Philip Pullman – ‘In the books I’m in command’

Thinking back, I realise quite how influential Philip Pullman has been regarding our family’s reading habits, as well as how His Dark Materials led to what we do now, in more ways than one. He is a fantastic writer, but for us he is our fantastic writer. Perhaps it could have been someone else, but it wasn’t. We have met several times before, but it feels important to see Philip again, and to interview him, some distance away from the HDM years. He is sufficiently modest that he underestimates what he means to people.

It turns out to be surprisingly painless persuading Philip to agree to be interviewed when he’s in Manchester for the Children’s Book Festival. He suggests talking at his hotel between breakfast and his train home, the morning after his talk at MMU.

When we find Philip in the Midland’s lounge he’s comfortably seated at a table for two, so the first thing we do is move to somewhere that can take our larger group of four. I grab the armchair where I’ve got a good view of Philip, leaving my assistant interviewer Ian to share the sofa with Philip and his bags. Philip courteously asks if he’s all right for space.

Philip Pullman

Ian – ’I have enough room. I was experiencing how when you sit down you transfer the entire luggage balance ratio…’

Philip – ‘It’s good we have two cushions rather than one long saggy one.’

Once the lack of saggy sofas has been dealt with, we pass on greetings from shared friends, before I ask what has become a really important question for me.

BW – ‘I’ve heard dreadful rumours that you were not writing any more due to health reasons, but last night you said you still are.’

Philip – ‘Well, I’ve got a medical condition. Nothing I particularly want to talk about. But it makes travelling very difficult at the moment, and I have to rest quite a lot. It’s not going to stop me from writing. It stops me from getting everywhere to talk about it.’

BW – ‘I see.’

Philip – ‘But I wanted to come to Manchester, because it sounded like a good thing. It was a very good audience last night. Sherry was very good at conducting the conversation. And I signed a lot of books afterwards, so it went very well.’

Sherry Ashworth and Philip Pullman

BW – ‘I agree. What made you actually say yes to coming to the Manchester Children’s Book Festival? People have been impressed that they managed to get you to agree.’

Philip – ‘It was Carol Ann Duffy. I like her a lot and I thought that something she’s involved with would be rather good. And I’ve hardly done any events for some time.’

Ian – ‘I saw you speaking to Richard Holloway two years ago in Edinburgh.’

Philip – ‘Oddly enough, I’m going to do a radio interview with Richard Holloway on Monday, for a prom talk. Can’t remember what the music is, but he’s going to talk about Judas. He’s talking to me and Jeffrey Archer…’ We laugh.

BW – ‘Together?’

Philip – ‘No, no. Separately, separately. Which is Judas, I don’t know. Have you read Richard’s latest book? It is very good.’

Ian – ‘No, should I?’

Philip – ‘Very, very good. Extremely good. It’s not unexpected, given his general humanity, and breadth of mind, but it’s a wonderfully interesting, beautifully written book, which everyone should read.’

BW – ‘It sounds fascinating. Am I right in thinking that you have engaged yourself with many more campaign type things? When we last met it was Jericho, which now when you look back seems quite small, compared to the libraries, and education.’

Philip – ‘Well, only geographically. In terms of principle it’s very big.’

BW – ‘I agree.’

Philip – ‘And it’s still going on. The Jericho thing hasn’t been settled yet and it won’t be, until somebody turns up with a million pounds, which I haven’t got. But there is at least now a registered charity, which was set up in order to raise money to buy the ground, to develop it properly and to be used by the people in Jericho. I am still involved on the periphery. But there have been big things going on, like the libraries.’

BW – ‘We often see your name mentioned, or signing letters and petitions.’

Philip – ‘Well that’s easy, I just sign. Makes for no trouble.’

BW – ‘Is there one that’s more important than others?’

Philip – ‘If you look at these things, they are all aspects of a quarrel between money and people. People who think money is more important. I’m trying to think of a set of opposing terms.’ He considers this carefully. ‘God and Mammon if you like. Basically the interests of people in local communities or the interests of absent owners of large capital. They’re all about that. The libraries. The education thing very much so, and Jericho. And so, of course, is the big book issue at the moment, which is what’s going to happen with digital publishing and all that. Because as I said last night, one of the biggest questions is the future of the book. None of us knows how it will end. I fear it’s not going to end very well for writers.’

