He doesn’t do many events these days, but not even Philip Pullman can say no to Carol Ann Duffy. That’s why we could all pile into the large lecture theatre at MMU to hear him talk about, well, stuff. And a little Dust, although we were left fairly much in the dark about it. Literally too, until someone finally switched on all the lights, and stopped switching them off again. (James!)
Sherry Ashworth acted the fan-struck moderator who wanted to know what most of us wanted to know. It’s reassuring that even Philip first read and loved Noddy, almost like a normal small person. He loved Arthur Ransome’s books, but not the awful illustrations, and he read Moomin, whose creator Tove Jansson was a real artist. The sex in the Alexandria Quartet made him want to grow up to be just like the characters in the books.
Philip enjoys being a ‘totalitarian’ when he writes. ‘I kill people, I bring them back to life, and I like it.’ Whereas when people read, they can read as they like, with no one seeing into their heads. Writing books, and persuading readers they want to read them, should be like sitting in the market, telling a story. People can stop and listen if they want, and they can pay a little, if they think it’s good.
There is a Lyra in every school class, and it’s love that Lyra does best. What Philip does, or so he says, is write three pages of Dust every day. He maintains there will be a book, eventually.
But one of the things that kept him from Dust was the archbishop’s challenge to write about Jesus, so that’s what he did. Philip said he thinks about God all the time. He also had to write the two short books set in Lyra’s world. (So that sort of explains the last six years, then?)
While Philip took a break, Sherry collected questions from the audience. It was a surprisingly young audience for an author who appeals as much to adults.
He reckons his parents were mainly surprised that their dreamy son got a book published, but he is sad they didn’t live to see his real success. His advice to get published is to write a good book, and not to plan too much. He planned his second novel so carefully he got bored and had to write something else instead.
The armoured bears came as a surprise when he was writing Northern Lights, and he feels that if you’re writing things at school, you should write first and plan after. That way the two will agree and you will get much better marks. Philip doesn’t believe in writer’s block, and says you have to sit at your desk, because that’s where the ideas will come, and if you’re not there you will miss them.
His reasons for writing are to earn money, and because it’s therapeutic. It becomes a habit, it’s fun when all goes well and he likes getting language right. (Who or whom?) Page 70 is always the hard one, and he once gave up reading a book after two words. (That was the Booker winner.) Don’t start with a pronoun, or you’ll drive Mr Pullman crazy, and steer clear of the present tense. He loves The Magic Pudding and has re-read it many times.
When asked how he feels the Golden Compass film could be improved on, he suggested it would have been a good idea to put in the scenes actually filmed but not used. He’d also have preferred the real ending, instead of a resolution coupled with a cliffhanger. By now Dakota is too old and Daniel Craig too expensive.
Thursday evening finished with a signing in the next room, and it was good to see the stampede as the audience tried to get there first.
We didn’t need to, because we had our own appointment with Philip on Friday morning. We ran a little late in the downpour, with our train deciding to sit just outside the station for ten minutes. But Philip had checked out, and sat in the Midland’s lounge when we arrived, so all was well.
Greetings from shared friends were exchanged, and we reminisced about our last interview in Gothenburg seven years ago (and still no Book of Dust!). We did talk Dust a little, but you’ll have to wait to read what Philip said. There is another book that has sneaked in, and we talked about the various campaigns he’s involved in, and many other things. The advantage of doing it this way round is that we could concentrate on what wasn’t mentioned the night before.
Philip worried a bit about the possible cost of the tap water we had ordered, but I suggested he make a run for it, so he left to catch his train south through the floods. We stayed on, nursing our iced water for a while, reluctant to go back out into all that other water.