Philip Pullman, best-selling author of the Dark Materials trilogy, is delightfully “ Old school” and a true Oxford gentleman. He kindly suggests we meet for tea in the Ashmolean Museum so I can get his perspective on writing…
By Charlotte Mountford
ask Pullman if he uses any particular software for writing his novels. I have been told there is a range of tools out there – which is best? For a second he looks stern, “the only software that matters is up here,” he says gesturing to his head, which is large and intelligent looking.
I should have guessed: he hand writes all of his manuscripts, not a computer in sight. He produces his pencil and pen, a very smart-looking ballpoint, housed in a fine green leather case. He gestures at me to take it, which I do, holding it very reverently.
Pullman has written many great books, including the Sally Lockhart series, but he is probably best known for his Dark Materials trilogy, of which Northern Lights is the first book. The latter was renamed The Golden Compass in the U.S., and recently made into a film starring Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig.
We order tea and he also orders chocolate cake, having seen a tempting piece on the adjacent table. Once we are settled I begin. So how do you write a novel? “I start at the beginning I suppose,” he says thoughtfully. “You need to know how to recognise an idea. Not an abstract one like ‘injustice,’ but an intriguing situation, about people. Then I ponder in cafes, sit, and stare, you know. My favourite haunts are the Oxford Moma café, as there’s no music to distract you.”
Regarding the concept of “story,” when Pullman sits down to write, he knows the ending, but not what will happen along the way. “And I know the beginning,” he adds. He stresses that something must always happen in the first chapter. “Boy stolen or murder happens. … Then the reader is desperate to know more. A lot of novels just drift from incident to incident. But you need to ask yourself, what has changed at the end of each chapter in the fundamental situation? You must advance the story a little bit.”
Pullman is off to central Asia next. Not literally, he explains, but within the life of his next book, “anywhere from Kazakhstan to Mongolia.” He doesn’t need to actually go there; instead, he reads and looks at pictures, paintings and objects in museums. “Maps are even better,” says Pullman, “or old guidebooks.”
So how many words do you try to write a day? “I don’t count words; I count pages,” is his response. How sensible, I think, and somehow much more organic. But still, I can’t resist asking how many words this adds up to: “about 1,000,” he replies.
Pullman only writes on one side of A4 paper, so he can make notes on the back. He writes three sides a day – never more – and he always goes over onto the next sheet by one sentence. “That way I’m never faced with a blank page starring at me the next morning.” He then begins the new writing day by reading over his last three pages.
I ask him what tricks he uses if he gets stuck. He tells me he just writes dialogue, which he personally finds much easier to write than narrative: “it’s amazing how fast
‘How are you?’
‘Great, thanks. You?’
will fill a page,” he laughs.
Pullman never wrote the Dark Materials trilogy for children, though it has become known as a genre for young adults. “It’s the height of cheek to pre-specify an audience,” he says, “though I suppose my latest book The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ is aimed more at adults than children.”
I ask him more about Golden Compass the movie – how involved was he?
“I didn’t want to be contractually involved, executive producer or anything,” he says. “I didn’t need the quarrels or arguments. One studio exec wanted me to turn the central theme of ‘dust’ in the novel on its head, another wanted to turn the main character, Lyra, into a boy!”
The third book in the trilogy, The Amber Spyglass, was never made into a movie, nor was the second, The Subtle Knife, largely because of the religious controversy surrounding the books. “Harry Potter took flak from religious groups, and though no one made much of a fuss over the Golden Compass movie, I knew they would never get to Amber Spyglass,” Pullman says wryly.
His Dark Materials trilogy functions partially as a retelling and inversion of John Milton’s epic poem, Paradise Lost. Pullman, like Milton is concerned with authority and freedom, and how these ideals interact with God and religion. In Dark Materials, God is portrayed as a tyrant.
“I am pleased the second film wasn’t made, and now it won’t be,” says Pullman, “the actress who played Lyra is now too old, Daniel Craig is now too expensive, and Nicole Kidman has twigged the books are anti-religious, which she won’t like at all.” (Nicole Kidman, it is revealed, likes to hold private audiences with the Pope.)
“But I’m very happy with the situation,” says Pullman. “Amber Spyglass is ‘the book they dare not film.’ ”
My last question to Philip Pullman regards structure. In a world where the art of narrative structure is so revered, and where many books are written and expensive seminars taken on the subject, I ask Pullman how he structures his novels. “I do it at the end,” he shrugs. “Structure is superficial. It’s much more about the tone of voice, the tone you tell the story in. Tone is fundamental.”