BW – ‘No.’

Philip – ‘Because, what do we do? We “just” produce the stuff. Other people process it, make money out of it. The rot set in, as Sherry said, with the end of the net book agreement, discounting the books. So many books for the supermarkets and the understanding has filtered into the public mind that books aren’t worth much in terms of money.’

BW – ‘You needn’t pay.’

Philip – ‘You needn’t pay because it’s all there for free, and the poor old author gets the rough end of the scale.’

BW – ‘Do you notice that, from your more exalted heights?’

Philip – ‘Erm, well, I’ve been fighting with my publisher, or my agent’s been fighting it out with her, about terms of royalty. But everybody is doing this. The only way to get round it is by being J K Rowling, and there is only room for one of those. Unless you wrote Fifty Shades of Grey.’ We can’t help laughing.

Philip Pullman

Ian – ‘I was desperate to ask you a question about that last night.’

Philip – ‘Ask me now.’

Ian – ‘I couldn’t think of one that would suit the audience.’

Philip – ‘The audience now is… very sophisticated and international.’

Ian – ‘Would you be tempted to rip off whatever next year’s big novel is, and turn it into some bondage fest of 500 pages?’

Philip – ‘Are you serious?’

Ian – ‘If you thought it would sell?’

Philip – ‘I wouldn’t even if I thought it would sell! No, of course not! No, it’s not what I do.’

Ian – ‘I didn’t think it was. I was curious whether there was temptation there.’

Philip – ‘I write, and I’m lucky in that I’m able to write the things I want to write. If I wanted to write it I would. Fifty-one Shades of Purple, maybe.’ We burst out laughing at this idea. ‘This is nothing to do with literature. It’s a phenomenon to reach sales, and marketing, that’s what it is. And it’s interesting as things are, but it has no literary meaning.’

BW – ‘The organisers of the book festival have been saying that you were going to talk about something, and then that you weren’t allowed to talk about it, and then you were allowed to talk about it. Is it The Book of Dust?’

Philip – ‘No, no. It’s simply my Grimm book, my book about Grimm’s Tales, coming out in September. I was originally planning to talk about it, but then my publishers Penguin said they’d rather I didn’t. My understanding is that if you talk about it, and you can’t go out and buy it, then people forget about it. And when it’s finally published no one will bother. It’s coming out in September, and I will be doing a few events. I can talk about it to you, but they’d rather I didn’t say it on the platform.’

BW – ‘Is that with Penguin or Puffin?’

Philip – ‘Penguin Classics, so it’s an adult book. Penguin Classics came to me, oh, I don’t know how many years ago, and asked if I’d be interested in doing a new selection, a new version of Grimm. They’ve got a complete Grimm, still, translated by Ralph Manheim. Very good translation. And they had a selected Grimm, which has been in print for about 30 years, and they wanted to have a new selection. And I thought there were a couple of problems with the selected Grimm that they’d got, and that I could do it better. So I’ve spent much of the last year reading all the Grimm, choosing 50 of the tales, and writing them in my voice and annotating them.

One of the things I wanted to do, was to use this as a chance to say something about stories. These are very good examples of a pure story, and I talk about when a good one works, and why, and why that one doesn’t work so well. Pull it apart in the middle and you can do this to it, and that to it, how they work better. I’ve taken liberties with quite a number of the stories and altered them and cut them a bit. Added to them a bit, turned them around.

Because this, as it says in my introduction, is not a text, it’s not something like the text in Alice in Wonderland which is, and is only, Lewis Carroll’s words and you can’t fiddle around with them. But these have already been told countless times, so I’ve taken the stories that I like, told them in the way I wanted to tell them and then used the chance to say something about how stories work. And I just love the whole business, it’s fascinating.’

Philip Pullman

BW – ‘So it’s more like your fairytales? Where you pick an old theme but do your own thing with it.’

Philip – ‘Yes, as I’ve done with Puss in Boots and Aladdin.’

