Philip Pullman & the Art of Storytelling
Children's book author Philip Pullman is a master of the craft; read The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage and you may agree.
As creative writers, we know two activities are essential skills to develop and habits to maintain: reading to excess and writing regularly.
Third on that list should be listening: to tutors, to industry professionals, and especially to authors. You can read about them, but taking opportunities to listen to them, preferably in person, adds a valuable perspective on their writing. Philip Pullman is a prime example.
On 5 November 2017, Pullman was in conversation with John Maclean, at Kommedia, Bath, to discuss his latest fiction title, The Book of Dust: Volume One La Belle Sauvage, and Daemon Voices: Essays on Storytelling, four hundred plus pages of non-fiction essays, articles and lectures. I’ve recently finished reading The Book of Dust, and in the absence of the next volume of the trilogy, I immediately wanted to start reading it again.
Not to give away spoilers to fans of His Dark Materials, if there are any who haven’t yet read The Book of Dust or to newcomers to Pullman’s works, but this brilliant volume has mind control cults, secret agents, an adorable baby, a charming yet devious man who should never be allowed near children or animals, a cast of heroes and heroines, and a cool canoe (the likes of which everyone should own).
Like the canoe, the story flows reliably along, even amid treacherous circumstances, then grabs you by the throat and shakes you when you least expect it.
Pullman’s storytelling abilities appear effortless but are in fact based on years of experience, and the support of an expert editor who knows his author inside out (but more on this later).
I have now attended two events where Pullman gave personal insights into his influences and writing processes, both of which inspired me to work on my own characters and story worlds.
The Bath event was organised by Toppings Independent Booksellers, who have a great annual programme of author talks, and I was there along with hundreds of other eager readers (someone in front of me in the queue had already read The Book of Dust twice), clutching copies of these books which we’d pre-purchased as part of our tickets to gain entry, with the promise they would be personally signed after the talk.
In 2016, I attended a much smaller event hosted by a psychoanalytic society. This was held in an oak-panelled library within Trinity College, Oxford University, and was reminiscent of the opening scene in Northern Lights. Pullman spoke then of The Book of Dust as a work in progress. As he’d agreed with friends not to cut his hair before this was finished, he was sporting a long grey ponytail, a look I wasn’t expecting.
(Now that the first book in the new trilogy is finished, the pony tail has gone, and Pullman looks more like his publicity photographs and considerably more relaxed; that may have been down to the difference in audience, one that wasn’t silently psychoanalysing him as he spoke.)
In Bath, Maclean introduced Pullman as being ‘humorous with formidable knowledge’ and a man ‘carefully curated on the art of storytelling.’ That opening set the scene for 50 minutes of anecdotes and insights on Pullman’s art of storytelling. What follows here are amalgamations of answers he gave to questions received from interviewer and audience members.
Pullman spoke fondly of Bath, having been awarded an honorary degree by the university and as one of three cities he would live in, the others being Edinburgh, and Oxford where he does live, and which is a major setting for both His Dark Materials and the first instalment of The Book of Dust.
When asked when he had begun to see himself as a storyteller, Pullman talked about the activity of storytelling. He had always enjoyed telling stories to friends and family. Living in Adelaide, Australia in 1956, and with no television he was introduced to American Comics, Superman, Batman, and radio stories. When he found out people could get paid for the activity of storytelling, he never looked back.
When asked whether storytellers are created or instinctual, Pullman’s reply indicated you work very hard for years and your reward is to be called a born storyteller. His advice to teachers and creative writers includes read a lot, write poetry and learn to read something aloud by heart. He says there is a whole world of stories to be told, and when training teachers he tells them to learn stories well enough not to read from a book.
When 11 he became intoxicated by poetry when in a new RE teacher’s class preparing for a school concert to copy the journey of St Paul. A group of sixth form boys entered the classroom and started to recite T.S Eliot’s The Journey of the Magi. He recounted how the phrases gripped his imagination and his body, and still remembers the impact. This was a story he also told at Trinity College, along with the advice that writing everyday should become a habit you can’t do without.
Where to start a story
Pullman suggests writers start in the middle of the story, en media res, referring to Milton’s Paradise Lost as an example, which starts at moment of the rebellion of angels and them being thrown out of heaven, not with the Adam and Eve. He stuck with this plot device thereafter.
It is obvious that writing is Pullman’s occupation, albeit one he enjoys. He remarked on Christopher Booker’s claim that there are only seven plots in the world, according to Pullman there are in fact eleven plots, and for a small fee he will tell you what they are (he didn’t give his list away).
He did however share a metaphor for building story worlds, which can be found in more detail in Daemon Voices; the path through the woods, where the path is the story or order of events and the woods are the story world.
The Path Through the Woods
Using Cinderella as an example, Pullman’s children’s story, "I Was a Rat", is told from the perspective of a boy whose path crosses that of Cinderella’s at two points; same woods, different paths. Pullman thinks of the path and then researches the story world. Pullman suggests writers store events in their memory that may be useful for future projects. At Trinity College, he described scenes in The Amber Spyglass where Lyra is in a cave in the Himalayas that were developed from events he witnessed at the Cotswold Wildlife Park some years earlier. When turned down for a grant to travel to the artic for Northern Lights, he turned to libraries instead for research on the artic and polar bears.
