Dubbed “one of the greatest storytellers of our time”, Philip Pullman was once one of us. His most vivid memories of student life, reading English at Exeter College, Oxford, were “Friendship, laughter, drink, and several private intellectual discoveries that made a great difference to me but had nothing whatever to do with the course I was studying. For instance, one of the books that had a great effect on me — it changed the direction in which I was going — was Frances Yates’s Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition. I found that by browsing in the Oxford public library. Another was Hans Jonas’ The Gnostic Religion. I found that in what used to be the Paperback Shop, where Blackwell’s Music Shop now is.”
Oxford in Pullman’s time was a very different city to the one we now experience. He recalls its poetic tranquillity. “I used to go on a walk past Nuffield College and then turn left into what used to be known as Paradise — an area of St Ebbe’s which was later cleared and ruined in a piece of vandalistic town-planning. It was full of odd little corners and neglected but richly picturesque little vistas. I made a sort of ritual of this. It’s all gone now. I suppose I was dreaming-of Lyra’s Oxford long before I thought of Lyra. Oxford has changed more in the past 50 years than in the previous 700.”
In Pullman’s view, the biggest change in Oxford has been the mixing of the colleges. “I think that has made the place vastly more civilised. It simply feels much nicer. What’s more, I think the care of students has improved beyond measure. It used to be very much sink-or-swim, and one or two of my friends sank. I don’t think they would have done today.” Pullman could be considered to have ‘sunk’. He graduated with a third in 1968 — while he got good marks at school for English, “I soon realised that English at Oxford was a different sort of thing, and I wasn’t very good at it, and furthermore that it would be of little or no help if I wanted to write myself.”
In retrospect, Pullman would have “stopped doing an intellectual subject altogether and taken up cabinet-making. I think I’d have been quite good at that. I would still have written, of course, but I’d have been able to earn a living doing something physical and craftsman-like, which, much later in life, I discovered I liked a lot.”
“If such a thing as a creative writing course had existed in those days, anywhere, I would no doubt have applied for that. But,” he continues, “I don’t think that would have done me much good either. We teach ourselves the most important things, or we don’t learn them at all.” I ask him what he thinks would constitute a good creative writing course. After a few moments he comes up with a suggestion. There is an old superstition, he says, that if you sleep on top of a specific mountain in Wales you wake up either mad or a poet. Why don’t we pack aspiring writers off to Cader Idris with a sleeping bag and see what happens?
Despite a successful career, Philip Pullman is remarkably humble about writing as a profession. He doesn’t believe in inspiration, claiming it hits him only two or three days a year. “The only thing that makes you a writer is the habit of writing every day.” He laughs at writer’s block – “I write three pages a day, by hand, as I have done for forty-five years. Sometimes it’s easy and sometimes it’s hard, but habit is a wonderful friend.” For him, “the major edit comes later”. What is important is the discipline.
“Never have a plan,” Pullman says, “the time to write a plan is after you’ve written the book”. He describes how once he spent three months writing a very detailed plan, but eventually got so bored that he threw it away and began an entirely different novel. “Structure is a superficial feature of narrative,” he explains – books can always be reordered, whereas “tone is fundamental”. Pullman also advises to “never start with a theme”. Instead, begin with an idea and see where it leads you. For him, the major turning point in the composition of Northern Lights was the idea of a daemon that changed shape for children but not for adults. With this idea in place, he explains, the narrative took care of itself. On the subject of inspiration he says that “Dreams are not much help. The best thing in dreams is the mise-en-scène, the décor, the costumes, the lighting. The casting is occasionally quite good, but the narrative is hopeless. Absolutely dreadful.”
Pullman’s most recently published book is a version of the Grimm Fairy Tales. Although “you have to put the classics in”, Pullman’s selection includes more obscure tales like ‘The Juniper Tree’, and ‘The Goose Girl up the Spring’. He is quick to explain that fairy tales are not ‘texts’, per se, but “the transcription of one performance on one occasion”. Pullman doesn’t have much German, but he describes how he loved using the process of ‘triangulation’ – reading several different English translations alongside each other for comparison.
When asked whether his new fairy tales are appropriate for children, he agrees that many are too ‘grim’. His Penguin edition is presented as an adult’s book, but he writes on the assumption that these tales will be “read aloud by Granny”, or that, at the very least, “parents should read stories first if telling them to a young child”. His own experience of writing school plays for a mixed audience of parents and children was a “blessing” that led him into writing children’s books. “The children’s book world is different to the adult book world – less bitchy”, he said, praising writers like Jacqueline Wilson, Shirley Hughes, and Susan Cooper. Pullman is of the belief that “children should be able to find pretty well everything they have to cope with in a book” and despises authors that dumb their fiction down to suit younger audiences. His one caveat: “I don’t want to leave a child in despair – there has to be some sort of hope at the end.”
Christopher Hitchens once described His Dark Materials as the modern-day Narnia series. Pullman did not seem very happy with this comparison. He considers C.S. Lewis a great critic, but when he wrote children’s stories, says Pullman, “the devil entered into him”. The Narnia stories contain “the nastiest kind of morality, too explicitly presented”. He recalls the exclusion of Susan from heaven in The Last Battle because she has grown into a woman. Pullman also recoils from the section in The Magician’s Nephew where Diggory’s mother is cured from her illness because he is good and resists temptation. This kind of morality is evil, Pullman asserts – it tells children that if you are a good boy then your mother will get better; if she doesn’t, it was your fault.
Pullman is self-conscious and critical about his work. He regrets not spending another six months on the final instalment of the His Dark Materials trilogy, caving to pressure from publishers and the public. He is hilariously cynical about the process of adapting his book into a Hollywood movie, deciding in the end that he wasn’t interested in being heavily involved with the process.
Pullman is under no illusions about the quality of the film. He is much more positive about stage adaptations, enjoying his involvement with the National Theatre production of His Dark Materials. Can you make a perfect adaptation? No, he replies, but short stories make much better films; there is less necessity to cut material. Pullman doesn’t seem to mind that his novel has been ravaged by Hollywood. As he points out, things have always been adapted. “The existence of adaptations doesn’t harm the book itself, and it’s nice to have the money.”