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Thoughts on Form

Rebecca Rosen


Born in 1946, Philip Pullman graduated from Exeter College, Oxford, and went on to become a teacher. He published his first book for children, Count Karlstein, in 1982, and has produced over 20 novels and other works since. Pullman has been honored for his writing with numerous prizes, including the Carnegie Medal, the Eleanor Farjeon Award for Children’s Literature, and the Carnegie of Carnegies.

He is the author of numerous novels, including The Broken Bridge (1990), the Sally Lockhart mysteries, and the fantasy trilogy His Dark Materials. Pullman has also published a number of fairy tales and plays. Many of his works have been adapted for screen and stage, including The Golden Compass (2007) and His Dark Materials, which debuted on stage in 2003. Pullman has been a fellow in the Creative Writing MA programme at Oxford Brookes University since 2008.

You recently have been concerned with enhancing the graphic and tactile quality of your work, particularly the illustrations, maps, and other physical objects related to your Dark Materials books. Is this a conscious move toward more physical reading objects?

Well, it’s partly publishers. Publishers always like to have a new edition to put out, something new and fresh that hasn’t been seen before. I’m a little bit worried about that because after a while it can become just a scamming of the reader. But if there’s a chance to say something new in graphic form, then I think it’s worth doing. I’ve always been fascinated by this interplay between word and picture, and the one thing doing what the other thing can’t do—sometimes the one thing undercutting or subverting what the other can do. One thing I would like to do one day is a sort of PowerPoint book that exists in a kind of presentation with picture succeeding picture, graphic works merging with text, and so on.

Do any of your current projects fit this format?

I’m halfway there with one thing that I’ve been doing, which is a forgery. Something that’s always fascinated me is the work of the architect Andrea Palladio, who wrote books of architecture [I Quattro Libri dell’Architettura or The four books of architecture] in 1570. At the minute I’ve got a little story that I tell about one of the plans in this book, because there’s a little anomaly in which the measurement doesn’t work. The design has been reprinted and recut many, many times, and everyone has repeated this mistake without noticing it.

So what I did was to forge a page of Palladio’s book. Well, I didn’t forge the page. I forged some notes on it, in the handwriting of Inigo Jones, the great English architect. Because in Worcester College, Oxford, there is Inigo Jones’s own copy [I Quattro Libri dell’Architettura] with annotations, but he didn’t notice this little mistake, so I have had him notice it and done a little thing like that. When I put the story into the final form, I’ll see if there is a way of publishing it on my website.

Your companion pieces to the Dark Materials books, Lyra’s Oxford and Once Upon A Time in the North, do not limit themselves to the Will and Lyra story. Do you envision any future installments, perhaps involving Mary Malone or the wheel people, or the Sebastian Makepeace character, which seems to have been left open?

Yes, probably a story about Will. There are many left, plus it’s an interesting length. The story in Lyra’s Oxford is more of a short story, whereas Once Upon a Time in Oxford is more of a novella sort of length. I once thought I couldn’t do a shorter piece, but I’m just at the point of finishing a book that is 100 pages long. What frustrates me with the short story is the fact that you can’t really get going with the background—you can only sort of sketch it in.

I always would rather take a bit more time and spend more effort in establishing a world, and I think you can do that in 100 pages or so. Henry James used that length a lot—the blessed novella, he called it. I don’t think I’ve adapted my style. It’s a question of pruning down the other stories—a question of focusing on one story rather than on three or four, I think.

You’re a writer who has negotiated a lot of different genres, including fantasy, science fiction, adventure, comics, crime, and historical fiction. Have you ever considered doing a non-fictional book project, perhaps a memoir?

Yes, but not yet. The British Library, a year or two ago, set up a programme on lives, and they asked me if I wanted to be in on this project and record my life for the British Library. I thought about it and said no, because that’s my material. If I give it all away, not only will it be not really private anymore, but it will have been fixed in some form that maybe isn’t useful to me. I like it fluid. I will write a memoir, but some day, not yet—and when I do I’m sure I’ll make most of it up, because that way it’s still private. But there are a couple of other nonfiction things that I want to do. One is a book on the fundamental units of narrative.

What shape would this study of narrative take? Would it be a William Empson-esque exploration of a form?

Well, I’m not as clever as he was. So this will be a very practical and pretty straightforward thing, I think. I’m very impressed by the way David Hockney talks about painting. He talks about it in very practical terms. That is, when you’ve got a pencil, you can make one kind of mark with it, and with watercolor painting, it sloshes about, so you must use it in a certain way. Because he has done so much looking and drawing, he can see in another painting whether somebody isn’t doing it from life, because there’s a certain flatness that he can put his finger on straightaway.

I am very impressed by that as a way of talking about story. What I mean is looking at a story and sensing exactly when a writer’s attention has gone off the line of the story—you can see that after you’ve done it yourself for a while. I’m going through Grimm’s fairy tales at the moment, to select 70 of them for an edition for Penguin Classics. Some of them don’t need retelling, because they’re beautiful, they’re just perfect. Others need a bit cut out, because it gets in the way, and goes nowhere, and does nothing. You can see that almost instantaneously.

Your work has been adapted in many ways, including for the stage and screen. Are there any other mediums in which you would like your ideas portrayed?

Sally Lockhart has been done on the television, but one day I will write Sally Lockhart short stories, which I think will make much better television than the novels have done. And Henry Selick, who directed Coraline, is doing Count Karlstein next.

Would this be a claymation, stop-motion type of film?

I very much hope so. He’s working on the script at the moment—it all depends on financing. But I’m a huge fan of Henry Selick, and I loved The Nightmare Before Christmas [he was creative supervisor]. I would love him to do my book Clockwork, which I think is absolutely made for him. But we shall see.

How do you think your place in the canon of modern literature is defined by the genres in which people classify your work? Do you think that young-adult books or fantasy books are sequestered, in a way?

I don’t think about canons at all. I’m not even sure what genres I write in. I suppose I have to classify His Dark Materials as a sort of a fantasy, it’s not exactly realism, though I hope it’s psychologically more real than most fantasy. Critical fashion has a lot to do with this, but we don’t know who will survive. Canons are for time to decide, not for the present day.

Rebecca Rosen is reading for an MSt in English at Jesus College, Oxford.