pretty swift; second, the landscape had to be as important as the people – it’s basically a character in itself, moody, beautiful and unpredictable; and third, the language should fizz on the tongue as it’s read. I’ve been overwhelmed by reviewers who have pointed out the musicality and originality of the language, because I was absolutely going for both – I would love this to be a book that tomorrow’s writers look back on as an inspiration.

The story follows 12 year old Callum and his pals as they get involved with a group of perplexing and powerful nature spirits who completely change the way they see the world around them. Sometimes the changes are tremendous fun, and sometimes they’re absolutely terrifying. There are big themes of family, friendship and belief and there is plenty of room for readers to draw their own conclusions at the end – the story should stick with you long after you’ve closed the book. Buy Callum and the Mountain.

Read review of Callum and the Mountain

What was your nickname at school? (If you had one)

I had a couple, but the border between ‘nickname’ and ‘slagging’ was quite narrow at my school so I won’t repeat them here…

Were you good at writing at school?

I was, and I was splendidly indulged by teachers – I was allowed to go and write in the library while the rest of the class was busy with other things. I always thought this was in recognition of my talent, but it has subsequently emerged that I was actually a bit of a pest in class and this was a fruitful way to get rid of me for a while! So, kids, if you annoy your teacher enough you too might be given this golden opportunity.

What was your favourite book as a child?

I must confess that the books I went back to were nearly all comics – Asterix, Tintin, Calvin and Hobbes, 2000AD, Dan Dare. I think there’s a bit of a sniffy attitude to comics in some circles, but great swathes of my storytelling, sense of humour and imagination come from immersing myself in them as a lad.

What was it that inspired you to become a writer?

I’ve just never been able to not be one. Whatever else I’ve been doing in life, writing’s been my escape and my way of making sense of things.

What are common traps for aspiring writers?

Trying to solve every problem alone – not just in terms of plot or language or story, but in terms of getting your work out to an audience. There are fantastic support networks, like SCWBI, who are just waiting to help out. Also, I would always be sorry to imagine someone was just writing to fit a niche in the market – we should all be seeking some originality of vision.

If you could tell your younger writing self anything, what would it be?

Don’t use writing as a tool to prove how clever you are! It’s about communication, sharing, colloquy, and it should be fun.

What was an early experience where you learned that language had power?

I was absolutely addicted to the Storyteller tapes that came out in the 80s – you’d get a weekly magazine with a cassette attached, and you could read along with the stories as you listened. It really was an incredible collection, tales from all over the world read by serious actors like Derek Jacobi and Miriam Margolyes. I wore those tapes out – they just transported me. I still have most of them, and my own boys enjoyed them when they were younger too. I’ve actually just recorded the audiobook of Callum and the Mountain, and those tapes were in my mind while I was doing it!

If you had to do something differently as a child or teenager to become a better writer as an adult, what would you do?

Oh, definitely read more broadly. As a teenager I basically read William McIlvanney books to the exclusion of all else. They’re great, but there’s a universe beyond them!

Is it lonely being a writer?

Well, I’m not exclusively a writer – I earn my wage by being a primary school teacher. Quite honestly, six hours a day with 30+ 8-year-olds is about as much company as anyone could want – getting a bit of quiet time to write is a pure luxury!

What other authors are you friends with, and how do they help you become a better writer?

I have loads of friends who are songwriters and poets, and having a circle like that gives you permission to carry on with it yourself. In terms of novels, two folk stand out particularly – Karen Campbell, who is a beautiful, lyrical writer and who mentored me while I wrote Callum and the Mountain; and Paul Magrs, who I met at Moniack Mhor while on a YA/Sci-Fi writing course he ran with the splendid Joan Lennon. Paul, in particular, leads by example – he writes what he loves, he has an excellent work ethic and he is fantastically encouraging and supportive of other writers.

If you weren’t a writer, what would you be doing?

I’d be a naturalist of some description. My first degree was in Zoology, and the natural world continues to inspire and fascinate me. I almost ended up running a wildlife sanctuary in Peru. But I have to tell you, I’d still be writing about it…!

Has a book ever made you cry? What was it? 

Yes, embarrassingly – I was reading Ring of Bright Water to a class of Primary 3s and had to leave the room when Mijbil the otter was killed. Gavin Maxwell is a tremendously powerful writer – unsentimental, strangely guarded about himself but so enthralled by the animals. I was fine after a wee greet.

What is your writing Kryptonite?

I haven’t really got one – I’m fortunate not to rely on writing for a living right now, so I have the luxury of only doing it when I’m moved to crack on. However, I’m taking a career break after the summer to focus on various projects, and I’ve no doubt I’ll discover a whole host of Kryptonites when I’m actually obliged to be writing. I’ll get back to you…

Have you ever gotten reader’s block?

Absolutely. Whole months go by when I can’t finish anything. I blame Netflix.

Did you ever consider writing under a pseudonym?

I might do if I wrote something of a more adult nature – I could imagine feeling constrained by the possibility of shocking a youthful readership.

What was the best money you ever spent as a writer?

Without doubt the course at Moniack Mhor mentioned above – the chance to meet a bunch of excellent people, stay in such a stunning place, and just live for a week in a fantasy world where being a writer is a legitimate course of action!

What did you do with your first paycheck?

I either a) purchased a small island, a yacht and a fleet of private jets, or b) filled up my car’s petrol tank. Can you guess which?

As a writer, what would you choose as your mascot/avatar/spirit animal?

I’ll be a crow, please. I’m very fond of crows.

How many unpublished and half-finished books do you have?

Two completed, five or six underway. These include a sequel to Callum and the Mountain which I’d no intention of writing, but so many young readers have demanded it that I have no choice! If you count picture books then several more of each.

What does literary success look like to you?

Having a book out that I didn’t really need to compromise on. Beaten Track, my lovely publishers, saw what I was doing with Callum and the Mountain and let me do it, by and large. Readers consistently enjoy the aspects of the book that more mainstream publishers had balked at. I’m really very happy with that.

Do you Google yourself?

Yes. It turns out I’m a disgraced dentist from Glasgow.

And most importantly… What is your favourite biscuit?

My wee boy Robin bakes a fine biscuit – I’ll have one of his, thanks!

A huge thank you to Alan for taking time to share a bit about himself. I certainly had great fun learning about his book and what it’s like to be a writer/teacher.

Find out more about Alan…

Grab yourself a copy of ‘Callum and the Mountain’

On amazon Beaten Track

*If you would like to do your own q&a to feature on the blog then send me an email…