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Story first, plan afterwards

Tim de Lisle listens to Philip Pullman

Tim de Lisle | March 30th 2015

“Lyra and her daemon…” it begins, echoing Virgil’s “Arms and the man”. It grips you there and then (what on Earth is a daemon?) and doesn’t let go for three books. “Northern Lights”, the first book in Philip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials” trilogy, has now been with us for 20 years. It has become a modern classic, much loved, vastly popular (15m copies sold), adapted into a delightful play and a frustrating film. Lyra has become famous, a heroine so tough and resourceful that the label we stick on spirited girls, “feisty”, feels far too watery for her. And the idea of the daemon, the constant animal companion who reflects a child’s mood or a grown-up’s essence, has got under our skin.

Pullman, now 68, marked the anniversary by giving an interview to Nicolette Jones at the Oxford Literary Festival. He came into the Sheldonian Theatremajestic but cosy, and packedsporting a silver ponytail and moving a little stiffly. He had just cancelled another appearance because of illness, and halfway through this event he said, “I’m sorry, I’m not feeling very well, I’m going to have to go out. I’ll be back in a minute.” But, either side of this, he spoke just the way he writesrapidly, directly, with a sparkling energy. Here are 20 things he said that demanded to be scribbled down.

When asked what audience he had in mindchildren or adultsas he was writing. I don’t have any audience in mind. I think it’s best just to write and not worry about the audience. I’m like the storyteller in the village square. I tell my story and if people want to stop and listen, that’s great. If they put a coin in the hat, even better.

Reading is a democracy, but writing is totalitarianas the author, you have the power of life and death over your characters.

I used to write school plays when I was a teacher, and there you’ve got two audiences, the children and their parents. And you want them both to be interested in the same things. It’s not about putting in clever wordplay for the adults and silly slapstick for the kids.

I’m a cultural Christian, and I wouldn’t be anything else.

The key to the daemons was when it occurred to me that a child’s daemon would keep changing but an adult’s is fixed. That meant it could be a metaphor for adolescence, for innocence and experience.

If these books had been marketed to adults, they wouldn’t have sold nearly so well. They would have had to go in the fantasy section, and the fantasy readers would have bought them, but nobody else would have.

The first word of the first book is “Lyra”, and the last word of the last book is “Lyra”. The first word of the second book is “Will”.

The National Theatre production was marvellous, as good as it could have been.

The film…well, the first thing I thought about it was, what a lot of money, I’ve never had this much money before. It was very well cast. Dakota Blue Richards, who’d never acted before, was excellent as Lyra; Nicole Kidman was very good, and Daniel Craig. But I don’t think the film-makers knew what to do with the story.

In a play or a film, there’s the problem of what to do with the daemons when they’re not doing anything. In the book, you just ignore them.

There were two or three Lyras in every class I taught.

When asked why Lyra is so combative and sweary, and yet also wise. People have these depths, these valleys and mountains in them.

When Lyra hears that Will has killed someone, she knows she can trust him.

The characters have to walk into your mind rather than be made up. It really does feel as if I’m discovering, not inventing.

The creatures [armoured bears, witches] are people first and metaphors second. Otherwise they’re dead on the page.

Children are told that if they’re writing a story they have to make a plan first. My advice is, write the story first, make the plan afterwards. That way you’ll get better marks.

I would like to have been an illustrator.

“The Book of Dust” [the fourth “His Dark Materials” novel] is proceeding at the rate of three pages a dayglacially. I’ll need the rest of this year to finish it.

When asked, by a young reader, how he would write Lyra as a parent. Never thought about that. [Pause for thought.] I think she’d be quite good, because she’d be interested in other things than just the child.

If you’re stuck [while writing], if you’re really desperatedialogue:

“Hello.”
“Oh hello.”
“How are you?”
“Not too bad, thanks. How are you?”
“Not too bad.”

Half a page already.

The Collectors, a new “His Dark Materials” story, is out now as an e-book and audiobook

Read more:
Notes on a Voice: Philip Pullman
Cover profile: The dark arts of Philip Pullman

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