Philip Pullman is a bit like a bear with a sore paw, as a friend has described him. But beneath a gruff exterior he is by turns charming and patronising — although in the nicest possible way.
He is, in fact, a curious mix of defiant schoolboy, bookworm and businessman and although when I meet him he is in the middle of having lunch with some fans (they came to speak to him after a talk he gave and ended up dining together), he gracefully excuses himself and makes his way to the green room — a side room in Christ Church’s Tom Quad — to be interviewed. Pullman, who was at Exeter College, describes his own university days as, “a bit sink or swim”.
In typical Pullman style, he gives a somewhat contradictory account of his time here: “I enjoyed it, I had a great time. It was the late sixties and we did all the things that you did in the late sixties none of which I look back on with any pleasure at all. It was useless for me, this place. Or I was useless for it.
Pullman says he did not really enjoy the English course and he would have gone to art school to learn how to “make furniture” had he not been forced to choose Latin instead of Art at school. “I thought I was doing quite well until I came out with my third class degree and then I realised that I wasn’t — it was the year they stopped giving fourth class degrees otherwise I’d have got one of those.
Nevertheless something about Oxford clearly grabbed him, and he continues to live nearby, getting involved in local issues. Moreover, his most famous character — Lyra Belacqua, of the His Dark Materials trilogy — is raised amidst the spires of Oxford. The Oxford that Pullman creates, however, is far darker than the one most of us will be familiar with.
Why did he choose this juxtaposition of a young female character in a world of stuffy old men? “It was interesting to put her in that, just as it would be interesting to take an Oxford don and transport him to a tribe in South America in the nineteenth century. How would he cope? Dead within five minutes is my guess.” Pullman has come under attack for the relationship he depicts between Lyra and her friend Will, whom she meets on her adventures.
In a key scene, the children kiss and puritans have since reacted angrily towards the book. “What I am describing is a moment that comes to everyone, the moment when we are all in the Garden of Eden,” says Pullman. “The myth of Adam and Eve…occurs in everybody’s life, at the time of adolescence and it is about the coming of sexuality. And for God’s sake, it must be a subject to be covered by literature.” However, Pullman remains aware that he is writing towards a younger audience.
Would he ever hold back storylines or events that were not suitable? “If you thought that the audience probably didn’t have any children in it, you might feel free to be a little bit bleaker, a little bit less comfortable, a little bit more savage or something, a little bit more frank, in terms of sexuality.” In answer to the question that every author must answer: why do you write? Pullman says that he “enjoys playing with words” and “making patterns with large shapes”.
Another reason is, “to pay the bills, that’s a perfectly reasonable and respectable one.” It is interesting that Pullman mentions such a non-literary and, to be frank, unromantic reason for writing. After all, it is perfectly “reasonable and respectable” to expect authors to earn money — it is why we pay for books. But Pullman is particularly forthright about such matters.
“There is a stage when you’re making a little bit of money from your books but not so much that you can write anything you want. You have to think, well if I write this book I’m keen on doing, it’s not likely to get published, or sell much.” But does not such an awareness of the market hinder the creative process? “No, what hinders the creative process is not being able to pay your bills, and not being able to heat your house and feed your children.
His Dark Materials has already been a success upon the stage, selling out at London’s National Theatre. It is currently being made into a movie, and Pullman remains reassuringly stoic about the idea of Hollywood taking apart his work. “I’m worried, but I’m not going to do anything about it, partly because I have no power. They bought the rights, they can do what they like with it.
He does note however, that if Hollywood does try to Disneyfy his works, “there are ten million readers or something all over the world who will say this is a load of bloody rubbish.” With that, Philip Pullman rises and moves off into an adjacent room, to repose within Oxford’s aging walls, which he has entered as an undergraduate, aspiring author and now, celebrity.
8th Jun 2006