Please bear in mind that I was extremely giddy and I’m a horrible fake-journalist, so I may have put words in Mr Pullman’s mouth. Apologies in advance.
Grab a brew, it’s a bit of a long one.
I’m not sure about you but when I go to an author talk at a children’s festival (you know, like… every day, obviously) there is always that small fear that I’m going to be the oldest person there. It didn’t help when I rocked up at the Geoffrey Manton Building (after getting a bit lost and having to ask for directions from a lovely and helpful man, there is so much scaffolding in Manchester and hardly any maps! Sort it out, MMU!) that the average age in the foyer was about 14.
So I lurked in the corner, trying not to make eye contact for a couple of minutes trying to look like I fit in with people. Don’t worry, the grown ups got their eventually and they were even more excited than the children. Whoever says that only kids can read ‘kids’ books should’ve seen us all… we would’ve made them eat their high-brown ‘literary’ book.
Anyway, then the crowds started to disappear and I approached one of the very helpful volunteers and asked her which room we were in. It was about quarter past six at this point and the talk didn’t start until half past and she was like ‘HA, you want to get as close as you can to him, do you?’ in a joking manner. I laughed, also in a joking manner, but… seriously… that’s exactly what I wanted to do.
Anyway, skipping the boring parts of me getting my dress trapped in my seat and maybe giving the posh looking man behind me an eyeful and nearly spilling an entire bottle of Diet Coke over the oblivious girl in front of me (speaking of the girl in front of me, she had a note pad and was making notes all over the place too. My fellow-blogger sense was tingling) and we’ll get onto the main show.
I didn’t take any pictures by the way because, well, basically… it was a lecture theatre. There was an OHP and a lectern. You can imagine that, right? Come on guys, don’t let me down.
The man himself entered by the side door, which I don’t mind admitting I was a little bit disappointed with. I mean, surely he could have rigged up some kind of light show to create the illusion of him tearing a hole in the universe and like, leaping through it. Maybe he just didn’t feel like it but I can’t help but think he missed a trick with that one. Sherry Ashworth, a senior lecturer in Creative Writing at MMU, lead the discussion.
The first question was about Mr Pullman’s literature touchstones or, basically, what books he read when he was younger and the ones that made him the writer he was. First thing he said, to my utter joy, was Noddy by Enid Blyton. Especially Noddy Comes to Toy Town. Isn’t that just brilliant? He also mentioned Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories and, much to my completely happiness, Superman and Batman comics. If you’re a Philip Pullman fan and you know a bit about him, you might know that his dad was in the RAF so the Pullman clan moved around a lot. When he was in Australia, he explained how he discovered these comic books because you couldn’t buy them in England. Now these are the retro comics before, and these are his words not mine!, Batman became “self-conscious and post-modern”.
He also cites Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome as one of his favourite books and also the Moomins! Then he went on to discuss his love for Evelyn Waugh, not Brideshead Revisited, though, but Vile Bodies. Now, you might not know this, but after I read it for my British Writers of the 1930s module at university, Vile Bodies became one of my all-time favourite books. So I imagine, if I ever get over my fear of talking to him, Mr Pullman and I will have the most amazing conversation about that book over tea. OK, who am I kidding? If I was allowed to talk about books with Mr P, I’d need vodka.
Anyway, the next questions Ms Ashworth asked was whether his writing for children was a deliberate thing or whether he just wrote and let it find its own audience. He told us a story from when he was a teacher (I’m not entirely sure about the ages, but he said something about them being Lyra’s age… so 11/12, I’m guessing?) and he wrote school plays. He explained how he wanted all of his audience, whether they were pupils or teachers of parents, to enjoy the play. He wanted them to “laugh at the same point” and “gasp at the same point” because the best audience, to him, is a mixed one. You only had to look around the faces in lecture theatre to see that he managed to achieve getting his ‘best’ audience. The age range was magnificent.
Mr Pullman then went on to say how he felt more adults bought His Dark Materials because it was a children’s fantasy. He felt that if it had been marketed just a fantasy that a lot of adults wouldn’t pick it up because… urgh fantasy. Adults know what they like, he said, but with it being a children’s book they were more likely to try it out to see if they like it.
When asked about whether he thinks about the audience when he writes, Mr Pullman laughed and said “It’s none of their business!”. “Writing is a totalitarian business”, he explained. When he’s writing a book, he’s the one in charge. He can choose what a character says, does and even when they live or die. It’s only when the books becomes published and is released into the world that this changes because, “reading is democratic”.
The next thing he said I absolutely adored, and I thought it was extremely important (especially with all the shenanigans that’s been happening recently with the reader vs writer thing) : “How you read my book is how it should be read.”
