This wonderful interview was conducted by our very own IanG, so any compliments can be PM’ed to his address. Images are at the bottom of the article.
As I wait for Philip Pullman to arrive, I’m unsure quite what to expect from him. We’ve all read his books, we’ve read his newspaper columns, we’ve heard his views on subjects ranging from religion to education to literature (or are they all entwined?); yet what sort of person will he be?
And my questions, how will he react to them? Are they good enough? I’ve spent time checking the FAQ section at his website, and cross referenced them with the results of two polls online, and my own ideas. Does that make them original?
First impressions are good. Pullman comes out of the TV studio where he has just been interviewed by Lithuanian television. He looks quizzically at Helene Komlos Grill from ALMA (Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award), and we are introduced. He seems a perfectly normal person, although his attire of a beige suit, pink shirt, stripy socks, and a shoulder bag gives a hint that he may in fact be an author.
As Helene leads us to quiet place where we can talk, we discuss the book fair. The Gothenburg Book Fair, or as it is called in Swedish “Bok och Bibliotek 2005”, is almost certainly unique. A mixture between literary festival and trade fair, it takes place over four days, attracting around 110,000 visitors. There is the chance to purchase books at trade prices, attend seminars, sell the right to your work to foreign publishers if you’re a writer, or just browse. Pullman explains that he spent the entire previous day simply wandering around the fair. He casts a glance over the floor of the fair (we are walking along an elevated walkway), and adds: “It’s huge.” He doesn’t believe that there exists anything like the Gothenburg Book Fair anywhere else. “They have the big one in Frankfurt, but there isn’t much else.”
We choose a sofa and armchairs around a table as the venue for our talk. Making ourselves comfortable, Helene brings glasses of water, and I am able to formally start the interview. Knowing how eager all fans of His Dark Materials are to find out several philosophical and technical details relating to the book, I ask Pullman whether the armoured bears of Svalbard have Dust.
“That’s a very good question – and do you know, I have absolutely no idea. The question of whether armoured bears have Dust has never come into the story. Because it hasn’t come into the story, I’ve never thought about it. Obviously, if there was ever a point at which it became an element of the story, then I would have to think about it, and develop an idea or solution to the problem.” Pullman suggests that the best way to find out the answers to questions such as this one, are through discussion and consideration of what evidence is given.
I learn two things from Pullman’s response to this. One; that he probably can’t answer any other technical questions about His Dark Materials, and two; that he in fact approves of theoretical debate about his books and is happy for these to take place in internet discussion forums.
Pullman has been immensely successful, but the majority of his sales have been in English to English speakers. I’m curious to know whether more of his books are to be translated, for example into Swedish. Pullman says that he has been translated into 37 languages, and he expects more to come. Further translations into Swedish seem likely he feels, following his prize win. Before meeting Pullman, I had been checking in some of Sweden’s big chain bookshops to see whether they stocked his books. Several had only a few or none of his books in stock at all, and, considering he had just won a celebrated literary prize, no shop had him on display. I mention this to Pullman, but he wryly explains that as an author, you should never go into a bookshop looking for yourself.
“You end up looking everywhere for your own books, and if you don’t find them, you approach some innocent assistant saying ‘Where’s my book?!’” Pullman expands, saying that the only thing an author can get in a bookshop is paranoia; that no one is buying their books. He explains that he long ago learned never to be worried by what he saw (or didn’t see) of himself in bookshops.
I’m interested to know whether Pullman, with his increased fame can still walk the streets undisturbed. Pullman says that he generally isn’t bothered when out in the UK, but that it is often when he is abroad that people spot him. He gives an example, saying that he was asked for an autograph while in Prague. He says that he doesn’t mind being stopped provided that the people who do it are polite about it, and are genuinely interested.
A point of interest is Pullman’s involvement with Scandinavia and the North. Large parts of His Dark Materials take place in that region, and many of the characters are native to it. I’m interested to know whether Pullman, through his choice of setting, anticipated his future links to Sweden. Pullman finds the idea of him being telepathic quite funny, and explains that the choice of settings in His Dark Materials was purely for plot reasons. The region suited his plot, so he set it there. He adds “I’ve never even been north of Uppsala!”