Ian – ‘I’m curious, if you’ve annotated it, is it going to be a close reading experience? So that every time I see an annotation, will I have to go off to look at it?’

Philip – ‘No, I say that I’ve annotated. I haven’t put notes in it. After every story, I’ve got a few paragraphs… Different tellers have different styles and there is a woman called Dorothea Viehmann who told a dozen or so, and whenever I found a really good one, and I looked up to whom it ‘belonged,’ it turned out to be Dorothea Viehmann. I developed a huge respect for her.’

Ian – ‘Yes.’

Philip – ‘But other stories, other tales, have different styles, from different tellers. Two of the very best came from a painter called Philipp Otto Runge. Not all came in manuscript form, they had to write them down, and they have a very literary form, which is interesting to talk about.’

Ian – ‘OK.’

Philip – ‘The stories are not interrupted by numbers. You don’t have to read the notes if you don’t want to, but I hope you will find them interesting.’

Ian – ‘Oh no, I think that’s exactly the way it should be, but I enjoy the option…’

Philip – ‘My model for this was the Katharine Briggs Folk Tales of Britain, but she’s got the stories very much in the exact transcription of dialect words, dialect spellings, speech and so on, and I thought “I want to get that out of the way.” Anyway, that’s the thing I was going to talk about, but then chose not to.’

BW – ‘I was interested as to what it might have been. Will there be other short books about Lyra or about her world?’

Philip – ‘In the course of time, yes, I’m sure there will. The other thing I’m writing at the moment is The Book of Dust, which I’ve tried to write for so long. The sequel, or what you want to call it. It will, as I see it at the moment, be embodied in two volumes, which are collectively or jointly The Book of Dust, and it will come out when it’s ready. I’m getting on with it. But I’m not making promises.’

BW – ‘Have you felt pressured as regards Dust, because it’s been on the way for so long?’

Philip – ‘No.’ He thinks about this. ‘No, my publishers haven’t pressured me at all. Readers have, but they always do. You’re ready when you’re ready. I’ve done the things I wanted to do in the meantime, because I’ve needed to do them. Scarecrow, and I needed to do the Jesus book, because that story was pressing. I needed to do Lyra’s Oxford and Once Upon a Time in the North, because again they were stories I needed to tell. I wasn’t ready then to start The Book of Dust but now I’m ready to start.’

BW – ‘Does everyone you talk to keep saying “what about Dust?”’

Philip – ‘They do, but I’m glad they do it.’

BW – ‘That they’re interested, yes. Helen was wondering if there will be more books about Sally Lockhart?’

Philip – ‘Well, I’ve got at least four stories I want to write. Once I’ve got The Book of Dust out of the way… I like those characters. I want to come back to them. I like that world. I know it well and I want to enjoy it by writing more stories. So if I’m spared, I shall give you more Sally Lockhart.’

BW – ‘We were talking about the television films made of the Sally Lockhart books and saying like you did about The Golden Compass film last night, about Dakota having become too old, that we’ve now got Doctor Who who presumably is not going to go back to being Jim.’

Philip – ‘He’d be a jolly expensive Jim!’

BW – ‘Yeah.’

Philip – ‘I always thought he was too old for Jim anyway. Lovely man, but he was just too old. Jim is a boy. They got it all wrong.’

BW – ‘Yes.’

Philip – ‘Billie Piper is a lovely actor and a charming young lady, but she’s not Sally, and I think she knew she wasn’t. I don’t think she was comfortable playing Sally at all, but casting her put the whole thing at the mercy of her schedule, which included having a baby at one point. Furthermore, although the scripts are good, the direction wasn’t and I would gladly strangle the director of the second programme…’ We laugh.

Helen – ‘I didn’t like the second one.’

Philip – ‘No. The first one was all right. The person didn’t care at all about the setting or the story. It’s a realistic story, and they need to be put into a setting that is realistically Victorian. The one thing about Victorian street scenes is every single man is wearing a hat. You never see a bare head, yet the director had Jim and the other characters walking about without hats. After I saw it, I asked “why weren’t they wearing hats?” Oh, he didn’t like hats! I thought it was an absolute disaster, and we talked at some length about the third one but it was clear that he was going to mess that up as well, which is a great pity.’

