Interview: Best-selling author Philip Pullman talks to Your Move
Best-selling author Philip Pullman delighted audiences of all ages with his multi award-winning ‘His Dark Materials’ trilogy, which has been adapted for the stage and big screen and is currently being turned into a TV version for the BBC.
Following the release of the first book – ‘La Belle Sauvage’ – in his long-awaited new series ‘The Book of Dust’, which returns to the life of his lead ‘His Dark Materials’ character Lyra, the novelist will be heading to this year’s Liverpool Literary Festival. Your Move caught up with him ahead of the event.
Interview by Natasha Young
You’re coming to the Liverpool Literary Festival to talk about ‘La Belle Sauvage’. Do you get many opportunities like this to gather with fans of your work, and what can they expect?
Well I’ve been doing a lot of publicity with the release of the book, and also the release of ‘Daemon Voices – Essays on Storytelling’ but normally I try and remain a hermit because I’m quite busy and it’s the only way you can get long enough to work on a book.
What kind of impact did the anticipation from fans of ‘His Dark Materials’ and revisiting something so well-loved have on your writing experience with ‘La Belle Sauvage’?
I’d been aware that a lot of people were waiting for this book because people write to me. It’s been 17 years and I’ve been doing other things.
I knew there would be a certain amount of anticipation for them but I’m pleased they seem to like it, that’s the main thing.
I don’t think of the readers [when writing], I think of the story. I do what serves the story best and if the book turns out to be the sort of book that children would like then fine, but if it turns out to be a book that probably doesn’t have younger readers in mind then that’s fine as well.
Is the anticipation and your awareness of it heightened now because of the likes of social media?
It’s very different, yes. [Social media] sort of sprung into existence after the final book of the ‘His Dark Materials’ was published. Twitter didn’t exist, Facebook didn’t exist and the whole thing has changed. I get much more interest on Twitter than I do in actual letters now.
Do you feel the level of access people have to information and various mediums of entertainment at all times has changed your job as an author?
No I don’t think so because I write in the same way; I write novels which are printed in books on paper with ink and bound in single volumes and sold in bookshops – that hasn’t changed.
But I was reading, on Twitter as it happens, a post from the author Malorie Blackman who has pointed out that people now come up to her and say ‘we read your books on PDF’, meaning they downloaded them from a pirate site and consequently didn’t pay for them.
That’s a very bad thing and it’s not going to do the ecology, if I can put it like that, of publishing and bookselling any good at all.
Do you think it’ll affect the quality of literature that comes to the fore?
I hope not because I hope people who always want to tell stories and read stories will, and the amount of talent in the world doesn’t suddenly disappear because we’ve got a new bit of technology.
I suppose when the cinema came in they said it’d be the death of the theatre and it wasn’t, when radio and television came in they said it’d be the death of the cinema and it wasn’t, and when box sets and everything else came in they said it’d be the death of ordinary television and it hasn’t been so these things continue to survive. I’m sure books and reading will still survive.
‘The Book of Dust’ starts when the ‘His Dark Materials’ character Lyra is a baby and will also visit her later life. Did you always have a clear vision of that character’s past and future when you created her?
I was always intrigued to find out how it was that she ended up at Jordan College. I also wanted to sew those slow growing seeds that would come to flower 10 years earlier and 10 years later when Lyra is 20 years old. The second book [in ‘The Book of Dust’] will visit Lyra as a 20-year-old.
“If you saw ‘The Golden Compass’ film first you’d never be able to get Nicole Kidman out of your mind when you’re reading about Mrs Coulter but I don’t mind that actually.”
Although regarded as children’s books, your works are loved by children and adults alike. What’s the secret to telling stories that excite such a broad audience?
Several years ago when I was a school teacher I used to put on plays. That mixed audience – mixed in age I mean – was a very good one and I enjoyed making all of them laugh and want to know what was going to happen next or feel sad or whatever. I was just lucky to find that same audience for books.
I think the audience for ‘La Belle Sauvage’ is probably a little older naturally. I’m not going to say what age it’s for because it’s for anyone who wants to read it and if they’re too young they can just put it down and come back to it later, but I think the natural audience that the book probably seems to expect is not a very young one.
Your books have been adapted for the stage, film and television, with work on a BBC adaptation underway. How do you feel about others turning your work into something new, and how involved do you get?
I’m lightly involved, not very involved because I know there’s not much time or much room for the writer of the original story in the middle of an adaptation that’s got its own rules, its own ways of doing things and its own ways of telling things. The author of the original book isn’t always helpful, hanging about and making suggestions which nobody has the time for.
The other thing is that the book is still there. If there was a rule that, say, every time an adaptation is made of a novel all the copies of the novel must be withdrawn and burned then I’d feel very different about it.
But you must have your own picture of the characters that you’re creating?
Yes of course, you’re right. The actor who takes the part of a character I’ve written about has a big part in the way people respond to it if they’ve seen the film first.
If you saw ‘The Golden Compass’ film first you’d never be able to get Nicole Kidman out of your mind when you’re reading about Mrs Coulter but I don’t mind that actually, I’m quite happy with that!
Were there any books and authors that were most inspirational to you when you started writing?
Oh yes, Alan Garner. He showed you could write books with young protagonists in them that had very difficult, painful, complex and grown-up concerns. He continues to be a great model, a great inspiration to me.
You’ve received prestigious accolades as well as book popularity and influential status, but what do you consider your greatest achievement as an author so far?
‘Clockwork’ is a short book, a fairy tale, but I’m very pleased with it because it seems to me to have a perfect shape and that’s quite difficult to get right. That’s the book I’m proudest of, I think.
It’s very nice, very pleasing to get awards and that sort of thing but it doesn’t change the task at all. It doesn’t change the nature of the work – it’s still you and the piece of paper and a pen, silence and a table and a chair and that’s all you need really. That’s what it’ll always remain, that’s the important part of it. I know plenty of writers who deserve accolades and have never got them.
Liverpool Literary Festival presents Philip Pullman: in conversation takes place on 23 November in the Concert Room at St. George’s Hall.
For more information visit www.liverpool.ac.uk/literary-festival.