However, he also says that the North has something very attractive about it, and you don’t have to go there to love it. He gives an example, by telling me about the latest book he read, which was An African In Greenland by Tete-Michel Kpomassie. He describes how Kpomassie, born in West Africa, had seen descriptions of snow and polar bears in a book at school, and he was fascinated. After leaving school he became a chef, and worked his way to the capital city on the coast. There he had worked for a while, before getting a job on a ship. He had moved on and settled in France. He continued working his way north, until he gained a position in Copenhagen, Denmark, where he met someone who offered him the chance to join a ship north. When he got there, he lived with the Inuit for a year. Pullman says that it was a brilliantly written book, and he recommends it to everyone.
Pullman does seem happy to be in Sweden for his second visit in connection with the ALMA, and he is obviously honoured to have been selected by the jury for the 2005 prize. While Pullman has won book awards in both the UK and the USA, where the majority of his readers are, it seems that he isn’t taken as seriously as an ‘adult’ author would be. I put it to Pullman that there is a difference between the British attitude to children’s literature, and the attitude towards it in Sweden. Pullman agrees about the divide between the UK and Sweden. “The big difference between the two is Astrid Lindgren.” He describes how she was a pillar of Swedish culture, literary and non-literary, and that her books are something which so many children of several generations have been brought up on. Pullman has a lot of respect for Astrid Lindgren, and everything she’s done for children worldwide. Another difference between the two countries, says Pullman, is that the Swedish government are prepared to give a large cash prize to the winner, in a state prize, whereas in Britain, it would either be impossible, or very unlikely for that to happen.
The next thing I want to question Pullman about, are the likenesses between some of his books and that of other authors before and after him. I point out that many parallels can be drawn between The Wolves of Willoughby Chase series by Joan Aiken, and both His Dark Materials and Sally Lockhart; especially a young heroine as the leading character, and the murky historical ambience created. I also point out that Coram Boy by Jamila Gavin is not unlike the works of Pullman and Aiken. I’m interested to know whether Pullman has been inspired, and whether he feels he has inspired others. Pullman admits that there is some resemblance between all the books, but that they are purely because of similar interests between the authors, and that they can be affected by the same sorts of things when writing.
Pullman talks about his admiration for the late Joan Aiken (author of amongst other titles, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase series, and the Felix Brooke trilogy), and says how sorry he is that she was never fully recognised for her contribution to literature. He feels that prizes like the ALMA should be given to people like Joan Aiken, who have done so much. Referring to the work of Jamila Gavin, Pullman says that she is an author whom he is much impressed with, and adds:
“Do you know that Coram Boy has been made into a play, and it’s going to be on this winter?” Pullman refers to the stage play of Coram Boy, adapted by Helen Edmundson for The National Theatre in London, which will be on from November 2nd until February 4th. (Pullman describes it on the National Theatre website:)
“A rich and almost gothic drama unfolds, full of dastardly villains, cold-hearted aristocrats, devoted friends and passionate lovers, and set against a background of cruelty, music, and murder.” Just from that description, one can see how similar Coram Boy and His Dark Materials are!
Recently, film adaptations of Pullman’s books have featured heavily in the press, with many rumours surrounding the much anticipated His Dark Materials film. Pullman is just as interested in the project as all of his fans, and says he is still actively involved. He’s satisfied with the new director attached to the film, Anand Tucker, and that he met just recently with him to discuss the film. Furthermore, Pullman has praise for the previous director attached to the film, Chris Weitz, saying that he is impressed that Weitz had the guts to say that he wasn’t the right person for the job and step down. Pullman stresses that the most important thing about the film is that the right Lyra is selected.
“She’s a normal girl, who’s somewhere right now, and she doesn’t know it, but she’s going to be Lyra. There’s that shadow hanging over her getting closer and closer, until she’s the one picked.” Pullman insists that only the right Lyra will make the film a success, and he states that Lyra must be young. He was impressed at how His Dark Materials was adapted for the stage, and thought that the use of adult actors was well done, but that would be no good for a film.