Isn’t that glorious? And so, so true.
And when Mr Pullman asked what kind of audience he wanted he said one “that’s as big as possible”. Cue laughter… except from me who practically belly laughed. That was the thing that I loved most about listening to him speak, he is so down-to-earth and normal. Maybe this is just me but I always think that my favourite authors are on another plane to us mere mortals but he is extremely witty and has a great sense of humour.
Actually, while I’m talking about Mr Pullman as a person as opposed to Mr Pullman as an ‘OMGILOVEYOURWORDSANDBRAIN’- I have to say how, after sitting and listening to him talk, he is an absolute story teller. If you’ve read his books, you’ll know he has this unique way of catching and keeping your attention…. He has that in real life too. I just want to listen to him talk all day. Can someone sort that out? Cheers.
Anyway, back to what you’re here for. Ms Ashworth then asked him about how he feels about publishers and the trends in YA fiction. She wondered whether Mr Pullman felt that these trends reflected the culture or were, in fact, invented by them.
He explained that he sometimes felt that publishers get hypnotised by these trends and publish books that are similar to best sellers of the last year. “Publishers aren’t creative, they’re administrative,” he explained. I think a lot of people, me included, forget that publishers are out to make money at the end of the day. Sure they want to publish books that they feel passionate about, but they want to publish books that will sell. It’s a shame and it can get incredibly dull for people who read a lot when all the books are the same, but it’s what sells.
However, Mr Pullman gave some great advice to those in the audience that were interested in writing. “Write exactly what you want to write, nothing else.” He explained that there is no point looking what everyone else is doing. “J.K Rowling didn’t. I didn’t.”
And then we made it to the main event. His Dark Materials.
Warning…. Warning. Spoilers. Go and twiddle your thumbs or make a snack if you’ve not read this yet. I’ll tell you when you can come back.
With my fan girl kinda subdued I made sure I was ready to write this next bit down because I knew that’s what you guys want to hear about.
The subject of Lyra was the first thing that was brought up, more specifically what Mr Pullman’s relationship with her was. He explained that “she appeared to me” and he always knew that the main character of this story was going to be a girl. Philip Pullman used to be a teacher (like I said before) and he said that every class of his had a Lyra. She’s an extremely ordinary girl and that’s why so many people have connected to her. “There are lots of girls like Lyra and there are lots of boys like Will,” he said.
Pullman explained that the most important part of the story, the moment the whole series leads up to is the part where Lyra is in the world of the dead and she’s looking for Roger. The children down there are asking her what it is like in the world of the living. As she is a story teller and a natural liar, she realises that she has . He told us that the reason why Lyra could cope with everything is because she is like “many, many children.” She is fearless.
She may be brave and fearless and adventurous but Mr Pullman believes that Lyra’s most important quality is love. She “is capable of giving enormous amounts of affection. It’s what she does best.”
And, if you’ve read the series, I’m sure you’ll agree that that is the most important part of the book. It’s my favourite part of the book, anyway.
Then… *deep breath*… the ending. Yep. You all know how this series ends. If you don’t… then why are you even reading this post? There are Philip Pullman books to be read! Go now! Seriously…. Go now. Because there are spoilers next.
As you all know, the final few chapters of The Amber Spyglassare some of the most heartbreaking ones in all of literature. Will and Lyra are told that, in order to stop all the Dust escaping through the portals that the subtle knife opens, all the windows between the worlds have to be closed. Except Will and Lyra are from different worlds…
Ms Ashworth wanted to know whether this ending was a way of Mr Pullman suggesting that there will always be a cost for travelling to different worlds and a downside to imagination. I didn’t write down his exact answer because you can’t mention the end of this series without me staring into space and piecing my soul together, so… um… sorry about that. But when I came to, Mr Pullman was explaining how “Both Will and Lyra have to learn that there ain’t no elsewhere….This is the best place. It’s the only place.”
Being the huge geek I am, I immediately thought of the final page in The Amber Spyglass and the part where Lyra is talking to Pantalaimon about Will and elsewhere.
“Pantailamon murmured, “That thing that Will said…”
“On the beach, just before you tried the alethiometer. He said there wasn’t any elsewhere. It was what his father had told you. But there was something else.”
“I remember. He meant the kingdom was over, the kingdom of heaven, it was all finished. We shouldn’t live as if it mattered more than this world, because where we are is always the most important place.”
<3 Sigh. Love.
YOU CAN COME BACK NOW.
Did you bring me a snack?
Then the word “sequel” was thrown about and everyone (well… when I say everyone, I mean me) got all giddy and I lost my grip on my pen and my writing became illegible. As you might know, Mr Pullman is writing a sequel to His Dark Materials. It’s going to be called The Book of Dust and it’s going to be set four years in the future. He didn’t give many clues away except that Lyra was going to be around the age of finishing college/university and “Lyra would make something happen.”
