Alan Garner's The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath are classics of 20th-century children's literature. Tracing the adventures of the children Colin and Susan as they battle the forces of evil and fall into the world of legend, the books led Philip Pullman to describe Garner as "the most important British writer of fantasy since Tolkien". It's startling, then, to learn that the author, nearing the end of The Moon of Gomrath in 1962, was tempted to throw in the towel in disgust.
"I could not go on. The book was within a few pages of its end, but I'd had enough," says Garner. He had come to "loath" the characters, describing them as "zeroes", the novels as "drivel". He brought the story to a swift, unexpected conclusion. He pauses: "Wait, I think I can do it", and he recites from memory. "'We wins!' said the Morrigan from the rhododendron bushes. And when the moon came out and the house reappeared, she went up to the room where Colin was and wrung the little bugger's neck."
Garner twinkles ferociously as he recites the lines. But he forced himself to find a more suitable ending, finished The Moon of Gomrath by the age of 27, and vowed – despite entreaties from a publisher – not to cash in on his now-established name and turn the hugely popular novels into a series.
Why, then, more than 50 years since Weirdstone was published, is he returning to Colin in Boneland, the much-hoped-for, never-expected concluding volume in the Weirdstone trilogy? "I'd no idea that I was going to write the book at first. But I was thinking for a long time about what Colin would have done," says Garner. By then he was "too embroiled" in his adult novel Thursbitch to do anything with it, but in 2003 Thursbitch was done and he "realised that there was, 40 years on, unfinished business".
Boneland imagines Colin as an adult, a troubled, brilliant astrophysicist who can remember every single thing that has happened to him since the age of 13, but nothing before. From his job at Jodrell Bank, he searches endlessly, fruitlessly, for his sister in the stars: where is Susan, and what happened to her? Bringing together elements of his novels Strandloper and Red Shift, twisting and twining through Colin's story is that of a man from an ancient time, The Watcher, whose lonely quest plays out in language redolent of myth. Although Weirdstone contains one of the most disturbing images in all of children's literature – Colin and Susan crawling through a tunnel deep beneath the earth – Garner says Boneland is the first of his novels genuinely to scare him. "I don't think I've ever frightened myself before when writing but there were areas where there was terror, as though I was looking into somewhere that I didn't know existed before, and it frightened me."
He admits the novel isn't likely to appeal to children. "Fourth Estate are trying to make it as clear as possible that this is not going to be full of elves and witches. I think inside the dust jacket it says it is an adult book. My attitude is that if anybody of any age wants to read a book, let them, but I do think that no child would want to read Boneland."
We are talking in his home in Alderley Edge, Cheshire, the landscape of which is important in his books. Garner sits on a comfortable, battered old couch in the cool of the 16th-century timber-frame apothecary's house he moved, piece by piece, from its original setting where it was about to be demolished. Neil Gaiman says he is "in awe of [Garner's] use of small, simple words, the way he shapes the rocky crags and high tors and deep caves of plot and story with words that feel like he hewed them, or whittled them, or flaked them from flint". But despite his standing, the author is not usually recognised – even by the tourists who flock to Alderley Edge to tread in the footsteps of his characters. He recounts the story of the time he had his head down an intriguing hole (he is fascinated by archaeology) and heard a school party walking by, and a teacher spouting nonsense about his books. "I don't believe there even is an Alan Garner," a child at the back muttered. He was tempted to withdraw his head and prove otherwise – but decided it wouldn't be worth it.
Garner grew up in Alderley Edge and can trace his ancestors there back over four centuries. As a child he played on the hill under which local legend says an army of knights sleep, guarded by a wizard until they are needed – a myth that became the basis for Weirdstone. He was the first of his family to go to grammar school, and from there to Oxford. But it was a comment his grandfather Joseph made when he was a child that made him realise he was going to be a writer.
"My background is deep and set in deep time, and in a narrow space, oral traditions going back a long, long time, which I inherited by osmosis. But I would come home from school and start trying to explain my excitement over irregular verbs, and the family could not take that, and so the price of education was alienation. I was seen as someone who was just trying to make a fool of the rest of the family. I wasn't at all," he says. "I didn't drift away from the family, the family emotionally just cut me off. Apart from my grandfather, who was a smith, who said, 'if the other feller can do it, let him'." He meant find your unique quality, and pursue it, and the notion resonated – continues to resonate – with Garner.