While the His Dark Materials film will come, eventually, something that we are due to see on our televisions soon is the adaptation of Sally Lockhart by the BBC. They will make each book (there are currently four books) into a full length film, with the intention of one being shown each Christmas over a period of four Christmases. Pullman is confident that they will be excellently done, and believes that the BBC have the capability to get them just right. I ask him what he thought of the BBC adaptation of I Was A Rat! and Pullman explains that while it was good, it wasn’t perfect. His biggest gripe, he says is the ‘padding’ used. He feels that the dramatisation which was in total three hours long would have been better with one hour cut.
Pullman seems keen to talk about Sally Lockhart, so with reference to his remarks in his newsletters that he will be writing more, I ask him what readers can expect next. Obligingly, Pullman proceeds to discuss plot possibilities for several minutes, and apparently the story teller within him is excited at the opportunity to predict what could happen to the characters next. Pullman starts by saying how much he enjoyed reuniting Jim and Adelaide, and that he may well write another book about their return to London. However, he could also see a future with Harriet as the lead character, when she is the same age as Sally was in the first book. Pullman is also intensely aware of the historical aspect to his books, and with reference to Webster Garland, suggests that he might adopt a plot with an early cinema theme. “Moving pictures!” he says excitedly. Many fans of Sally Lockhart felt that she was unfairly demoted in The Tin Princess and was only a background character. I ask Pullman whether he agrees with this. Pullman affirms that he did remove Sally from the lead role, and explains that he needed a younger lead character (in Adelaide and also Becky) for younger readers to identify with.
“Sally was, after all 25 years old in The Tin Princess” he explains. He says that while Sally may not be the main character again, she will certainly remain within the plot of any future books. Many younger fans of His Dark Materials are often under the impression that Milton copied Pullman, and that such plagiarism is immoral. Many readers of Pullman have acknowledged that he has often rewritten age old classics. This is seen in I Was A Rat! which retells Cinderella from a different angle. The Tin Princess is reminiscent of The Prisoner of Zenda. The Scarecrow and His Servant is a Don Quijote type story. And of course there is His Dark Materials, which is loosely based on Milton’s Paradise Lost. I asked Pullman why he had done this so often, and his response was simply that no author is ever original. Stories are old stories retold for a new audience. He is a storyteller, and that is what he does. He does become more specific though, taking my comparison of The Tin Princess and The Prisoner of Zenda.
“Razkavia, in my book, is actually more realistic than Ruritania in The Prisoner of Zenda. It has two superpowers involved, each trying to swallow the tiny nation that lies between them.” He explains how he has made the fictional country of Razkavia (if it existed it would lie somewhere in Prussia) historically realistic, while enjoying the chance to put more personality into it than exists in Ruritania. His favourite part of the book was that young illiterate Adelaide was made Queen.
Being an avid reader of Philip Pullman’s monthly newsletter like many other fans, I have often noticed how there is a theme to each newsletter, such as the role of the monarchy (following his meeting with Crown Princess Victoria of Sweden), or climate change. I ask whether Pullman deliberately set out in each newsletter to try and influence and change minds, or whether it is just his style. Pullman sounds happy to hear that anyone at all reads his newsletters. He explains that while there is no real purpose to them, he enjoys writing about things which engage him, and that his newsletter is one of the channels he has in which to put his case. Pullman says that Princess Victoria was a model future monarch, and that climate change is one of the most important issues of the day. I question him on one of his other outlets for his writing, the Guardian newspaper. He explains that like his newsletter, he writes about issues that are important to him, and will only write about things that he feels strongly about. The Guardian, he says, would like a regular column from him, but Pullman feels that if he did this, his pieces for them would have less meaning to him, and less effect on the readers. Articles from Pullman do appear occasionally, and they often have a big effect. His latest one was titled ‘I look forward to the dukedom this manifesto advice will bring’. Pullman laughs when I mention this piece, saying “The title was just a joke. The meaning of it was that there is no party in the UK who currently have good ideas. It was just a little advice for them.”