Philip Pullman

BW – ‘I would have thought that Tiger in the Well might be rather complicated to film.’

Philip – ‘Yes, it’s a long story, a deeper story, it needed time to form. They were going to make it fast-forward. But there will be more Sally books. In the books I’m in command; they all wear hats.’ This makes us laugh.

Ian – ‘What about the stage plays? Since we last met there have been the Scarecrow in London, and there was The Firework-Maker’s Daughter.’

Philip – ‘That’s right. There was a delightful Scarecrow and I think somebody else is going to do Clockwork. There was a Clockwork opera, which was given quite an elaborate production. The trouble was, I kept thinking, “wouldn’t it be a good thing if they stopped singing?”’ We laugh. ‘I think Clockwork would make a very good play. Nobody’s done it yet. I’ve enjoyed them all. I haven’t written any more plays. It’s quite tight, physically, to do a play that fits a particular space. It can’t be transferred to another space. Unless you’re David Wood.’

Ian – ‘So do you think that the issue of space is a big one? Because it’s interesting how His Dark Materials relied on the Olivier theatre. I saw an adaptation in Dublin in -07, where they were very creative in getting round the fact that they didn’t have the Olivier.’

Philip – ‘Yes, you might do it. It’s going to feel cramped. Really it was written for the Olivier theatre, and that production is so stunning it couldn’t transfer. War Horse apparently is a simple thing, you have a stage and you put horses on it. You can take that anywhere. [His Dark Materials] was really impossible to move, but it was a wonderful production, and I’m very, very pleased with it.’

BW – ‘When you talk about writing plays; how much have you been involved in actually writing stage adaptations?’

Philip – ‘Not very much, Nicholas Wright did the material and I saw it on the stage and I was there for a lot of rehearsals, read-throughs and so on, and if I had any points to make I did, and they always listened, and they took on board what I was saying. But I left it to them. I love the theatre, I love working with actors, I like the whole business. But I write novels, and it’s too late [to change] now.’

BW – ‘We went to the Pegasus fundraiser some years ago. Are you still involved with it?’

Philip – ‘Yes, Pegasus is a wonderful place. They named that stage after me. Beautiful building. The stage facilities are second to none, and they’re doing great.’

BW – ‘I thought what they did at the fundraiser was impressive, and seemed like such fun.’

Philip Pullman

Ian – ‘I have a question I wanted to plant on the children in the audience yesterday evening. This would sound much better coming from a ten-year-old than from me.’ We laugh. ‘But, I’m curious, does His Dark Materials sell these days?’

Philip – ‘It certainly does, but I don’t look at them [the sales figures]. I’m not interested.’

Ian – ‘But royalties are still coming?’

Philip – ‘Well yes, I’m still making a wonderful income.’

Ian – ‘I’ve stopped buying more copies. I decided enough’s enough.’

Philip – ‘Oh no, you need more.’

Ian – ‘All right, I’ll arrange that, then.’

BW – ‘The average person seems to believe authors are very rich, and that their books keep selling… but it’s been a few years now, and I wondered if other books have simply taken over?’

Philip – ‘There’s a new phenomenon every couple of years, isn’t there? I mentioned  Michael Morpurgo; his other books have all done terribly well and that’s very nice. There are plenty of other people who deserve to… Anne Fine for example.’

BW – ‘Yes, I agree.’

Philip – ‘A wonderful, wonderful writer! She hasn’t had a hit on the War Horse scale, but she deserves one.’

BW – ‘There are many like that. I was just curious whether someone like you also suffers when the new vampire or dystopia comes along?’

Philip – ‘Obviously I’m not selling as many as I did a few years ago. Once I realised I had enough money to pay the bills, I stopped being interested. I can still pay the bills.’

BW – ‘Mm, that’s nice.’

Philip – ‘It’s very nice! And I’m very lucky. Maybe the day will come when I can’t. I shall have to retrench, or…’

Ian – ‘Tour endlessly.’  Philip groans.

BW – ‘…and here is old Philip Pullman!’