'I realised there was no point in trying to bridge the gap. I was intelligent, my family was intelligent, but I was the one who had gone the other way," he tries to explain. "So I do remember thinking what on earth am I going to do, what have we in common? It was the landscape. Because my family knew the landscape and I knew it in the same way, but I also knew that landscape was Triassic sandstone, and it was 43m years old … It was the area where I could draw on all the richness that otherwise would be lost in me if separation was allowed to become destructive."
Weirdstone took him two years to write, one year to find a publisher, one year to publish: "four years of dole queues and national assistance", as he writes in The Voice that Thunders, a collection of critical and autobiographical essays. Today, Garner says it is clear that in his first two books he couldn't handle character or dialogue, but "I did know the landscape, and looking as objectively as I can at those first two books and trying not to cringe, that young man, me, had a keen eye for landscape, and the ability to convey it".
He went on to work as a freelance television reporter, which he credits with vastly improving the dialogue in his novels, and wrote Elidor, the bleakly brilliant story of four Manchester children who win "treasures" in another world, and have to protect them in this one. His Carnegie-winning The Owl Service, a terrifying tale of possession and myth set in a Welsh valley, and the perplexing Red Shift followed; they cemented his position as an author at "the prickly edge of myth", says Gaiman – "someone whose children's books seemed peculiarly grown up, whose adult fiction seems timeless".
It took 12 years for his next novel, Strandloper – based on the true story of Cheshire man William Buckley, who was deported to Australia in 1801 – to be completed. Part of the reason the novels take so long is the sheer volume of research Garner does – learning Welsh for The Owl Service, becoming knowledgeable in, variously, the thieves' language of Cant and the Celtic cult of the human head for Strandloper. Garner doesn't believe he has original ideas – just that he puts them together in a unique way. So The Owl Service draws from the Mabinogion and from his wife Griselda's chance realisation that the flowers on a dinner plate could be re-combined to form owls, Elidor from the ballad Childe Rowland and Burd Ellen, Red Shift from the story of Tamlain and the Queen of Elfland.
Inspiration usually comes when he's "listening to music or just looking out of the window. I use the metaphor of a foot slipping off the curb and jolting, that I often used to have in dreams. So the ideas start to come, and words start to flow." Early on, though, they don't flow at all. "I've learned never to try and force words to come." At first he writes in short bursts, "dollops", moving from "this sort of intermittent period, it gradually accelerates until I can't stop. The last few days or the last week is really very stressful physically. I just eat sleep write eat sleep write, and the clock is nowhere in it, doesn't matter what time of day or night it is."
This frenzy of authorship is part of the manic depression Garner was diagnosed with in 1989 – "the best news that I have ever heard", as he writes in The Voice that Thunders, as it explained years of mania and inertia, including a two-year period when he lay either in the kitchen or in bed, "12 months of 12 hours each day on the settle, my face to the wall, waiting only for the 12 hours in bed". Elements of the psychotherapy he received after he "went seemingly mad in less than three months" following the adaptation of The Owl Service for television – "Go to the pain," he was told by his therapist, "go to where it hurts the most, and say whatever it tells you" – weave themselves tightly into Boneland, as Colin attempts to unpick his own tangled mental state. That part, he says, was very hard for his wife to read.
Coming to an end of a book can be a dark time for Garner, but he is upbeat today, even though he is almost sure that Boneland will be his last work. "I can't imagine, being realistic, that at the age of 77, and taking about a decade to write a book even when I've got an idea – which I haven't got at the moment – that it wouldn't be foolish to engage in it," he says. "I don't think I've got the time or the energy to undergo things like Strandloper, Thursbitch and Boneland."
And yet, and yet … "something's going on, and the shape it's taking is interesting in that it's complete at whatever stage I finish it. In other words, provided I get a few paragraphs down and then I just drop dead, it's still complete. It's intriguing me. It's making me think here we go again, perhaps, but in a quite different way," says Garner. "I cannot conceive of not writing. Because everything is so interesting. I've got lots of other things I could pretend to retire into, such as doing more on the academic side, doing more archaeology, doing more historical research, but there are other people who can do that. And I am actually quite haunted by this idea of having to do what only the individual can do."