My next question I adapt from a suggestion I received in a poll online, where someone angrily asked whether they could ever expect to receive a reply from Pullman to their letters. I am more interested in how much post Pullman receives, and how many replies he sends. I mention that the author Tove Jansson apparently sent 6 hand written letters every single day. Pullman makes a face at the question and immediately replies to my query about how many letters he gets in a week “Too many.” He spends two days a week on his correspondence, and as anyone would agree, this is madness. He wants more time to write, and he wants to be writing books, not letters. However, the letters he is more likely to answer are ones which require a unique specific answer, for example, from students studying his texts. Letters which are believed by his publishers to be ones that would interest Pullman are sent on to him, and Pullman will reply to all letters that he is sent. Letters that only get as far as the publisher will receive a standard reply.
People often wonder how book covers are picked, and fans of Philip Pullman are no different, so I asked him who picks his covers, and how they are chosen. Pullman explains that while he doesn’t personally pick the covers, he believes they’re of great importance in selling a book. His personal favourite is the cover of Lyra’s Oxford, which he is very pleased with. Pullman also says that he now has some influence on the design of the books. For example, he is very concerned that there is enough space for an autograph on the inside page. The raven emblem which we have now seen a couple of times is to become Pullman’s new trade mark on his books, and will be appearing more often from now on. This new influence can occasionally extend so far as a say in what front cover is used. This is only possible with his UK and US publishers.
Using a terrible pun, I ask Pullman what he will do once The Book of Dust is all done and dusted. Pullman groans, having anticipated what I’m going to say. He says that he likes alternating one ‘long’ book, and one shorter fairy tale. So after The Book of Dust, we can expect to see another fairy tale, before a possible new Sally Lockhart book. Pullman doesn’t say how long he will take to write his new book, but he gives the impression that now he has finally settled down to writing it properly, we may see it sooner than we think. One thing that is clear is that he is a man with many ideas in his head.
I want to finish the interview on a light-hearted note, so I ask Pullman whether he will spend his ALMA prize money on more power tools. Pullman laughs, and compliments the Swedish government on the sum of money he has been given. However, he takes a serious note, telling me that he has in fact just promised to support the legal fees of the Oxford boatyard, which inspired him to write about the Gyptians, in their legal battle against the housing developers Bellway Homes. He says that while he can’t promise unlimited financial backing, he is going to do all he can. He says that just the last weekend he visited an open day there, and was further convinced that it has to be saved. Following recent developments (the boatyard won the first round of the legal battle), Pullman has high hopes for the future of the boatyard, and the home of the Gyptians.
My final question is, quite possibly, the most important of the morning. I ask Pullman how he feels about England’s recent win in the Ashes. Pullman gives an initially short answer: “Vindicated.” And chuckles. He then explains that his brother, who lives in Australia, has become an Australian himself, and after the first test had been crowing that England would be white washed. “I knew we’d win,” says Pullman with a smile on his lips.
Just as I thank Pullman for his time and for the interview, Helene is back, informing him that it’s time to move on, with Pullman asking her “Where next?”
Over the rest of the day I see him here and there in the fair. He takes part in numerous presentations and book signings, turning up at lunchtime for a discussion with the ALMA jury members. He reads the opening of his book The Scarecrow and His Servant, and he proves yet again that he is a story teller. He then stands and watches on, as the other winner of the prize, the Japanese illustrator Ryoji Arai, reads an entire picture book to the audience in Japanese. Pullman continues to wander around the fair, and I catch glimpses of him every now and then. In the afternoon, he gives a seminar in a packed lecture hall, in which he gives a 40 minute talk on what children need and can gain from reading. This develops into how a story may be told and the value of telling the story. He links this to his own work, and concludes that people need to be made happy. The best way to this is through story telling. His talk earns an extended round of applause from the audience. Out of all the seminars I attended during the weekend, his was by far the best. Later as Pullman arrives at yet another book stall for a book signing, he is holding a delicious looking ice cream. Unsure what to do with his barely eaten ice cream, Pullman swaps the ice cream with each customer for their books.
© HisDarkMaterials.org and Ian Giles
Published 6th November 2005