As important resources, we should utilise them. Pullman suggests we check out the returned shelf, as you never know what you might find. Battersea library’s return shelf was where he first came across Alan Ginsberg’s Howl, which seemed an important discovery for him. When later asked by an audience member for ideas on how to tackle library closures, Pullman voiced his frustrations with politicians who should be shamed, adding that a nation that shares books with its citizens is not frightened by them. Wherever possible he collars politicians and presses them to walls to make his point. He did not however, give a direct answer to the question raised.
Narration and readers
Pullman describes himself as a totalitarian despot while writing. He doesn’t know or think about the reader while he is writing, writing is none of their business, he comes first and then his editor. Readers all bring their own experiences and expectations when reading, interpretations can be varied and the reader decides what it means. He referred to William Golding, as someone keen you read their books properly, the opposite view point to his own. The meaning of book emerges between the writer and the book. He identified different personas involved with a book; the real author and real reader, the author the reader imagines and the reader the book expects. The narrator is not the same as the author. He cited Jane Austen as an example, the voice is thoughtful and eye sees everything, a narrator who goes in to characters minds, like a sort of sprite. He described the narrator in La Belle Sauvage and His Dark Materials as much the same, sprite-like, floating, in free-indirect style. The narrator in the Sally Lockhart series is very different.
Influence of La Belle Sauvage
Pullman described La Belle Sauvage, as neither a continuation, or sequel or prequel, though it is set 10 years before His Dark Materials, with Lyra central as a helpless infant, the setting based around the River Thames at Oxford and with characters introduced that become more central later in time periods. Pullman described Northern Lights, published 22 years ago, as the start of Lyra’s story, whereas it turns out now to be an example of en media res. Looking for clarification Pullman was asked how much of His Dark Materials do we need to know before reading La Belle Sauvage; it does stand alone in the fact it could be the first instalment of this story world that you read.
When asked about the importance and influence of editors, Pullman described his relationship with editor David Fickling. In 1985, chance had put the process of editing and publishing The Ruby in the Smoke in Fickling’s hands. Pullman had been impressed with his enthusiasm and they learned from each other’s knowledge. He says that Fickling can unerringly put his finger on when a story’s not working, saying “Do you think you can have a look at chapter 3?”, rather than being specific about what changes to make. During this time, a talk around vague ideas finally became a book. They had each studied Paradise Lost for A Level and could quote sections to each other. From this, Northern Lights eventually came to fruition. Pullman concluded that the editing process is very important, that some writers agree, and some don’t, and you can tell which.
The question of religion inevitably surfaced. Pullman described himself as a Cultural Christian; he was brought up in a family of faith with religious family connections. He still judges years and time by events such as Christmas and Easter. The questions he asks are, why is there something and then nothing? Why do we have to be good? Why do we die?
He referred to William James, who had varieties of religious experiences and he worries about religious bodies with political power, the power of life and death. At Trinity College, he spoke about the Inquisition, at Bath he cited current issues in Myanmar. To him, power, politics and religion don’t mix and these themes are reflected in The Book of Dust and His Dark Materials.
Pullman talked about his reworkings of Grimm’s fairy tales. People now know several versions of fairy tales, not necessarily the original. With Grimm’s Tales, Pullman wanted his versions to be as clear as water, as close as possible to how they were told, so he went back to the original translations and versions for his research. He chose 50 or 60 of the best for retelling and his favourite is "Three Snake Leaves".
A member of the audience asked if Pullman revelled in retelling stories, and whether he would be offended by that question. Pullman said that mature writer steals and immature writers imitate. He is glad to recognise quotations in people’s work and happy to put references in his books, saying that it enriches the soil. Though he takes care to steal books out of copyright, he did reveal he has recently stolen something from Lee Child, but he didn’t say what.
Stage, screen and collaborations
Daemon Voices is dedicated to Michael & Clare Morpugo. Pullman talked about War Horse and its success in book and on stage; he thought that His Dark Materials had been well received as a stage play at The National Theatre but did not have the same success as War Horse because it didn’t travel well; with rising and revolving stages, it was over stylised.
During filming for His Dark Materials, Pullman was treated with luxury, driven round in a limousine, meeting Nicole Kidman, but with no direct involvement in the filming. He was listened to a lot more during the stage production, was there for rehearsals, and was involved in changes. He said you can’t do that with film, as it is too expensive and scenes are not shot in order. With a play, interpretation develops over course of time and it is a much more fluid process. Time is the big difference between film and TV productions and stage productions. Progress is being made for the TV production of His Dark Materials, with 5 series of 13 weeks each planned at this stage.
Writing rituals and characters
Pullman believes that habit has written far more than talent. How much he writes depends on the stage of the process. When writing he completes 3 pages or 1000 words by hand, continuing onto the next page so the blank page is already beaten. He reiterated, habit is your best friend.
Pullman was asked why the Daemons in Lyra’s story world are of the opposite gender to their human and he explained that this was not planned and he is still discovering things about Daemons he didn’t know, describing it as a rich idea. Some characters are researched and planned, such as Lee Scoresby who was based on Lee Van Cleef. The interviewer referred to authors like Jonathan Franzen and Andres Woolf who say characters can stay around for 30 years. Pullman thinks he has characters with much more in them to be revived, such as in the Sally Lockhart series and The Book of Dust.
Pullman clearly does have formidable knowledge, and an experienced editor. Read The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage, and you may agree.
by Clare Heath