Ian – ‘Like the Rolling Stones.’

Philip – ‘At the stadium…’

Philip Pullman

Ian – ‘You alluded last night to the issue of royalties being squeezed. Do you think the risk for writers of fiction is going to end up being the same situation as writers of monographs and textbooks have had, paying hundreds of pounds not just to self publish, but to a “real” publisher?’

Philip – ‘If that happens, I will stop. Because academics who do that, have a salary to live on and can subsidise the publication of their book. The full time novelist has no other money coming in. Someone’s going to have to think about this quite hard. The big retailers are clearly unaware of it. They think the stuff is just there, but at some point somebody will have to realise these books don’t just make themselves. Someone’s sitting down working quite hard in the first place.

All those pirated editions of Twilight being sold across the Atlantic. She’s made a fortune in England, but all the same, that didn’t justify the Americans publishing the book for nothing. And the terrible model I mentioned last night; the music, where sales proceeds are falling, income is falling, dwindling to practically nothing, but young groups still put out music.’

BW – ‘Because they want to.’

Philip – ‘It’s sheer robbery. Creative people, whether they are painters, writers, musicians, should be paid properly. That seems to me absolutely essential. It has become so easy to steal. It’s as if barbed wire suddenly vanished so there were no more fences. Now it’s possible to steal artists’ work without being punished.’

BW – ‘Yes.’

Philip – ‘That seems to me wrong. The government should do something about it.’

BW – ‘Last night when you mentioned Unbound, I wondered whether you’ve ever thought about self-publishing, on Kindle for instance? Other authors now do this a lot, either with older books, or if no one wants their new book.’

Philip – ‘Well I thought of it, but it is so much bother and I don’t need to at the moment, because I have a happy relationship with all my publishers. They still publish my books, and they all sell reasonably well.’

BW – ‘So you never pitch ideas at anyone and they go “oh, no”?’

Philip – ‘I’ve never pitched an idea in my life!’

BW – ‘People come to you.’

Philip – ‘I write things and when they are finished someone will publish it. No, I’d hate that, pitching an idea.’

BW – ‘There are so many excellent authors who are doing badly…’

Philip – ‘Yes, there are.’

BW – ‘…while rubbish is being published and hyped and sold.’

Philip Pullman

Philip – ‘There will alway be rubbish. But those who produce the rubbish know there’s more money. And those who produced mid-range books made a living, because the library service would always guarantee orders. People could make a living writing books, that people could read and enjoy. It seems to me that is as it should be. In a ferocious world it has to be a bestseller or die, and it’s a rather bad state of affairs.’

On that sombre note we release Philip to gather his bags and go catch his train south, on a day when countless train tracks have been submerged by the sudden July floods. I’m not surprised he doesn’t want to be a travelling show.


11 responses to “Philip Pullman – ‘In the books I’m in command’

  1. Pingback: ‘My’ Pullman interview | Bookwitch

  2. Katherine Langrish

    Mmmmmm. Couldn’t agree more with nearly everything he says, and as you mention, some sombre thoughts there. Has left me feeling rather Monday-ish, but at least we can look forward to the Book of Dust!

  3. Mavellous interview. And can’t wait for the Grimm. Hurray!

  4. havealittletalk

    Worth the wait. Such a rare treat: an honest man rendered honestly. Thanks!

  5. Pingback: Philip Pullman Interview | educating alice

  6. Nice work as usual, Miss Witch

  7. Thank you. One day I will be coming for you, McKinty!

  8. Just discovered you, Bookwitch, and a wonderfully candid interview with one of my literary heroes. Thank you! Btw, are you going to Faber’s debs delight in London on September 25?

  9. Pingback: Bookwitch Interview with Philip Pullman | | His Dark Materials, Philip Pullman, and other ideas…

  10. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this interview. He’s a true artist who loves his art form for what it is rather than for the sale. I’m so glad he’s at that point in his career because his readers are the true beneficiaries. Oh, and this brought many smiles . . . ‘…In the books I’m in command; they all wear hats.’ Fabulous!

  11. I know. There speaks a true wordsmith and thinker. Although Philip probably wouldn’t agree.

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