Oh and also… he’s averaging three pages a day.
Then the floor was opened up for the audience’s questions. Someone wanted to know the secret of getting published. And… it is… “write a good book”.
I can’t help but agree. He explained that there isn’t a secret to get published and it just comes down to one thing: if agents want to turn the page, your half way there. If agents want to read the next chapter, then you are there.
And in response to the question about whether he knew the whole story (of His Dark Materials) or whether it was a voyage of discovery, he answered that it was a bit of both. Mr Pullman advised that you should never over plan a book or else you’ll kill it. He said that he always knew that HDM would begin and end with Lyra.
Quite literally. The first word of Northern Lights is ‘Lyra’ and the last word of The Amber Spyglass is ‘Lyra’.
I had absolutely no idea that that was true but I adore it. Lyra is my favourite literature character, hands down. This book does begin with Lyra and it certainly ends with her.
That’s Mr Pullman’s advice for people struggling with writer’s block. Well, actually, he doesn’t believe in writer’s block. He explained how, to him, a writer saying that they had writer’s block was the same as a plumber or a doctor saying they had ‘plumber’s/doctor’s block’. I have to say, I agree. Sure I get stressed out and annoyed when something in my WIP isn’t working, but I always get there in the end! He said that he has no idea where ideas come from but he knows where they go: “My desk. And if I’m not there…”
On the subject of his motivation, Mr Pullman says that, at the end of the day, it’s his living. He also discussed how it was “therapeutic” because without writing, he’d go mad. There is also the sense of habit and that personal joy when it’s going well. He said that when he’s struggling on a book (FYI: It’s normally around page 70, he said. I’ve flicked through to page 70 and they’re brilliant!), he feels like he’s accomplished something when he’s solved the puzzle and everything has sorted itself out.
And then, the final question, was about the film the… and I can’t even bring myself to type this… The Golden Compass. *twitch* It will always be Northern Lights to me, but whatever.
I actually quite like the film, I don’t think it’s as bad as people say it is. This is mostly because of the cast which I think is pretty much perfect. But, of course, any film would struggle to do Mr Pullman’s story justice. (Like Flann said, yesterday!)
Pullman explained how that the author is the story teller of the book but when it comes to the film, it’s the director that takes over. Apparently, and it makes me sad just to think about this, the studio actually wanted to turn Lyra into a boy! Thank goodness that was ignored. I liked how down-to-earth and honest Mr Pullman was at this bit because you could tell, completely understandably, how disappointed he was at the film and the fact that the sequels will probably never get filmed. Or if they were, they’d have to re-cast everyone. He actually said that he had told Dakota Blue Richards (the girl who played Lyra) that he’d put in a good word for her to play Mrs Coulter if they ever made them again. And then he said that Mr Daniel Craig, Lord Asriel, is probably a bit too expensive now! He mentioned that, at the end of the day, he just had to accept it and go home and “count all the money”.
Good on him, I say. And also… LOL.
But then he said, that if he had his way, he would have Northern Lights turned into a 24 part TV programme because to him, that’s the only way the story would have time to be told properly.
THIS NEEDS TO HAPPEN THIS SECOND. NOW. NOW.
And then we all scrambled to the queue and pretty much EVERYONE got one of their books signed and of course I was standing at the back but I met a wonderful lady called Jo (Only wonderful people are called Jo) and we were fangirling all over the shop and ALSO she told me her husband is a children’s author too. He wrote Space Lizards Stole My Brain!, which sounds pretty much amazing.
Anyway, because I seemingly have an inability to function around Mr Pullman I kind of just squeaked at him, blushed furiously, posed for an incredibly awkward picture with him and ran away as quickly as I could. I had a whole speech written as to what I was going to say to him but nope…. In real life, I’m just flailed. I’m a flailer.
I know; I’m a ridiculous human being.
So unfortunately, I don’t have any brilliant, snappy snaps of the witty and hilarious conversation I had with him what he said to me and how amazingly we got on… because, like I said: FLAIL.
Here is a picture of Mr Pullman and part of my dress, so you know I’m actually there and I’m not just really good at guessing what authors say in talks. But seriously, I look like an absolute fruit loop in the picture. My face, it looks rabid.
And he signed my book for me!
But there you go! I know I didn’t do the speech justice and I’ve missed absolutely loads out but this post is already incredibly long. Just e-mail me if you want to know more and I’ll witter on for longer! But I hope you enjoyed it! If you ever get the chance to see him speak… or even eavesdrop on one of his conversations, I urge you to do it