Posted on November 1, 2017
Philip Pullman in conversation with Horatio Clare
A couple of weeks ago I was lucky enough to go and see Philip Pullman, the creator of His Dark Materials, in conversation with travel and nature writer Horatio Clare in Cardiff’s Millennium Centre. The two of them talked, Clare asked some searching questions that Pullman hadn’t been asked before, and there was a book signing afterwards. Here is what Pullman talked about, to give you an insight into the mind of this giant of fantasy literature, and into what the future books in the Book of Dust trilogy will hold…
The conversation began with a discussion about the various elements of storytelling, from creating characters (Pullman says you don’t so much construct a character as discover them) to deciding on structure and tone. For Pullman, structure is something that can be played with and changed right up to the last minute, but what you can’t change is tone. This is, in large part, linked to the narrative voice, and Pullman’s favourite style of narration is the “story sprite”, which isn’t omniscient but which can move between characters’ perspectives and which is itself sexless, ageless, raceless and so on.
Of course, this ‘sprite’ sounds a lot like something from a fairytale, and that’s no surprise because Pullman is very much a writer who works in the folktale tradition; he has studied folklore and fairytales for many years and these influences often show through in his work. In fact, the next volume in the Book of Dust trilogy will be called The Secret Commonwealth, named after a nineteenth-century treatise on supernatural phenomena including fairies, witches and ghosts. This ties into what we already know of Lyra’s world from His Dark Materials and La Belle Sauvage, and Pullman added that he is very glad that scientists haven’t yet discovered what dark matter is so that he can keep on writing fantasy about it.
Folklore aside, Pullman is not a fan of all children’s literature, especially the so-called ‘Golden Age’ of this genre (which includes writers like Kenneth Grahame and AA Milne), which he sees as being suffused with a nostalgia for country picnics and nursery teas. These stories, to him, “sound like privilege talking about privilege”, and this is likely why he doesn’t shy away from complex ideas and darker themes in his writing for children. He says, “Children aren’t stupider than adults, they just don’t know as much.” They might need more things explained to them, but they don’t need to be talked down to.
So how did Pullman start out telling stories? He explained to Clare that, when he was a boy, he lived in Australia. His family did not have a TV so they listened to stories on the radio instead, and after filling his head with things like Dick Tracey’s adventures, Pullman would lie awake in bed and spin yarns for his younger brother. Clare dug a little deeper into Pullman’s craft and pulled out some fascinating details about how he writes now. Pullman says that he finds it fun to write a long book (especially one split across three volumes), because he can tie up all the loose ends in the final volume. He also said that the hardest page of any book to write is page 70, because it isn’t an exciting opening or a satisfying ending; it’s at this point you can see all the flaws and you start to believe that it’s the worst book anybody has ever written. Then, he says, it just becomes “sheer bloody labour”.
Still, that labour is entirely worth it, and Pullman went on to talk about the importance of books and reading for children. He bemoaned the fact that children have less freedom than they used to have – the freedom to wander off into the countryside and not return until dark – but one way we can restore it to them is to give them books, time and silence. “Don’t pester children for a response to what they’ve read,” he said. “Just give them books and then leave them alone.” Of course, Pullman is a great advocate of libraries, which provide this formula for freedom in abundance, and he suggested that every country should give a bound copy of its national fairytales to every household for free. “Ah,” said Clare, “but to achieve all this, wouldn’t we have to overthrow the government?” Pullman replied, “Well, that goes without saying.”
There were a few more noteworthy fragments from the talk. The name Serafina Pekkala (from His Dark Materials) did not come from a phone book as is popularly believed, but from a list of the members of the Helsinki cabinet in a Whitaker’s Almanac. Pullman writes at a desk, and he says this is where his ideas come to; if he isn’t at his desk, they will go away again (another element of the “sheer bloody labour” of writing, then, is simply turning up). Clare and Pullman also discussed daemons and Dust, and Pullman revealed that we will “discover how and why Dust is analogous to consciousness in books 2 and 3” of the Book of Dust trilogy.
It was an absolutely fascinating talk, and both Clare and Pullman came across as hugely articulate and thoughtful people who believe strongly in the power of books. They were also both really funny, which is always nice to see. Of course, I went to get my books signed afterwards. The man in the queue in front of me handed over a first edition of Northern Lights and Pullman – flanked by bodyguards – asked if he really wanted him to sign it. “It’ll lower the value,” he said. “There are fewer unsigned copies out there now than signed ones.” The man asked him to sign it anyway. As Pullman continues to release the next volumes of The Book of Dust, I expect he’s going to be signing first editions for a while to come.
If you could only have Pullman sign one volume of His Dark Materials for you, which would it be? Let me know with a comment down below!