A prolific writer of young adult fiction, and author of His Dark Materials, Philip Pullman has become one of Britain’s best-known novelists, as well as being an essential part of the Oxford literary landscape. We drifted from P.G. Wodehouse to gambling and drinking – hardly what I expected from the unassuming man sat before me – when I caught up with him the other day.
You’ve talked about how writers are motivated less by issues and more by fascination with a particular technical problem. What would you say are the technical problems which have motivated your writing?
The main one is what is has always been: the one expressed by David Mamet’s question that he says every film director has to decide, namely “Where do I put the camera?” it’s a very difficult one to solve, because there are a hundred different answers, and half a dozen good ones, and one perfect one, probably. One thing I’ve learned is that (to continue with the film analogy) if the audience notices what the camera is doing, it shouldn’t be doing that.
Past articles often note influences like Milton (HDM) or Victorian melodrama (Sally Lockhart). But since your work is generally classified under Young Adult fiction, have you been influenced by any other Young Adult authors such as Diana Wynne Jones, Susan Cooper, etc.?
Not much. Leon Garfield at an early stage, but I don’t think he was really a Young Adult author anyway. My influences are … Well, probably not easy for me to see, but certainly the great fairy tales, and latterly the Scottish ballads. Not that you’d notice.
You’ve criticised ‘adult’ literature for not tackling the larger questions like life, love, death, morality, and so on. Do you think literature needs to tackle these questions to have any worth?
No: look at Wodehouse, who said that there were two ways of writing fiction (and I paraphrase): one way was to go right down deep into the great questions of life, love, death, and so on, and the other was to do what he did, which was to write a sort of musical comedy without the music. And if anyone can do that as well as Wodehouse, wonderful. The sort of fiction I was criticising was the sort that did neither.
Why do you think Young Adult fiction tends to tackle early adolescence rather than the late teens?
Perhaps because it’s a more interesting stage: you’re encountering hormones and existentialism for the first time.
Do you think you’ll try branch out further into identifiably ‘adult’ literature, or realistic fiction, or even work more as an illustrator?
I hope so. It would be nice to spend time drawing pictures and getting paid for it; I can imagine few things more pleasant. As for the writing, yes: I’d like to do that. In fact I’m already working on something that seems to expect most of its readers to be grown up.
What advice would you give to us Oxford undergrads to get the best out of life here, and especially to any budding writers?
To get the best out of life here …Good grief. There’s plenty of it about, so indulge. Give yourself some thing to remember. Fall in love. Fall out of love. Gamble. Get drunk. See how long you can stay awake. Go for long walks at night. Discover what you’re afraid of doing, and then do it.
And finally, anything you can tell us about the Book of Dust? Will we be seeing it soon?
Not soon. The appropriate adverb would be ‘eventually’. It’s growing, but I’m encountering complexities that seem to be making it longer than I thought it would be.